This Sunday, I'll be in Baltimore for a special event hosted by the USCCB. It's titled "An Encounter With Social Media: Bishops and Bloggers Dialogue" and it follows the success of last year's Vatican Blogger Meeting. The two-hour event will include a panel discussion, a presentation on Catholic new media by Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), and plenty of time for informal conversation. I’m most excited to meet, talk, and laugh with bishops, and prove that Catholic bloggers are far from scary insurrectionists.
Since I’m not planning the event I have no idea what topics we'll cover. But to set the stage, here are seven things bishops should know about Catholic bloggers:
1. We are your friends, not your enemies.
The average Catholic blogger is a faithful Catholic. She's the homeschooling mother-of-five who turns to the Internet for spiritual connection. He's the recent convert interested in apologetics. She's the committed scientist, exploring how faith ties into her work.
Most Catholic bloggers are loyal disciples who share your same mission: to know and make known Jesus Christ. They're not interested in critiquing you or challenging your authority.
Are there are a few bad apples? Sure. They're present online just as in the world of print. However, judging the Catholic blogosphere by these few cases would be to badly miss the mark.
The overwhelming majority of Catholic bloggers respects your authority, honors your leadership, and recognizes the tremendous difficulties that come with your office. We are resolutely faithful to you and, as seen through the HHS controversy and Fortnight for Freedom, we’re willing to stand with you even in tough times. We take seriously the commands of St. Ignatius of Antioch:
"See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father...Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop." (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8)
2. We don't all blog about news, journalism, and politics.
Since many secular bloggers focus on topics like current events, politics, and controversy, it can be easy to equate "blogging" with "news commentary." And there are many Catholic bloggers who focus on that.
But most deal with areas like catechetics, apologetics, prayer, and family life. They're full of personal stories and rich discussion about the liturgy and the sacraments. They focus on conversion more than current events. And while they're willing to discuss Church teaching on hot-button issues, they certainly don't chase controversy.
Newspapers and political websites concern the here-and-now, and are driven by breaking news. Yet most Catholic blogs are less interested in "getting the scoop" and more with growing in faith, conversing about timeless topics, and building relationships with people from all walks of life.
3. Blogs are just one piece of Catholic new media.
If by "new media" or "social media" you only mean "blogs", you're missing a huge chunk of the online world. You're omitting the thousands of Catholic podcasts, YouTube videos, crowd-sourcing projects, discussion forums, mobile apps, and more that are drawing millions of people toward Our Lord. It would be like gauging the world of print by only looking at magazines.
In many ways, other new media tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and mobile apps are more representative of the digital revolution than blogs. Blogs are more of a bridge between traditional and new media. They’re somewhat like newspapers or magazines, in that they feature short articles on a particular topic. They’re "new," however, in the sense that they are digital and built on two-way flows of information. Yet if we want to engage the breadth of Catholic new media, we can’t stop with blogs.
4. Some of you are some of us.
In the last few years, many bishops have followed Pope Benedict's advice to "be present in the world of digital communications" (44th World Communications Day Message.) From Cardinal Timothy Dolan's "Gospel in the Digital Age", to Bishop Christopher Coyne's "Let Us Walk Together", to "Cardinal Sean's Blog" in Boston, new episcopal blogs are popping up every month. (Here's a list of several more.)
That means you don’t have to listen to my case for Catholic blogging: ask your brother bishops. Chances are they're blogging and using other new media tools to extend their pastoral voice.
I recently asked Bishop Coyne, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, “what one thing would you want to say to your brother bishops about new media?” He replied:
“Don’t be afraid of it. It’s not difficult to get started and there are plenty of people who would be willing to show you how. Once you begin to use it, allow yourself to be authentic. Speak words of encouragement and words of faith that will help build [people] up, just like we [bishops] do wherever we go.”
5. Digital imprimaturs are not a good idea.
One of the big questions in the Catholic blogosphere concerns authority. In an online world that is by nature egalitarian, how can bishops speak with any unique authority? Similarly, how can Catholics be sure that a website they visit faithfully and authoritatively presents Catholic teaching?
As you know, the answer is easy when it comes to print. Your censor gives it a nihil obstat, you give it an imprimatur, and people can be confident it contains no theological errors.
But what about blogs and websites? Should we institute some form of digital imprimatur?
I don't think so. I’m convinced it's a bad idea for three main reasons:
First, blogs and websites are constantly changing. If you grant an imprimatur to a specific website, there's no guarantee its content would remain orthodox.
Second, validating tens of thousands of Catholic sites and millions of new articles each year would be a futile effort.
Third, as Matt Warner points out, blogs are not libraries of digitized books. They are virtual conversations. They're more like pubs and living rooms than soapboxes or encyclicals. We would never put an imprimatur on a bar stool or living room couch, nor should we propose one for blogs.
