The pope, Twitter and what comes next

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would surrender St. Peter's throne, messages stopped flowing to the 1.5 million or so readers following his newborn @Pontifex feed at Twitter. This wasn't surprising since the 85-year-old theologian -- bookish and reserved, by nature -- cited his deteriorating health and declining energy as reasons to let a new pope wrestle with a world "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."

Twitter certainly is a barometer for change and a forum for questions. While the pope fell silent, the hashtag #askpontifex remained open and the questions and comments continued to build up. Here are a few typical mini-rants in English.

"Latin is a dead language. Latin is the language of the Dead," thundered "MichelArchange," linking to "#pope," "#bishops," "#vatican," "#hypocrits" and "#liars," among others.

"So, if i have sex before a child molester blesses my union, hell awaits me?", asked "BS Radar."

"We all feel abandoned by your abdication," tweeted "Geeky Catholic."

"Did central Italian bank or someone else forced you to abdicate?", asked "Patlatus."

Benedict XVI and his team eventually returned to Twitter, with his first new tweet focusing on spiritual growth during the sobering season that precedes Easter and, this year, a papal election: "During the season of Lent ... we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives."

When @Pontifex opened, on Dec. 12, Vatican officials stressed that while Benedict XVI would not be handling the technology for tweets, the content would come from him. Still, no one addressed a key issue -- whether the elderly pope would be interacting with real messages, in real time, from real Twitter users.

If he did, this blast from cyberspace must have been a shock, noted Elizabeth Scalia, a Catholic blogger known as "The Anchoress." While some might consider the thought absurd, she also wondered if the pope's exposure to online life added a digital last straw to his already heavy burdens.

"When Benedict finally logged on to Twitter he got to see firsthand the sort of raw, unhinged anti-Catholic hatred so active within social media threads," she said, in an online essay. "We who work in new media experience this hatred so regularly it barely registers with us, but for Benedict, or those around him, it must have been a shocking revelation to encounter the vilest expressions of hatred, the intentional voicings of malice and evil hopes, flung squarely at the Holy Father, in real time."

Much of this venom directed at the church, she wrote, "has been inspired (and earned) by the deplorable scandals of the past decades (for which we are due a long season of penance)." But much of the anger also stems from the church's refusal to compromise in the public square, where its ancient traditions serve as a "sign of contradiction" to modernists.

Catholics are bitterly divided, as well, as anyone can see by scanning #askpontifex for a minute or two.

"I wonder if our sensitive pope looked into the abyss of pain, screaming hatred and ignorance so easily accessed by just a few clicks of a keyboard, and felt called to humility and prayer -- a full renunciation of everything in the world, including earthly power and communion with the faithful -- in reparation, penance," Scalia observed.

The pope will soon settle into a monastic life inside the Vatican walls to read, to write and to pray. The status of the Twitter account @Pontifex -- Latin for "bridge builder" -- is unknown.

If Benedict XVI plunges into a monastic life of prayer then he will not "retire" at all, stressed Scalia. No one who has studied his life truly believes he is walking away from the papacy in order to relax in a library or play Mozart on his piano.

"During his entire priesthood, the man has not shaken off duties and burdens, but consented to carry more and more. This is who he is," she said. "Increasingly, I believe Benedict's resignation, rather than releasing himself from a heavy weight, is necessary so he may take on something much more cumbersome."

The evidence, Scalia concluded, is that he will be "doing penance for the church, and for the world -- for those of us who cannot or will not do it, ourselves."

State of the Godbeat 2010

This was not your typical New York Times headline: "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened." The news report itself offered a flashback into an earlier age, back to the days before Vatican II or even to the tumultuous times of Martin Luther. On one level, this was simply a trend story about the Vatican trying to revive some old traditions. However, there were complicated details behind the blunt headline.

"In recent months," the Times reported, "dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago -- the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife -- and reminding them of the church's clout in mitigating the wages of sin."

