The dangerous online life of Catholics

Three top Church leaders in Rome recently pointed out the perilous situation of polarization among Catholics at this time.

Apr 17, 2021

By Massimo Faggioli
Three top Church leaders in Rome recently pointed out the perilous situation of polarization among Catholics at this time.

The first was Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa. The Capuchin friar, who is the official Preacher of the Papal Household, noted in his Good Friday homily that fraternity and unity among Catholics is deeply wounded.

He said it was up to the Church's pastors "to be the first to make a serious examination of conscience" and "ask themselves where it is that they are leading their flocks – to their position or Jesus's".

Three days later it was the turn of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State.

In an interview aired April 5 on COPE, a Church-owned radio network in Spain, he said the divisions are real and they are harmful.

"Anyone who sees the situation of the Church today has to worry about these things because they are there," Parolin said.

Then just two days after that, Pope Francis spoke up at his Wednesday general audience, making what seemed to be a gentle dig at the importance some Catholics give to social media while he was speaking about praying in communion with the saints.

"Prayers — those that are good — are 'expansive', they propagate themselves continuously, with or without being posted on social media: from hospital wards, from moments of festive gatherings to those in which we suffer silently," he said.

"The suffering of each is the suffering of all, and one's happiness is transmitted to someone else's soul," the pope added.

Institutional Church is remarkably silent
It is very interesting to follow the footprints of what Francis says on the Internet and online social media. Veteran Italian journalist Guido Mocellin has been tracking the Pope’s online presence for quite some time for L’Avvenire.

This broadsheet, which is owned by the Italian Bishops’ Conference, has become one of Italy’s most courageous newspapers because of the attention it gives to social and international issues.

Francis’ impact on social media is interesting because the institutional Church is remarkably silent on what our life online means for our sense of communion.

There has been no significant attempt by the teaching authority of the Church up till now to make theological sense of how  our communal life online impacts the ecclesial community and its unity.

The Catholic Church has always been quick to use modern means of communication, but slow and cautious in assessing them.

The Vatican in the years since John Paul II
Only some local churches have made an effort, especially as regards the impact of digital culture on catechesis and the formation of ministers and priests.

But there is not much else on the Church and the Internet, especially coming from the Vatican, in terms of intellectual reflection.

For example, Pope Francis created a new Dicastery for Communication in 2015, which he charged with reforming and consolidating the Vatican’s diversified media operations.

Whatever one thinks of that reform, the new dicastery is the executive arm and not – or at least not yet – a place where the Vatican does its thinking about the media.

For example, the dicastery’s webpage has a section that offers Church magisterial documents on the media. The most recent is an instruction that John Paul II issued in January 2005. That’s more than 15 years ago!

The “liturgical and quasi-religious” features of online Catholicism
Many Catholics now seem to spend more time online than they do attending to most other activities, including prayer.

But, in fact, our online life has liturgical and quasi-religious features: solemnities on the calendar, its saints and martyrs, a hierarchy between the celebrants-leaders and the assembly, forms of sanctions and excommunication, etc.

These absorbing features of online life play an important role in the radicalisation of religious identities, included the Catholic one, and they are a factor in the rise of polarization and division in the Church.

American novelist and essayist Patricia Lockwood, follows an unnamed protagonist’s interactions with a virtual platform called “the portal” in her debut novel, No One Is Talking About This.

She describes how life online affects our lives in a way that could teach a lot to Church leaders.

For instance, she says our communal life online is lived like a school of fish that intuitively changes direction together, leaving anyone who does not follow along isolated and exposed to predators.

Her use of the stream of consciousness is appropriate for a lived community in which often “we live a mind not entirely our own, in which we are acted upon as much as acting”.

When religious zealotry discovered the Internet
The language dynamics that Lockwood describes apply to the language of religious zealots on social media, including those who identify as Catholics.

“What began as the most elastic and snappable verbal play soon emerged in  jargon, and then in doctrine, and then in dogma,” she notes.

It reminds me of some of the diktats of self-appointed, 21st-century Catholic grand inquisitors who have vast following on Twitter.

Lockwood clearly knows a thing or two about the dangerous mixture of the Internet and religious zealotry.

She became famous in 2017 for her memoir Priestdaddy, in which she anatomised the experience of being brought up as the daughter of a right-wing priest. Her father was a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism and was allowed to keep his wife and family through special Vatican dispensation.

But this online life of Catholics is not all bad news.

The new form of virtual communion made possible by the Internet can become a sharing of virtues.

It’s high time for a theological reflection on social media
A very interesting book published in 2020 by an emerging American Catholic theologian, Katherine Schmidt, points out the theological consequences and opportunities of the Internet for the Church. “In the absence of a twentieth-century versions of liminal spaces whereby members of the Body of Christ engage in symbolic exchange, the Internet has become a potential site for communion,” she says.

“While not ignoring the overwhelmingly vitriolic, divisive, and even violent nature of some online social communication, it is possible to see moments of symbolic exchange that reflect the gratuitous love of God we learn in the Eucharist,” Schmidt writes.

The COVID pandemic has shifted our  lives even more towards virtual spaces. And so, it’s high time for a theological reflection on social media.

This is necessary, not just because of the number of Catholics who spend a significant part of their lives there, but because social media has already changed the communication footprints of Church leaders – in some cases disastrously, in most cases unconsciously.

For some seminarians and young clergy, the Internet even seems to have replaced institutional sources of learning and training.

Katherine Schmidt has argued elsewhere that digital literacy should be required for all ministers and leaders in the Church, lay and clerical alike, but especially in seminary coursework.

Some seminaries and bishops’ conferences have issues guidelines and policies, but one wonders whether, or how, they are working.

And it would be interesting to look into the guidelines and policies for seminarians and clergy in those dioceses whose bishops engage regularly in embarrassing behaviour on social media.

The fact that Pope Francis has one of the most followed accounts on Twitter says nothing about the Church’s consciousness and awareness of the deep effects of social media on the life of Catholics and on ecclesial communion.

The Barque of Peter is supposed to be and behave differently from a school of fish.

And yet, the perception on the outside and the self-perception of the Church are more and more shaped by the divisions in full display in the online life of its members. –– LCI (https:// international.la-croix.com)

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