Tweeting Indulgences

In July of 2013 the Vatican announced that those who participated in the celebration of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro would be granted a plenary indulgence. Furthermore the Vatican decreed, “The faithful who on account of a legitimate impediment cannot attend the aforementioned celebrations may obtain Plenary Indulgence under the usual spiritual, sacramental and prayer conditions, in a spirit of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, by participation in the sacred functions on the days indicated, following the same rites and spiritual exercises as they occur via television or radio or, with due devotion, via the new means of social communication.” In other words, just because one could not participate in person in the services in Rio, digital participation would count, in the church’s eyes, towards reception of the plenary indulgence.

I am not going to analyze the theological doctrine of indulgences or even to summarize the history of the practice. Others more competent have undertaken these tasks with greater precision and elegance. The aim of this work is to examine and explore the media the church uses in connection to its services and masses.

Novel technologies are not evil in se, and the benefits of the new technologies are innumerable. However, just because something produces much good does not give the invention immunity from analysis or criticism. Thus it is that we stand as careful guardians of church practice, not as nostalgic Luddites, when we say that issuing a plenary indulgence to those who follow an event over social media deserves a cautious examination.

Use of certain communication media adds new layers of meaning to a broadcast event. This concept is nothing new to media theorists. Catholic English professor Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, “The medium is the message,” back in the 1960s (23). Texting is different from face-​​to-​​face communication. Skyping with a loved one is different from a dinner date. And going to church is different from streaming the service on a laptop. There is a limit on the fullness of participation in an event mediated by digital social media.

One important limit is that the connection to all those present in person is not fully achievable through social media. Being surrounded by bodies of believers is an experience that is incommunicable through online means. The experience of corporate worship requires a corpus, a body. Social media, on the other hand, is an entirely bodiless activity. Other than requiring a couple of fingers to type, participation in internet community generally does not require any physical actions. The apostle Paul utilized communication media to encourage and influence the church from afar via his letters; however a priority is given to physical interaction in almost every letter, expressed by his wishes to visit the churches in person. Physical interaction and encouragement is an important part of the church gathering that cannot be mediated through the internet or other technologies.

Another limitation of social media is on participation in the sacraments. The entirety of sacramental theology rests upon the premise that the material medium does matter. A sacrament of the church refers to the transmission of an invisible and divine grace through visible means. Somehow, mysteriously, the physical presence and medium of water is essential to the regenerative practice of baptism. The bread and the wine are necessary media for the Eucharist. Human language is necessary for the words of institution. The center of the Catholic Mass is the Sacrament of Eucharist. Catholics, with all sacramental Christians, uphold the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the belief that Christ is really present in the elements of the bread and wine. Presence is important. For sacramental Christians the greatest limitation on long distance participation is the inability to participate in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.

While there are severe limitations on online participation in church, that does not mean that one cannot share at all in the experience of physical gatherings through digital means.

Mgr. Claudio Maria Celli, in charge of the pontifical council for social communications, explained to Italian daily newspaper 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. Then even a youngster who is a very long way from Brazil and feels involved by a video, a simple text message or an email will be truly taking part in the World Youth Day and will receive the gift of the indulgence.”

Bodily participation in a physical service is impossible through digital means, but just because a mediated experience is limited, the Catholic Church is not excluding those participants from these events. The goal of granting indulgences to those present via social media is not to validate a solely digital observation as a substitute for physical participation in a church service. The goal is that the word of God will take seed in one’s heart and bear “authentic spiritual fruit.” If fruit are produced through the partial participation allowed by social media, then this is full participation not in a mass or service but in the Spirit who gives life to the mass and the event. It is the prerogative of God for revelation in whatever way God chooses, and God speaks in manifold ways. We must take care in the media we choose when we proclaim God’s Truth, careful not to confuse bodiless digital observation with physical participation. Our human media have boundaries, but the Spirit of God blows where it will. In all our endeavors, we trust that the limitations of our human means cannot compare to the limitless power of God.

Photo credit: FidlerJan from morguefile.com.

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