For most Times readers, this was an isolated, mysterious story. But in cyberspace, this one report inspired waves of debate. Among the big questions: How could this door have been reopened, when it had never been closed? Were enough conservative Catholics quoted? Why didn't the Times cover a bigger story, the collapse in confession statistics?

Researchers later discovered that plenary indulgences remained a red-hot news topic for many days -- online.

"Religion is one of those topics that has a unique ability to gather in one place large groups of people who care passionately about it. That's the kind of thing that happens quite naturally online," said Jesse Holcomb, a research analyst with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The irony is that these online debates almost always start with a story from a big, traditional news source. Someone has to report the news before the bloggers can take over."

This is precisely the kind of issue that causes sweaty palms for folks -- like me -- who care about religion news. I've been reporting and doing research in this field for 30-plus years and, 22 years ago this week, I began writing this column for Scripps Howard. I also run a website called GetReligion.org, which is six years old.

At the moment, the state of religion coverage is somewhere between "evolving" and "on life support." Cutbacks in top 40 newsrooms -- organizations that once had the resources to support a variety of specialty reporters -- have sent many veteran scribes into early retirement. More than a dozen print newsrooms have reduced or eliminated their religion-news jobs in the past three years.

However, the amount of religion news remained surprisingly steady in 2009, at 0.8 percent, compared with 1.0 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

As always, it was a good year to read about papal tours, especially when they cause controversy, and stories about religion and politics, especially about the beliefs, rhetoric and policies of President Barack Obama. As always, it was not a good year to read about how religious beliefs helped shape events in some of the world's most tense and bloody settings, such as Iraq and Iran. Holcomb noted that journalists even failed to probe the intense religious language and imagery in Obama's historic speech at Cairo University, which focused on improving relations with the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, additional Pew research into news and trends online found that 41 percent of Americans believe the news media should devote more attention to "religion and spirituality." Only news about science -- with a 44 percent score -- drew a higher response.

Who claims to want more "spiritual" news coverage? Women (44 percent) are more likely to say so than men (37 percent), which is significant since editors are worried about the rapidly declining number of female readers. Young adults, ages 18-29, are more interested in religion than readers over 50 -- 49 percent to 35 percent. African-Americans (57 percent) and Hispanics (43 percent) are more interested in religion coverage than whites (38 percent).

If readers want to find detailed coverage of religion issues, they are now more likely to find it online, said Holcomb.

"When it comes to breaking down the differences between various types of beliefs and rituals and practices and then trying to show how these things end up affecting people's daily lives, mainstream journalists are rarely able to get into all of that," he said. "But that is precisely the kind of thing that more people are writing about on websites and on blogs."

NEXT WEEK: The online buffet of religion news and opinion.

Big Ben preaches human rights

It would be hard to pick a more symbolic moment to join the church than during an Easter Vigil Mass -- the high point of the ancient Christian calendar.

Thus, the pope traditionally baptizes several new Catholics during this rite in St. Peter's Basilica. This year, one of the converts was Magdi Allam, a high-profile journalist and, perhaps, Italy's most famous "moderate" Muslim.

This caused a firestorm. One Muslim scholar active in interfaith talks condemned the "Vatican's deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam ... in such a spectacular way." Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan, wrote: "It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

This dramatic scene caught Vatican watchers by surprise.

When experts compare Pope Benedict XVI with his predecessor, one common observation is that Pope John Paul II was, because of his background as an actor, the master of grand gestures that soared above the usual dense papal prose. Meanwhile, the current pope -- a former professor who has written shelves of theological works -- has a reputation for being rather dry.

"If John Paul weren?t a pope, he would have been a movie star," said John L. Allen, Jr., the National Catholic Reporter's veteran Vatican correspondent and author of two books on the current pope. "If Benedict weren?t a pope, he would have been a university professor."

