Pope Benedict XVI Monday gave his blessing to social networking, urging Catholic Internet users to adopt a respectful Christian netiquette when spreading the Gospel online.
The pope said new technologies were creating unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship but warned against creating false online profiles out of vanity or diluting the Christian message to achieve popularity.
Little direct experience
The 83-year-old pontiff, who has little direct personal experience with the Internet and writes with a pen in spidery longhand, issued his guidelines in a document entitled "Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age," published to mark the Vatican's 45th World Day of Social Communications.
The pope said the Internet's positive aspects, which included dialogue, solidarity and the creation of positive relations, also had a downside: "the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one's interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence."
The dangers of too much social networking included "enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world," the pope said in his message. "In the search for sharing, for 'friends,' there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself."
The pope said there was "a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others."
Catholic style guide
Archbishop Claudio Celli, head of the Vatican's social communications office, told reporters it would be correct to read the pope's exhortation as applying to certain conservative Catholic blogs that contribute to the circulation of online vitriol.
Celli said the Pontifical Council of Social Communications was working on an online style guide for Catholics. "I don't love such things, but I think we can define some points of reference for behavior," Celli said.
In his message the pope also warned against judging the quality of online information by the number of hits it attracts.
"We must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its 'popularity' or from the amount of attention it receives," the pope said.
The pope currently has no direct Facebook presence, but the Vatican is working to modernise its website and is preparing a new multimedia portal for launch by Easter.
The website pope2you does however offer a Facebook application enabling users to share the pope's messages, photos and e-cards with their Facebook friends.