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Pope Francis' Social Media Revolution: Still a Long Way to 'Vatican 2.0'

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On 27 October Pope Francis celebrated his account's ten millionth worldwide follower with a tweet. Many saw this as a symbol of an unprecedented effort to modernise the Roman Catholic Church, an institution for too long a prisoner of its own dogmas and ostentation, and now perceived as increasingly anachronistic and out of touch. Such an engagement with new technologies may indeed be a truly important step on the Church's path to renovation. However, it also entails a much greater challenge; one that the Vatican might not be entirely prepared to take up.

Eight months after his election, the Argentine pontiff has already left a profound footprint on his papacy. He has openly rejected the hard-line doctrine of his predecessor, alongside his conception of the Church as a closed and exclusive circle. The Church "is obsessed with gays, abortion and birth control" - Francis explained two months ago in an interview to an Italian Jesuit journal, suggesting that it be rather thought of as a "home for all".

But Francis knows that this isn't enough to restore the credibility of the Vatican, undermined by decades of sexual scandals and of myopic closure to social progress. He is aware that the Church's target also needs to be adjusted, away from the Catholic universe's most conservative core towards those groups lying closer to or even beyond its perceived borders: the moderate, the non-Catholic and, most importantly, the young. It is this desire/necessity to re-connect with the disconnected that the choice of venturing into the realm of social media stems from.

It was Benedict XVI who made the initial move online, with the first-ever Tweet in papal history. But his experiment lacked both the consistency and the skill demonstrated by his successor. Francis really gets the medium: he tweets regularly, his language is informal and his message simple but effective. The expression "dear young people" often precedes his recurring appeals to altruism and hope. Francis has even gone beyond Twitter. Last month the Vatican set up his first official Instagram account, which has rapidly gained more than 11,000 followers. The page contains dozens of pictures portraying the pontiff as he addresses jubilant crowds, kisses smiling children or caresses disfigured men. The comments section, flooded with blessings and praises of all kinds, shows flashes of an enthusiasm that seemed long lost even among the most fervent Catholics.

This may be a sign that the Church is ready to reverse, if not all, at least some of the trends responsible for its current deficit of appeal. But talking about a 'Vatican 2.0' still seems premature. The distinctive - and truly revolutionary - character of social media is not of a technological nature but, rather, of a philosophical one. Embedded in social media is a specific set of values including 'openness', 'dialogue' and 'transparency' (in one word: interactivity); and these do not automatically follow from simply using such tools. Interactivity implies a partial loss of control over one's message or policies, and for some this may be quite a problematic step to take.

For long the Church has rested on dogmas that are largely incompatible with the Web 2.0 philosophy. From the hierarchical model consolidated by John Paul II to the outdated theology of Benedict XVI, the Vatican has progressively become an environment particularly hostile to the circulation of ideas and widely inadequate to deal with modernity. For centuries the belief in the Holy See's infallibility has prevented the Church from being able to renovate itself, while the negation of that very principle played a key role in driving the Lutheran process of reform. Today the Vatican is still struggling with that idea: if, as it seems likely, Francis will choose to canonise Junipero Serra - the Franciscan missionary accused of having contributed to the cultural genocide of native Californians - he will have proven once more just how hard it is for the Church to break with its own past.

This represents today the real challenge for the Vatican. A thorough engagement with new technologies will require the Church to reject such dogmas in full, and that will mean changing altogether the very essence of its message. Its policies might be opened to a wider degree of public scrutiny and, perhaps, the faithful will get to have an actual say in their shaping. Meanwhile, recent events have shown us how uncomfortable a relationship the Church still has with criticisms and transparency. Pope Francis has made a promising move with his attempt to reach a broader audience by using social media. But its impact is likely to remain somewhat limited if the underlying values of the new medium will not be interiorised. That may be a tricky one, but for the time being, there hardly seems to be any alternative.

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