Nevertheless, it would "be a mistake to believe that Benedict is simply incapable of talking in pictures when he has a point he wants to make or that kind of flair for the just right dramatic gesture," said Allen, speaking at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The question, of course, is whether Benedict will make any dramatic gestures during his upcoming visit to the Washington, D.C., and New York City. While politicos will insist on sifting his texts for any sound bites that might affect the White House race, Allen and another Vatican expert said it would be wiser to focus on Benedict's April 18 speech at the United Nations.

This is, after all, the official reason that he is coming to America. And, after that symbolic Easter baptism, the pope may choose to underline a passage in the UN's own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," states Article 18. "This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private. ..."

Benedict knows that the UN is, throughout 2008, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is best known for writing "Witness to Hope," a 992-page biography of John Paul II. For the pope and Vatican diplomats, this document represents "a kind of moral constitution for the world," built on a "common moral consensus" that is under attack.

Any defense of human rights, stressed Weigel, requires the use of a "word that Benedict XVI has brought into the Vatican's inter-religious dialogue in a powerful way -- reciprocity. If there is a great mosque in Rome welcomed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, why not a church in Saudi Arabia? If we recognize the freedom of others to change their religious location as conscience dictates, that needs to be recognized by dialogue partners as well."

Or to cite another example, a Christian who converts to Islam in Italy doesn't need to hire armed bodyguards. But this isn't true for Muslims who choose to convert to another faith while living in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and other parts of the world -- even in some corners of Europe.

The key, said Allen, is that Benedict XVI isn't trying -- here's a sound bite -- to "launch a new crusade." Instead, the pope wants to encourage more Muslims to defend religious liberty, while continuing to reject any brand of secularism that denies the existence of universal, eternal, truths.

"In that struggle," said Allen, "Benedict believes that a more moderate, reformed form of Islam ought to be Christianity?s natural ally." In the pope's worldview, the "serious religious believers in the world ought to be the ones who hold the line against the dictatorship of relativism."

Nervous believers in Year 18

Religious folks sure get nervous when public officials talk about "fundamentalist" gunmen invading a school.

Consider what happened recently after a staged emergency at Burlington Township High School in New Jersey. The police script for the drill called for armed men to crash the front doors, shoot several students and barricade themselves in the library with hostages. This document, according to the Burlington County Times, described the intruders as part of "a right-wing fundamentalist group called the 'New Crusaders' who do not believe in the separation of church and state." The two gunmen attacked because a child had been expelled for praying.

For some reason, evangelical pastors became alarmed. Thus, local officials and educators released a statement saying they regretted "any insensitivity that might have been inferred" by this scenario, including any offense taken by those who "inferred" that the mock terrorists were Christians.

I have no idea why pastors "inferred" that organizers of this tax-funded drill had in any way suggested that "right-wing" fundamentalists in a "New Crusaders" army opposed to the "separation of church and state" and angry about a "school prayer" dispute might be conservative Christians.

No way. Why would anyone "infer" something like that?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Boredom is rarely a problem for journalists on the religion beat. That's why I mark this column's anniversary every year -- this is No. 18 -- by offering a grab-bag collection of strange stories that I didn't have the chutzpah or the time to cover during the previous 12 months. So hang on.

* During holiday seasons, I get all kinds of email and often it's hard to tell when people are joking. For example, I received an copy of "The Two-Minute Haggadah: A Passover service for the impatient." It condensed the rite's pivotal four questions to this:

(1) "What's up with the matzoh?" (2) "What's the deal with horseradish?" (3) "What's with the dipping of the herbs?" (4) "What's this whole slouching at the table business?" The answers? "(1) "When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread." (2) "Life was bitter, like horseradish." (3) "It's called symbolism." (4) "Free people get to slouch."

* No joke. The KFC restaurant chain did ask Pope Benedict XVI to bless its new "Fish Snacker" product, which the company said would be "ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles." Apparently, the pope declined.

* Try to imagine the media response if President George W. Bush ended a United Nations address with a call for the second coming of his Messiah and pledged to help this apocalypse happen sooner rather than later.

