The Vatican's Content Strategy Includes New Online Portal

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The Holy See has tried using new tools that allow it to stay familiar with technologies that it associates with suspect forms of individual liberation

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As part of an ongoing foray into digital media, the Vatican will unveil an online portal for papal news and information. The website, hosted at news.va, is expected to launch on Wednesday, June 29.

The portal, which will aggregate information from the Vatican's various print, online, radio and television media into a single, centralized destination for all things papal, will be the most extensive online venture that the Vatican has undertaken yet, bristling with multimedia goodies and social media integration. According to the Huffington Post's Nicole Winfield, that the portal will be outfitted for live-streaming of papal events, audio feeds from Vatican Radio, photographs from L'Osservatore Romano and printed texts of papal homilies, statements and speeches. Pope Benedict has reportedly been following the development of the portal.

Part of the shift is purely organizational: the Vatican's massive bureaucracy has made communication between the papal court and regular parishioners opaque at best, which has caused numerous communications headaches in the past several years

Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, who heads the Vatican office that developed the portal and will maintain it, said Benedict may put the site online himself with a click from the Apostolic Palace.

"This is a new way of communicating," Celli said during a preview of the site at the offices of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

It's the latest effort by the Vatican to bring its evangelizing message to a greater, Internet-savvy audience and follows its forays into Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It's also a significant step for the 84-year-old Benedict, who has been bedeviled by communications woes during much of his six-year papacy, much of it the fault of a large Vatican bureaucracy that doesn't always communicate well internally.

There was his 2005 speech about Islam and violence, his recent comments about condoms and HIV that required no less than three official Vatican clarifications, and his rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop, among others.

Reports of the Vatican's site, like past news on its iPhone app and gradual forays into user engagement on Facebook and YouTube, are predictably laden with the usual tropes: a casual amazement that an ancient institution could suddenly decide to abandon its supposedly conservative Luddism and adopt new technology. The usual indicators are all there, from the Onion-esq headlines  ("Vatican Launches Second Website in Just 2,000 Years") to the juxtaposition of the Vatican with "the modern world" in the Agence France-Presse's release.

But it's worth noting that, independentlt from the Vatican's organizational needs as a highly visible, quasi-political institution -- avoiding PR gaffes, spinning messages, keeping the Pope highly visible -- the Vatican's website isn't really about tracking papal news and enhancing the experience of worship with multimedia packages. The Vatican's content strategy -- and that's what it is --  isn't about capturing clicks or unique impressions, or even hearts and minds in the conventional sense of proselytizing. As I wrote in April, in adopting new technologies has been to maintain familiarity with tools that it associates with suspect forms of individual liberation -- and to help mitigate what it sees as these tools' negative effects on the soul:

... rather than denounce tech as the end of human civilization, van Pelt suggests, the Vatican wants to insert itself into the ongoing conversation on innovation with the hopes of couching technology within religious dogma. Declaring that hackers are doing God's work and blessing social networks like Facebook and Twitter is a necessary concession in order for the Pope to caution against alienation, dehumanization and the other side effects of tech overload without being widely perceived as merely anti-progress.

"There's a word in religious jargon: 'being prophetic,'" van Pelt explained. "It doesnt mean fortelling the future; it means critiquing what's currently developing. Progress happens so fast that we can't always track it, we can't always take the time to sit back and think about it. Most of the clergy is probably in the dark about the latest devices or gadgets. There's a bright line between people who can comprehend Facebook and Twitter, and people who cannot: the 'digital immigrants' and 'digital natives.' The Church doesn't quite realize what's coming about. The Church needs to take a prophetic stance."

By adopting what the most devout believer might regard as frivolous earthly indulgences, van Pelt believes, the Vatican is inserting itself into the conversation about technology in order to take a prophetic stance. But while one of religion's key focuses is on constraining human desire, van Pelt points out, technology's is on freeing it, serving it, satisfying it. "If human desire is not constrained, it leads to disaster," said van Pelt, summarizing the Church's view on technology.

It's unlikely that new subscribers to the Vatican news network will find themselves immediately inundated with micro-critiques of Twitter, arguments about the supposed dangers of augmented reality or extensive media criticism. But observers of the Vatican's technological advances should be slow to assume that its utilization of new-media tools indicates any significant shifts in the Church's broad stance towards technology. That hasn't changed, and nothing currently indicates that it will anytime soon.

Image: Reuters.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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