Embracing the Internet: Dioceses Ponder Best Use of Technology

CHICAGO—First the good news: The Catholic Church is quickly increasing its presence on the Internet. Ninety-three of 188 U.S. dioceses have a “home page,” or Web site on the Internet. Several more dioceses are poised to go ahead with their own Web sites, and it seems nearly every diocese will have one within a couple of years.

But while the American Church seems anxious to embrace the new technology, it still needs to develop a greater sense of how best to use it. For the most part, the present Catholic Web sites are graphically dull and full of leaden text-few are interactive.

Most are heavily reliant on information from diocesan newspapers, which, of course, have been suffering circulation losses for years. While there are a number of reasons to which this can be attributed, one commonly heard complaint is that many papers possess all the color and life of a diocesan directory. Too often, the glory of the faith, the vitality of the Church, the wonder of grace, and even the sacredness of life are absent from their pages.For the most part, the diocesan Web sites are startlingly similar. They often are limited to a message from the bishop, articles from the diocesan newspaper, parish addresses and Mass times, and information from key diocesan offices, usually related to vocations, schools, and social services. Many offer links to the much-visited Vatican site, and to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), religious orders, Marian sites, and other Catholic sites.

The Internet is no small potatoes. More than 31 million American adults- almost one in six-regularly use the Internet or commercial on-line services, according to a study released last spring by Find/SVP, a market research group based in New York. Every day thousands more are turning to the Internet for information.

The Vatican has recognized the powerful influence of mass media.

“Much that men and women know and think about life is conditioned by the media; to a considerable extent, human experience is an experience of media,” according to Aetatis Novae (At the Dawn of a New Era), published in 1992 by the Vatican's Council for Social Communications.

Youth especially are formed by mass media.

“An audiovisual generation is now born,” wrote Pierre Babin in The New Era in Religious Communication. “We cannot speak to young people today as we have in the past. Young people understand things not through words alone but through the effects produced ... by visual and [verbal] stimuli.”

Babin insists that communicators of the faith must make the content “beautiful, attractive, and tempting.”

If modern communicators followed Babin's dictum, they would be following a tradition that blossomed in the Middle Ages. The lovely stained glass windows of cathedrals taught the faith to generations of illiterate peasants.

Most diocesan home pages currently take a narrower view of communication, linking parishes and schools with one another and with the chancery and providing local Catholics with current information on diocesan matters. The Internet has increasingly become another routine diocesan tool, a part of a communication mix that includes diocesan newspapers, parish bulletins, publications from diocesan offices, and cable television programs.

To date, dioceses are paying less attention to the catechetical or evangelizing possibilities on the net, to enriching the faith of churchgoers and drawing alienated Catholics and the nonchurched.

While the Web sites of many dioceses do have room for improvement, some already offer distinctive elements:

√ The home page of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati provides a blurb for the new book by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, Bringing Forth Justice. Also available is a detailed events calendar and, for those computer users with audio, a monthly prayer.

√ The Archdiocese of Atlanta features detailed profiles of parishes, including a dozen-chapter tome on St. Joseph Church in Athens written by a history professor at the University of Georgia.

√ The Diocese of Fargo, hit hard by flooding, offers links to a flood page, a flood relief fund, and flood pictures.

√ A spiritual resource page of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis includes Scripture references, pastoral letters of the archbishop, letters of the U.S. bishops, and papal encyclicals.

√ The Diocese of Arlington, Va., has a page for Latinos, written in Spanish.

√ The Diocese of Dallas presents a page on wills and trusts that has two dozen chapters.

The Archdiocese of Denver has been pleased with the effectiveness of its home page despite spending little money for its development. The page debuted in August 1996 after being designed in-house. No funds were allocated for the page in the 1996 budget, and only $15,000 in the 1997 budget. Yet the page proved to be particularly beneficial in at least two instances.

A man concerned about the environment donated 20 acres to the archdiocese after reading a column by then-Archbishop J. Francis Stafford deploring rapid economic development in the mountains that was driving out the local population. Another man decided to study for the priesthood for the archdiocese after coming across information by the vocations office.

The archdiocese's reason for designing the page in-house was more practical than financial, said Francis Maier, vice chancellor.

“The Internet will change dramatically in five years,” said Maier, who was the archdiocese's communications director during the time the Web site was being developed. “[It] is very important to economic, political, and cultural structures. We want to understand the technology.”

With such features as audio interviews on moral and spiritual issues with figures like author Neil Postman, Catholic journalist Greg Erlandson, and theologian David Schindler, Denver's home page is among the most innovative of the diocesan sites.

A home page can be especially fruitful in a diocese like Denver, spread out over a mountainous region, Maier said. Eventually, the Internet can provide long-distance learning, in which prospective lay ministers and others can learn skills and knowledge through the computer. The archdiocese also plans to make diocesan manuals and handbooks available to parish staff through its home page.

At their spring meeting this year, the U.S. bishops approved a national pastoral plan for communication that, among other recommendations, urged dioceses to use the Internet to spread the Gospel. The bishops asked that content be offered on the Internet to serve as an evangelical tool, that current diocesan Web sites be linked to the NCCB and that dioceses without home pages develop one.

The bishops said that mass media should be used to evangelize, influence the values of U.S. society, tell the Church's story, protect the communication environment, teach communication, reflect on the quality of communication and support one another in a ministry of communication.

The Catholic Church, of course, is hardly the only entity struggling to come to terms with the Internet. The Find/SVP study reported that almost half of all users said the technology remains “somewhat” or “very” difficult to use.

Despite the difficulties, the Internet is too important for the Church to ignore, Maier said.

“The printing press was invented by a nice Catholic boy and turned into a tool of the Protestants. The Church did not understand the technology,” he said. “We're sitting on the cusp of significant change. If the Church does not use technology creatively and ethically, the Church will very likely lose out again.”

Jay Copp is based in Chicago.

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