Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Vatican and the Internet

For a long time I have been reflecting on how the Internet has changed the dynamics of the relationship between the Catholic laity and the Magisterium. We have gone from the days when Mass was celebrated in Latin and the faithful didn't even read the Bible for themselves, through a period when Mass was celebrated in the vernacular but information was only shared on a "need to know" basis, to an era when any of us can get almost any Church documents or data we want in an instant.

This more equal access to information has also changed the paradigm of who can interpret that information. Gone are the days of "Father knows best". Many years ago, before the Internet, a priest once told me that he had allowed Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator, to use the pulpit to address the congregation after Mass in our church because "Canon Law" required him to do so. My initial reaction was "Hogwash!" but I had no way of proving the priest was lying. Now I can wade through the Code of Canon Law on the Vatican Web site and see if there is any such provision. We no longer have to take what we are told at face value. We now have lay people who are more knowledgeable about canon law, the Catechism, and the liturgical norms of the Church than their seminary-trained priests. This means that, both at the parish and at the diocesan level, a more equal and collegial relationship must develop between clergy and laity, else the Church loses credibility. Unless a paycheck is at stake, when does anyone unconditionally obey someone who knows less than they do?

The Internet has also provided a bully pulpit for dissenters from the official Church line. Back when Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ was exiled to Latin America for his war resistance in the United States, it was easy to restrict his communication to the odd -- and private -- letter home to family and friends. Today when the Jesuits exile Fr. Juan Masia Clavel to Japan to keep him out of Spanish Church politics, he simply puts up a multilingual Web site and blog and anyone in Spain with Internet access can read his views.

Nowhere did we see this more clearly than when the Vatican tried to silence Fr. Jon Sobrino several years ago. In response, outraged liberation theologians from around the globe gathered together and published a free digital anthology in record time. Bajar de la Cruz a Los Pobres: Cristología de la Liberación is still freely available from Servicios Koinonia and has been translated into English and Italian as well. Its publication trumpeted: "Rome, you can no longer silence all of us. Nor can you keep us down by denying us access to Catholic publishing houses." Since then, many many theologians whom Rome hoped would shut up and disappear have their own blogs and even come together in online forums such as Atrio. The Internet has brought a cultural revolution to the Catholic Church where "a hundred schools of thought contend", to borrow the famous phrase.

The Internet has also provided a way for dissenters to unite and organize across national and linguistic boundaries. MOCEOP can collaborate with CITI and CORPUS to fight for optional celibacy and a married priesthood. Women's ordination groups in many countries share scholarship and resources on the history of women's leadership in the early Church.

Finally, the Internet exposes divisions within the hierarchy. Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga may offer his analysis of the political situation in his country but, with a couple of clicks, anyone can learn that Mons. Luis Alfonso Santos, bishop of the Santa Rosa de Copan diocese, has a different perspective. The laity can listen to both parties, weigh the evidence and decide for themselves which prelate is more believable.

Now the Vatican is trying to inform itself, to get a better handle on the Internet. As Pope Benedict XVI admitted, it can no longer afford embarrassments like the Williamson case where journalists using Google quickly discovered Williamson's anti-Semitic remarks while the Pontiff was unaware of them. The Pope is also aware of how other denominations are using the Web to woo the Catholic faithful away from the Church and he believes the time has come for a counter offensive.

This week representatives of Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia addressed the European Bishops' Commission for the Media in a highly publicized 4-day conference. An initial quick survey of conference participants found that while almost all had used Wikipedia for research, only 10% had edited a Wikipedia entry. Similar percentages had posted videos on YouTube or used Twitter. Most Catholic institutional Web sites have not introduced the interactive elements of Web 2.0.

My fondest hope is that any counter offensive will begin with a complete redesign of the Vatican Web site:

1. Design: The current look is heavy, medieval, Eurocentric, and uninviting. It suggests a Church mired in the past and does not reflect the beauty, youth, vitality and diversity of the universal Catholic fold.

2. Navigation: The organization of information is arcane and haphazard with meaningless icons. It is difficult to navigate for the uninitiated, for those who are not Vatican insiders, for the average information consumer who may want to find, for example, Humanae Vitae but may not know which pope authored that encyclical. I am a librarian with considerable knowledge of Catholic Church structure but even I find it easier to go to Google first to find basic information on the Vatican Web site.

3. Timeliness and updating: If we based our organizational decisions on the Vatican Web site, it would become immediately "apparent" that a number of the commissions, congregations, etc. have produced nothing in the last couple of years and we might conclude that these should be abolished. Also, if a congregation or commission issues a report that is made available to the press, is it too much to expect that the text of that report -- or at least a substantial summary if it is an item that will be sold -- would appear on the Vatican Web site that day in at least one of the official languages? That it would be locatable under "Latest Updates" and not buried in some obscure dicastral subdirectory? This is the norm for good corporate and NGO Web sites.

4. News Archiving: I would like to see a longer retention period for the complete editions of the daily and weekly Osservatore Romano and VIS bulletins. Because of time zones and delayed news indexing, I often see a news item referencing an article in the daily l'Osservatore after that edition has been replaced by the next day's one. An industry norm for this would be approximately 2 weeks of free back issues.

We are not even talking about Web 2.0 interactivity and multimedia here. We are talking about basic Web design and site management. The Vatican needs to go back and ask itself what users expect to find on its Web site. Look at the search and usage statistics and redesign to make sure that the most frequently requested items are easy to find in multiple ways. Convene focus groups of users from the major linguistic groups to help determine a taxonomy and information structure that reflects the language real people use to search a site ("What would you look for to click on to find 'Humanae Vitae'?").

Finally, try to determine what people might be expecting to find on the Vatican Web site that they are currently getting elsewhere. With a few changes, the Vatican Web could be the portal site for our faith rather than the various advertising-supported online Catholic directories.


  1. Suggestion for the Vatican web slogan: “Salvation is just one mouse click away”. Upss. Sorry, I’m in cachondeo mood. Had some vino and it wasn’t of the consecrated kind. Salud. Boromir was an imperfect hero.

  2. Well, I was thinking that this Pope would probably be a terrific blogger and decided that his blog should be called Pontiff-ications...