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It's Time for Another Vatican Website Rant

by Ian on September 17, 2012

I have a confession to make. I'm a thief.

Way back in the mid-90's I started a website called The Catholic Liturgical Library. This site still houses one of the largest collections of liturgical documents anywhere and in its day was a reference source for the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. Unfortunately, family and work have intervened and I no longer have hours to devote to scanning documents and answering questions. Still the site stands in all its stolen glory.

Yes, I took the parchment background from the Vatican website and made it my own. And it's still there, though, in my defense, in a much less comprehensive way than when I first started.

Today I tried to go to the Vatican website to find out more about the Year of Faith that starts next month. I typed "vatican.va" in the search box and was told that the domain couldn't be found. Years of rage about the Vatican website welled up and I had to write a post. Hopefully I won't be getting a letter from the Pope about this.

Is it really to much to expect that a country can't be bothered with making its webserver redirect vatican.va to www.vatican.va? I mean, what year is this anyway?

So after griping to myself about this annoyance, I loaded the correct url and got to the home page which hasn't been updated in ever. Except for the addition of Latin and Chinese links. Why doesn't the Vatican ever do seasonal changes to the home page? Maybe make the parchment purple or something? Or how about allowing you to pick your language and have the site remember you the next time you feel the need to shave off some purgatory time while wrestling with the site?

So I'm on the real home page where Superman Pope Benedict is there to greet me while looking off into the distance. They haven't updated his image since he was elected. I'm here to look for information about the Year of Faith (which starts in four weeks) and what do I find?

Nothing says "The Catholic Church is with it" like parchment and image maps.

  • Links to:
    • The trip to Lebanon - this page actually has a link to the live news feed so that's good.
    • The diplomatic corps - a PDF of every country and the diplomatic staff attached to it. In French.
    • The Church's response to the abuse of minors - a very long page with links to the documents that have been written.
    • Widget vatican.va - Funny that they wouldn't include "www" since "vatican.va" doesn't actually work. Oh, and the widget page has no description of the widget, compatible platforms or a way to download it. You have to EMAIL Rome and ask for it.
    • A see sea of other links that don't have anything to do with the Year of Faith
    • A link to a search page - why can't you just search from here?

I guess I shouldn't be so critical. The original design had graphics for the different sections that didn't tell you what they were until you moused over them.

The other thing that isn't helpful is that the site uses "corporate jargon". Yes, I realize it's a church, not a business, but the question needs to be asked, and then asked again:

Who is this website for?

If the website is for Catholics like me that know what "motu proprio" means and the difference between a constitution and an exhortation, it STILL fails because the site is still not usable.

If the website is designed for the average Catholic, or even more challenging, for the non-Catholic searcher, than the site gets a 1/10 but only because it exists.

I know that Brandon Vogt likes to use the Mormon church as an example of a church that gets the Internet. Here again they show the Catholic Church how it should be done.

They may not be Christian but they sure know how to evangelize.

Okay, look at this. Right at the top they have a chat link. How cool is that? You have a question about Mormonism? Hop on a chat with an official spokesman for the church. How about the drop down for church websites? There are three options here: information about Mormonism for visitors, study resources for Mormons and a section for the press. Wouldn't it be great if the Church had an official source like this?

Instead, we have an official site that is full of "Catholic jargon" and no clear way to actually figure out what the Church teaches or where to go to learn about the Faith. I dare you. Try and use the Vatican website to learn what the Church teaches about the Holy Spirit.

So anyway, I was trying to find out information about the Year of Faith. The only way I could get any information was to click on the search icon and use the completely bland search page that just screams "professional" with its "Powered by Google Search Appliance" footer.

So the search result page looks like this:

Dude, you could have at least used a less 1990's version of the Vatican coat of arms.

It took me three times looking at the results to notice that there were actual recommendations for what to do for the Year of Faith. The actual document is a completely isolated island without any noticeable link to the suggestions or any indication that there is an actual category on the Vatican website about the Year of Faith. I don't think there actually is.

One final thing. The actual content pages of the site haven't changed in layout since the site launched in the mid-90's. That's 20 years ago. The only difference is now they have a back arrow that takes you to the previous page and an up arrow that takes you back to the language portal.

I wish that I had the time and skill to devote to redoing the entire site. The Church deserves better than this and with over a billion Catholics in the world, someone has to be able to do better than this.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Roger Barton September 17, 2012 at 8:56 am

I suspect the Vatican website is not intended for non-Roman Catholics, nor even for R.C. laypersons. As an organist who regularly substitutes at R.C. parishes and listens to the prayers, homilies, and (atrociously retranslated) liturgy, it has struck me that the R.C. church knows little and cares less about attracting outsiders or making itself relevant to the modern world. Possibly there is a desire among some to become modern and relevant, but that desire is not apparently shared by the “old boy” network which controls the corporation. The Vatican is seeing the results of this attitude in the often empty churches of Western Europe, and will soon likewise be seeing a drop in membership in other parts of the world.

