No Tweeting Allowed in the Vatican


Pope Benedict XVI pushes a button on a tablet at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. Photo credit: AP/Gregorio Borgia

In his last year as pope, Benedict XVI made several moves that appeared aimed at reshaping his legacy in the Catholic Church.  First, the Vatican hired Greg Burke, a top Fox News commentator to manage communications for the Holy See.  It also cooperated with the Catholic News Service’s expanded television coverage of the Vatican.  And, in perhaps the least important, but most covered move, a Twitter account was opened in the pontiff’s name (@Pontifex, which in Latin means both bridge and pope).

But none of these moves changed the fact that the Catholic Church is woefully out of date in the digital age of instant communication.

“The Church feels that the media will not accurately reflect the message that the church wants to put out,” said John Thavis, who covered the Vatican for Catholic News Service for 30 years.  “Benedict has deepened the sense of what it means to be Catholic,” but you could tell that the pope emeritus was getting “pushed into” Twitter.

Just how much church communications live in the past was evident when the pope read his resignation speech in Latin.  In theory, the message should have been immediately understandable to all clergy present in the room—Latin is supposed to be used for all official purposes. But Benedict’s announcement seemed to both clergy and reporters doing double takes: was their Latin rusty, or did the pope just resign?

Benedict’s choice of language caused a momentary lag in a usually lightning-speed globalnews cycle.  The pontiff did not even issue a tweet that he was stepping down—a social media faux pas.

“The Church thinks in centuries—it is diametrically opposed to the 24hour news cycle,” said Rocco Palmo, author of the online Vatican-watch blog, Whispers in the Loggia, in a telephone interview from his home in Philadelphia.  Palmo, who operates using a network of Vatican insider sources, said that the Vatican offices typically close at 3 p.m., and smart phones are a rarity among its staff.

While media outlets buzz about who will be the next pope- and blogs such as Palmo’s chart daily movements inside the Vatican walls—the 2000-year old institution itself seems unsure of how to deal with media attention.

In fact, inside the Vatican, any publicity about an individual cardinal can be perceived as “campaigning” for the post of pope—and thus, decrease the cardinal’s chance of actually becoming the next pope.

“There is an Italian saying—walk in a pope, walk out a cardinal,” Palmo said, offering the example of Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who created a huge media buzz after he gave an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour a day after Benedict XVI’s resignation.  During the interview, Turkson said that the Catholic Church in Africa had not experienced, the same problems of sex abuse that plagued American and European churches because, said Turkson, “African traditional systems have protected its population” against homosexuality.

The interview did not help Turkson’s case to become pope, but his bigger sin may have been that he appeared on a major network television show to discuss the papacy in some detail.  “High profile brings with it high suspicion,” Palmo said.

Of the 115 cardinal electors, only nine are active Tweeters, including Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Sean O’Malley and Roger Mahony from the United States, two cardinals from Italy, one from each South Africa, Spain, Columbia and Brazil.

These nine cardinals have all been instructed to leave social media behind during the conclave- in keeping with the tradition that cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel, completely cut off from the outside world, until they reach a two-thirds majority decision on the next pope.  Every round of ballots is burned, and a smoke signal gives period status updates: black smoke means indecision and white smoke, a new pope has been chosen.

Secular media have been speculating that leaks about who might be the next pope will make it through the Sistine walls, but Palmo said that is highly unlikely.  No electronics are allowed into the conclave– in 2005 there was even a cell phone blocker to prevent incoming and outgoing calls, said Palmo.  “When you are a man of God, a man of prayer, it frightens [you],” to make such a monumental decision before God, Palmo said.  Breaking the vow of silence, would be a breach of the cardinals’ oath to God.

Since the papacy’s beginning nearly two centuries ago, the Vatican has been able to operate, to varying degrees, on its own schedule and its own one-way communication terms: dialogue with congregants is not encouraged.

Pope Benedict XVI pushes a button on a tablet at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. Photo credit: AP/Osservatore Romano, ho.

Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are all about democratic dialogue, but “the culture of the Church works top-down,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, in a phone interview.

But global communications move forward, leaving those inside the Vatican with a sense of confusion about how, and whether, to change.  Benedict’s Twitter account was evidence of this dilemma.  The pontiff emeritus opened his account in December with this message: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter.  Thank you for your generous response.  I bless all of you from my heart.”

After that, he tweeted a few dozen times, mostly thoughts about love and gratitude.  The only other Twitter accounts he followed were his own—he had a total of nine accounts in different languages and approximately 1.6 million followers.  And once he officially left office, all of his tweets were removed.

@Pontifex now awaits a new pope, who may or may not embrace social media as a way to capture the attention of an increasingly diverse congregation of over 2.8 billion Catholics worldwide.

The Vatican is unlikely to change its way in the near future, Faggioli said.  “The Vatican wants the tools, not the culture, of modernization,” he said.

Frank Coppa, author of the 2003 book “The Papacy Confronts the Modern World” agreed.  “The Catholic Church has not, does not,” and will not change quickly, he said.

Blogger Palmo is more optomistic, though.

“I see the [new] pope as carrying around a smart phone,” he said.