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New Vatican document offers guidance for use of social media [News Analysis]

May 29, 2023

News analysis by Phil Lawler

In a new document released on May 29, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication offers an unusually thorough and insightful reflection on the “challenge of fostering peaceful, meaningful, and caring relationships on social media.”

As internet use has become more widespread and more important in daily life, Vatican officials have often commented on the dangers and the opportunities provided by the new social media. But now the Dicastery for Communications remarks that “we are living in an ecosystem shaped at its core by the experience of social sharing,” and addresses the challenges of that new reality.

The document—signed by Paolo Ruffini and Msgr. Lucio Ruiz, the prefect and secretary, respectively, of the dicastery—shows a keen understanding of the new social media. Although it does not suggest specific guidelines for internet use, it aims “to promote a common reflection about our digital experiences, encouraging both individuals and communities to take a creative and constructive approach that can foster a culture of neighborliness.”

The title of the document—“Towards a Full Presence”—is not promising. But much of the reflection is built upon an interesting reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. “The parable can inspire social media relationships because it illustrates the possibility of a profoundly meaningful encounter between two complete strangers. The Samaritan breaks down the ‘social divide’: he reaches beyond the boundaries of agreement and disagreement.”

Digital dangers

The document recognizes how the uses of social media have transformed our lives, changing the way we think and react, tempting the users of the social media toward superficial thinking and digital overstimulation.

Instead of focusing on one issue at a time, our continuous partial attention rapidly passes from one topic to the other. In our ‘always on’ condition, we face the temptation to post instantly since we are physiologically hooked on digital stimulation, always wanting more content in endless scrolling and frustrated by any lack of updates.

Beyond those well-known problems, the Vatican also calls attention to the use of powerful algorithms that collect data about the users of social media: data that can be harvested for commercial purposes. For that reason, the Vatican cautions that the use of social media “is not free: we are paying with minutes of our attention and bytes of our data.”

The document cautions against the commercialization of social-media accounts, but also observes that the same algorithms bring together people with similar outlooks, and “when each person retreats into his or her own filtered bubble, social media is becoming a path leading many towards indifference, polarization, and extremism.” As we are each exposed to opinions that match our own—and as the more vivid expressions of those opinions capture more attention and more again more influence, the social media are “encouraging extreme behaviors.”

The Christian style: weavers of communion

To guard against these dangers, the Vatican document encourages Christians to adopt a “listening” approach to the social media, seeking genuine understanding of those with whom they interact. “The Christian style should be reflective, not reactive, on social media,” the document says.

Moreover, the Christian “digital native” should work with others, building relationships online that create a real sense of community. “It is urgent then to learn to act together, as a community and not as individuals. Not so much as individual influencers, but as weavers of communion: pooling our talents and skills, sharing knowledge and contributions.”

The Dicastery for Communication even offers a way to understand the concept of “community” as it might develop through social media:

Far beyond mere geographic-territorial or ethnic-cultural proximity, what constitutes a community is a common sharing of truth together with a sense of belonging, reciprocity, and solidarity, in the different spheres of social life.

The Vatican message cautions digital natives against superficial measures of online success, reminding them that “there were no ‘likes’ at all and almost no ‘followers’ at the moment of the biggest manifestation of the glory of God!” Every Christian who has an online presence is at least a “mini-influencer,” the document remarks. Those who develop a larger following have greater responsibilities, but everyone has a moral obligation to use the social media for good purposes, mindful of their ability to bring others closer to Christ.

The Vatican’s own problems

The new Vatican document leaves some important questions unanswered. “There is an urgent need to act not merely as individuals, but as communities,” the Dicastery for Communication tells readers. But there are few concrete suggestions for building such communities. Similarly, the document offers the hopeful message that “the social web is not cast in stone. We can change it.” But beyond saying that we can put pressure on the major online providers to make their platforms into “more humand and healthier environments,” the document provides no more practical guidance.

At 82 paragraphs, the document is lengthy—particularly for a message that cautions about the decreasing attention-span of the internet user. And occasionally it lapses into ecclesiastical jargon—as when it makes the nearly meaningless suggestion that the internet can show “the synodal face of the Church.”

But perhaps the greatest weakness of this Vatican document lies in the fact that it does not address a glaring example of the approach against which “Toward True Presence” inveighs. The Vatican warns against the divisions within the Church that can be caused or aggravated by hasty, intemperate, and disrespectful comments. It even notes that such a confrontational approach is “particularly worrying when it comes from Church leadership.” Yet for obvious reasons the Dicastery for Communications does not mention that the single man most responsible for causing divisions by that approach is also the man quoted most frequently in this pastoral message.


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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - May. 30, 2023 4:23 PM ET USA

    My rewrite of this Vatican mumbo-jumbo: To use social media well, believe in Jesus Christ; if you don’t already do so, seek Him out. Ask for His help in every word you write or speak. Then do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and preach the Gospel, in season and out of season. That’s pretty much all you need to remember. [81 paragraphs to spare]

  • Posted by: frjt - May. 29, 2023 6:58 PM ET USA

    How about we start with this: get francis off social media if he's in a plane or giving an interview to communistic atheists....