Comment News Analysis

Can the Vatican bring order to the Catholic internet?

The synod of bishops: worried about the web (CNS)

Several stories over the past few weeks have made some hay with a few lines from the recent synod’s final document regarding the “certification” of websites as somehow authentically Catholic. Buried in paragraph 146 of the final document we read:

“The synod hopes that, in the Church, appropriate offices or bodies for digital culture and evangelisation be established at appropriate levels, which, with the indispensable contribution of young people, promote ecclesial action and reflection in this area. Among their functions ­– in addition to promoting exchange and dissemination of best practices at the personal and community level, and developing adequate tools for digital education and evangelisation – these bodies or offices could also manage systems of certification for Catholic websites, in order to counter the spread of fake news regarding the Church, or look for ways to persuade public authorities to promote increasingly stringent policies and tools for the protection of minors on the web.”

That the concrete proposal was not only buried, but placed at significant remove from the paragraphs dealing directly with the challenges of the “digital age”, certainly made it easy for readers to be suspicious. Reactions ranged from sceptical (“That’ll never work”) to jaded (“They’ll make a dog’s breakfast of it trying”) to alarmed (“So, this is what’s coming”).

The fact is, a “.catholic” generic top-level domain already exists and is registered with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and IANA’s parent organisation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which lists the Secretariat for Communication as the administrative contact and the now defunct Pontifical Council for Social Communication as the sponsoring organisation.

A 2016 article in Italy’s La Repubblica reported that the Vatican secured the domain name in 2013, with the purpose of “giving greater visibility to the Church on the internet and to guarantee a ‘seal of trustworthiness’.” La Repubblica quoted the now-defunct Vatican Radio as having specified that the domain would offer “a guarantee to the ‘internaut’, who shall thus be able to be sure to have found a Catholic site ­– a sort of ‘seal of authenticity’ [etichetta].”

So, it could be that the synod managers borrowed someone else’s bright idea. Or it could be poor inter-office communication. Whether this is a case of the synod managers telegraphing their intention to play with a toy that’s been in the box for several years, or a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing, the likelihood of a successful Orwellian takeover of Catholic space on the internet is rather remote.

In any case, suggestion of an internet seal of authenticity was not the only noteworthy element in the passages from the final document dealing with the Church in the digital age. “The proliferation of fake news,” we read under the ominous heading of “the dark side of the web”, “is the expression of a culture that has lost the sense of truth and that bends the facts to particular interests.” There’s no real arguing with that.

“People’s reputations are jeopardised,” the paragraph continues, noting the danger of online drumhead trials that have become all too commonplace. “The phenomenon,” the passage concludes, “also concerns the Church and her pastors.” Here we come to the rub.

In his message for the 2018 World Day of Social Communications, Pope Francis offered a discussion of what constitutes falsehood in a journalistic context. “An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts,” he wrote, “but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.”

Not to put too fine a point on it: what about when the person in question is powerful, and the impeccable argument is offered to counter a specious one? Isn’t that part of the role of the media?

Pope Francis said in the same message: “We can recognise the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.”

It was, perhaps, a slightly more artful and delicate way of placing a concern about which we heard a year earlier. “I believe,” said Pope Francis in a 2016 interview with the Belgian publication, Tertio, “that the media should be very clear, very transparent, and not fall prey – without offence, please – to the sickness of coprophilia, which is always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true.” On the other hand, there is the old saying: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”