VATICAN CITY (RNS) Italians have an expression, “every death of a pope,” to describe rare events. And with Pope Benedict XVI in good health and scheduled to take three foreign trips in the next three months, few are talking about his replacement.
But as with almost everything else, the digital revolution has thrown papal successions into hyper-speed. Now, a momentous event that occurs maybe two or three times in a generation happens every Wednesday on Facebook.

Once a week in the game Vatican Wars, an impassioned struggle begins anew to choose a virtual pontiff who could change or reaffirm some of the Roman Catholic Church’s longest established—and most controversial—teachings.

The online papal electors are divided between the socially conservative “Templars” and the liberal “Crusaders.” Separating them are five hot-button issues: abortion, artificial birth control, same-sex marriage, women’s ordination and married priests.

According to the game’s rules, changing the church’s position on any of these practices (which are all forbidden in real life except, in limited cases, married priests) requires the election of 10 liberal popes in a row.

Since the first Facebook election in July, one liberal pope has been chosen, followed by three conservatives, and most recently another liberal.

The premise of Vatican Wars, whose name echoes the popular Facebook game Mafia Wars, perhaps not surprisingly has drawn fire from those who think it turns religion into a popularity contest.

“The game is based on a fundamental misunderstanding,” wrote Catholic Deacon Nick Donnelly on his blog, Protect the Pope. “A pope could not change the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or the ordination of women. To change these doctrines would be to break with the apostolic faith.”

The game’s designer said the focus on social issues was not intended to shift attitudes one way or the other, but instead to maximize the game’s appeal.

“It attracts people to the game who perhaps used to be Catholic and who are not anymore, or who simply disagree with the church’s social positions,” said Cheyenne Ehrlich, founder of the Hawaii-based SGR Games.

Ehrlich said he originally planned a game based on his native Tibetan Buddhism, but decided that the market for that was too small.

Despite some instances during the game’s pilot run of players bullying their ideological opponents, Ehrlich insisted that Vatican Wars creates opportunities for mutually respectful dialogue, as well as a deeper knowledge of Catholicism.

All players start as priests and earn “stature points” by performing tasks that include prayer, celebrating Mass and counseling their flocks. Becoming a bishop requires, among other things, speaking out about clerical sex abuse.

Players buy virtual currency, which they spend on virtual goods including vestments, religious texts and relics such as the Shroud of Turin. They can also buy churches, which become sources of additional income.

On the other hand, players can donate to charity, which increases their stature.

A small fraction eventually qualifies to become cardinals, from whose ranks popes are drawn. While all players may vote in papal elections (a major departure from real-world conditions), cardinals’ superior stature gives them a disproportionate say in the result.

Virtual immersion in the virtuous life inspires greater devotion among Catholics, who account for about 75 percent of players, Ehrlich said. He cited a survey of regular players of the game’s pilot version showing that Catholics were more likely to attend Mass and read the Bible in the real world after playing. The pilot, known as PriestVille, did not feature the contest over the five social issues, however.

The same survey showed that the game made young Catholic men more likely to consider entering the seminary, and encouraged those already enrolled to stay there.

The Rev. John Kita, a parish priest in Elkland, Pa., wrote to a Knights of Columbus publication earlier this year praising the earlier game as a “great tool to motivate more men to consider the priesthood.”

Who knows? Someday the real pope could be someone who first held the job in a virtual capacity.

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