New Movements and New Media

Rev Timothy Finigan

Catholic Theological Association Annual Conference, Durham, 12 September 2012



The John Paul II generation and the Benedict XVI generation

A wild and inaccurate generalisation but one that might have some use as an overall framework in considering two subjects that are individually disparate in different ways would be to say that the New Movements are part of the John Paul II generation and the Catholic use of the new media is part of the Benedict XVI generation. Immediately we must make exceptions. The Faith Movement was founded during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI and there have been new groups founded since the accession of Benedict XVI. The Vatican website went online during the reign of Blessed John Paul II.

Nevertheless, the encouragement and flourishing of the new movements happened during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II. His own ministry to the young and to new movements in particular make this more than simply a correlation. He invited the charismatic movement to meet him in Rome, he put the neo-catechumenate on the map as a group that could be recognised by the Holy See not least for its astonishing success in producing vocations against every trend in the Western Church. Pope John Paul’s own charisma and, if we may be so bold, showmanship, was attractive both to the UNIV conferences of Opus Dei and to the enthusiastic character of Youth 2000.

We might instinctively put Pope Benedict among the realms of those who would prefer a handwritten letter to an email, react instinctively against Wikipedia because anyone can write anything, or protest against the Kindle by saying “I like the feel of a real book.” Yet he has devoted three of his messages for World Communications day to the new media. To my personal relief, he actually encouraged priests to blog. He has tweeted (pipiverit), and his first tweet was to launch the new Vatican news website.[1] More seriously, after the lifting of the excommunications of the Bishops of the Society of St Pius X in January 2009, the Church was damaged by the media storm consequent on the broadcasting of an interview with Bishop Williamson who denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers. The interview had been recorded several weeks earlier but was broadcast on the Thursday before the announcement was made, the day on which the document had been delivered to the SSPX. The Holy Father accepted honestly that they should have used the internet to gain information about Bishop Williamson:

Would you have signed the decree lifting the excommunication if you had known that among the four bishops there was a person who denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers?

No. If I had known, the first step would have been to separate the Williamson case from the others. Unfortunately, though, none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with.[2]

Perhaps it would not be too much to suggest that someone other than the Pope should have taken five minutes to google the words Bishop and Williamson.

The rise of blogs as a means of communication moved into the mainstream not long before the election of Pope Benedict and it was around this time that Catholic blogs began to take off in a big way. There was a considerable history from the late nineties prior to this, but the Pontificate of Pope Benedict coincided with the growth in the use of blogs as a popular medium among Catholics. In addition, Facebook began expanding to non-US universities a few months after Pope Benedict’s election, and the following year opened up to everyone. At the same time, Twitter was launched on the world. These developments in the use of the internet have affected the lives of millions (in good and bad ways as ever). Twitter enabled an even more rapid dissemination of news and information, especially by journalists, bloggers and celebrities. Facebook found a way into the homes (or phones) and lives of millions.

Although there were some fine Catholic blogs in full swing before the election of Pope Benedict (some of which provided the inspiration and motivation for me to use this medium) it is really since his election that Catholic blogging has taken off, making it a phenomenon that has had a major impact on Catholic life largely during his pontificate. Blogging and the use of Twitter and Facebook are very different from the experience of being part of a new movement, but for the purposes of this paper, I want to consider this use of the new media as a special category of new movement in its own right. The word “special” is important: notoriously the use of new media could justly be considered to embody Terence’s quot homines tot sententiae,[3] (there are as many opinions as there are people) but I believe that we need not resign ourselves to the follow-up suo quoique mos (each to his own way) and despair at finding enough common purpose among Catholic bloggers and tweeters to describe it as a movement of sorts at least.

New movements and new problems

Before looking in more detail at this new kind of quasi new movement, I want to look a little more closely at the characteristics of the old-style new movements and one or two of the problems that they face today. As a trustee of the Faith Movement, I do not undertake this exercise as a judge from outside but bring my own experience to bear.

