Pope turns to Twitter, new allies to battle for faith issues

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Pope Benedict XVI. AP

VATICAN CITY– Pope Benedict XVI has galvanized Catholics at the close of 2012 to go on the offensive over key faith issues, forging new alliances and fighting secularism in the West with a media campaign.

Damaging sex abuse scandals and growing opposition to the Church’s attitude toward gay marriage and women priests have forced Benedict to rethink how to communicate with the modern world and stem the flood of deserting believers.

The 85-year-old pope joined Twitter this month as part of efforts to disseminate the Catholic message worldwide, which also forced the professorial pontiff to reduce his usual reams of dense theological reflections to 140 characters.

The Vatican in June hired American Fox News correspondent Greg Burke to help modernize its communications strategy and by December Benedict had sent his first tweet which went out in eight languages to thousands of followers.

The pope’s tweets of faith may have sparked derision among some Twitter users, but they brought the Vatican widespread visibility among the digital generation, which was told that God is not dead but “knocking at the door.”

The leader of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics also took the unusual step of writing an editorial for Britain’s Financial Times newspaper, urging business and political leaders to adhere to Christian ethics and moral codes in their daily lives.

Benedict’s call to take a stand against what he views as society’s ills — such as consumerism and a wilful disregard of “traditional” family values — was repeated in his strongly-worded Christmas message which slammed the selfishness of modernity.

“We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach. We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either,” he said.

The pope also began in earnest to follow through with one of the key ideas of his papacy, calling for dialogue with atheists, agnostics and others outside the Catholic Church who are nonetheless fighting the same battles.

In a bid against gay marriage which is gaining ground in the West, he took the first steps in finding new allies.

With France, Britain and the United States soon expected to join a dozen countries where same-sex couples can legally wed, Benedict reached out to religious and non-religious people alike who respect what he called the “law of nature”.

Weighing into the heated debate, the pope cited France’s chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, who has spoken out against gay marriage.

Benedict has also mobilized top Catholic figures to beat the drum on the Church’s teachings on social issues, from the family to homosexuality and abortion.

The Vatican’s new guardian of dogma, Germany’s Gerhard Muller, Milan’s Archbishop Angelo Scola, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the pope’s culture minister who is a keen Tweeter, are among those who have gone on the offensive.

“A small but influential group of bishops has formed around Benedict XVI and pays a great deal of attention to addressing the central questions of culture and society with weighty words,” Vatican expert Sandro Magister told AFP.

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