Column: Benedict and Francis on social media

Published on June 3, 2014.

In a column I wrote over a year ago, I teased the country’s two cardinal-electors for asserting, in a news conference they called after they returned from the conclave that elected Pope Francis, that the Holy Spirit did not read social media. It was their good-natured way of expressing just how surprising the turn of events had been: the first resignation of a pope in 600 years, the first pope from the so-called New World, the first pope to be named after Francis of Assisi.

But I thought it was a mistake, theologically, to consider any form of media to be off-limits to God. I traced my argument back to Benedict XVI’s own thoughts on social media. As it happens, in the message he prepared for last year’s World Communications Day, Benedict had chosen to focus on social media. The title of the message was a useful summary: “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.”

If online social networks are spaces where the evangel can be shared, then by definition it cannot be off-limits to the source of the same good news.

I am reminded of this little truth all over again because last Sunday, Francis’ own message for this year’s World Communications Day was discussed in church. He had given it a broad title, “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” but in fact it had a narrower focus, on digital and social media.

Comparing the two messages is instructive.

I thought it was a real privilege for the Church to be led after the philosopher John Paul II by a theologian of the very highest caliber. Benedict XVI’s encyclicals were epitomes of that balance between faith and reason that he preached. His thoughts on social media have the same quality of balance, of a formidable intellect working out the implications of a profound faith.

“In the digital environment… where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail, we are called to attentive discernment. Let us recall in this regard that Elijah recognized the voice of God not in the great and strong wind, not in the earthquake or the fire, but in ‘a still, small voice’ (1 Kg 19:11-12). We need to trust in the fact that the basic human desire to love and to be loved, and to find meaning and truth—a desire which God himself has placed in the heart of every man and woman—keeps our contemporaries ever open to what Blessed Cardinal Newman called the ‘kindly light’ of faith.”

There is the precision in terms: “attentive discernment.” The exact scriptural passage to clinch the point: “a still, small voice.” Not least, the scholarly reference: John Henry Newman’s “kindly light.”

Francis is a pastor through and through, and his message is eminently pastoral; that is to say, he speaks of practical matters.

“What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding?  We need… to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm.  This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.  We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us.  People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted.”

I found the point at which the “I” of the pope breaks in, so to speak, to make an emphasis, particularly illuminating.

In Benedict’s message (which is written in the first person singular), the use of the “I” in the following passage paints a complementary picture; that is, it complements the scholarly language with vivid images personal to Benedict.

“Effective communication, as in the parables of Jesus, must involve the imagination and the affectivity of those we wish to invite to an encounter with the mystery of God’s love. Besides, we know that Christian tradition has always been rich in signs and symbols: I think, for example, of the Cross, icons, images of the Virgin Mary, Christmas cribs, stained-glass windows and pictures in our churches.”

Christmas cribs and stained-glass windows: Another pope would have a somewhat different list, or a different sequence.

In Francis’ own message, the “I” breaks in to complement the pastoral, particular language with a generalization.

“Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbors.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.  I like seeing this power of communication as ‘neighborliness’.”

This power, in fact, is Francis’ suggested antidote to the shallow connectedness that dooms many of us active on social media. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected’; connections need to grow into true encounters.”

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Religion

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