Let us be positive first of all. The new movements have typically attracted young people during a period in which Catholic practice has continued to decline sharply by any measurable index, whether Mass attendance, number of baptisms, number of Catholic weddings, number of entrants to the seminary or any of a host of other figures.[4] From time to time green shoots of recovery are announced, or we might comfort ourselves with good figures from elsewhere in the world, but in Europe and North America, the picture has been, and continues to be bleak. It is particularly bleak in Great Britain which is, of course most relevant to us at this Conference.

The Lancaster Voice last year created something of a media storm when it urged us to be honest and recognise that our Catholic schools have produced five million lapsed Catholics.[5] Even if some argue that this was a rather stark way of putting it, we could scarcely deny that looking around our Churches on a Sunday morning, if there are any young people between 14 and 25 the number is less than we might hope for. In this context, the gathering of 150 or 200 youngsters at various conferences in the summer by the new movements has to be worthy of comment. Most parish priests would agree that if a teenager came to confession regularly, knew what to do, and made a sensible devout confession, we would ask (whether explicitly or implicitly) where they got their formation The most likely answer would be in one of the new movements, Opus Dei, or a homeschooling family (or indeed one or other of the traditionalist environments which we must consider in due course.) We would recognise that we have largely failed as parish priests to provide that formation ourselves.

(Some might maintain that you can be a good Catholic without going frequently to confession. I don’t intend to engage in that argument but would simply claim that it tells us something if young people who are part of new movements go to confession regularly.)

Despite these positive elements, there have been some problems for new movements and one or two that seem to be common to many of them. The first might be described as the charismatic leader problem. In the Church’s history, new congregations have often had to face a crisis at the death of their founder. New movements are not immune from this, and sometimes face the problem of their founder during his or her lifetime. The most spectacular, and damaging example of this is undoubtedly the nefarious behaviour of Marcel Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. His case illustrates just how badly things can go wrong when a powerful charismatic figure has total control of a movement. For other movements, thankfully not afflicted by such a scandal, there may also be the need to ensure that one person does not have absolute control, that there is some accountability, and the possibility of questioning the founder’s insights or statements that are core to the ethos of the movement. One safeguard is to have an ecclesial sense which subjects everything to the magisterium of the Church and to the law of the Church. Another is a firm belief in the Church’s doctrine of original sin and the weakness of fallen humanity.

Process of ecclesial maturing 1

New movement also face the need for what I would call a process of ecclesial maturing. Movements often grow up with particular customs that help to give a sense of cohesion. That is no bad thing in itself. (However, if the celebration of the Liturgy is involved, the movement itself needs to take notice of the Church’s liturgical law, and developments in that law, particularly in the correction of liturgical abuses.) Sometimes, movements begin with a relatively naive summary of Catholic theology which has a particular ethos for that group, usually with a special emphasis on a devotion or project which distinguishes the group. Perhaps it is an emphasis on one of the titles of Our Lady, perhaps it is an insightful approach to one of the problems thrown up by 20th century theologians, concerning nature and grace, for example, or a new approach to implementing Catholic social teaching. As young members of the movement go on to study, to become priests or religious, to obtain doctorates in their own right, it is prudent for the movement to which they are committed to recognise the expertise that has grown up within the movement, and make it a part of the gift that the movement brings to the Church.

This is not always an easy process for those who have been engaged in the movement for a large part of their lives, but it is obviously an enrichment given, by way of ordinary providence. In the Faith Movement, we have tried to address this by holding a Theological Symposium each year for theology graduates, both priests and lay people, hearing of doctoral research, gaining some new insights into the question of science and religion from both scientists and theologians, and learning from those who are teaching at seminaries and universities. The work of Fr Holloway, the founder of the Faith Movement, can thus be subject to some critical appraisal by those who are involved in research or teaching. I hope that we succeed in getting the balance right, though, of course, we are always learning. Other groups such as the Franciscans of the Immaculate similarly hold theological conferences at which papers of a high academic standard are presented, discussed and published, helping to further their own particular concern of the revival of the Franciscan school of theology. For groups without an academic apostolate as part of their charism, the integration of the academic expertise of their members may be more challenging, but it is certainly a challenge worth rising to.

