Roman Catholic bishops in the United States should go forth and blog, tweet and preach on the "new digital continent" of social media, a church leader said Monday.
"The church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way," Bishop Ronald Herzog told the general assembly meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.
"If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn't exist," he said, likening social media to a "new digital continent" waiting to be evangelized.
The biggest handicap facing the church is that many members of the clergy don't understand the culture of the unexplored continent and might even fear confrontation with the natives, he said.
On the digital continent, "Anyone can create a blog. Everyone's opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives (bloggers) expect a response and something resembling a conversation," Herzog said.
"We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the church's credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture."
Ignoring social media could have a similar impact on the church as another communications revolution did back in the 1500s, said Herzog.
Social media "is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago. And I don't think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic church was slow to adapt to that new technology," he told the gathering of Catholic bishops.
The printing press was a driving force behind the Reformation in the 16th and early 17th centuries, which saw a schism in the Roman Catholic church and the establishment of Protestantism as a branch of Christianity.
Though the Roman Catholic church isn't usually associated with social networks, the church, Pope Benedict XVI and individual clergy members are on digital media including Facebook and Twitter.
The USCCB is tweeting live from its general assembly meeting, an Australian nun tweets on behalf of saint-in-waiting Mary MacKillop, and there's a pope app on Facebook, called Pope2You, which allows users to receive messages from the pontiff.
In addition to hearing calls to evangelize using social media, the bishops will discuss the situation of Christians in Iraq and review reports on the church's response to the earthquake in Haiti in January and against same-sex marriage, among others, at their four-day meeting.