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Vatican Blogger Meeting Considers Copyright Questions

This post originally appeared on Techdirt. For more general coverage of the Vatican blogger meeting, check out Ironic Catholic, Elizabeth Scalia, Hermeneutic of Continuity, CNA, Catholic Herald, etc.

A recent blogger meet up hosted by the Vatican received some attention for comments with which Techdirt readers would be familiar on copyright, attribution, and new media business models. For example, Italian blogger and author Mattia Marasco highlighted the importance of attribution, but said that copyright is “an old model,” when it comes to new media, and Dutch podcaster Father Roderick Vonhogen said that journalists will have to get used to their material being reused, but those who focus on quality will make it. The ideas are nothing new (and just some of many expressed at the event), but it’ll be interesting to see if the Vatican is listening. Marasco and Father Roderick are not Vatican officials, though in recent years the Pope and other Vatican officials have expressed concern over “an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property.” (The Holy See has, however, asserted its own right to protect the figure of the Pope, but it’s unclear what exactly that means.) The Vatican also announced an upcoming News.va website, which will make extensive use of social media and apparently use a non-commercial Creative Commons license (according to Father Roderick [33:40]). Not bad for a 2000-year-old institution. There was also a call for the Holy See Press Office to consider bloggers, when releasing advanced copies of Vatican documents. The meeting was intended to open a dialogue between bloggers and the Vatican, so it’ll be interesting to see what the Vatican takes to heart from the encounter and how they continue down the new media path.

The comments are on Techdirt.

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A Cautious Criticism of Father Rosica

Father Thomas Rosica is the founder and CEO of Salt and Light, which, aside from being a TV station, has a fantastic blog. He posts often, and I enjoy his posts. But sometimes, it seems like he just doesn’t understand the Internet. I hope the Catholic News Service just took his comments out of context, but listen to what he had to say about the Catholic blogosphere.

Wow. Okay, first a bit of context.

Regarding the “negativity,” Rosica drew heavy fire from many Catholic bloggers after his harsh criticisms of the pro-life movement a few months ago. He had an important point about mercy and compassion, and if you dig through the drama, there was a lot of really nasty stuff directed his way. But… isn’t that to be expected when you tell well-meaning (if often, err… uninformed) people that they’re doing the “work of Satan?” There was plenty to disagree with in Rosica’s post. It’s unfortunate that the conversation spiraled to such low levels — on both the part of Rosica and his detractors — but to extrapolate as if that’s an accurate depiction of “the blogs”? Come on. What Catholic blogs does Rosica read?

More importantly, there are some serious issues the Church faces with the communications revolution of the web, and Rosica is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He’s not just any priest, but he has a special role in assisting the Vatican with these challenges. And there are huge challenges. Writer for the Catholic Register, Dorothy Cummings McLean, explains:

What we are seeing now is a communications revolution in that anyone and everyone can set up a blog and begin writing on Catholic issues. And depending on the material presented or the skill in presenting it, anyone can attract a large following. No endorsement from the bishops is demanded or even expected by the readers. This leaves the bishops–and traditional media power structures–in a situation akin to the invention of the printing press.

I have no idea how much of a player either Salt + Light or The Catholic Register is on the “Catholic blogosphere.” My guess is that their readerships are dwarfed by the readership of such blogs as “LifeSiteNews”–which has a large American following–”What Does the Prayer Really Say” and “American Papist”. From a Girardian perspective, such blogs have something that old media might want: huge readerships and fervent fans. Meanwhile, old media have something bloggers might want: funding and credibility. These longings might be setting up what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.”

This is similar to the challenges that traditional news organizations are facing, or, well, traditional communicating-anything organizations. But Rosica’s suggestion? Oversight. Oversight?! I really, really hope that was taken out of context, otherwise someone needs to explain to him what a bad, bad idea that is before he embarrasses himself and the Church. Providing formation for Catholics in this matter in the way that the Church provides formation in general would make sense, but that’s not “oversight.” How would you even begin to provide official mechanisms of oversight for Catholic websites and blogs?

