The Communications Teachings of Benedict
"Yet before talking straight to the digital masses through his smartphone, Benedict XVI had said a few interesting things about the state of the media in the postmodern world..."
By Marcelo J. García*
Catholics of the world might be tempted to blame Twitter for Benedict XVI’s decision to quit the helm of the Holy See. The resigning pope left Vatican City just over two months after opening his Twitter account. He produced 40 tweets, gained over 1.5 million followers but only followed his own eight alter egos featuring his tweets in different languages. Yet before talking straight to the digital masses through his smartphone, Benedict XVI had said a few interesting things about the state of the media in the postmodern world.
The pope’s views on the media and journalism during his eight-year papacy went from hope to criticism to hope again, as he proved to be a sharp observer of the changing nature of communication. His evolution might serve as a lesson for the development community seeking to reach wider audiences worldwide.
On his early days on the job, the pope was optimistic about journalism and its role as an intermediary between his millennia-old institution and the public in the digital era. Following the guidelines of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the pope would speak about the ‘great potential’ of the media, which ‘by their nature, are capable of reaching and influencing not only individuals, but whole masses of people, indeed the whole of humanity.’ Shortly after his election in April 2005, Benedict gathered some 5,000 journalists and press workers who had covered the papal transition after John Paul II’s death and thanked them for having given the succession ‘worldwide coverage’. ‘I am aware of the skill and dedication with which you have accomplished your demanding task... I thank you for the important service that you provide to society,’ he told the reporters. And he called on them, not without hope and trust, to cultivate ‘an ethical responsibility, especially regarding the sincere search for truth and protection of the centrality and dignity of the person.’
The pope would soon discover that the world’s communication revolution was shifting away from the quasi-monopolistic news mediation of the 20th century press. And also that journalism was not — or did not seem to be, at least — what it used to be in terms of professionalism and credibility. His annual papal messages to ‘social communicators’ gradually grew more critical of the mainstream media and instead started to focus on the new world of social media.
By 2008 already, the pope appeared weary about the ‘extraordinary impact’ the media has in the lives of people, and feared that ‘communication seems increasingly to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the force of suggestion that it possesses.’ And he added, ‘In certain situations the media are used not for the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to ‘create’ events.’ There was more, ‘Many people now think there is a need, in this sphere, for ‘info-ethics’, just as we have bioethics in the field of medicine and in scientific research linked to life.’
A handful of years later, the pope would feel the victim of those media concepts he elaborated through his papal rule. When the Vatican document leak scandal known as Vatileaks broke out in January 2012, Benedict XVI appeared to confirm his new opinion about journalism in the 21st century. In February 2012, the pope said that a great part of the world was enslaved by ‘the dictatorship of the media’ and that ‘true emancipation is freeing oneself from this dictatorship.’ And in May 2012, when the butler’s leak scandal reached a climax, the pope said, ‘the media have multiplied and amplified gratuitous and ungrounded conclusions which have gone beyond the facts and have offered an image of the Holy See which does not correspond itself with reality.’
The pope instead decided to move his attention toward social media, in the hope that the one billion Catholics around the world would be better able to spread the word without mediations or distortions of any sort. Starting 2009, his annual messages on communication concentrated wholly on the digital world. He said in 2011 that there existed ‘a Christian way’ of being present in the digital world, a form of a communication which is ‘honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.’ ‘The truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its ‘popularity’ or from the amount of attention it receives,’ said the pope. In 2012, he invited Catholics to use ‘both silence and word’ when it comes to engaging in the new process of digital communication. And he enthused in his last message on communication last month that the new ‘digital agora’ may encourage an exchange of information that could ‘become true communication.’
In eight years, Benedict saw his entire communications environment change and tried to keep up the pace – both conceptually and practically. His resignation may be a sign he lost to old media before he could master new media. The lessons-learnt are there for all of us to see.
All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Society for International Development