BALTIMORE — As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to kick off their annual general meeting this week in Baltimore, two dozen bishops and approximately four dozen bloggers and media gathered Nov. 11 for “An Encounter With Social Media: Bishops and Bloggers Dialogue.” Over the course of three hours, they discussed social media, blogging and reaching Catholics with new technology.
Their discussion was timely, as it had just been disclosed that Pope Benedict XVI plans to start using Twitter.
The afternoon session began with a presentation by Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. His report, “Catholic New Media Use in the United States,” surveyed 1,047 Catholics about their use and awareness of new media. Of those who responded, 5% (rising to 13% for those who attend Mass regularly) read Catholics blogs on a regular basis. Facebook and Twitter have much higher rates of use, ranging from 37% for Catholics born before 1943 to 82% among Catholics born since 1982.
Approximately 13% of poll respondents use Twitter, and 8% use Catholic mobile applications. One-third of adult Catholics do not have a profile on any social-networking site.
Among those questioned by CARA, the main concerns about digital media were the inability of the Church to validate the authenticity of Catholic teachings on blog sites, the lack of civility and the reluctance of the Church to engage the Internet. Approximately one-third would like to see their bishop or pastor blogging.
According to the report, however, the most trusted and used form of communication was not Twitter or text or blogs: It was the humble parish bulletin.
The report was followed by a panel discussion among auxiliary Bishop Christopher Coyne of Indianapolis, Rocco Palmo (writer of the blog Whispers in the Loggia), Mary DeTurris Poust (journalist and blogger at Not Strictly Spiritual), Terry Mattingly (Get Religion), and Gray. Bloggers and bishops then engaged in small-group discussions and concluded with a question-and-answer period that allowed both bishops and bloggers to present questions and concerns.
How, Not When
Bishop Coyne began the discussion by forcefully stating that the question is not “if bishops and the Church should be involved in digital media, but how.”
“Facebook is the new parish hall,” said Poust. She cited the recent example of Hurricane Sandy, during and after which people used Twitter and Facebook to stay connected and share information.
Palmo observed that almost all of these technologies are free and that even if only a minority of Catholics is using them, that still represents people who are seeking ways to be connected to their Church and parish.
“Yes, it’s unofficial,” Palmo continued. “Yes, there are dangers, but the thing I’ve found is that it has an intimacy that speaks to people which institutional commentary doesn’t have.”
“The Internet is a spiritual medium,” he said. “People who would never darken the door of a church or have been away from the Church can find a place or find a people [online].”
Palmo also expressed concern about the lack of engagement with Hispanic Catholics in the digital realm. The point was echoed by attendee Mark Shea, a Register blogger, who spoke about dealing with comments from conservative black and Hispanic readers who feel unwelcome or unrepresented in the online Catholic world.
On the bishops’ side of the aisle, there was a combination of interest and concern with these new tools. Bishop Coyne, who has been blogging and using digital media since before his elevation, said the additional level of scrutiny and episcopal teaching authority raise the stakes for bishops who opt to use new media.
“Bishops need to be very careful and precise about what we post,” he said. “I could write things as Father Coyne that I can’t write as Bishop Coyne.”
On the bloggers’ side, Brandon Vogt, blogger and author of The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet, said he “was most pleased by how sincerely interested the bishops were about new media. They admitted their fears and hesitations, indeed, but they most wanted to know how to better use these tools.”
Continued Vogt, “That’s huge. Five years ago, such receptivity was rare. Today, however, most bishops are not wondering whether they need to be online — they know they do — but, rather, how to do so effectively. The meeting provided them tons of ideas and plenty of new friends to offer help with that question. For the bloggers, our biggest success was revealing to the bishops our support.”
The limitations of the new technology, however, were brought home during a small-group discussion session with Bishop Donald Kettler of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. His region was only wired for telephones in 1984 and has only recently received cellular service. Much of the technology under discussion is out of the reach of many of the Catholics in his area, but he participated in the meeting because he wants to know about different ways to keep his people connected and informed.
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Communications and moderator of the event, was pleased with the dialogue.
“I think it was very, very good,” Bishop Wester said. “Many of us bishops are very interested in the subject; we think is has wonderful potential, but at the same time, I have a lot of questions and fear and trepidation on just how to get into it. So I’m just kind of testing the water with my toe and not diving right into it. But today’s conference really helped me. It was a very helpful couple of hours.”
Bishop Coyne, one of the most tech-savvy members of the American hierarchy, thought the meeting “went very well, especially since there were a number of bishops who took time out of their busy schedules to attend this voluntary session. If at the end of the day another 10, 12, 15 bishops of the United States feel more empowered to be involved in digital media, then that’s a good thing.”
Asked what he thought the bloggers should take away from the conference, Bishop Coyne replied, “We want to support them, and we want to work with them.”
Thomas L. McDonald is a catechist in Trenton, New Jersey.
He blogs at GodandtheMachine.com.