The Zuckerberg Papacy
Facebook puts an interdict on Australia
Of all the Papacy’s enduring tools for spiritually influencing the leaders of nations the interdict captures the imagination most of all. It involves the separation of a group from the sacraments—no mass, no funerals or burials on consecrated ground, no church marriages—because of the intransigence of their leadership toward the papacy. Pope Innocent III put England under interdict for six years in the early 13th century because of King John’s refusal to accept his candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury. The interdict was a major influence on the alliance of church and nobility that led to Magna Carta. Venice was interdicted several times during the late middle ages for its military adventurism. In modern times, Pope Pius X interdicted an individual Italian town in 1905 for 15 days after stones were thrown at a bishop. And the Archbishops of Malta interdicted supporters of the Maltese Labour Party during two periods in the 30s and 60s for their links to communism, postcolonial aspirations, desire to wear revealing swimsuits and criticism of the clergy. That interdict cut a deep division into Maltese society which still exists to this day.
The strategy is that by cutting off a whole people from the sacraments, the general population would rebel and put pressure on their leader to conform to the will of the church’s authorities. In contemporary times the use of the interdict is nigh-unimaginable. For it to work a nation must be religiously monocultural and pious enough to be upset by ecclesial censure. It could only have been tried in a place like Malta within living memory, and even then it backfired. After all, the Bishops of major developed countries cannot convince Catholic politicians to adhere to the church’s moral teaching, let alone obey the authorities. The church will not even debar a member of parliament from the eucharist for publicly advocating positions contrary to faith and morals. Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, has been criticised repeatedly by conservative US Bishops for his stance on abortion—but he will not be refused the sacraments.
The news that Australia has been cut off from posting news articles by Facebook seems to me the closest thing we have to the interdict these days. What was once spiritual is now digital; to withdraw the means of grace from a nation by cutting off its ability to post is like being refused at the chalice. I am only being slightly ironic; the world’s most online man, Gary Vaynerchuk, is hardly wrong when he says if you are not posting on social media these days you “don’t exist”. Christian theology conceives of history as heilsgeschichte, salvation history, or the economy of God’s dispensation of grace in time. Matter is simply not as real or true as spirit, but the life of the spirit is lived out in matter, in σάρξ. The worst thing that can happen to a person is to be separated from the means of renewing the spirit. Without sacramental grace we waste away from corruption. Likewise, without social media one is reduced to “flesh”, mundane methods of communication, and whatever is merely flesh dies. Cancellation is an interdict, a spiritual death sentence; just look at Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos, Aimee Terese.
It was perhaps natural that given the current state of cancellations online a papal authority would emerge to mediate this sorry process and insist on the spiritual prerogatives of the various social media companies. This interdict on Australian news sites is like an investiture controversy in miniature. What right does any particular nation-state have to tax or limit the power of the universal spiritual authority? Mark Zuckerberg was the obvious figure to become the first Pope of Online; it could have never been Jack from Twitter, whose collapse into Zen nonsense was almost certainly prompted by the dark realisation that someone had to make order out of the chaos of the social web. No, Zuckerberg had the primacy from the moment he launched Facebook. And as all Easterners lament, primacy develops over time into infallibility, and risks becoming autocratic.
The interdict on Australia will almost certainly have its desired result—a boomer revolt against the government, and a rapid renegotiation of the proposed media bargaining code. But Zuckerberg is wearing the tiara now—Habemus Papam.