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Ian September 17, 2012 at 9:26 am

If by relevant you mean changing doctrine, then the Church should look to the collapse of the Anglicans and other progressive denominations for how well that works.

If by relevant you mean speaking about current issues from a Catholic perspective, I think the Church does that very well. Theology of the Body is a prime example of that.

If by relevant you mean presenting the Faith in a technologically savvy way, I agree that the Church official is about 20 years behind.

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Brandy M. Miller September 17, 2012 at 10:38 am

The Church is eternal, as Father Michael Scanlon is wont to say – which means, of course, that she moves at a snails pace when making changes of any sort. Scratch that, as it might be slightly offensive to snails. At any rate, the Church is not now nor has she ever been a quick adopter of changes. This is for good reason, as it has saved her from following many a fad.

In this case, however, we do need to get up a group of laity who will do the work that the Vatican obviously hasn’t time or resources to address. I’m volunteering my services to help. Anyone want to volunteer theirs?

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Baron Korf September 17, 2012 at 10:41 am

The Vatican: Yesterday’s technology tomorrow!

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Bender September 17, 2012 at 11:02 am

Oh please save us from those who think that they know how to do things better. Typically, most websites that are “new and improved” end up being far worse. And that Catholic liturgy site is hardly a model of user friendliness.

As it is, to the contrary, the Vatican website is quite useful and easy to find things. It certainly takes less time than most other websites out there. As for not having the Year of Faith on their front page, there are other more-timely current things to post there. Don’t fret, the Year of Faith will be prominent soon. In the meantime, you can go here –

http://www.annusfidei.va/content/novaevangelizatio/en.html

An entire site dedicated to the Year of Faith.

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Ronald J. Rolling September 17, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I would put you in the vast minority of those who think the official Vatican website is “user-friendly”. Ian nails the problem; navigation and linking are terrible. Why could the link you provide not be easily found there?

The maintenance and upkeep of this site is definitely a project for the laity, in accordance to Lumen Gentium. While the clergy should have some tech savviness, how many of them actually majored in computer science? Not their area of expertise, nor should it be.

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Jack B September 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm

You are right. Yesterday, amid the widespread rage and violence over an uncontrolled and uncontrollable video, I was reminded of the Index of Prohibited Books. It started as a Church response centuries ago to the threats of an earlier Information Age triggered by Gutenberg. Before the Index (20th ed.) was abolished in 1966, I was taught in no uncertain terms about its definitive role in protecting my morality and the divine order.

More or less by accident, I stumbled across a Disciplinary Document on the very subject. My very rusty Latin allowed me to recognize it. “Notificatio de Indicis librorum prohibitorum conditione” is available in 6 European languages, one of which is dead. No English. Averaging Google translations of French and German versions gave a rough idea of what Cardinal Ottaviani, Pro-Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, meant to communicate. Not worth the effort.
http://www.doctrinafidei.va/doc_dis_index.htm

An easy step forward might be taken if those responsible at the Vatican invited in for an afternoon’s chat one of the Web-wise reporters who hang around outside their door and asked him what’s wrong and what’s needed.

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Dan September 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I never really get the “this website is so much better than that one” commentary. In my view, they’re all the same–unfamiliar–until I become familiar with them. They are all difficult to work with, until I work with them.

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CornerStone September 17, 2012 at 12:50 pm
Feargal September 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I actually like the Vatican website. It has been a great source of information in teaching me about my faith. I understand anyone who gets frustrated with it though, as a degree of patience is required in finding what your looking for.
I’d leave it alone, but maybe there is room for a New Evangelisation website aimed at non and lapsed Catholics giving more concise information.

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Kathy Schiffer September 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Ian–
Oh, if only I were always the bearer of good news like this!

You are looking at an old version of the Vatican website. The new site was introduced to reporters last May, at the Vatican Blogfest. Go to news.va (that’s right, you don’t have to type the full URL!) to bring it up. From there, you can read Current News, Vatican News, World News, Fides News Agency, and the Daily Bulletin from the Press Office. You can check out photo albums, the Vatican’s video channel, listen live (or via podcast) to Vatican Radio, link to a number of related sites: Vatican Radio, L’Osservatore Romano, the Pontifical Councils, etc. You may not absolutely love it, but I’ll bet it’ll allay most of your concerns.

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Ian September 17, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Thank you for pointing out the new site. It would be great if someone took five minutes to post a link or banner or SOMETHING on the old site pointing out that there is a better official site to go to.

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dmw September 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Most folks just search for a Church document on Google. It’ll either direct them to the relevant page on the Vatican site or at EWTN.com.

If a non-Catholic wants to learn about what the Church teaches and decides to type a URL instead of doing a search, he’ll probably go to CATHOLIC.com, which will take them to Catholic Answers. Their site is awful too, but at least they’ll probably find more information even if it’s not an ecclesiastical document.

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Ismael September 17, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Actually I prefer the Vatican website to the Mormon’s website… the latter just looks like the webpage a company or bank has… does not really inspire me to join them.

Perhaps I enjoy the quaint look of the Vatican website as well… also, when someone tries to hard to ‘get jiggy with it’ on the net it only fails to bring his deeper message across.