Would this make headlines? Thus, I was surprised when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew little fire when he ended his fall U.N. speech by saying:

"I emphatically declare that today's world ... above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return."

* Candid religion quote of the year? Asked by Vanity Fair if she is a Christian, columnist Ann Coulter replied: "Yes, sort of a mean Christian."

* Church PR efforts are getting edgier. An Episcopal parish in New Jersey issued a "Message to Disaffected Roman Catholics" proclaiming that many "whose spiritual lives are grounded in the Mass and in the sacraments are, nevertheless, unable to concur with the Vatican's position on issues such as the role of women in the church, contraception, remarriage of divorced person, homosexual relationships, or abortion. ... If you are among them, you may find a comfortable spiritual home at Grace Church in Newark."

* In a list of 100 men and women who are "transforming our world," Time editors included 27 "artists and entertainers," 16 "scientists and thinkers" and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

Second thoughts on Christmas 2001

The images flash by on television screens during every Christmas season.

The pope moves slowly around the altar in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve or sits on his balcony throne, solemnly waving to flocks of New Year's pilgrims. He reads sermons which news reports crunch into sound bites about hope and world peace, or joy and world peace.

This year it was children and world peace.

"My thoughts go to all the children of the world," said the frail Pope John Paul II, struggling to emphasize key phrases in his Midnight Mass text. "So many, too many, are the children condemned from birth to suffer through no fault of their own the effects of cruel conflicts."

Once these media rites are over, our civil religion proceeds to the National Football League playoffs. Christmas is quickly old news.

But this was not an ordinary year. Thus, it was a good year to note what two radically different kinds of believers have to say about Christmas.

Anyone who reads the pope's texts discovers that he believes something miraculous actually happened 2,000 years ago, something connected with peace on earth and good will among men. Pope John Paul II, in other words, believes that Christmas is built on more than a mere story that produces warm feelings in human hearts.

If Christmas is built on truth, he said, then there is reason for hope and joy -- no matter what. This message is not an easy sell after 2001 and the pope said so on Christmas Eve.

"The Messiah is born," said John Paul. "Emmanuel, God-with-us! ... But does this certainty of faith not seem to clash with the way things are today? If we listen to the relentless news headlines, these words of light and hope may seem like words from a dream. ... Our hearts this Christmas are anxious and distressed because of the continuation in various parts of the world of war, social tensions, and the painful hardships in which so many people find themselves. We are all seeking an answer that will reassure us."

The pope's defense a Christmas miracle may not have sounded radical, but it was -- especially after the horror of Sept. 11. To understand why, it helps to contrast his Christmas message with that of an American shepherd who makes his share of headlines.

According to the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the problem with religious believers who embrace miracles is that this quickly leads them to claim "they have received their truth by divine revelation. It is a strange claim that leads almost inevitably to the authoritarian assertion that there is a single 'true church' or a particular religious system that alone offers salvation."

In today's world, this kind doctrinal certainty is truly dangerous, said Spong, a relentlessly candid voice in the Episcopal Church's progressive establishment.

After Sept. 11, it is time "recognize that religious truth, like all truth, emerges out of human experience," he said. "Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claim to possess divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. Those claims create the mentality that fuels religious imperialism."

The bishop openly attacks "irrational doctrines" such as papal infallibility and scriptural inerrancy. Just before Christmas, Spong again denied that God is a "supernatural being." Thus, "I cannot interpret Jesus as the earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity."

"Perhaps the only way for the Christmas promise of peace on earth to be achieved," he said, "is for every religious system to face its human origins and recognize that worshipers in every religious system are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery."

For Spong and many others, there is a "Christ experience," but not a literal Christmas. The pope embraces tradition and revelation. He still believes that God can give answers.

"The birth of the Only-begotten Son of the Father has been revealed as 'an offer of salvation' in every corner of the earth, at every time in history," he said. "The Child who is named 'Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace' is born for every man and woman. He brings with him the answer, which can calm our fears and reinvigorate our hope."