Theology over Technology: Vatican new media strategy on right track

It confused a lot of people.

Tweeps who were watching the #VBM11 feed during May 2, 2011’s “Vatican Blogger Meeting” saw this among Lisa Hendey’s updates:

#vbm11 Lucio A Ruiz: Vatican’s web presence is not a technological issue, it’s a theological issue

I had later tweeted that this was case #1 that my thesis had been vindicated by the Vatican. That’s because my concluding recommendations began with the “need for a theologically-infused methodology” as the basis for Church new media activity. I regret not having several more months to elaborate on this recommendation.

That starts now.

From Fear to Courage

Today is Pentecost. The anniversary of our debut? Yes, but much more, as Bishop Shomali of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem noted in a private audience at which I was present.

He described the recent Middle Eastern Bishops’ Synod, which I believe has major connections to our diverse Church venturing into new media territory:

We were afraid. […] Especially that we came from different cultures, subcultures, different churches, liturgies, traditions, languages… It was somewhat of a Babel. […] We had our own fears, divisions. You can’t expect that all the bishops coming from different countries had the same idea. […]

Then, he summarized a portion of Pope Benedict XVI’s homily at the Synod:

Pentecost is not a unique, historical event which happened once upon a time. But it is a permanent dynamism which can be repeated.

With the Holy Spirit, we conquer the confusion of Babel, the fear of post-crucifixion persecution, and become a courageous crowd of witnesses.

Why Theology Must Be Foundational

This is why, before I advise any Church-related organization on new media technologies, I speak with them about the theology of new media. What does that mean?

Theology literally means ‘a discourse on, or account of, the gods.’ But in practice, theology is an examination of God and the relationship between God and creation. Pope Benedict XVI has said that “whoever loves God is impelled to become, in a certain sense, a theologian” (To the Members of the International Theological Commission, December 2010). Our every activity should be intimately related to our relationship with God. BXVI also said, “Theology is not theology unless it is integrated into the life and reflection of the Church through time and space.”

If this is so, why do Catholic techies spend more time tech-talking about Catholic new media than theologizing about it?

If we truly believe that we, the Catholic Church, must utilize new media, how can we expect success without theology?

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Mt. 7:22-3)

No matter how much we speak about how new media can do this, that, or the other for the Church,
no matter  how much we call our ventures “Catholic new media,”
we will mean nothing if we do not embrace a prayerful, theological foundation for our work.

Thank God the Vatican understands this. I read Lisa’s tweet that day and excitedly pumped my fist in the air. “YES!” I said aloud. “It’s not a mistake, that’s the way it should be: a matter of theology over technology!”

Where to Go From Here? 

So, how do we go about developing a theological foundation for our new media methodologies? The Holy Father noted in the afore-mentioned address:

The theologian never begins from zero, but considers as teachers the Fathers and theologians of the whole Christian tradition.

We have to begin by amassing works by, and meditating on, our evangelizing ancestors: from the prophets to Christ to the saints. Names I’d recommend for the list include

  • Saint Paul the Apostle
  • Saint Francis de Sales – Bishop & Doctor of the Church, 1567-1622
  • Blessed Giacomo (James) Alberione – Founder of the Pauline Family, 1884-1971
  • Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen – Bishop & Award-winning Media Personality, 1895-1979

and Saint Daniel Comboni, whose words about missionary work echo into this new media age:

The missionaries will have to understand that they are stones hid under the earth, which will perhaps never come to light, but which will become part of the foundations of a vast, new building.

Who would you add to the list? Are you ready to contribute to this new theological exploration?

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8 responses

  1. I love it, Angela. And I love that you are young and in the mix. I believe these things are truly for the long haul — and while I am surprised at the fact that the Church is responding so quickly (ha, that’s relative, but even for the Church, it has indeed been fast), I am especially heartened by the claim that it will be driven by theology.

    Of course, that’s a scary thought. My preparation in that area is weak, at best. But as a truly committed faithful Catholic working in new media, it has become my responsibility to fix that.

  2. Such a thoughtful treatment of such an important topic! May I submit two of my favorite patrons for your consideration? St. Patrick who evangelized amidst often very challenging circumstances, and Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, a bright light who said more with her short life that I’ll ever hope for in a lifetime! Great topic!

