Benedict XVI, the first pope with his own YouTube channel and presence on Facebook, is urging Roman Catholic clergy to use social media to communicate with parishioners and reach those outside the church.
"Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis," the Pope declared in January in preparation for World Communications Day in May.
But the Catholic Church, including the Orlando Diocese, has policies that take the "social" out of social media. Parishes that use social media, such as Facebook, are instructed to disable the comment functions of those sites.
The Orlando Diocese's rules for the use of social media, enacted in August after six months of study and debate, expressly prohibit blogs because they imply two-way communication that encourages responses from the public, said Carole Brinati, Diocese spokeswomen.
"Blogging is ‘I can comment on that,' and that is what we don't allow," she said. "Some people feel that is shortsighted, but that is our policy."
The purpose of the pope's push for social media is to get the church's message out to the people in as many ways as possible. It's not intended to spark debate; invite opinions and opposing points of view; or open a dialogue between church leaders and parishioners, Brinati said.
Churches have been riding the social-media wave for some time now. Many denominations reach out — either through their own Web sites or sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
By their nature, social media are wide open and egalitarian: Anyone with a keyboard and an opinion is entitled to join the conversation. That makes the incorporation of social media difficult for hierarchical religious organizations or denominations, said the Rev. Anthony Pogorelc, a research fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies in Washington.
"In some sense there is a tension between social media and traditional, hierarchical organizations like the Catholic Church," Pogorelc said. "With social media, everyone has a voice and can say what they want. In the system of the Catholic Church, more weight is given to the key spokespersons — the bishops or leaders of the church — and what they say."
Some of the Catholic concerns about the rudeness, anger and inappropriate commenting that take place on some blog sites is not typical of Facebook, which is built around like-minded "friends," experts contend.
"Facebook is a conversation that is already riding on the rails of relationships. The tracks are set. These are people who are friends with whom you share something together," said Bill Reichart, a social-media consultant in Atlanta who works with faith-based organizations.
To short-circuit the interactive part of social media dilutes the full impact of what the technology can bring to a church and its congregation, he said. The discussion is already going on within members of the church. Social media just give that expression a different forum.
"What a lot of churches fail to realize is social media is already happening in their churches. People are already having conversations; people are collaborating," Reichart said. "The church may not like what they hear, but it's better to know and have open and honest discussion of what is going on."
Mary Ann Brussat, director of the SpiritualityandPractice.com Web site, said Facebook and other social-media sites can help a church educate and inform its members.
"The medium is really totally open and nothing to be afraid of," Brussat said. "People are using it to share what is meaningful to them, and that's a function of religion and spirituality."
The Rev. Stephen Parkes, pastor of Most Precious Blood Church, said his parish since its inception five years ago has used a Web site as an effective means of communicating with parishioners while their church in Oviedo is being built. But he doubts that social media can ever convey spiritual matters as effectively as face-to-face communication.
"We can't replace personal interaction with technology," Parkes said.
Even at half-strength, social media can be a powerful tool for churches and their congregations. Parishes within the Orlando Catholic Diocese use their Web sites and Facebook pages to post videos of Sunday sermons; send out last-minute notices and reminders of meetings and events; and provide ways parishioners can volunteer and donate to the church.
"It's not just for the sake of communication, but lets us use the technology to speak the Gospel to people," Brinati said.
And that's not a bad approach to take, Reichart said. Even if the Catholic Church is being cautious in its embrace of social media, at least it is giving careful consideration to the long-term pluses and minuses of the technology.
"A lot of churches think, ‘I've got to do this,' " he said. "But if you don't see the lasting value, you are going to give up. You're not going to persevere. Other things are going to catch your eye."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392.