As Cardinals from around the globe descend on Rome for the papal conclave this month, they'll face a situation unprecedented in the Catholic Church. Not the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is the first pontiff to retire of his own volition in more than 700 years, but rather that the cardinals who elect his successor must preserve the highly confidential nature of the proceedings in an age of social media.
Advance word from Vatican sources is that the Sistine Chapel, home to Michelangelo's famed creation mural, will be outfitted with jamming devices to prevent electronic communication inside the conclave. For cardinals on Twitter--among them, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan (@CardinalDolan), who has 88,000 followers, but who follows only one Twitter account (@Pontifex), the feed of the now vacant Holy See (Benedict's Tweets have been archived)--the temptations to Tweet may well be worthy of a Bible parable.
The world of 2013 is a far different one from the one of 2005, when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger ascended to the Papacy. Twitter was still a year away. The first generation iPhone was two years off, and Facebook's use was restricted to college students, primarily those in Ivy League schools. Now, of course, social media use has become a fact of life for most of us. And eighty-five percent of Americans own cell phones. (According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, twenty-nine percent of them describe their mobile devices as something "they can't imagine living without." And anyone who has visited Rome lately knows that the Italians are even more in love with their phones than Americans are.
But as for expecting live updates emanating from within the Sistine Chapel, whether from @Primadodemexico (a.k.a. Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico), @CardinalSean (Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston), @CardinalMahony (Cardinal Roger Mahony, retired cardinal of Los Angeles) or @TurksonCardinal (Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, a possible favorite for the papacy), Twitter watchers and Facebook posters will simply have to wait until the smoke rising up from the Chapel's chimney is white (as opposed to black), indicating that a new pope has been elected, garnering 2/3 of the vote, plus one.
In an age glutted with information that's disposable and forgettable, there's something appealing about communicating by a means as archaic as a smoke signal. Also very appealing? The Sistine Chapel's cell-phone jammer. Off the top of my head, I can think of more than a few places that could use one of those.