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Paul Schratz - Life In The Schratz Lane

The Web is a net, not a trap

Voices Jan. 24, 2019

Pope Francis uses a tablet to launch the new Click to Pray app and online platform. In his message for World Communications Day, the Pope reminds Catholics that online communities  “are not automatically synonymous with community.” (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Catholic Church is getting a healthy dose of bad publicity these days. From the ongoing abuse crisis right up to the Covington Catholic high school controversy, it’s enough to make you long for the good old days when anti-Catholic prejudice was all we had to deal with.

I’m writing this on the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists. It’s also World Communications Day, and in his message for this day, Pope Francis touches on the subject of information and disinformation on the World Wide Web, as well as themes of isolation and community in the digital age.

He reminds us of the promise that “the Net” originally offered – something that’s apparent in the very metaphor of a net. A net works so well because of its many “lines and intersections that ensure its stability,” meaning “all its elements share responsibility.”

The net metaphor also works from an anthropological perspective, Francis points out, suggesting an image of a networked community. “A community is that much stronger if it is cohesive and supportive, if it is animated by feelings of trust, and pursues common objectives. The community as a network of solidarity requires mutual listening and dialogue, based on the responsible use of language.”

It’s hard to think of today’s Internet, in particular social media, as resembling anything like that.

It should be obvious, says Francis, that “social network communities are not automatically synonymous with community,” at least the way they’re currently structured. Online communities might be able to complement authentic personal relationships, but true community requires us to “invest in relationships, and to affirm the interpersonal nature of our humanity, including in and through the network.”

Just as St. Paul used the metaphor of a body and its members to describe the “reciprocal relationship among people,” Francis tells us “the use of the social web is complementary to an encounter in the flesh that comes alive through the body, heart, eyes, gaze, breath of the other.”

If we use the Internet “as an extension or expectation” of personal encounters, “then the network concept is not betrayed and remains a resource for communion,” says the Pope.

The same is true if families use the net to be more connected and “then meet at table and look into each other’s eyes.” Or if a Church community coordinates its activities through the net but then celebrates the Eucharist together. The net can be used to “share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering that are physically distant from us,” so that we pray together and “together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us.”

There is a spirituality of communication that we have lost sight of. Decades before the Internet and social media, Pope John Paul II reminded us that the media had become so important, they were the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, family, and social behaviour. He reminded us the media are a gift from God. By working in faith with the Holy Spirit, they can help us to communicate the Gospel and encourage dialogue between religious communities. He frequently urged the Church to use the media to spread the Gospel and integrate the message of salvation into the “new culture” the media were creating.

Real communication leads to communion, said John Paul, since salvation history is all about God communicating with man.

Anyone who spends any time online or on social media knows there is a great need for authentic communication in the digital environment. Rather bringing true communication and communion to the Internet, we wear blinders, use formulaic talking points, engage in snark, and deny other digital citizens their right to be perceived as God’s sons and daughters.

Last century, Archbishop Fulton Sheen foresaw the approaching upheaval when he said the “The hardest thing to find in the world today is an argument.” People engaged in controversies relied on prejudice rather than intellectual argument, he said. “Thinking, on the contrary, is a difficult task; it is the hardest work a man can do – that is perhaps why so few indulge in it.”

Perhaps if we start to love each other more – including those we encounter on the Internet – we’ll be able to think more.

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World Communications Day is also the unofficial early start of Catholic Press Month in February. On Feb. 3, a special Catholic Press collection takes place in all parishes. This is an opportunity to help your parish provide The B.C. Catholic to parishioners each week. Unlike other collections, the collection stays within the parish to help them recover as much as 70 per cent of their B.C. Catholic distribution costs. Thank you for your generosity.