What Does the Pope Think About Technology? #It’sComplicated
He’s got a stunning 7.2 million followers on Twitter but believes digital media “can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.”
He has posed for selfies in St. Peter’s Square, but has lamented the fact that so much communication online is purely about display, not real connection.
He’s called the Internet a “gift from God.” But he’s also warned that the abundance of data and digital stimulation we all consume each day can amount to a kind of “mental pollution” that harms our relationships and shields us from the real pain and joy that comes with human interaction.
On the surface, Pope Francis’ thoughts on the power of the Internet can appear contradictory, particularly when the Internet is flooded with news about his historic arrival in the US, complete with hashtags and PopeMojis. And yet, these seemingly conflicting approaches to technology reflect what it means to be the pontiff in the digital age. Even as he cautions against over-reliance on technology, he has no choice but to embrace it.
Meeting People Where They Are
The fact is, this is a pope who has a clear message for the Catholic Church and its congregants. It’s a message of inclusion and openness, and to spread it, the pope has made a number of unusual personal choices, including living not in the Apostolic Palace but in a Vatican guesthouse, which allows him “to live in community with others.” And yet, even at 78, Pope Francis is not oblivious to the fact that the most powerful way to spread a message in 2015 is through social media.
“The Pope has to get the church to open up and connect and meet people where they are,” says Jason Deal, executive vice president of strategy at the Catholic media firm Aleteia USA. “He can’t do it door-to-door.”
The Pope’s misgivings about technology, Deal says, were top of mind when Aleteia began planning a social media campaign around his US tour. The company is the driving force behind the Twitter account @PopeIsHope, which is following the Pope’s travels in the States, snapchatting live from his flight on Shepherd One, and running giveaway contests on Twitter. “We’ve had long conversations about it,” Deal says. “We believe what the Vatican is saying is technology can be very isolating. But he also understands and appreciates, especially when it comes to young people, that it is where they live their lives to a large degree.”
Being able to engage young Catholics is critical, researchers believe, to Pope Francis’ ability to move the needle on issues that are important to him, including climate change and building a more inclusive church. “He’s looking to the future, and he’s not going to be around in that future. Neither is his generation,” says Paul Elie, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and author of a recent Vanity Fair article on Pope Francis. “Anyone who looks forward has to count on the next generation. He instinctively recognized that.”
And whether the pope likes it or not, the next generation is a digital one. The best he can do to foster that generation, rather than alienate it, is give people fair warning about the moral traps technology presents, then smile for their selfies.
“With the selfie, in one moment he joins young people happily and without any scruple,” says Elie. “He says, ‘You’re young. I’m 78. You’re American. I’m Argentinian, You’re a college student. I’m the Pope. Let’s all get together.”