What the Pope Really Meant in His Twitter-Indulgences Announcement

It may be quirky and a little bit mysterious, but it could also be the future of faith.

Pope Francis' Twitter account (screenshot)

According to a new Vatican decree, issued last month but reported just about everywhere this week, Pope Francis will be granting indulgences -- or time off terms in purgatory -- to Catholics who closely follow his Twitter or other social media accounts during the World Youth Day event in Rio de Janeiro next week.

The pardons are typically proferred to sinners who, after confession, go out into the world and perform counter-balancing faithful or charitable deeds. The theological concept was sullied, though, in medieval times, when rogue clerics and corrupt popes promised eternal salvation to those who funded luxurious building projects.

The announcement could be interpreted, on its face, as a vain attempt to inflate the Vatican's social media numbers. However, while the pontiff (@Pontifex) hasn't quite catapulted to Lady Gaga levels of Twitter popularity, he doesn't really need much assistance. His nine different accounts -- each in a different language -- command more than seven million followers.

Since he took office in March, Francis's mien and conduct seem to counter any notion that he's aiming for celebrity. According to Father Steven Avella, a papal expert and professor of religious history at Marquette University, Pope Francis has shied away from the cult of personality that other Popes have indulged in. "It sure is a temptation," he wrote The Atlantic in an email. "But ... Francesco has tried to tamp this sort of thing down."

Modesty and humility, in fact, seem to be the defining characteristics of his papacy. He ditched the ostentatious luxury vehicles -- a custom Renault, BMW X5, and a Mercedes -- of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI and opted for a discreet Ford Focus. He's also skipping out on summer down time at the posh papal villa Castel Gandolfo, preferring to remain in his modest Vatican guesthouse (which he selected as an alternative to the papal residence in the Apostolic Palace). He has even refused the standard sartorial splendor, shunning both the fancy Pope cape and shoes. When Francis recently learned that a statue in his likeness had been installed near the Cathedral in Buenos Aires, he phoned a priest there and ordered it immediately removed.

Still, the decision to grant indulgences over the Internet strikes both Avella and Rev. John O'Malley, S.J., an internationally acclaimed scholar on the Vatican and professor at Georgetown University, as peculiar. "This Twitter stuff, I have to admit, all sounds very strange to me," O'Malley wrote in an email. He also stressed that the principle of papal infallibility does not cover such a pronouncement. "The pope is not infallible in everything he says or does but only in a VERY restricted area and under VERY specific circumstances," he wrote. "The Twitter indulgences does not fulfill those criteria in even the slightest way." The scholars also seemed to doubt whether, in a maze of Vatican bureaucracy, the directive was initiated or even directly authorized by the Pope himself. Avella wrote:

I doubt whether Papa Francesco knows about this nonsense...and I would bet that if he does, he'll poo-poo it as the action of some over-zealous Vatican bureaucrat...even Benedict would find indulgenced tweets a bit too much. Francesco does not like this "quantified" grace business or the idea that saying X number of prayers gets you certain results.

Francis does not actually type out his Twitter dispatches -- but he does reportedly "approve" them -- so it's not that far-fetched of a theory. The Vatican press office has not responded to an inquiry about whether he signed off.

Whoever the idea originated with, the decree seems well-intentioned enough. It simply offers the same spiritual opportunities to those who, for legitimate reasons, cannot attend the event (and agree to earnestly and seriously participate over the Internet) as it does to those who can afford the journey. It reads:

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.

The message of prayer and faith must remain the same, it seems to say, it's just accomplished through a different medium -- the Internet. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the pontifical council for social communication, clarified the policy further in an interview with the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. "You don't get the indulgence the way you get a coffee from a vending machine. There's no counter handing out certificates," he said. "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."

Father Paolo Padrini, an expert on the Church's digital campaigns who is known as the iPriest, told the newspaper that a participant had to fashion a sort of technological sacred space. "Imagine your computer is a well-laden table where you can find tweets from Pope Francis, videos on YouTube, clips on Corriere.it and Facebook postings from your friend in Brazil," he said. "That is the dinner that will nourish your spirit."

Perhaps, for some, it's difficult to fathom. Can a person really have some sort of deep spiritual experience on the same machine that's used for work, pleasure, and everything in between? The Vatican's point, though, seems to focus on the discipline of piety, not on the milieu in which it's practiced. In an email, Michelle Molina, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University who specializes in Jesuit spirituality, argued, convincingly, that when it comes to the transformative experience of religion, the medium is irrelevant:

Catholic devotional life has for centuries relied on various mediums to aid one's prayer life (art, rosaries, print) and also to imagine oneself part of a larger Catholic community by taking up shared practices (praying a certain decade of the rosary on a saint's feast day, for example). These practices not only connect one to an imagined community, but are also a form of imaginative participation in the primary events of Christ's life over two thousand years ago from the impossible distance of our present! So what's a little long-distance shared devotional life via Twitter in comparison to that?

...But it is also just smart business: how do you reach your audience today? Why is it odd that any religious leadership should want to make use of the latest technologies? In the 15th century, the printing press was just that: the latest, most cutting edge technology!

The Church has been struggling with a series of scandals over the past few years, and it's seen a decline in membership worldwide. Perhaps allowing Catholics to engage digitally will help grow the ranks of the faithful.