Marshall McLuhan Media Theory Pope Francis Pope Francis Roman Catholicism

Pope Francis, Software Pope

“To come back to our comparison, the choice between two forms of authority makes me think of the difference between hardware and software. The written or printed paper is hardware; the spoken or recorded word is software. Pontifical documents were hardware, as stable and solid as matter. The new form is software, as malleable as electric information. The hardware document remains outer and we reject it as such. I think today we have to say that it’s the Pope’s spoken word that counts, the word that he utters, not the encyclical. In the electric age, live speech comes back into its own: it no longer needs to be hardened into documents.”

–Marshall McLuhan, “Tomorrow’s Church: Fourth Conversation with Pierre Babin,” in The Medium and the Light, 206.


Pope Francis to my knowledge doesn’t quote Marshall McLuhan, but he certainly shows the continued relevance of McLuhan’s media insights. Even his encyclicals are pastiches of other documents, other bishops’ or councils’ statements, fragments of speeches, etc. Look through the footnotes of his papal documents and you’ll find a rhizomatic network of other collaborative documents. Francis writes ecumenical, electric encyclicals, no longer present at the back of a church but sped around the blogosphere and news outlets the moment they appear in vernacular translation on the internet. It’s no accident that Francis is a news darling, given his propensity to act, to comment, and to summarize punchy points through action and symbol. His synods, to the frustration of many Church members who prefer the message of print media to the electric message of ecumenism, are dialogical encounters between participants, vaguely formalized into loose and hedged statements. Whatever people make of his papacy, Francis is a software pope.

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