Textual abstinence, Italian-style

texting_in_trafficI love stories, like the one about giving up Facebook for Lent from a few weeks ago, in which ancient faith traditions struggle with the advent of modern technologies. How did the 15th-century church view the advent of the printing press, for example? Well, we have another example of the genre--a story in the Times Online (London) by Rome-based correspondent, Richard Owen that describes an effort by some Roman Catholic leaders to get laypeople to give up texting and other virtual communication for Lent. Owen's article skates along the surface of what could have been a very interesting story-a national (or semi-national) campaign asking Italians to temporarily set aside something they apparently love as much as fast cars and Sophia Loren-messaging each other. In addition, in a piece about church leaders asking their followers to give up online communication for Lent, there's not a layperson to be seen.

The article begins in a way that suggests the texting campaign may have been implicitly blessed by Pope Benedict:

Chrch sez stop txtn 4 lent. Or, put another way, the Italian Church wants its followers to forswear text messaging, social networking websites and computer games in the run-up to Easter.

While many Italians traditionally give up fatty foods or, in extremis, alcohol, the appeal to go without some of the trappings of the modern world, including Facebook, iPhones and computer games, on Fridays -- and on other days if possible -- is unprecedented.

It appears to stem partly from Pope Benedict XVI's recent warning to the young not to substitute "virtual friendship" for real human relationships.

The Pontiff warned on his YouTube site in January that "obsessive" use of mobile phones or computers "may isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development".

As we can see from the fact that the Pope has his own YouTube site, the problem doesn't appear to be the technologies itself-but what Rome apparently consider potential to disrupt social life and normal development.

The Vatican correspondent for the Times, Owen knows a lot more than many other journalists about what goes on in Rome --in other words, he's got great sources. Here's one lovely gossipy morsel:

Pope Benedict also has personal experience of the distractions of obsessive texting. President Sarkozy of France, a renowned technophile, came in for withering criticism for checking his mobile for text messages during a personal audience with the Pontiff.

Wouldn't you have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?

As it turns out, a group of dioceses started the give up text for Lent movement-and it then spread to other parts of Italy. Leaders are also hoping that abstinence from text will draw attention to the trade in coltan, a mineral produced in the war-torn Congo and used in laptops and cell phones. Various dioceses are giving it their own unique twist:

The Trento diocese in the Italian Alps said that it was urging young Italians not only to give up texting and computer games but also to avoid throwing chewing gum on the pavement and "egocentrism".

The church authorities at Rivoli near Turin are going one further and asking parishioners to switch off their television sets and drape them with black cloth until Easter.

It's hard to imagine dioceses in the United States competing with each other to make more dramatic sacrifices. A nationwide campaign probably stands a greater chance of success in a smaller country like Italy. That being said, it's not clear to readers if Italian Catholics, known to be independent, are taking this seriously at all, because Owen doesn't quote any.

In a country that apparently sends more text messages than anywhere else in Europe excepting Britain, asking parishioners to keep their thumbs off the keys seems like an uphill battle. Even within the Vatican, the idea met with apparent skepticism. But we don't find this out until near the end of the article, giving the impression that the Italian Church exists in some sort of a holy bubble.

Doubts were also expressed inside the Vatican, with Gian Maria Vian, editor of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, noting that text messages were "by their nature a neutral tool, neither good nor bad in themselves. It depends how they are used. If text messages are a proper way of communicating I don't see why we should deprive ourselves of them on Good Friday or any other day."

There's even rebellion within the prelate's own house-Owen quotes a theologian who writes for the Italian bishop's own newspaper Avvenire, as saying the idea is "ridiculous."

It does seem that there is an apparent disconnect between the Italian bishops and the Vatican, not to mention the bishops and their own staff. Which leaves the question wide open--is anyone listening? How come Owen didn't talk to some normal people, perhaps some parish clergy, to see if they were taking the anti-text preachment seriously? In this instance, he seems to have sacrified content and context for comedy, at least to this reader's eye. Which is, I'm sure, not what the bishops intended.

Let's hope for a follow-up to see if Italy's Catholic population (most of the country) got the message. Of course, if they did, it may be impossible to reach anybody until after Easter.

Picture of a girl checking her cell is from Wikimedia Commons

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