Talking Much, Listening Little

The «Original Sin» of Catholic Communicators Revealed

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 11 ( Here is a summary of the address given by Jesús Colina, editorial director of ZENIT and consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, at last week’s World Press Congress, organized by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

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The Internet has changed radically over the past six years and perhaps we in the Catholic press have not been aware of it. The interactivity, or rather the production of content made directly by users, has generated the most successful services in the last years: Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, Google News.

Open Source is also a forum of interactivity and community production. And yet, if we turn to the Web pages of the Catholic Church, in general we can see how the vast majority continue as they were in 2004: Flat! They are without interactivity or only marginal interactivity. All seems to indicate that we, the Church’s communicators, have missed the bus of Web 2.0.

1. Web 2.0 and Relativism

What happened? There is first of all an explanation that helps us understand the reason why interactivity has not penetrated the Church’s communication. The model of production of content, whether videos, photos or articles, is based on an implicit concept: relativism. Given that there is no truth today, then whatever one says is indifferent; everything is valid, everything is at the same level.

The implementation of this interactive, but relativist model, is carried out according to the editorial objectives of each editorial reality. The majority of the Web 2.0 companies have an objective: a business plan to make a return on their investment. It is a new business model on the Internet: on one side there are the users, and their frequently voluntary work, who offer content that often contradicts what others contribute, and on the other side there are the editors, who have found a money-making machine.

It is easy to understand that such a communication model has little to do with the Catholic Church, and it also explains, in part, its rejection.

2. Original Sin

However, this is not the only reason that explains the lack of interactivity in so many Catholic news services. Several studies have been made, both in the United States as well as France, on the reasons why the Web pages of Protestant denominations make a greater impact. Those I have read come to the same conclusion: Catholics «talk»; Protestants «listen.»

The original sin of many Catholic communicators is usually very widespread: the bishop, the parish priest, the Catholic journalist have an «idea,» find financing (from the Church hierarchy or from the laity) and launch a publication, television channel, Web page. Is this communication? Are we Catholics aware of what people are really looking for on the Internet?

Before, during and after the launching of a project on the Internet not only is it necessary to «listen» to the audience, but the audience must be made to participate. In fact, when one thinks of interactivity on Catholic Web pages what almost always comes to mind is a space in which people can send questions to a priest, which is fine. However, we must ask ourselves, do Catholics and surfers themselves only know how to ask questions of a priest? Is that their vocation as Christians in the digital era?

3. A Church-communion

If we have seen that the Web 2.0 model has a, so to speak, «relativist» margin of risk, how then should Catholic communicators adopt the model of interactivity? What’s at stake simply is the very presence of the Church on the Internet. If we do not overcome the «original sin» of talking much and listening little, evangelization itself will be gravely conditioned.

I think that the model of interactivity that the Web pages can follow must be marked by the model of Church-communion, to which Benedict XVI is dedicating his pontificate. A diocese where the bishop alone has a presence on the Internet, is not a full Church-communion, as the rest of her ministries and charism will be absent.

In the daily life of a diocese there are also catechists, parish priests, youth groups, and deacons. Where are they on the Internet? It would be to fall into relativism or into a «flat» Church, without ministries or charisms, to put everyone on the same level, and make everyone do the same and with the same language. That’s not the Church.

The Internet should be a reflection of the life of the diocese, and not simply an instrument of institutional communication of the diocese’ office of communication and public relations. Genuine interactivity takes place when the real life is faithfully reflected in the virtual reality.

It is curious, but the Web 2.0 industry has «robbed» from Christian language the model of communication it pursues: the community. And community is communion. The Church has created communities for 2,000 years. Now, the great marketing success on the Web 2.0 depends on the capacity to create «communities,» which later are reduced to groups of common interest to which it is possible to sell products of specialized announcers, who today are the ones who pay the most.

If, in communicating on the Internet the Church does so as Church-communion, if her «community» life is reflected on the Web, then she will also be able to build «community» on the Internet. For the surfer visiting her services, it will become something almost evident to enter into contact with the diocese’s closest reality, which can be his own parish, Caritas’ service, or the diocesan choir.

When a Church communicates on the Internet as communion, in community, the reality moves from being virtual to something real, as it puts the surfer in contact with the real life of the diocese, parish or community. And it is then that the greatest interactivity is achieved, when from the virtual reality one moves to «encounter,» which is, when all is said and done, what changes a person’s life.

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