Welcome to the future. After decades of hype and expectation, “virtual reality” headsets are about to go from sci-fi gadgets to top of your shopping wishlist. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described virtual reality headsets last week as the future of communication and socialising. An estimated 14 million of them will be shipped this year. Virtual reality has been around for a while, of course, but it is only lately that the headset technologies that partly enable it are becoming cheaper and more widely available. Headsets from Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC and Sony will go on sale in the first half of the year and bring about huge changes in the entertainment, health, manufacturing and gaming industries.
But will the Catholic Church embrace the virtual domain with such vigour? Fr Stephen Wang, a senior university chaplain for the Archdiocese of Westminster, thinks VR will allow new ways of bringing people together for prayer, faith sharing and education. “Just as people might invite a friend to visit a church, or to come to a talk, VR will make it possible to open up the riches of Catholic life to others even if they are not physically present,” he says. “But it will take a lot of expertise and the Catholic Church is often lagging far behind others in the way it uses technology.”
Steps have been taken. Fr Ken Howell, an Australian parish priest, walked through the virtual model of a new church in Queensland recently wearing a prototype Oculus Rift headset. He described the experience as “mind-blowing”, giving him a vivid sense of “how it was going to feel” inside the new church, he told catholicleader.com.au. In another example, a smartphone app called DigitalFood gave viewers access to free VR footage of Pope Francis’s visit to Washington last September. Using the app with Google’s Cardboard headset, it was possible to get up close to the Pontiff as he canonised the 18th-century Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, while a choir sang in the background.
Greg Willis, author of The New Evangelization and You: Be Not Afraid, expects VR to offer new opportunities for evangelisation which might otherwise have been impossible. “What virtual reality could do for the Church in a powerful way is open the doors of some of the world’s greatest repositories of art, such as the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel,” he says. “Where people who are unable to travel to those places in person could still experience beauty and creativity and artistry inspired by the ultimate Creator himself, and perhaps through that encounter with art and history in a virtual way, could be brought more fully into the in-person communion and relationship to which Jesus Christ calls each of us.”
Such possibilities also raise questions. Would it be possible to transmit sacramental graces through the VR realm, such as Confession, for example? Fr Wang believes this would not be possible. “The Church has been clear that this sacrament involves a real and not just a virtual encounter,” he explains. Some members of the Church may consider the new technology with more scepticism than Fr Wang or Greg Willis, however. Depersonalisation, alienation and self-indulgence are among the dangers of new media and social networks that Benedict XVI spoke of in 2011. The Pope Emeritus said: “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”
The new technology is likely to change fundamentally how people interact, and maybe not always in a positive way. A BBC documentary screened in 2013 revealed the growing number of Japanese men involved in what they believed to be “romantic relationships” with video game characters. VR could take this trend to the next level. Imperial College London believes that romantic affairs in the future will involve virtual dates, where you can potentially hold someone’s hand and smell their scent – without ever having to meet them physically.
Such innovations are likely to bring challenges for the Church, whether to do with the psychological and social effects of the technology, or the lifestyle involved, or simply the content itself. While the Church has no official view on virtual reality yet, Fr Wang says he hopes that it will encourage some wise reflection on the use of VR. If Jesus came back today, he thinks, he would engage with VR “just as he did with the culture of Galilee and Jerusalem”. “On the other hand, Jesus had a preference for person-to-person relationships,” Fr Wang adds. “It’s striking that he didn’t write any letters but preferred to meet people, walk with them, touch them. So I don’t know whether he would dive into VR or whether he would still prefer to walk the streets and encounter people face to face.”
Amy-Jo Crowley is a financial journalist at Mergermarket