ITHACA, NY — Just as the religious realm has its own rites of passage, one of the world’s spiritual leaders has made a rite of passage in the realm of technology. Rachel Wagner, an expert on the intersections between religion and virtual reality, says that Pope Benedict is entering the profane world of social media by issuing his first tweet.
“The Pope has always been a sacred mouthpiece when writing missives, when speaking before crowds, even when having his image recorded and disseminated on film,” says Wagner. “His moral pronouncements now appear within the profane Twitter stream as well, digitally baptizing it.”
An associate professor of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College, Wagner is the author of the book “Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality” and is a regular contributor to the online journal Religion Dispatches.
The head of the Catholic Church made his first tweet on December 12, on his personal #AskPontifex Twitter account. He has already gained over one million followers since the Vatican announced that he would be tweeting — Lady Gaga is currently tops on Twitter, with over 32 million followers.
Wagner points out that the embrace of technology by religious leaders has itself become a media and ritual event in the 21st century. “The Pope having his own Twitter account is just another step in the ritual of technological sanctification. Like everyone else, of course, he is subject to the rules of the software; he’ll have to limit his holy teaching to 140 characters per tweet and thus the message itself will be shaped by this transformation.”
Benedict had launched pre-approved tweets on other Vatican Twitter accounts since 2010, but this was the first time he has used his new personal account. He will initially tweet only on Wednesdays, the same day he holds his weekly public audience at the Vatican, and will answer selected questions tweeted by his followers.
Wagner’s research suggests that while our engagement with virtual reality can be viewed as a form of religious activity, today’s virtual religion marks a radical departure from traditional religious practice — it is ephemeral, rapid, disposable, hyper-individualized and in an ongoing state of flux.
She says those who use the AskPontifex hashtag will experience the feeling of communicating with the Pope, even if he doesn’t respond directly to their personal tweet. “In practice, of course, this doesn't really change the power structure of dissemination of church teaching from the top down, but it gestures toward interactivity in a way that will be appealing to today’s hyperwired followers.”
Wagner serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Film and as cochair of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion. She has made presentations at the International Digital Religion Conference and the International Conference on Media, Religion, and Culture, among other organizations.