A culture shock

Generalising again, though I hope with some purpose, we could say that many of the new movements are marked by what is called neo-orthodoxy or, probably less acceptably neo-conservatism (groups with a social justice charism would often find it objectionable to be referred to as conservative.) Many would see the Liturgy as something important, to be celebrated with reverence, and older members would recall the days when they were seen as ultra-traditional for emphasising devotion to the Blessed Sacrament or Our Blessed Lady. They accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae, they followed Blessed John Paul with enthusiasm, they take part in the World Youth Days, they study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they say the rosary, and if priests or religious, they dress distinctively. They cheered to the echo at the election of Pope Benedict. Then came the blogs and Summorum Pontificum. Suddenly, it seemed, the centre of gravity shifted around them and they became in some quarters the object of criticism from a new generation of articulate commentators who were promoting positions that were long since abandoned as unnecessary. If the new Mass is celebrated reverently, there is no need for the Tridentine Mass, surely? Why should anyone criticise Blessed John Paul? or even Pope Benedict? We must therefore consider the phenomenon of the new young traditionalists and their troublesome blogs.

New media and Pope Benedict

When I became editor of Faith Magazine in 2001, I introduced a column called Faith Online which was a review of new Catholic websites. In those days it was a realistic project to cover a representative selection at least. One of the most exciting developments was the launch of the Vatican’s own website in 1995: making the Vatican an impressively early adopter although unfortunately the website itself is now hopelessly “Web 1.0”[6] and seems incapable of reform. (Perhaps there is a metaphor that some of you may appreciate for the difficulties involved in the reform of the Roman Curia.) At around the same time, the New Advent website announced the seemingly impossible project of putting the whole of the Catholic Encyclopaedia online as a free resource for all. This early experiment in crowd-sourcing was a remarkable success that is now taken for granted.

In those early days, forums and message boards were the place to be if you wanted to find out breaking news. They still remain a part of the Catholic presence on the internet and are still of great use, but usually in terms of special interest groups retaining something of the community feel of the early newsgroups. Although the Vatican did pave the way with its website, many in the Church were sceptical about the value of this new means of communication. I remember my very kindly former Archbishop asking me “What is email? Is it like a fax?” I struggled to find the right answer to that.

Just as one might explain that an email is a string of text sent from one computer to another via other linked computers, one might say that a blog is a series of strings of text (that may include hyperlinks, graphical files or embedded videos) posted in reverse chronological order. Neither of those definitions remotely captures what has actually happened. They both omit the fundamental element of communication that it is interpersonal and therefore can have an impact on belief and behaviour. Both email and blogs (and latterly Twitter and Facebook) have enriched and destroyed the lives of others. Letters, books and the electric telephone have done the same in the past. We now have more powerful means to love and to hate, to destroy and to build.

Traditionalism and fragmentation

The election of Pope Benedict coincided with a rapid growth in the use of blogs by Catholics. Many new Catholic blogs took their cue from him, my own included. In my own case it was a recognition of the powerful idea of reading Vatican II according to a hermeneutic of continuity and reform within the one subject Church; others (many) focussed particularly on the Liturgy; others again on the family, pro-life issues and the political campaign against the redefinition of marriage. One of the pressing issues for many bloggers was how to deal with comments, whether to allow everything (most people realise at some point that this is not possible), whether to register commenters, whether to refuse anonymous comments, and how to respond to insulting comments.

