March 4, 2009

Italian Bishops Call For Tech Abstinence During Lent

Roman Catholic bishops in Italy are calling on followers to abstain from high-tech distractions during Lent, urging Catholics to steer clear of modern devices such as iPods and to forego surfing the Web and text messaging until Easter.

The plea gives a modern flare to conventional forms of abstinence during the five-week period Christians spend fasting and praying ahead of Easter.  It also demonstrates the Church's growing technology focus, with many of the Lenten wishes posted on dioceses' Web sites.

Dioceses and Catholic groups in southern Bari, Modena and other cities have called for a text messaging ban every Friday in Lent, which began last Wednesday.

"It's a small way to remember the importance of concrete and not virtual relationships," said the Modena diocese in a statement.

"It's an instrument to remind us that our actions and lifestyles have consequences in distant countries."

The diocese said its "no SMS day" aims to draw attention to years of bloody conflict in Congo, driven in part by the battle for control of coltan mines.  Coltan is an important material in cell phones.

The Turin diocese is calling on Catholics to abstain from watching television during Lent.  And in Trento, the church has created a "new lifestyles" calendar with suggestions for each week of Lent, including biking or taking a bus instead of driving a car, recycling waste and not throwing chewing gum on the street.  The church also urged Catholics to enjoy the tranquility of a week without the iPods or the Internet.

However, some Italian laity and clergy have reacted guardedly to the proposals, saying Lenten abstinence should be a personal matter.  Others say that people who depend upon technology to work shouldn't be asked to do without.

"What does giving up mean? If the use is capricious, then abstinence is welcome, but if technology is needed for work it makes no sense," the Rev. Giancarlo Angelo Andreis, a priest at a Rome basilica, told Reuters.

"I have to decide how to experience the Lent period. I should give up something if I really feel it, not because the Church says so," Angelo Dente, 26, told Reuters.

The Church is trying to balance a healthy wariness of new media with an increasing respect of modern communications. Indeed, the Vatican launched its own YouTube channel in January, with Pope Benedict XVI welcoming viewers to a "great family that knows no borders."

Benedict commended social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook for building friendships and understanding, but warned that online networking could also isolate people from true social interaction.  The pope has also warned about the trivialization of sex and promotion of violence in the entertainment media.