I think the main problem with the Vatican website is that for some (or many?) it is a bit confusing to navigate. At least I hear many who complained about it.

So I thinki they ought to organize it better in that way.

Then: do we want people to join the Church because it has a fancy website or because they took time to investigate the contents of the Church.

Sure I admit maybe the Church should work more on its PR and web image and maybe create more specific websites for different audiences… but please, let’s not be cheesy like the mormon website.

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Stephen September 17, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Everyone knows that the Vatican, I mean the Church, stands or falls because of the quality of its website. I am glad to hear Roger Barton explain that this is why the churches of Europe are often empty. People have been putting out all kinds of explanations for this situartion, but Mr. Barton is probably right that it’s just the result of old boys of “the corporation” (which I like to call “The Church”) being so damned “low tech” and generally uncool. Who knew that the explanation would turn out to be so simple? Mr. Barton is well worth listening to because he occasionally substitutes as the organist in local R.C. Corporation meetings. I logged onto the Vatican website some years ago and was aghast at what I saw; that’s why I left the Church. Granted, I was on the verge anyway, but that icky “parchment look” pushed me over and out.

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Eleison September 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Since the clergy’s “forte” since 1963 isn’t the constant magisterium, dogma or liturgy, I doubt any of us can expect they’d have a whiz bank website. Besides, much too much is made about the internet– just as much too much was made about tv, 8 track players, cds, dvds, etc. They all go by the way-side sooner or later. None is MEANT to last,…get it? And oh, stop the Gutenberg presses; thank goodness someone above mentioned the latest Vatican site launched in May (news.va) which doesn’t require one to type out the entire url–whew!! what a time saver. Now our fearless commentator can get a good night’s rest and the Church can begin to regain it lost flock, especially those who’ve gone over to those pesky mormons! Ahahahahahahahahaha

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Michael B Rooke September 18, 2012 at 3:41 am

Wherever you look on the Vatican website you will find the Word of God being proclaimed.
Much of the Vatican website is cross referenced and in many languages. Cross referenced concordances are throughout the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Modern Papal Encyclicals and other documents are cross referenced. Some older ones are in Italian or Latin. Google translate is very good.

I picked a random audience of Pius XII in Italian from 1940 (17 Jan) and dropped part of it into Google translate.

Here is the result.

“We speak to you, urging them to vigilance against the devil, who almost roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (I Pet., V, 8-9 ), urging them to steadfastness in the faith, not to be carried away by the errors of the false prophets (II Pet., II, I, III, 17). This teaching of Peter continues in his successors, and will continue to immutably through time, because that is the mission given by Christ himself to the Head of the Church.

To show the universal and unfailing of this teaching, the spiritual home of record was set in Rome after a providential preparation, God took care, as remarked Our great predecessor St. Leo I, that the people were gathered into one empire, of which Rome was the head, so that from this the light of truth, revealed to the health of all people, the more effectively spread to all its members (S. Leonis Magni Sermon LXXXII, c. 3-5).

The successors of Peter, also mortal, like all men, they spend more or less rapidly. But the primacy of Peter will endure forever, with the assistance special that was promised when Jesus asked him to confirm his brethren in the faith (Luke, xxii, 32). Whatever the name, the face, the human origins of each Pope is always Peter who lives in him, it is Peter who directs and governs it is especially Peter who teach and spread to the world the light of liberating truth. This was a great preacher say that God has established a professorship in Rome eternal: “Peter will live in his successors, Peter will always speak from his chair” (Bossuet, Sermon sur l’unité de l’Eglise, I).

Or here is the grave warning – we have already mentioned – that he addressed to the Christians of his time: “There were false prophets among the people, as among you will be master liars. . . Being thus prevented, beware, that transported the error of fools will not fall from your own steadfastness “(cf. II Pet.).”

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Hal September 18, 2012 at 9:09 am

The Vatican website is a decent resource for looking stuff up, but not for evangelization. I agree.

Maybe the thought is that people will look at a site in their own neck of the woods? Maybe the local diocese or the USCCB, in the case of the USA? Those sites can be more specifically tuned to them.

I wonder, though, how much the site matters. I only hear of conversions to Catholicism through personal contact, through pro-life activities, or by tradition-minded, scholarly sorts who come in through studying the Church Fathers. Most other folks see the Church in such a negative light that they’d never bother even looking at the web site. Perhaps my world is a biased one, however, and others have a different experience.

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Joe Offer September 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm

I like the Vatican Website very much. It’s one place I can go where I can find a balanced, factual, agenda-free view of Catholicism instead of the right-wing “Catholicism for Dummies” that you find on EWTN and “Catholic Answers” and so many other Websites and e-mail chains that purport to be Catholic. If you have fifteen minutes to spare, take the time to go to http://www.vatican.va and read a homily from Pope Benedict or any of the many thought-provoking documents you can find on the Vatican Website. But Ian is right – in this day and age, one should be able to access the Website by typing vatican.va with out the triple dubyas. -Joe-

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