It became apparent that probably the majority of Catholic blogs were enthusiastic in supporting the teaching of the magisterium; disturbingly for those settled in an earlier post-Vatican II consensus, Catholic blogs were ready to criticise liberal Bishops, to embed YouTube videos of liturgical abuses, to demand a more decisive and confrontational approach to political leaders who proposed restrictions on the Church’s apostolate, and, with effective visual appeal, to promote the celebration of Mass according to the usus antiquior.[7]

The Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum was a major blogging event. During the year before its promulgation there was fevered speculation about its form and content, and inevitable ancillary argument over whether we should be speculating at all. A light-hearted two minute video which I threw together late at night and posted on the morning of the document’s publication actually reached the top ten videos on YouTube in the UK that week. All over the world there are blogs devoted to giving information about forthcoming extraordinary form Masses, posting photos and videos of them, and usually complaining that there is not a greater provision. It would be an understatement to say that there is a mismatch between the enthusiasm shown on the blogosphere for the older form of the Mass, and the attitude shown by most Bishops and those in senior positions in our dioceses. The interesting question raised by this is whether the blogosphere is simply, as many would say, an unrepresentative selection of extremists, or whether there is a voice among those who are relatively young, that has broken away from the assumptions that we have made in the past about what the young want, or what is relevant to them. We have already noted that the majority of our young people do not go to Mass. What if a significant proportion of those who do, are attracted to more traditional liturgy? Is that simply a function of the families, groups that managed to motivate young people to attend Mass, or have we actually got something wrong in the way that we try to appeal to the young?

At the same time, there is a process of fragmentation consequent upon the open nature of social media. Many organisations have found that conducting discussions by email can lead to intemperate statements that people would not make face-to-face, entrenched positions that could be resolved by reasonable live discussion, and unnecessary divisions within an organisation. The social media have great power but will never replace that interaction in which we can unconsciously respond to body language, tone of voice, and facial expression; we still need to meet each other in the flesh. In fact, the criticism of social media that it hinders live personal communication and the making of true friends needs to be set against the opportunities for meeting people in real life that are made possible. Personally I have met people from around the world with whom I would never have come into contact without the blog. I have had most enjoyable and enlightening trips to Helsinki, Estonia and Poland as a direct result of communicating by social media. It is not a one-way street.

Nevertheless, the fragmentation of groups and people within the Church is a real danger. Arguments rage over whether the rubrics of 1962 should be strictly observed or whether the rot really set in under Pope Pius XII (or St Pius X or Leo XIII). The launch of Catholic Voices was accompanied by bitter discussion over its direction and some of the positions taken on the Pope’s comments on condoms. How precisely to respond to the news of a celebrity priest whose moral failings have been exposed leads to furious polemic over who is really writing in the best interests of the Church. When Twitter was invented, I used to explain that it was like blogger on cocaine. This description can be frighteningly accurate when a flame war erupts and becomes a firestorm overnight. As Catholics we should be conscious of the moral dimension of the use of social communication. There needs to be a process of ecclesial maturing here too.

Process of ecclesial maturing 2

This year, as part of the Year of Faith, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In a decree that is not the most widely referenced of the documents of the council, the Fathers said:

All the children of the Church should join, without delay and with the greatest effort in a common work to make effective use of the media of social communication in various apostolic endeavours, as circumstances and conditions demand. They should anticipate harmful developments, especially in regions where more urgent efforts to advance morality and religion are needed.[8]

Although computers were in their infancy (the first disk storage drive was produced in 1962) and the internet was some years off, the principle that the Council set out is as relevant today as it was then. The difference is that at the time of the Council it was appropriate to speak in ponderous terms of offering technical training to laymen and the increase of school facilities and institutes for people to offer this “sound training.”[9] Now any teenager with a smartphone can set up a blog or a twitter account in five minutes and broadcast his words of wisdom to the world.

