When Pope Benedict XVI opened a Twitter account in December 2012, it was not a publicity stunt but rather the logical development of Vatican involvement in the communications media that began with the founding of L’Osservatore Romano in the nineteenth and Vatican Radio in the twentieth century. The Second Vatican Council issued a brief Decree on the Means of Social Communication (Inter mirifica) at the conclusion of its second session in 1963, declaring that “it is the Church’s birthright to use and own any of these media which are necessary or useful for the formation of Christians and for pastoral activity” (IM 3).
The intense multi-media coverage of the Council itself seemed to herald a new era of Catholic presence in the public forum. Televised papal Masses—whether at midnight on Christmas, on pastoral journeys or at World Youth Days—became a regular feature in the life of the Church and in her outreach to the modern world. The Vatican’s website www.vatican.va and its recently consolidated news portal www.news.va are invaluable online resources.
In September 2013 the Pontifical Council for Social Communications expanded this development in yet another direction by publishing in e-book format a collection of the World Communications Day messages by Pope Benedict XVI. These annual messages are all dated January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, but were promulgated later in the year during the Easter season. Pope Benedict composed eight of them for the years 2006-2013 inclusive to offer his “reflection on some aspect of communication with a view to both promoting public discussion and providing some guidelines for the Church’s own engagement in this constitutive dimension of its mission” (from the Introduction by Abp. Claudio Maria Celli, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications). The e-book is free and can be downloaded from the Vatican website.
Some of the messages have themes geared to other Church events, such as the Year of the Priest (2010) or World Youth Days. For instance, in discussing the topic, “New Technologies, New Relationships” (2009), Pope Benedict noted that “It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent’.” Other topics focus either on those who use the means of social communication (“Children and the Media, a Challenge for Education” in 2007, or the 2012 meditation on “Silence and Word”) or on systemic challenges (“The Media: at the Crossroads between Self-Promotion and Service” ; “Social Networks: … New Spaces for Evangelization” ).
The messages discuss these topics generally and diplomatically; the reader will find no direct references to the “Vatileaks” scandal or to the recurring media furors over the SSPX or clerical sexual abuse. Yet these highly readable messages constructively shed much light on the pitfalls as well as the benefits of rapid modern communications. “Unfortunately, though, [the media] risk being transformed into systems aimed at subjecting humanity to agendas dictated by the dominant interests of the day…. The media must avoid becoming spokesmen for economic materialism and ethical relativism” (2008).
This author suspects that many of the World Communications Day messages during the latter part of the reign of Bl. John Paul II were composed by then-President of the Pontifical Council for Communications, the late Abp. John P. Foley (whose voice was familiar to English-speaking viewers as the commentator for the televised Midnight Mass) and the Pontiff simply signed off on them. The messages for the years 2006-2013, however, are unmistakably written by Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger personally, not as a theological scholar, but rather as a moral commentator on contemporary culture in the manner of Romano Guardini. Beneath the bland surface of the measured prose the reader senses the work of an introspective thinker who, like St. Augustine, can express deep insights objectively and elegantly.
There are flashes of former-Professor Ratzinger’s gentle, dry humor. For example, the 2007 message on “Children and the Media” opens with the observation that although the formation of children in this regard is “of immense importance”, the formation of the media themselves is “less obvious but no less important”. This subtly implies a comparison of the media to a big classroom with some unruly students who repeatedly refuse to learn their lessons. This opening image, it turns out, prepares for the dire, biblical image with which Pope Benedict later concludes his discussion of “animated films and video games which in the name of entertainment exalt violence or … [trivialize] human sexuality”: he cites Luke 17:2. “It would be better … if a millstone were hung round his neck” than to scandalize one of the Lord’s little ones.
Many of the themes found in these World Communications Day messages are familiar from Sunday supplement newspaper features; who has not read comparisons between digital technology and the Industrial Revolution? The messages of Benedict XVI about “the digital age”, however, recall the judgment by the poet Alexander Pope of a contemporary author: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” Instead of breathless predictions about the latest Brave New World, Pope Benedict upholds the claims of reason and intrinsic values over the attractions of popularity and novelty. He quietly insists that there is “a Christian way of being present in the digital world: honest and open, responsible and respectful of others” (2011). In an intellectual achievement that has considerable pastoral value, Pope Benedict XVI holds the latest communications technology to the standards of perennial Christian anthropology.