walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: July 31, 2013
Pope Francis I Asserts Jurisdiction Over Virtual Reality


Pope Francis has been widely praised for his simple ways and modest demeanor. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he traveled by public transport. He is now living in a Vatican guest house instead of the lavish Papal Apartments. He also wears ordinary leather shoes, not the traditional velvet slippers. (As far as I know, these were introduced by Pius IX after the troops of the new Italian state occupied Rome and abolished the sovereign Papal States: the papal slippers served to signify that the Pope was, as he put it, “a prisoner in the Vatican” – a role not appealing to Francis.)

The role that does seem to appeal to Francis is washing the feet of all sorts of people, including juvenile delinquents. (Are they required to, as it were, pre-wash the feet before the pontifical pedicure?) If Catholics believed in reincarnation (according to survey data, many do), Benedict XVI must be a reincarnation of Immanuel Kant (perhaps posthumously converted to Catholicism). Francis must clearly be a reincarnation of Francis of Assisi, ‘Il Poverello’ (the Little Poor One). Please do not consider the observations in this paragraph to be derogatory. On the contrary, I find the new Poverello quite simpatico.

However, the new papal modesty does not signal a particularly modest understanding of the powers of the Pope as Vicar of Christ. Golda Meir is supposed to have said to one of her ministers, “Don’t be so humble, you are not that important.” Francis might respond, “I can be so humble, because I am that important!” As the following story indicates:

On July 20, 2013, The Washington Post online reported that, on the eve of traveling to Rio de Janeiro to attend the World Youth Day, Francis issued a decree granting indulgences to all Catholics attending this event, but also to others who will follow it on Twitter (@Pontifex), Facebook, or Youtube, on condition that the latter “earnestly participate over the Internet”. For a long time indulgences were understood as granting time off a sentence to a period in purgatory. Paolo Padrini, a Catholic expert on digital matters (known as the “iPriest”), emphasized that there is no implication of some sort of magic sent via the Internet. Catholic doctrine has always insisted that an individual benefiting from an indulgence must actively participate in the sacraments and be genuinely penitent. Thus Francis did not intend a doctrinal innovation, but only opened up “a sort of technological sacred space”, within which the putative beneficiary can practice the same piety that he would have to practice if receiving the indulgence in real space. Caitlin Dewey, the Washington Post author of the story, recalled the description of purgatory by St. Augustine, as “a pain more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life”. Given that, Dewey observes that an indulgence is “a pretty good deal”.

One may think of purgatory as a kind of Catholic Guantanamo, holding inmates not good enough (at least not yet) to be admitted to heaven, nor bad enough to be sent to hell. And, whatever lower echelons may staff the place, the Pope is in charge of the keys. However implausible this setup may seem to non-Catholics, it is useful to note that the underlying impulse here is humane—indeed humane in a rather American mode—giving people a second chance to obtain full celestial citizenship.

Any graduate of a Protestant Sunday school will recall that an extreme misuse of indulgences (one that the Catholic Church today would certainly not permit) played a part in the origins of the Reformation, when a Dominican by the name of Johann Tetzel crisscrossed Germany and sold indulgences, using the catchy sales pitch—“as soon as the coin hits the offering plate, the soul jumps out of purgatory” (the ditty rhymes in German). Luther, an Augustinian monk on the faculty of the new Wittenberg University, was outraged and  denounced the practice, eventually questioning the authority of the Pope to issue such pardons to begin with. (The American writer Paul Goodman once described the Reformation as a conspiracy of junior faculty at a provincial university.) Of course Francis I did not sell indulgences, though everything surrounding his trip might be construed as a big effort to sell Catholicism, which used to dominate the religious scene in Brazil but now has undergone a sharp decline in numbers, mainly due to the rising influence of Evangelical Protestantism, most of it Pentecostal or charismatic.