To the surprise of nearly everyone, the meeting of bloggers that was hosted by the Vatican last year was a resounding success. Hilary White, a long time member of the blog ring called the “League of Evil Traditionalists” and others were sceptical enough to arrange an alternative meeting in a Rome pub the same day, to be addressed by Michael Voris of Real Catholic TV. I confess to giving them some encouragement. In the event, the Vatican meeting dispelled the fears of bloggers who suspected that there would be an attempt to impose an official status for Catholic bloggers on the part of Vatican officials who didn’t understand how new media worked. Fr Lucio Ruiz, the head of the internet service of 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.[10]

The Pontifical Council for Social Communications arranged for a layman to organise the meeting and set the agenda and tone, and Vatican Radio actually reported on the alternative pub meeting.[11] Hilary White was among the 150 bloggers who attended the official meeting and said:

What I think is that they (the Vatican) are trying to do today is to send out a message to the National Bishops Conferences to say ‘let them go, bloggers are here to stay and that they’re going to keep saying things that people don’t want them to say and they’re going to keep looking under rocks that nobody wants them to look under.’[12]

The conversion of Catholic bloggers to approving the Vatican meeting is an example of one important aspect of blogging that is positive. Generally speaking, bloggers are willing to correct errors swiftly when they are pointed out, and to be more flexible than the mainstream media in admitting errors of judgement. Plenty of counter-examples could be cited but as a general rule, the social media illustrate what Fr Zuhlsdorf has called a “Reverse Gresham’s Law.” Gresham’s law states that bad currency drives out good. On the internet it is often true that good information drives out bad. A blogger may doggedly insist on a falsehood, but there are a thousand other bloggers who will mercilessly point out the error so that anyone searching on google will have the truth available to them.

Pope Benedict’s encouragement

The rise of the Catholic blogosphere was not something engineered by Pope Benedict, though his election proved to be a focal point for many new bloggers at a time of growth. What he has done is to encourage this phenomenon and to give some fatherly guidance. Three successive annual messages for World Communications Day were devoted to the digital media. In 2009, the Holy Father spoke of how new technologies had brought about a shift in patterns of communication and human relationships. He addressed the “digital generation” encouraging the promotion of human understanding and solidarity. Remarkably he addressed the concept of Christian friendship in the context of a digital concept of “friend”, a clear reference to Facebook. Towards the end of his message, he appealed to young Catholics:

It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this "digital continent". Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm. You know their fears and their hopes, their aspirations and their disappointments: the greatest gift you can give to them is to share with them the “Good News” of a God who became man, who suffered, died and rose again to save all people.[13]

The following year, the Holy Father addressed priests particularly. He spoke of the way in which digital communications offer priests new possibilities for proclaiming the word of God.

The spread of multimedia communications and its rich “menu of options” might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled. Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different “voices” provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.[14]

Since April 2006, my blog has had six and a half million page views from nearly 4 million visitors. Other priests I know have up to ten times the number of readers that I have. Even a relatively low traffic blog by a priest who simply posts his sermons each week would get in excess of 200 unique visitors per day. There is no way that we would reach that number of people by preaching in Church or even by standing on a soap box in the local shopping mall. A priest who blogs is made acutely aware of his responsibilities by the (unmanageable) correspondence that he receives from the faithful who are grateful, confused by things that have happened in their local Church, in need of prayer, or puzzled by some aspects of Catholic doctrine. Whatever criticisms we might have of individual priests’ blogs this platform is certainly a means that can be used for evangelisation.

In 2011 Pope Benedict addressed the question of the internet a third time. He spoke of a vast cultural transformation parallel to the industrial revolution. I would suggest that it is also parallel to the invention of moveable type, something especially relevant to evangelisation. In this message he addressed the dangers of “cyberspace” particularly in regard to personal authenticity. He also reaffirmed that direct personal contact can never be replaced by virtual friendships and that such contact was fundamental for the transmission of the faith. He called us back to Christ:

In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolise the opinions of others.[15]

In these messages, Pope Benedict used his authority, which is hugely respected by many Catholic bloggers, to offer a deeper vision of social communication and to invite us to an examination of conscience which is necessary from time to time when communication is made so easy, effective and powerful.