However, within the last few months the Vatican has come up with an interesting alternative: the purchase of the “.catholic” top-level domain name. Their idea is to invite reputable Catholic organizations—mostly Vatican-recognized religious orders, prelatures, and dioceses—to use the domain. So for instance, you might soon see a website address like "OpusDei.catholic."
The ".catholic" suffix would be a marker verifying the site's orthodoxy and legitimizing the organization. Catholics looking for trustworthy content would then feel safe visiting sites under that domain.
That's one interesting alternative that deserves careful consideration. In the meantime, lean into those online spaces where your authority and trustworthiness are already established, namely diocesan websites and the USCCB website. It's those places you can speak from, confident that people will respect the content as valid and orthodox.
6. Blogging is crucial to the mission ad gentes and the New Evangelization.
With the Year of Faith and the recent Synod on the New Evangelization, Catholics everywhere are looking for fresh ways to spread the Gospel. The aim is to reach two specific groups of people: those who have never heard of Christ, and those inactive Catholics who were sacramentalized, but never evangelized. Thus, the mission ad gentes and the New Evangelization are linked.
Yet when you consider the myriad forms of media available today, one thing becomes clear:
No technology is more effective at reaching those two groups, non-Catholics and inactive Catholics, than new media, and specifically blogs. Catholics blogs provide a safe, unthreatening environment for non-Catholics to explore our great faith. Curious seekers may never knock on the door of a rectory. But if they stumble across a Catholic blog, especially in the comfort of their own home, they’re much more open to reading and commenting. I see this every day on my own website and social media platforms.
Second, as Blessed Pope John Paul II noted, the Internet is the modern world’s great Areopagus. It’s a melting pot of ideas and philosophies where people expect to find truth through dialogue. We Catholics are never afraid of healthy conversation. We’re convinced it will ultimately lead to Truth, whom we know as a person: Jesus Christ. So the Internet holds great potential for us.
Last September, the excellent CARA research group released a study showing that Catholics are not engaging new media in large numbers. However, when you combine that with the fact that many Catholic blogs draw more readers than most Catholic newspapers, an important insight emerges:
A huge percentage of people reading and commenting on Catholic blogs come from outside the Catholic fold. For our mission-driven Church, that’s fantastic news. And it confirms that blogs and other new media are vital to the mission ad gentes and the New Evangelization.
7. We'd love to help you.
Among Catholic techies you’ll find an incredible amount of talent and enthusiasm. We’re eager to serve the Church through blogging, podcasting, and social media, but the problem is, most have never been asked to help.
Yet consider the Mormons. Mormons make up about two-percent of the general U. S. population, but they blanket the online world. They’re ubiquitous on blogs, YouTube videos, Google search results, and advertisements.
How has such a small group made such a huge impact? Well, through inititatives like LDSTech, Mormon leaders have invited their faithful to contribute their skills. The result has been multiple websites, several mobile applications, hundreds of videos, and thousands of blog posts all over the Internet.
Today, there are ten times as many Catholics in America as Mormons. Theoretically, we have ten times the talent, ten times the gifts, and ten times the energy. Our challenge is to harness it.
Now, that doesn't mean you have to manage every digital evangelization effort in the country. That's not your responsibility, nor is it a prudent approach especially in light of subsidiarity. But many of us bloggers, especially the laity, do need support, blessings, and counsel from our bishops.
To that end, here are some practical ways that bishops and bloggers can work together:
- Get to know the bloggers in your diocese. Chances are, there are several Catholic bloggers locally whose pageviews rival that of your diocesan newspaper. They have huge platforms and are eager to serve. Consider hosting a meet-and-great dinner with some of them and discuss ways you can help each other.
- Work together on campaigns. Next time you establish a spiritual theme for the year, or host a campaign like Catholics Come Home, ask local bloggers to play a role. Also, consider making your own content shareable. If you have videos embedded on your diocesan website that can't be shared anywhere else, you're chaining your message down and preventing bloggers from helping you.
- Give bloggers access. Grant interviews to bloggers as well as to journalists. After all, you’ll reach a wider audience through blogs than through print. Also, give bloggers advance notice on any big project or announcement you're making especially if it’s controversial. If the local secular news hears about it before your local bloggers, your loyal defenders will be left playing catch up online.
- Provide pastoral care. The Internet comes with its own spiritual problems which demand new pastoral answers. Pope Benedict and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications have provided their own advice. But each diocese needs to teach its flock how to avoid the dangers of blogging and social media, as well as how to use the Internet to evangelize and grow in faith. This priority needs to come from you. Consider writing a pastoral letter to your diocese about the Internet. Host a diocesan conference on new media. Or perhaps reach out to Catholic bloggers and offer your own spiritual direction.
I don’t pretend to speak for all Catholic bloggers, which is why I'm inviting others to share their own thoughts here in the comment box. I’m sure this weekend’s meeting will unveil other insights too, so stay tuned!
