- The Irish Catholic Church and the Internet
In an article about the current state of the Catholic church in Ireland published in an Italian Jesuit magazine in 2017, the former Irish provincial Gerry O'Hanlon wrote that the challenge for the Irish church today was "to re-awaken the need for salvation and the Good News of the Gospels within a culture which experiences no such need."1 Back in 2004, another Jesuit, writing in the Review of Ignatian Spirituality, had already warned that "effective advertising and marketing" were crucial" to "develop a fresh image" of the Catholic church, one that would be more likely to "capture the imagination of [its] customers."2 The emergence and growth of the church's digital strategy in Ireland must be understood against this background, as one of many attempts to avoid becoming what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin once called "an irrelevant minority culture."3
The Vatican's discursive framing strategies concerning the religious shaping of the internet and that of the Irish church's point in different directions. The American scholar of media and religion Heidi Campbell identifies four distinct discourses regarding what she calls "the spiritualization of the Internet. "The first one depicts the Internet as "a missionary tool"; it is also "a spiritual network," a "worship space," and thus, a sound base to promote and defend a specific religious identity.4 Pope Francis has called the internet "a gift of God."5 And [End Page 20] for some, it is a place of encounter with God. All these perceptions raise a series of theoretical questions—as does the assumption that a network of nodes and wires may finally be perceived as a new continent, designed by the Creator to be conquered and evangelized.
Nevertheless, in spite of resistances and initial smiles, the internet has become more than a key communication channel for the Catholic church; it has, in the minds of many, become a potential transformational force. Numerous commentators have suggested that the impact of the digital age on religion is likely to be as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press.6 The medium is in a position to influence the language of the church, the nature of its interactions with the faithful, and its very understanding of time and space. The official discourse remains that regardless of the medium in which the church delivers its message, the fundamental message does not change. But this question, too, is up for discussion, especially as the church is unable to control the matrix of online culture. For now, it appears that the Catholic church is merely seeking to seize the opportunities provided by the new digital age and respond to its challenges, while continuing to carry out out its traditional mission and trying to restore confidence in itself as an institition.
In his seminal work on orality, literacy, and the technologizing of the world, Walter Ong, SJ suggests that the cultural history of humanity may be reduced to four stages in the history of human communications: orality, literacy, print culture, and what he calls "secondary orality," a post-literate, post-Gutenberg culture delivered through electronic devices and reaching much wider audiences than any of the previous communication channels.7 In the course of history, the church proved able to derive the best advantage from each of the first three stages, which implied undeniable adjustment capacities. Thus, even if the church sought to curb the dissemination of books it considered heretical at the time of the Reformation, it rapidly understood the huge potential of the printing press. Printing was soon welcomed as a vital auxiliary of the church and praised as a divine art. Bishops even went as far as to grant indulgences to printers and booksellers.
It is easy to draw parallels between this attitude and the contemporary enthusiasm of the Catholic church for social media and for digital communication in general. In the early days of the secondary orality age, the church made full use of opportunities brought by the radio and television. The Inter Mirifica [End Page 21] decree promulgated in 1963 by Pope Paul VI acknowledged the modern means of social communication as "marvellous technical inventions...