The Pope’s “power of the keys” is intrinsic to the Catholic understanding of his office. It is based on words supposedly spoken by Jesus to the Apostle Peter (Matthew 16:18): “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” There is a play on words here—both the name “Peter” in Greek and the Aramaic equivalent “Kephas” denote a rock (respectively in the Greek text of the New Testament, and in the Aramaic which Jesus and his disciples must have spoken). The passage goes on, with Jesus saying to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosened in heaven” (and, presumably in the antechamber of heaven later envisaged as purgatory). I will try not to annoy Catholic readers of my blog by commenting on the thunderous improbability that Jesus ever spoke these words, intended to establish a “church”, and put the later bishop of Rome in charge. Be this as it may, this is not the point I want to make here.

Rather, I want to note that the Pope is here giving a rather curious status, a distinctively postmodernist one, to the virtual reality transmitted by the Internet. This is quite an enlargement of the notion of aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”—that is, bringing up the Church to the contemporary world, which John XXIII intended to be on the agenda of the Second Vatican Council).  This surely brings the Church into line with what has been happening in the world since computers have attained an incredibly dominant place in society and culture, and in the lives of individuals.

More and more people live in the virtual reality of the Internet as much as, in some cases more than in the empirical reality of ordinary life. Both children and adults immerse themselves in video games, and emotionally identify with the characters they play in such a game. The experiences in virtual space are, for many individuals, as or even more real than experiences in ordinary physical and social space. The virtual identities can interact in this imaginary space, commit acts of violence on each other, even have sex. This blurring of the difference between the two realities is already implied by an invitation repeated again and again by organizations or companies—“visit us, at our website such-and such—often there is no physical address or even phone number that one could ‘visit’ in a more old-fashioned mode. I have often found this irritating when the invitation is issued, say, by a university or conference center. One would rather like to know just where this wonderful place is located.

It is not surprising that religion is catching up with this new way of what phenomenologists call “being in the world”. Some of this happened with television, quite some time before the Internet. Protestant televangelists were pioneers in adapting religion to this new form of communication. Billy Graham and others like him kept insisting that watching  a revival on television was not a full substitute for experiencing it in person. But there are many people, who either could not get themselves physically to a church, or hadn’t found one that they liked enough to want to go there in the first place. For many of them the service they watched, perhaps watch habitually, is the only church they have—an earlier version of the virtual communities now mediated by the Internet. Can one be”born again” by watching television or by “visiting” a revival service on one’s computer (as they say, “in the comfort of your home”)? How about baptism by immersion? A couple of years ago I saw a television program showing a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism. Pious Jews place pieces of paper with prayers written on them into cracks in the Wall. The picture of the Wall could be seen on the Internet, and viewers were invited to simulate placing their prayers in the virtual cracks. The telephone also came to provide religious services. Both Catholics and Protestants in Germany have pioneered in pastoral care via the telephone (Telefonseelsorge). One can have telephone religion, as well as telephone sex. I don’t know whether one can go to confession by telephone. And how about sacraments in general—attendance at Mass? The possibilities are mind-boggling.

I doubt if Pope Francis intended this, but with the decree on indulgences by “visiting” the events in Rio, he has implicitly agreed with Nathan Jurgenson, a media theorist who has repudiated what he calls “digital dualism”, instead proposing that “the virtual world is not some kind of ontologically distinct realm”. The two worlds interact and indeed mesh into an overarching reality. Is that really so? I doubt it. Rather, I think that this view of reality comes uncomfortably close to the clinical description of schizophrenia: being unable to distinguish between objective reality and one’s own fantasies. Benedict has been eloquent in arguing that the Roman Catholic Church, contrary to prevailing prejudices, should defend reason against its detractors (such as so-called postmodernists). There is indeed an ontological difference between reality and virtual reality. That is fine with me. If I had to choose, I would rather take Thomas Aquinas and his more recent disciples over Jacques Derrida or Jean-François Lyotard. Yes, reality is filtered through many “narratives”. But reason can be used to decide which “narratives” are more valid than  others.  In the same vein, I would respectfully suggest that there should be some limits to the scope of aggiornamento.

Does anyone want to visit me in “Dungeons and Dragons”? Or maybe not.

show comments
  • wigwag

    For those who may be interested, Harvard Professor of Literature, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an absolutely magisterial book about the history of Western thought about purgatory entitled, “Hamlet in Purgatory.”

