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Networked Holiness: New Media Entrepreneurship of Catholic Monastic Communities

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NHNME (Networked Holiness: New Media Entrepreneurship of Catholic Monastic Communities)

Reporting period: 2021-10-01 to 2022-09-30

In the last decade, many religious communities from all over the world have embraced the Internet as a primary way to spread their creed, organize their communal activities, and even debate the tenets of their faith. Either demonized as a gateway to sin or legitimized as a gift of God, the Internet has become a constant presence in the everyday life of believers: a presence that religious communities cannot ignore.

Starting from these premises, the going-digital of religious communities raises several questions concerning the role faith will play in the globalized platform society: how do religious communities define the boundaries of the acceptable use of Internet Communication Technologies? How do they protect their members from immoral information? How do they relate to user-generated content, either secular or devotional? Which media strategies do they employ to build their community online in contrast other religious groups? Are new religious figures emerging, such as digital evangelizers or devotional app developers? And if yes, how do they position themselves in relation to traditional religious hierarchies?

To answer these questions, the Networking Holiness project focused on the first formal monastic community of religious media managers: Canção Nova. Canção Nova is a Brazilian Catholic community whose primary purpose is global evangelization through online platforms (e.g. online videos, social networks and apps). Located at the crossroads between a monastic tradition and media entrepreneurship, Canção Nova’s doctrine combines religious praxis and professional media activity. Members of the community practice a variety of religious lifestyles (e.g. celibacy, priesthood or devout couples) and all serve as webmasters, content media managers, app developers, information systems technicians, cameramen and editors. They work at the Canção Nova headquarters in Cachoeira Paulista, and in several media and broadcasting centers located in Sao Paulo and around the globe.

To understand how religious institutions act to shape users’ worldviews and renegotiate authority on digital platform is of pivotal importance for the future of European governance and leadership on the global stage. As shown by recent crises, religious affiliation still plays a central role in the management of human societies. Interestingly, today’s fast circulation of religious information, propelled by the popularization of smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of broadband connections, has impacted the socio-political landscape in two almost opposite ways. On the one hand, religious communication through social media has been employed to recompact fragmented national identities. This is the case, for example, of evangelical congregations in Brazil or Hindu supremacists in India, where religious organizations deeply influenced the political process. On the other hand, religious agents have been actively reaching out to distant groups of faithful with the intent to connect them to transnational networks of believers. Indeed, religious proselytization online potentially requires only minimal investment in order to disseminate knowledge on a global scale, target specific interest groups and maintain communal engagement. Accordingly, religious online communities have been growing by enabling the faithful to interact beyond the borders of their local community, a dynamic that is evident both in the case of religious propaganda and the social functioning of migrant communities.
The implementation of the present research has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, the advent of the pandemic has, in several ways, both confirmed the premises and expanded the scope of the present project. Indeed, as mitigating measures were implemented in many countries of the world, religious communities resorted to digital means to maintain and diversify their activities. From this perspective, the situation in Brazil well represents the complexity of such transition. Indeed, the tension between Catholic Church and Evangelical congregations reached an all-time high during the pandemic, mostly around the necessity to close the places of worship. Accordingly, as the Catholic Church opted for closure, the researcher investigated the mediatization of sacred sites for global networked publics, as well as how the organization of well-established religious institutions has transformed in order to meet the new needs of the community. Both these studies, obtained combining previously conducted interviews with online ethnography, has been published. The novelty of the pandemic crisis demanded increased theoretical effort and the development of new tools for the study of online religious activity. Accordingly, the methodological approach of the study has been substantially expanded by adding web scraping, text mining, and semantic network analysis. This led to the development of a second study, which adopted an historical approach to the introduction of mass and new media in the Catholic Church. The results of this study, which analyze official Vatican documents form the II Vatican Council to 2020, have been published on the Journal of Media and Religion.
The implementation of the present project has enabled the field to expand in three main directions.

Form a sociological perspective, this research has described not only the process of adoption of new media by religious communities but underscored how such processes of appropriation have an impact on the structure of religious communities from a both theological and organizational level. On the one hand, religious leaders are required to regulate the use of new media platforms for religious purposes. On the other hand, the present research has shown that these transformations do not only impact the circulation of religious meanings, but directly challenge traditional authorities, their established hierarchies, and sources of legitimacy.

To investigate this double movement, the research developed a novel two-fold approach aimed at accounting for both micro and macro transformations. Firstly, the semiotic analysis of digital platforms has been compared with the positions expressed by religious media producers during the interviews. This enabled the researchers to understand why certain media are preferred over others, how they are strategically employed to facilitate religious experiences and how this process of digitalization generate tensions with local religious leaders. Secondly, to study how the Vatican official position on media has changed since the II Vatican Council, the present study employed a text mining approach that, unlike traditional studies, enabled a more precise description of large-scale discursive transformations.

Finally, this research has highlighted significant new directions for the theoretical reflection around religion and media. Firstly, the issue of the passage from material to digital religion. In these terms, future research should focus on how symbolic power can legitimize relationships of equivalence between different materialities, as well as the ways such changes impact the established hierarchies. Secondly, the study highlighted how religious media strategies aim at impacting believers' worldviews. In times of deep crisis for western democracies, future research should focus on the influence of these strategies on the communal perception of secular knowledge and state power.