The Vatican has turned heads with a recent decree that grants “indulgences” not only to attendees of the upcoming World Youth Day, but to Catholics who follow the event on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, as well. Indulgences are complicated business— the Church has an entire court overseeing them — but they essentially grant the receiver time-off purgatory, the period of purification before a soul moves into heaven. Considering St. Augustine described purgatory as a pain “more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life,” that’s a pretty good deal.
But beware: “You don’t get the indulgence the way you get a coffee from a vending machine,” cautioned Mario Celli, who heads the Vatican’s social media efforts, in remarks translated by the Italian paper Corriere della Sera. “What really matters is that the Pope’s tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us.”
Even considering that “authentic spiritual fruit” standard and a host of other caveats — believers must, for instance, be in good standing with the church — the new Internet-friendly stance has earned eye-rolling “lols” from many corners of the Internet, including on Twitter itself.
But the Vatican’s decision arguably has more to do with media theory than theology. Scholars like Nathan Jurgerson have long advanced the philosophy that our digital lives are no different from our actual ones. By applying the same rules to believers online and in-person, the Vatican is essentially saying the same thing — or, as one archbishop put it after Pope Benedict XVI joined Twitter in December, social media is not “a parallel or purely virtual world,” but a real, tangible part of modern life.
If that’s the case, argues Andrew Brown over at the Guardian, Twitter followers are no different from the rest of the proverbial flock:
The whole point of electronic communication is that it has effects in the physical world. That makes it real so far as I am concerned. If a love affair can be nourished in letters, it can be nourished, too, in email, or even, for very time-pressed lovers, in tweets … I can’t see that the means of transmission should make any difference at all here.