UPDATE: Here are some more thoughts from my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Thomas Neal. While we both lived in Tallahassee, Tom was instrumental in my conversion to Catholicism. Now he teaches spiritual theology at Notre Dame Seminary and blogs at the brilliantly titled, Neal Obstat blog. Here he comments on my post from the perspective of a theologian:
"The unique character of the new evangelizing power of cyberspace in general, and blogs in particular, is that it allows the laity to exercise their unique position as 'insiders' in (digital) culture and offer their own unique 'genius' of proclaiming the Gospel in the saecula as co-workers with the Shepherds.
This means that the Shepherds must pastor their sheep on this digital continent and encourage them to exercise their prophetic calling that flows from Baptism. If Bl. John Paul II meant what he said in 1999—'the hour of the laity has struck'—then the digital content may mark the hour of fulfillment.
Also, the blogs offer to theologians, Scripture scholars, and other ecclesial specialists an opportunity to serve as public intellectuals who can engage in the higher level conversations that presently fill cyberspace.
Blogs also offer theologians the opportunity to give the laity unique access, on a more popular level, to the rich fruits of their theological labors that academic journals or scholarly books simply don't afford."
What else should bishops know about Catholic bloggers?
The current issue of Inside the Vatican features a nice interview with Monsignor Paul Tighe. He's the Secretary for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, a long title that basically means he's the Vatican's new media guru.
I met Tighe in Rome and have written about him before. He is very insightful and really understands the power of new media. But in his Inside the Vatican interview, he closes by mentioning some obscure American book.
|The cover of this month's issue.|
|Monsignor Paul Tighe's interview.|
|Has anyone heard of this book? It sounds pretty good.|
The new Church site aggregates all of the Vatican's media into one central location--print, online, radio, and television media. It also features live-streaming of Vatican events, audio feeds from Vatican radio, photos from the Church's archives, and is planned to be updated multiple times per day.
I was offered a sneak preview of the site during the recent Vatican Bloggers conference (here were my initial thoughts). Vatican officials explained that the site was meant to "create a dialogue with the world." In contrast to most Vatican websites, which are barely more than information repositories, News.va encourages this dialogue in a number of ways. It has Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube integration, which are must-have tools for modern websites. And the site makes it easy to share articles and videos across different social networks.
The design, another huge positive, is a clear upgrade from other Vatican sites (if only because it's missing the notorious background parchment paper.) The attractive layout mimics modern web standards by having sidebars, widgets, and vivid colors and graphics.
But one thing I'm disappointed with is the lack of an active comment system. Comment boxes are primary places where people engage online, so it's odd to see a news site without one. If CNN.com, Fox.com, The New York Times, and most online periodicals are brave enough to open up the combox floodgates, the Vatican should be as well.
I also have two more minor quibbles. First, the 'search' box is strangely absent. For a gigantic information hub like News.va, a search tool is an absolute necessity.
Second, the Vatican should have toned down the ALL-CAPS HEADLINES. Online etiquette equates this with yelling and, well, nobody wants to be screamed at.
Archbishop Claudio Celli, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, revealed Pope Benedict's goal for the News.va site: "I want to be present where people come together." The site does accomplish this, as people will undoubtedly flock to News.va for articles, videos, and podcasts. The hub was built to handle serious traffic--millions of visits per day, according to Archbishop Celli.
But being present is not the same as being in conversation. The Church must engage the world as Jesus did, by balancing both teaching and listening, telling and asking, proclaiming and discussing. Ultimately, presence should proceed to conversation. It's not enough just to attract millions of people to your website. You, too, must meet them there.
Hopefully the Vatican will continue to move down the path of two-way, online dialogue. While News.va is a great first step onto the digital continent, may there be many more to come.
I posted this before, but the insatiable Blogger monsters swallowed it up. Last Thursday, the Word on Fire blog posted the second part of our interview concerning the recent Vatican blogger meeting. Here is a snippet:
Word on Fire: What are some practical tips for avoiding the frenetic quality that can characterize online communication and can be overwhelming to participants?
Brandon Vogt: In his important book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr reveals how the Internet—and its associated new media—is fundamentally a medium of distraction. In fact, modern neuroscience shows how online activity physically rewires our brains to make us more adept at skimming, browsing, and surface-level engagement. And it doesn’t help that every time we open our Internet browser we become crushed under the avalanche of information overload.
So to the extent that we swim in this digital flow, we conform to its excited, distracted pace.
Obviously, this has profound spiritual ramifications. Our religion is grounded in practices like prayer, contemplation, and adoration—things that require our full attention and focus. This directly clashes with Internet culture.
So what’s a Christian to do? How can we begin to counter the Internet’s incessant distraction and information overload?
Head over to the Word on Fire blog to read the rest of the interview!
(And if you missed it, you can find the first part of the interview here.)