Adapt and survive

My parish Director of Music goes from time to time to St Cecilia’s Abbey in Ryde for a class in Gregorian chant with one of the Sisters. Recently she and another parish music director showed Sister their iPads with the Liber Pro app which can call up the appropriate page of the Liber Usualis for any given Mass. Sister asked how long the iPad would last. They explained about 18 month and two year contracts and how they would probably upgrade. Sister said that generally in the monastery they expected their books to last for fifty years. At Parkminster (where I recently taught theology) the Novice Master told me that a book expert had been fascinated by their Graduale and Antiphonarium which had been printed and bound on site in 1884. He asked how they had been maintained in such fine condition. The answer was that they had been used every day.

These incidents illustrate the cultural transformation of which Pope Benedict spoke. The printed book transformed the way in which liturgical texts and music, works of theology, and of course Bibles were made available to the masses. Now, on the internet, it is possible to download free of charge all of the texts used in the traditional liturgies. One of the heated discussions on the internet over the new ICEL translation was not to do with the structure of sentences or the words “wrought” and “gibbet” but over copyright. It was pointed out that a number of composers were willing to make texts available free of charge online but were prevented from doing so by ICEL’s enforcement of copyright. Catholic book publishers have so far failed to get to grips with the phenomenon of electronic book readers (and do a disservice to their authors by this failure) while some Bishops in the US are publishing “kindle only” books.

The low cost of digital storage and the ever increasing speed at which we can download from the internet are all making for new possibilities in the communication of information. The invention of the tablet and the fierce competition currently underway to make such devices better is changing the nature of the physical piece of equipment that we use as a computer. We need not expect that Facebook, Twitter and blogs will be around for too long before they become grandad’s way of using the internet. These current developments, and the knowledge that we don’t know what will be coming next, show us that we need to adapt and survive in the digital world.

This is true of the new movements and of the quasi new movement of the bloggers and tweeters. It is also true of the Church in her efforts at evangelisation and in her engagement with the young who have that “spontaneous affinity” with new technology of which Pope Benedict spoke. In all of these areas, the famous quotation from Lampedusa’s “Il Gattopardo” (for which I give, in blog-speak a “hat tip” to Fr John Zuhlsdorf) applies: “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi” (If we want everything to remain as it is, it is necessary for everything to change.)

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[1] This took place on 28 June 2011. The text of the tweet was: “Dear Friends, I just launched Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI”

[2] Benedict XVI. Light of  the World. Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. A Conversation with Peter Seewald. (Translated by Michael J. Miller and Adrian J. Walker.) Catholic Truth Society. London. 2010.

[3] Terence. Phormio line 254

[4] See for example the figures published by Georgetown University affiliated research centre, CARA for the United States (

[5] Catholic Voice of Lancaster. Editorial. February 2012

[6] The term “Web.2.0” was introduced as a way of describing the development of interaction on websites and, more loosely, websites that have dynamically updated content. “Web 1.0” is therefore a term indicating websites that have only pages with static content.

[7] There is a lively debate on the blogs over how the older form of the Mass should be referred to. Most now reject the term “Tridentine Mass”, some insist on the term “Extraordinary Form”, others are less worried and will use various terms interchangeably. I am of the latter school.

[8] Second Vatican Council. Decree on the Media of Social Communications. Inter Mirifica. 1963. n.13

[9] Inter Mirifica n.15

[10] Reported by Vino Nuovo (


[12] Transcribed from Vatican Radio interview

[13] Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI for the 43rd World Communications Day “New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship.” Sunday, 24 May 2009.

[14] Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI for the 44th World Communications Day “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word.” Sunday, 16 May 2010.

[15] Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI for the 45th World Communications Day “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” June 5, 2011.