Everyone has heard the news: Pope Benedict XVI has a Twitter account, with the thoroughly unsurprising handle @Pontifex. And he's been using it, too, since his weekly audience on Wednesday, December 12, 2012, when he sent his first tweet (typed by someone else but composed by himself) through the papal iPad:
Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) December 12, 2012
Twenty-four hours later, that tweet had been retweeted over 58,000 times, and favorited over 20,000 times. Prominent Catholic bloggers in the United States rose in the early morning hours on December 12 to make sure that they could watch that first tweet appear in their Twitter streams, retweet it, and then write blog posts to tell their readers that they had risen early and retweeted the Pope.
There's always something historic about the spiritual leader of the world's one-billion-plus Catholics, the head of a 2,000-year old institution and the representative of Christ on earth, doing something that his predecessors have never done. But there's historic, and then there's historic. No previous pope has watched Mad Men, either, but if we found out that Pope Benedict were a secret fan of the show, I doubt that most people would regard this as an historic revelation—though the media, of course, would breathlessly report this nugget and probably more than a few Catholic bloggers would attempt to divine the hidden Catholic themes of life at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The Holy Father's foray into social media has attracted at least as much press as any of his encyclicals, and (I think it safe to say) more than his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. And yet I can confidently predict that those encyclicals and the revitalization of the Traditional Latin Mass will have far more effect in the long run than a series of 140-character tweets, no matter how profound any one of them might be.
Pope Benedict followed his first tweet with a series of coupled tweets—the first in each couplet being a question submitted in advance by a lay Catholic, and the second the Holy Father's brief response. (Unfortunately, the questions are not labeled as such; you would have to read the news coverage in order to understand what those tweets represent.) As the third couplet shows, Pope Benedict's answers are useful, though—not surprisingly, given the constraints of the medium—hardly profound:
Any suggestions on how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world?— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) December 12, 2012
Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you— Benedict XVI (@Pontifex) December 12, 2012
And that, I think, underscores my ambivalence about @Pontifex's embrace of social media. Among the popes of the past hundred years, Pope Benedict certainly ranks near the top in intellectual and spiritual acuity (as, for example, his most recent book shows), but there's simply no way for that to come across in 140 characters or less. Even if he never posts a picture of his perfectly poached egg and side of bacon, might Pope Benedict's mere participation in Twitter undermine his more important work.
Social media has its place. I've been a Twitter user since 2007 (first with my @ExecutiveEditor account, and later with @AboutCatholic), and I use other social networks (such as Facebook) as well. They've been helpful in my work on this site, and they've helped to spread the news about the work that I do here. But I'm no Pope Benedict, so there's no danger that my participation in Twitter and Facebook will "dumb down" my image. In the Holy Father's case, however, that's a very real danger.
Even beyond the divinely instituted nature of his office, Pope Benedict has a lot to offer both the Catholic faithful and the world at large. I hope that his intellectual brilliance and spiritual insights don't get lost in the ephemeral chatter of the Twitterverse.
What do you think? Am I too pessimistic? How might the Holy Father use Twitter in order to complement his other activities, rather than to distract from them? Leave your thoughts in the comments—or send them to me on Twitter!