I toured China for three weeks in late 1998. Computers hooked to the expanding Internet were being set up in hotels frequented by tourists. While public Chinese access to electronic information was still in its infancy then -- and still largely restricted to foreigners -- I remember thinking to myself that the country was facing another revolution and that accessible information would be its catalyst. Secretly I was cheering it on.
The Chinese leadership today continues, as best it can, to battle the free flow of information. Government censorship continues, but reports out of China indicate those efforts are failing. As in the case of Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and other dictatorships, efforts to limit and control information in the age of the Internet with the explosion of mobile phones and Twitter accounts are on the losing side of history.
Some might cry foul, using the examples of modern thugs as a jump point into the situation within our own church today. Allow me this defense: I deal here not with personalities as much as I do with structures and systems. My broadest point is that the old top-down, one-voice-serves-all model of government and the information system it employs is anachronistic, dead as a functioning model.
People want give-and-take, understandable explanations. They want information to be a two-way street. Above all, they expect accountability. When all they get are press releases, you cannot expect them to be satisfied. No, they will be suspicious, they will question, they will most often not give you the benefit of the doubt. And this is what has happened, what is happening, as the Vatican tries to manage the current phase of the sex scandal that has rocked the Western world.
But there’s more. As noted above, the Internet has decentralized information and allows it to be sent globally in an instant. It occurred to me the other day that this latest round of church sex abuse reportage, which began in Germany three months back, is the largest eruption since 2002 — and the first such eruption since blogs and social networking and news sites matured on the Internet.
Remember how for much of our lives we heard it said that things change slowly within our church, over centuries, if at all. Well, in an age requiring rapid response to remain part of any ongoing conversation, this approach increasingly works against us. It was one thing when news of a papal action took weeks or longer to get across the globe. Today news assessments take place within minutes. To be influential one needs to be fast, nimble and flexible, like it or not.
One recent example supports the point. By the time Pope Benedict XVI issued his long awaited response on sex abuse last month to the Irish church, the story had already migrated to Germany and beyond. When his letter omitted any reference to the German situation, many in Germany were hurt. Others were offended.
Another related church matter that pitted old and new ways and technologies occurred in the final hours of the health care debate in Washington.
The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, attempting to present one voice on the bill as they saw it relating to abortion, came off, in the eyes of many observers, as out of step with a quickly changing political scene. Meanwhile, they found themselves making judgments based on faulty and perhaps outdated information. On the other hand, Network, the Catholic women religious lobbying group, used electronic technology to rally members of their organization and to spread word of their analyses. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in turn, used the Internet to seek voluntary signatures in support of the bill. The bishops and the women appeared to be working out of two opposing authority models, one vertical and the other horizontal. The second, the invitational assessment model, it turned out, won the day — and the legislation, leaving the bishops in the dust, and with some upset and perhaps not quite yet understanding what or how it happened.
Even the old monarchies of Europe are now grounded in constitutions. The Enlightenment, new understandings of human dignity, public education, the liberation of women, access to information and, now, instantaneous global transmitting systems have rendered ineffective governing models. Is it any wonder our church’s prelates feel besieged?