    Those who know the story will remember that Hamlet’s dead father, who is residing in purgatory, returns at the beginning of Act 1 to implore Hamlet to avenge his death at the hands of his brother.)

    To contemporary readers, this sounds like little more than a good yarn but it was quite a bit more than that when Shakespeare wrote his play. It is important to remember that Shakespeare lived and worked at a time when the results of the English Reformation were anything but clear. A Protestant, Elizabeth, I, had ascended the throne, replacing her Roman Catholic half sister and English Catholics and Protestants were fighting a low level (and sometimes not so low level) civil war. One of the major ecclesiastical disputes was over the existence of purgatory and the selling of indulgences. English Protestants never tired of pointing out that purgatory was mentioned no where in the Christian Bible.

    Contemporary Protestants and Catholics view this difference of opinion as something that they can politely disagree about. During Elizabethan times, the dispute about the existence of purgatory was one that many people were willing to shed blood over.

    What makes this interesting is that very much like the internet and social media today (a forum that the new Pope seems very anxious to embrace), theater was very much of a new media in Elizabethan times. Providing access to theater to the masses was a very new phenomenon. Greenblatt argues that by focusing on the ghost of Hamlet’s father and his rather unpleasant experiences in purgatory, Shakespeare was indirectly confronting the Protestant rejection of purgatory. For those who wonder why Shakespeare would take this chance, Greenblatt points out that there is considerable evidence that Shakespeare was a “secret” Catholic and that almost all of his family members were “secret” Catholics as well.

    Greenblatt’s book also discusses Jewish and Islamic conceptions of Purgatory. Arguably both the Tanakh and the Koran allude to Purgatory although it is clearly not as important a concept as it is in Catholicism.

    Personally I think that “Hamlet in Purgatory” is a brilliant book. It is available for the Kindle.

    More information can be found here,

  • Dagnabbit_42


    Common mistake re: Purgatory: “Days off” never referred to days in Purgatory. The passage of time in the afterlife, even during the purging of dross by the refiner’s fire, is something about which the Catholic church has never pronounced. There may be no time. There may be time, of a different kind than our own.

    The “days off” referred to the ancient practice of imposing long penances on sinners in this world to allow them to express contrition for sins; e.g., “wear sackcloth and not receive at the altar for 300 days.”

    An indulgence for someone in Purgatory, as taught by the Catholic church, has always been intended to set aside a required amount of purgation equivalent to so-and-so-many days of earthly penance. THOSE are the “days.” As to whether there are any “days” after death, nobody knows.

  • asa2222

    I know I don’t have a degree in sociology, but what seems to me thunderously implausible is that anyone would want to read this vapid drivel.

  • FrankArden

    I hope the postmodern deconstructors
    and liberal progressives at the head of the Episcopal Church if the USA doesn’t
    get any wild ideas, but knowing that crowd, five or ten years from now we might
    see an internet or television ad something like this:

    “Tired after all those Saturday night
    cocktail parties? Is your back broken after golf or yard work on Saturday? Just
    can’t get away from the newspaper and coffee on Sunday mornings? Are these why
    you just can’t make it to church??

    “Well, have no fear, your church is here!

    “Yes, the Episcopal Church has everything you need to let you to celebrate
    Communion in your own home. Yes, that’s right! Celebrate Communion without
    going anywhere!

    “While supplies last you can get a
    three-month supply of bread and wine (or sherry if you prefer) for the amazing
    price of only $19.99. That’s right, only $19.99. Every package comes with the
    guarantee that an Episcopal priest blessed the bread and wine. Even the entire
    warehouse was blessed by the Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schiori.

    “But wait, there’s more!

    “If you order now you’ll get a free two ounce bottle of Holy Water and free a
    DVD of Bishop Schori conducting the Holy Eucharist in the National Cathedral
    you can use anytime.

    Call now.”