  3. Nice post Angela

    You said something I’d like to comment on – “If this is so, why do Catholic techies spend more time tech-talking about Catholic new media than theologizing about it?”

    I agree, but I think 2 problems exist, each with their own solution, but right-or-wrong they’ve gotten bundled.

    1. The Theology that should inform and guide ‘New Media’ efforts. I think you’ve done a good job addressing that above.

    2. The need to convince the Church hierarchy about how important and necessary it is to communicate via ‘New Media’. Many involved in New Media (myself included) are spending time and energy trying to convince the ‘powers that be’ that this IS important. For so long, many of us have been like voices in the wilderness, often ignored. It’s become a defensive reflex to always look for ways to validate our efforts.

    Now that the Vatican has, at least philosophically, thrown its weight behind new media, now is a good time to move beyond issue #2 above, and to focus more on the message rather than the media.

    • Craig,

      I agree with your treatment of the two problems. We’ve definitely been focusing more on the second (in fact, that was the focus of my thesis). But the more time I’ve spent speaking with “Church folk” – especially priests and lay ministers – the more I realize that we need to speak their language. We might be used to speaking the language of numbers, bytes, products, brands, and even of results. But what I’ve seen solidify ministers’ confidence in new media is an underlying language of theology and ministry. I’m definitely blogging more about this later. 🙂

      • Angela,
        You say “their language”: Whose? “Church folk”‘s, the people they talk to, the people who are the target of “the message”?
        I would pose that we must strive to use the normal language that everybody uses, keeping in mind the basic definitions of our faith so that we can be sure of detecting misunderstandings, both in ourselves and in others when they hear the said message. Also, if you use common language, instead of “numbers, bytes, products, brands,” etc., more people will lose their fear of the unknown and use the media, instead of trying to delve into it… concentrating on the important part: Jesus Christ’s words.
        All the best!

  4. I agree with the previously stated ideas. And I’d like to add my voice. There’s a chicken and egg problem out there among the general Catholic populace. There have been two previous generations that have been under-catechized or poorly catechized, but those who are using new media are readily adapting to the digital landscape and bringing whatever formation they have for good or for ill to the digital continent. On the other hand, some of our best catechists and greatest church leaders and teachers are not using new media because their ministry is in the usual Church or school or seminary setting.

    Don’t be discouraged. This is the new mission field. St. Paul took three missionary journeys. New Media missionaries will traverse the world as well. We are called to be bridge builders between theology and media. It is so needed. In the meantime, our dear pontiff, BXVI, has long taught that we “do” theology on our knees. So let’s start there… and then let’s, together, “do” media/ new & old/ on our knees as well!

    great post!

    Rock on, Angela!

  5. My bellief is that both the Church and the new media can learn from each other. The church has to learn to adapt on the need for technology to further spread their teachings. But media can learn a thing or two on how to infuse the values of the Church in their field. If both see it on a positive view, then the public will deinfitely benefit from it.

  6. Just yesterday one of our donors (who is also a friend) shared some of his thoughts about this very issue. A point he made could be summarized like this: “Communication is critical on any level.” Help people learn to communicate even person-to-person and to be “proactive, not reactive in dealing with the secular media. Bring together content and apply it to all forms of communication.” In many of the Church’s ministries, “we have some vehicles, but no content. We need programming at all levels.” And we need to “bring humility to the whole process.”

    Thank you for singling out Blessed James Alberione, “the first apostle of the new evangelization,” as Blessed John Paul II called him, in your list of media models. Alberione was that, not primarily because he used all the media of communication to proclaim the Gospel and not even because he taught 10,000 Paulines to do the same, but because in Fr. Alberione’s person and in his mission Jesus Christ, Way, Truth, and Life, the WORD and IMAGE of God (Jn. 1:1, Col. 1:15), stood at the center of everything–of all human thought, invention, culture, and society. He believed that only when we were committed to becoming configured with this Christ would we be able to bring him to our every activity and relationship with “the people of today” and communicate him with every available means. For him–and for us–the “car runs on four wheels: prayer, study, apostolate, and poverty,” that last one understood as wise administration, dependence on Providence, diligent work, and simplicity of life.

    The theology of communication is summarized in the communications documents of the Holy See and the various episcopal conferences around the world. Its application and its spirituality are lived by the saints and apostles of today.

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