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The Pope on Social Media: The Same Yet Different

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 28, 2013

When Pope Benedict commented on social media in his message for the 47th World Communications Day, it was perhaps somewhat predictable. Ever since the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Means of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica) in 1963, the Church has made a point of reminding her children to embrace and make effective use of the various increasingly influential forms of mass media. Very likely this was a habit even earlier, but I was fifteen years old in 1963, and I don’t remember reading any Church documents before that time.

I wrote a brief guide to Inter Mirifica as part of my series on the documents of Vatican II. It was the second document issued by the Council and, as I pointed out in my 2010 guide, “It is extremely brief, its contents are predictable, and it is easily summarized.” It had two parts. The first discussed the need to use the media morally, and the second discussed the need to use the media to advance the mission of the Church—that is, for apostolic purposes. Of course, in 1963, the Council fathers were still very much concerned with a wider distribution of the Catholic press. Radio, film and television were well-known by then, but the information-rich vehicle of the Internet was neither a concern nor an opportunity.

Since that time, a number of documents have been issued by the Vatican encouraging the proper use of the media, including the Internet. These have been good reminders, but they all say pretty much the same thing. On the other hand, this is largely because there is not all that much to counsel, from a Christian perspective, other than to use media morally, in a way that enhances rather than diminishes the common good, and to use it effectively to advance the Faith. Pope Benedict faces pretty much the same task in reference to social media in this year’s message for World Communications Day.

But there are two further questions which may not be quite so obvious: First, are some forms of media so certain to be degraded that they should simply be avoided altogether? Second, what are the specific strengths and weaknesses of each form of media, an understanding of which can enable us to use them more effectively and intelligently?

To its credit, the Church has never tried to condemn or resist the use of any kind of media technology, from the printing press to the Internet. She has never fallen into the trap of regarding any media as fundamentally evil; she knows that media itself is not a moral actor. That distinction belongs to the human person, who can use media for good or evil, just as he can use anything else. Consequently, you will not find Church documents which counsel Catholics to imitate the Amish, withdrawing from contemporary forms of media, and simply refusing to make use of them.

Besides simple realism, there is a very good reason for this refusal of the Church to condemn media in itself. Once any form of media becomes omnipresent in a culture, it necessarily becomes a chief means of reaching others with some sort of message. The Church, more than any other institution, exists to convey a message, a message which her Founder enjoined her to spread to the very ends of the earth. As a matter of principle, the Church seeks to use all media for apostolic purposes. This lies very deep in the Catholic DNA.

Obviously this does not mean there is no room for caution. One could make the case, for example, that under current conditions a great many people would be morally better off without access to the Internet. Truly the combination of ubiquitous media with a depraved culture poses grave dangers, particularly to the young—or, really, to anyone not yet largely triumphant in his quest for virtue. Good parents wrestle with such problems constantly. You can get in trouble very quickly in the city, and the internet makes the whole world a city. But speaking here of well-formed adults, which most Catholics who bother to read papal statements at least seriously aspire to be, it would make no sense to recognize that some form of media is fully integrated into our culture, and then to seek to solve the problem of the evil use of that media by having nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Now what about the special strengths and weanesses of each media form? Once again, it does not make a great deal of sense—though it is, I think, a common enough Catholic temptation—to loudly insist that a particular form of media has no real value when, in point of fact, the vast majority of people find great value in it. Such complaints have been made against nearly every form of media when it was new, and we see them raised again in a particular way with regard to social media.

Young people are for many reasons quicker to embrace new forms of communication. They learn more quickly and are far less fully habituated to older patterns—and they are strongly drawn to social media. They almost universally desire to know and be known through such media as Facebook and Twitter. Granted, they have much to learn about such disclosure. Moreover, one can argue that there are good reasons to keep time spent in such activities under strict control, as there are good reasons for keeping almost every use of our time under strict control. But surely it is foolish to try to dismiss such media as “worthless” when it is crystal clear that they represent considerable worth to almost everyone who uses them.

It is far better to discern the deeper nature of their positive attraction. And it just so happens that this is precisely where Pope Benedict’s message on social networks excels. It has a typically hopeful title, Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization. But it does not sacrifice perception to platitudes. “In these spaces,” the Pope insists, “it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves.” Some of us may throw up our hands and exclaim that this sharing is shallow or meaningless or inauthentic. This is sometimes true, and we may be tempted, somewhat defensively, to claim it is always true. But really it simply is not, as anyone who communicates extensively even by a means as old-fashioned as email knows.

And as the Pope knows:

The development of social networks calls for commitment: people are engaged in building relationships and making friends, in looking for answers to their questions and being entertained, but also in finding intellectual stimulation and sharing knowledge and know-how. The networks are increasingly becoming part of the very fabric of society, inasmuch as they bring people together on the basis of these fundamental needs. Social networks are thus nourished by aspirations rooted in the human heart.

While fully aware that truth and reason are often drowned out in online discussion by popularity and celebrity, Benedict also notices that the social media are increasingly used to discuss questions of Faith, sometimes in mixed environments where there is worthwhile debate, and sometimes among those who share values, who find in such discussions a welcome relief from what would otherwise be a very real isolation.

Let me extend this perception. People turn increasingly to social media for Faith discussions for two very good reasons. First, believers are in fact increasingly isolated and, in many cases, social media provides the only realistic opportunity for any sort of frequent faith-oriented interaction. Second, God has been more or less deliberately pushed out of places where an intellectual and emotional openness to religion might once have been found, such as clubs, schools, social agencies, and political life—not to mention many other forms of mass media, which are too often dominated in our culture by secularists and hedonists.

What this means, of course, is that for many people the primary use of social media will not be, as the Pope suggests, in “a new ‘agora’, an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.” There is always that possibility, of course, though once found it frequently degenerates. More often, I suspect, these new forms of media become ways for people to develop stronger relationships with those who would already be friends, if only they lived in the same neighborhood. But owing partly to the breakdown of widespread shared values, community life has also broken down, so that we too often do not know those in the same apartment building or on the same block. Perhaps, with good reason, we are even afraid to know them. These isolations are very real. Sometimes it is only through social media that we find that a great potential friend actually does live in the same neighborhood after all.

There is much to think about here. Granted, the Pope’s message is mostly another rather obvious statement on the media. But when one reads this Pope, there is always some special insight to be gained. So I will tweet this article and post it on Facebook, and I will also remind my readers that the Pope used Twitter to send a very encouraging message—a message to the intrepid but very cold Christians at this year’s March for Life.

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