  • Dagnabbit_42

    One other correction, where readers of Mr. Berger’s piece might be misled:

    The arguments for the non-authenticity of the Matthew 16 “Kepha = the Rock” quote from Matthew were first accepted by scholars. But they were later deconstructed. Then the deconstructions were deconstructed, then the text was criticized, then the criticisms were criticized.

    Scholarly opinion is all over the map on this one, but certainly does not form any kind of consensus of it being “thunderously improbable” that Jesus ever spoke those words.

    Au contraire, on this contentious issue, one pretty confident conclusion that is most regularly drawn these days (but in sharp contrast to the consensus of merely 40 years ago, which is probably when Mr. Berger formed his “thunderously improbable” view) is that this passage was NOT originally in Greek but has an Aramaic/Hebrew original behind it, in accord with the earliest traditions that Matthew’s Gospel was originally composed “in the language of the Jews.”

    The Hebrew-style parallelism is there, for example, with Peter’s lineage and title mirror-imaged against the lineage and title of his master: Son-of-the-Living-God vs. Son-of-Jonah , The Messiah (or Christ) vs. The Kepha (or Rock). This kind of concept-mirroring is mother’s milk for anyone raised on daily readings of the Psalms and the Wisdom literature; in other words, for a Jew.

    And I think all scholars agree that if any Old Testament passage/institution serves as the background or context for this passage in Matthew’s gospel, it is Isaiah 22 (where Eliakim replaces Shebna) and the institution of the stewards (with the chief steward or “head-of-house” as their leader).

    As such it represents a relatively obscure allusion to how things were done in the Davidic dynasty (“the House of David”) which was only of interest to Jews looking for a latter-day scion of David to restore the monarchy. An Aramaic-speaking and Hebrew-reading Jesus follower might bother to make such references when arguing Jesus’ Messiah-hood to a Jewish audience; a Greek-speaking Gentile interested in the Divine Logos probably wouldn’t bother.

    Or such, at least, is the current view: The one spot of (relative) consensus about a passage where scholars are, as I stated previously, all over the map.

    Anyway, scholars have gone back and forth on this for a few centuries now; Mr. Berger’s a bit out-of-date but in another 50 years he may be perfectly in tune with the scholarly consensus again. Who can say?

    But if anyone didn’t know about this shifting history, and their only knowledge came from Mr. Berger’s “thunderously improbable” assertion, they’d wind up with the impression that this was some kind of harrumphing consensus of all intelligent persons. And that was what I wanted to correct in the minds of all interested parties: It is simply not so; or, at least, it is thunderously out-of-date.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger notes that the Reformation was inspired partly by the “extreme misuse of indulgences.” But if Jesus did not give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, any use of indulgences is a misuse. “No purchase required” doesn’t help. Adjustments to the calendar in purgatory won’t help. The problem comes down to this: “The Pope’s ‘power of the keys’ is intrinsic to the Catholic understanding of his office”—and it is thunderously improbable. I don’t hear Berger claiming that all intelligent people agree with
    him. I do hear him saying that Catholicism is intrinsically authoritarian. Gestures at aggiornamento (new, improved electronic indulgences) cannot remedy that incorrigibility. Indeed, it seems to me that such gestures are likely to backfire: Electronic indulgences? What do you take us for?

    Lay Catholics—including Charles Taylor, author of “A Secular Age”– are another matter. They, too, can practice Berger’s theological method of comparing tradition to “what fits” in their own experience (including, perhaps, reincarnation). And Protestantism is not without its problems.
    In 1900, Auguste Sabatier, Dean of the Protestant Faculty of Theology in the University of Paris, published “Religions of Authority and the Religion of the Spirit.” Catholicism, of course, was
    a religion of authority, but Protestantism, too, could miss the spirit by relying too heavily on the authority of scripture. So, our problem is not that of finding the “right” religion but of becoming our own theologians and gratefully assimilating what
    we can from the traditions.

  • Bill

    Fascinating and well-written piece. But I doubt the division between the virtual world and the nonvirtual (?) world is as sharp as all that. Nor does it seem to me that an acknowlegment of the reach of the internet amounts to some sort of embrace of postmodernism. It’s all good food for thought though.

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