Saints . . . reformed the Church in depth, not by working up plans for new structures, but by reforming themselves. What the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management.

–Joseph Ratzinger

Our president has a hashtag; now our pope has one, too. Benedict acquired it just in time to bequeath it to his successor. The next pope will inherit #askpontifex together with an audience already bundled and delivered. Is that not cool?

Very cool. And the very reason it gives pause.

According to The Guardian , Twitter’s own sales department courted the Vatican diligently. Eager to boost sales in Europe, its consultants were “extremely keen to pull in yet another hugely influential microblogger, following the popularity of the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama.” Twitter wanted another celebrity account. The Vatican gave it one.

The impetus behind the Holy See’s enthusiasm for a social networking presence is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council on Culture since 2007. A Twitter apologist, the cardinal is the engine behind Vatican City’s pavilion in the upcoming Venice Biennale and a front-runner among papabili at the next conclave. I want to add a bit more about the cardinal and his embrace of contemporary art. But that can hold. First, let me clarify the case for unease with this digital initiative.

Cardinal Ravasi posing with the cell phone he uses for tweeting, at his office in Rome
Cardinal Ravasi posing with the cell phone he uses for tweeting, at his office in Rome.

Without a doubt, Twitter has multifarious managerial and tactical applications. It is a logistical tool, useful for organizing, strategizing, distributing information and instructions. While it can serve barbaric purposes as readily as benevolent ones, my concern is not with the technology itself. The technological structure of the modern world is a given, one that grants us much to be grateful for. My skepticism is directed solely toward the incongruity of this particular technique as a tool of evangelism. Especially as it was inaugurated in the name of a man as deliberate and discerning as Benedict.

The popular press was not slow to grasp that there was something discordant, inapropos, in the news. Andy Davy’s cartoon in Britain’s The Sun hinges on the disconnect between street argot—a lingua franca across the Twitterverse—and modes of papal expression.

Andy Davy’s cartoonTwitterspeak is fundamentally alien to Benedict’s style. His sophistication and attention to nuance—the subtleties of theological reflection—is nullified by the very structure of the service. One hundred forty characters constitute only a sound bite, one more ephemeral utterance that, of necessity, omits more than it conveys. There is a certain pathos in the Vatican’s utopian expectations for a dumbed down, de-incarnated form of speech that, in this instance, masquerades as a conversation. No conversation was ever intended. Set in gear prior to Benedict’s resignation, the digital chase was all one way. You could friend the pope; but he would not be friending you.

Like many busy, high-profile users of Twitter, the pope can absent himself from the process. Surrogates are on hand for the tweeting. As the Vatican concedes, papal tweets will be produced by aides entrusted with broadcasting a virtual simulacra of Benedict’s —and the next pope’s—pastoral voice. (Social media become more a-social the higher you go up the scale of prominence.)

So far, a least one million dotcomrades have added @pontifex to their repertory. Perhaps it warms you to think that the pope really does have divisions after all. Still, they are many degrees of separation from the real thing. It is discomforting to ponder the credulity of a public susceptible to the fantasy that, somehow, it is in communication with the Holy Father.

This is one particular exercise in virtuality that risks further malformation of what it means to be social, let alone Christian. It runs substantial risk of reducing faith to truncated verbal gestures and substituting the vapidity of one hundred forty characters for living witness. Our faith is lived and expressed person to person. In Hopkins’ luminous phrasing: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his. /To the Father, through the features of men’s faces.”

It remains to be seen if the Vatican’s use of Twitter can foster a fully human faith in a culture increasingly dependent on contrivance and illusion—which Benedict warned against just weeks before adopting Twitter. We pray that it can. If it cannot, it will bring the Church into greater conformity with the lust for banality that drives popular culture.