The only solution is to participate in the conversation — not to try and regulate it. This needs to be done on a diocesan level, like Boston Cardinal O’Malley or New York Archbishop Dolan have been doing. The Archdiocese of Toronto has an excellent blog as well. As Dorothy explains:

How to respond to the Catholic… blogosphere? Looking at the popularity of “Father Sean’s Blog”, the blog of Boston Cardinal O’Malley, it might be a good idea for the CCCB to begin their own blogs or endorse their favourite blogs. The dream of an episcopal stamp of approval (or even funding) might inspire some bloggers to mind their manners.

Bishops and clergy need to engage with Catholic bloggers, to set a good example, to encourage charity, truth and hope — not to enforce it. You simply couldn’t. I really hope Rosica’s choice of wording was just an incredibly sloppy misstep as opposed to anything remotely resembling a plan. Because that would be a terrible plan.

The Catholic Church knows a thing or two about evangelization. It ought to be at the forefront of social media, not fumbling around like a tired old media giant trying to be an information gatekeeper. It knows better. Fr. Rosica, please don’t suggest “oversight” as a way forward. If it’s a suggestion, ditch it, and if it’s a talking point, drop it.

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Vatican Considering New Media Document

The Vatican is considering preparing a document on new media and how the Church’s communications strategy is affected (via @popebenedictxvi). In a seminar sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, bishops from 82 countries me to discuss “modern media and the new culture of communications that has arisen in recent years.”

The Church has been keen on embracing new communications technologies, grounded especially in “the Second Vatican Council’s 1963 decree “Inter Mirifica” on the instruments of social communications and on the pontifical council’s 1991 pastoral instruction, “Aetatis Novae” (“At the Dawn of a New Era”).” Just a few months ago, the Vatican launched a YouTube channel and last July in Sydney, the Pope was sending updates to pilgrims at World Youth Day via SMS. Last September, he sent a message to Catholics through the Xt3 social networking website launched at World Youth Day. Past documents from the Vatican, such as “Ethics in Internet,” have not only provided guidelines and encouragement, but have illuminated surprising sympathies with free software. Sister Judith Zoebelein, who runs the Vatican website, has given talks at tech conferences in the past.

That said, the Vatican’s website design could use a “refresh”, and — more importantly — it still hasn’t figured out many meaningful ways to enable the kind of two-way communication that the Internet enables.

But it appears that many bishops understand this.

“The church today cannot only give information — which is certainly useful, but we cannot limit ourselves to that,” Archbishop Celli said.

“I think the church needs to enter into a dialogue that is increasingly rich and proactive, a dialogue of life with people who are seeking, who are distant and who would like to find a message that is closer and more suitable to their path,” he said.

For that reason, he said, his council has been pushing bishops around the world not only to have their own Web sites, but also to make sure these sites are interactive.

Unfortunately, the Vatican doesn’t think it can do this itself.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Celli added, it’s been impractical for the Vatican to make its own Web presence interactive because it would be flooded by questions and comments from all over the world. It’s something more easily done on the local level, he said.

I agree that this should be encouraged on a local level, and there are some great examples of Catholics converging on various social networking sites (e.g. TweetCatholic) and creating their own (e.g. Xt3 and flockNote) as well, but I think there’s a different kind of interaction the Vatican could enable. I don’t doubt that the the YouTube channel would be overrun if they enabled comments, but there are still lots of other ways to experiment. For example, in October, someone suggested to Pope Benedict that he start a blog. Again, comments might be pretty unsustainable, but even if communication with the Vatican is tough using social media, there must be ways to experiment with enabling communication among Catholics on a global level. Though I can appreciate the challenges of scale, language, staff, etc…

Encouraging is great, but I hope they don’t shy away from experimenting more themselves.

Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ communications committee, did indicate that it’s important for the Vatican to have a presence where young people are (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc), and with their help.

Archbishop Niederauer said the change in new media was in some ways like the change from the horse to the car a century ago.

“Because 100 years ago, if an old man bought a car, who could fix it? His grandson or his son, because they learned the machinery. They headed straight for it; they didn’t look back,” he said.

In a similar way today, he said, young people have seized on the communications opportunities of new media, and the church should welcome their talents and expertise.

I’m more than happy to help. 🙂

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Interview with Sister Judith Zoebelein

Sister Judith Zoebelein is the nun who launched the Vatican website, and has been working on it since 1995 (read more here). I found this interview on Robert Scoble’s blog and thought it was quite interesting. I think that even the slightly absurd questions provide her with an interesting opportunity to respond.

Click here to watch the video on podtech.

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