Pope warns against false online profiles, friendships

January 24, 2011

VATICAN CITY (RNS) If you're looking for the pope's Twitter account,
keep looking.

There's @Pope--Benedict, @popebenedictxvi, @Benedict XVI,
@PopeBenedict XVI, @Benedict--XVI, @popebenedict--16, @JoeRatzinger and
even @pope--benny--16, and none of them are officially sanctioned sites.

So it's fitting that the real Pope Benedict XVI on Monday (Jan. 24)
cautioned against creating false online profiles on social networks that
are now an "integral part of human life."

In the Vatican's latest effort to come to terms with 21st-century
technology, Benedict blessed the use of social networks but also warned
that digital communication poses special dangers to Christian values and
face-to-face relationships.

The pope made his remarks in his annual message for the World Day of
Social Communications (June 5).

The growth of the Internet offers "new and more complex intellectual
and spiritual horizons (and) new forms of shared awareness" Benedict
said, and encouraged Christians "to join the network of relationships
which the digital era has made possible."

But he cautioned that digital communication is typically "one-sided"
and potentially misleading.

"In the search for sharing, for `friends', there is the challenge to
be authentic and faithful and not give in to the illusion of
constructing an artificial public profile for oneself," Benedict wrote.

The pope also emphasized that "virtual contact cannot and must not
take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our
lives."

Benedict recommended a distinctively "Christian way" of online life,
in which a user's "digital profile" and online activity are "fully
consistent with the Gospel," as well as "honest and open, responsible
and respectful of others."

The Vatican has had a mixed experience with the Internet since
launching its first website in 1995.

According to a confidential 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy to the
Vatican released last month as part of the WikiLeaks trove, "most of the
top ranks of the Vatican -- all men, generally in their 70s -- do not
understand modern media and new information technologies" and "many
officials do not even have official e-mail accounts."

Benedict himself has said a quick Google search could have spared
him international condemnation when he decided in 2009 to lift the
excommunication of ultra-traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who
was well known online as a vocal Holocaust denier.

"I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we
will have to pay greater attention to that source of news," the pope
wrote at the time.

As part of the Vatican's effort to get up to date, it launched a
YouTube channel in 2009, and several Twitter accounts last year. A
unified web portal bringing together all the Vatican's major
communication organs, including its press office and official newspaper,
is supposed to appear by Easter.

Xt3.com, which started in 2008 as a Catholic version of Facebook,
now has 50,000 users -- compared to Facebook's 500 million -- and is
mostly geared toward the World Youth Day celebrations held every three
years.

At Monday's press conference to present the Communications Day
message, Vatican Archbishop Claudio Celli admitted the pope does not
even use a computer, much less surf the web.

"He belongs to another culture," Celli said, "He writes everything
by hand, in very small handwriting that is hard to read."