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Can the Catholic church attract new adherents with the Internet?

The new pope, Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, appears on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica after being elected the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013, at the Vatican.
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
The new pope, Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, appears on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica after being elected the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013, at the Vatican.

Eighth-grader Aidan O'Sullivan respected everything he learned about religion during his first six years at St. Martin of Tours Catholic school in Brentwood. But during the past two years, he's discovered more and more videos and blogs critical of Catholicism. Late last year, he decided to end his Catholic education.

O’Sullivan's generation wants something the Roman Catholic Church has never offered: an interactive, personalized and social learning experience both online and offline. Three years after Facebook and Google executives briefed the Vatican about providing exactly that, church leaders still haven't figured out how to connect with O’Sullivan and billions of digital natives.

Pope Benedict XVI said the church could indeed conquer the “complex but fascinating reality.” But figuring out how to hold onto the church's youngest members now falls to Pope Francis. He's already shown a commitment to more simplicity and less extravagance in the church, a change that could endear him to youth.

RELATED: Religion, politics and culture: Stories from USC's Annenberg School

Though many global religions are struggling with membership among the digitally savvy, the Catholic Church's plight in America is especially dire because its once-preeminent role in educating its youth is dwindling.

Catholic schools have long been a sure-fire way of ensuring a steady stream of parishioners. But enrollment has fallen even as the number of Catholics here has increased. The Internet has caught some of the blame, scholars say.

Online tools have made home-schooling as well as comparing schools easy. In other cases, people such as O’Sullivan are more influenced by what they learn online than in the classrooms. And if the church can't maintain the numbers needed to replenish bank accounts drained by its scandals, more schools and churches could be shuttered.

Church leaders acknowledge that saving Catholic education is a challenge. Digital natives are more confident searching for answers online to questions preceding generations would have even asked. Youth prefer to combine multiple pieces of experience to craft personal views. The shift in learning hasn't been lost on the church.

Last month, before a private four-day pontifical conference on youth culture, Vatican Culture Minister Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi called for re-thinking the way youth are approached. He said that parents, teachers, priests and the ruling class had excluded younger generations “with our corruption and inconsistency, with uncertainty, unemployment and marginalization.”

For his part, O’Sullivan said that didn't like the close-minded teaching he received.

“They just kind of explained their side and didn’t expose us to any other ideas,” he said.

Among O’Sullivan's other complaints was that his Catholic school was too strict. He said that teachers expected much, but helped little. That issue came up in the Vatican discussion as well in a suggestion that the church welcome the young with open arms, “without prejudice and moralistic judgments.”

Experts who follow the Internet's effect on religion said all of these considerations apply to the web as well.

The new generation

“This new generation won't go pick up the newspaper in the morning and read an article a bishop wrote in it, but they will check their Facebook and notice a post he wrote,” said Paul Soukup, a professor of communication at Santa Clara University with a background in theology.

Soukup said cardinals, bishops and priests have been encouraged to blog and to invest funds in better websites. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went as far as surveying American Catholics about their Internet usage last year. Like every business adapting to the digital age, the church has set a goal to be where the consumers are.

But turning what for centuries has been a top-down, one-to-many approach into something far more dynamic will require more than shiny websites and the same content in new forums, observers said.

The church will have to entertain and engage, said Chris Helland, a sociologist at Dalhousie University, who's writing a book about religion and the Internet.

“If they don't, they are going to lose out on all those people participating in that world,” Helland said.

Pope Francis, who hadn't used Twitter while in Argentina, posted his first Twitter message Sunday:

The former Argentine Cardinal told Vatican Insider last year about how his archdiocese included the Internet in outreach efforts, which included creating a virtual parish.

"Rather than being a church that welcomes and receives,” he said, “we try to be a church that goes outside to men and women who don't come to us, who don't know us or are indifferent to us.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.