ROME, May 4, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In the last decade, the mainstream media and the world’s political class have acknowledged the power of the “blogosphere” in the daily life of the political debate. This week, the Vatican admitted that while they may have been behind the curve on the blogs, they want to catch up.

As an independent blogger for seven years, I got one of the “golden tickets” inviting me to join 149 other bloggers to attend the first-ever meeting called by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications and for Culture, to address the blogging and “new media” phenomenon. They wanted this meeting, they said, to “open a dialogue” between the Church and the bloggers, who are often critical of Vatican actions.

It was perhaps a signal of how much catching up the Vatican has already done that the meeting was fully equipped not only with simultaneous translation for the five languages spoken, but with functioning wifi and electrical sockets for the laptops, iPads and Smartphones. The bloggers spent the meeting tweeting, posting and texting their readers, as well as sending comments and suggestions to each other within the room.

The atmosphere was friendly and cheery, with smiling bloggers, some of them obviously thrilled merely to have been invited, talking and mixing easily with Vatican officials, priests, housewives, journalists, and even one English Benedictine nun in full habit.

When the idea for a bloggers’ summit was announced in early April, the reaction of the Catholic blogosphere was cautious. Most welcomed it, but there was also much speculation on the motives and organizational abilities of the people who had committed so many public media blunders in recent years. The adversarial atmosphere between the official Church and the outside world has created a climate of suspicion and many bloggers were aware of the complaints within bishops’ conferences that the blogs need to be reigned in, controlled or regulated.

From their side of the table, Church officials are deeply wary of an interactive, lightening-speed media that seems to have no boundaries, rules or limitations. A major theme, put forward by Fr. Frederico Lombardi of the Vatican Press Office and American institutional blogger Elizabeth Scalia, continues to be the supposed “lack of charity” shown by bloggers who reveal the failings of Churchmen. 

It was clear, however, that these officials were aware of the problems and genuinely wanted to begin a new, less mutually suspicious relationship. And the bloggers responded eagerly to the extended hand.

Everyone understood that this meeting was only a preliminary step; this new relationship would not be forged in one five-hour meeting. But already two concrete suggestions have come out and they illustrate the sincerity on both sides.

Thomas Peters, the author of the blog “American Papist” and CatholicVote, asked why, since the bloggers who were present are invariably more friendly to the Church’s concerns, they cannot be given access to embargoed information from the Vatican Press Office. This information routinely goes out first to a secular media that is openly hostile to the Church. Peters pointed out that it has been the role of the bloggers, who overwhelmingly see themselves as champions of Catholic orthodoxy, to correct the misrepresentation of the Church’s teaching by sources like the New York Times. If bloggers had first crack at the news, he said, the Vatican would have a less hostile audience being first out of the news cycle gate.

James Bradley, a deacon and blogger who has recently been received into the Church through the Anglican Ordinariate and who runs the Ordinariate Portal, tweeted “Can’t bloggers just apply for [Press Office] accreditation?” Currently the rules for permanent press accreditation with the Sala Stampa require proof of Italian residency, a letter of recommendation from a recognized news service and ten published articles. These rules make it nearly impossible for an independent blogger, living outside Italy, to receive the Vatican’s press materials before they go out to mainstream media sources.

For their part, the Vatican officials suggested the creation of a voluntary organization of Catholic bloggers that could be called upon to respond to the accusations and misrepresentations made against the Church by the secular world. This body, they insisted, would exist not to regulate or control the members, but to form a cohesive response team defending the Church from outside attacks. 

Fr. Lucio Ruiz, who runs the internet service for the Holy See, said, “The Holy See has for some time excluded the idea that one might in some way put a ‘Catholic stamp of approval’ to sites and blogs that present themselves as Catholic ... We are not a sect.”

The officials recognized the role of the Catholic bloggers who have worked to defend the Church. Fr. Lombardi complimented the bloggers for their help, alluding to their role in clarifying Church teaching during the controversy over remarks made by Pope Benedict on condoms in the book, Light of the World. Lombardi thanked bloggers for offering quick clarification in the case.

For the bloggers present who focus on the Church, these interventions illustrated perhaps the most important message of the evening: that the institutional Church and the Catholic blogosphere are not, in fact, in an adversarial relationship. The Vatican said, in essence, let us figure out a way to work together because we are all on the same side.

The meeting’s organizer, Richard Rouse of the Pontifical Council for Culture, addressed the bloggers’ reservations in his opening remarks. The meeting, he said, was “not a simple publicity stunt.”

It was “not setting stage for drawing up an official moral code, although we will have some witness of efforts to disagree without being disagreeable…”

Rouse said he was glad that the meeting has already encouraged “ecclesial authorities around the world to engage with the blogging community (with all its issues of fear, familiarity, wisdom, courage, prudence, coping with being misinterpreted).”

Later, both Rouse and Fr. Ruiz made a point of speaking to me separately, both taking pains to assure me that at the Vatican level at least, there is no intention or desire to regulate or control bloggers’ content.

Overall, the Vatican blogger summit highlighted the fundamental difference between the secular world and the Church. In the secular world, there is a vast gulf between the rulers and the ruled, and it is only too easy, with the Church’s current manifold difficulties, to presume that the same gulf exists between the general laity and the mysterious “Vatican insiders” who give quotes in the press.

The presumption of an adversarial relationship is perhaps natural. The whole Catholic world is reeling from sex abuse scandals of the last few years, and for nearly 50 years, the crisis in the Church has continued with what many believe has been very little concrete action from Rome. For many of us who work to bring about reform in the Church, the mistrust of hierarchy and of the official Church has become almost habitual.

But in the last 24 hours, reports have appeared from some of those attending and one of the more common themes from bloggers has been a rather sheepish apology for their previous skepticism. The meeting has been universally acclaimed as a success, with barriers and suspicion dropping away and hopes raised of more to come.

After reading the many blogger reports and following the various live Twitter feeds coming from Rome, Fr. Tim Finnigan, the widely read first priestly blogger in the UK, commented on his blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity, “I was rather cynical about the meeting when I heard about it, so I am also very glad that it all seems to have gone so well.”

“This week has been quite a landmark for Catholic blogging, I think. Very positive all round.”


Read other bloggers on the meeting:

Fr. Tim Finnigan, at the Hermeneutic of Continuity

Anna Arco, at the Catholic Herald

Our Sunday Visitor

Elizabeth Scalia, the Anchoress and First Things magazine