Professing the Faith in Cyberspace

Finally, Catholics everywhere can rest easy knowing that their Facebook activity isn’t going to come at the cost of salvation —not as far as the Pope is concerned, anyway. Pope Benedict XVI,  in his recent message for World Communications Day entitled “Truth, Proclamation, and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,”assured his public that so long as they use social networking tools like Facebook and Myspace in an honest, open, responsible and respectful fashion —that is, “a Christian fashion”—they had his blessing. And how hip is that? Coming from the head honcho of one of the most anachronistic institutions going, I’d say it’s a step forward; or at least a step in sync with society. Indeed, Archbishop Claudio Celli has confirmed that the Pontifical Council for Social Communications is, in fact, currently in the process of developing a set of guidelines with recommendations for Catholic behavior online. Believers be ready: There is a new set of commandments on the way, and this time they’ll be sent directly to your inbox. However, as such legislation may not come to light for a while, Pope Benedict kindly reminded his followers last week that, above all, “the proclamation of the Gospel requires communication […] which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples […] By his approach to them, they were led gradually to the understanding of the mystery.”That’s right –  follow the example set by Christ and you too can understand the mystery of social networking. If nothing else, it should at least get you a few more people following your Twitter account. In a digital age, embracing technology is a matter of survival. And so, we see the church choose survival once more as Catholicism floats on amidst a changing world flooded with new trends and new technologies. But I cannot be so simplistic —there are bigger things at work here than Facebook, the pope and a few cheap jokes. For though His Holiness has acknowledged the potential benefits of social networking sites, his message also comes with some considerable —and very curiously worded —warnings. It is in these strange admonitions that I am particularly interested. His Holiness cautions against abusing online commodities, reminding users of the dangers of fanaticism: “Entering cyberspace,”he writes, “can be a sign of authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence.” He goes on to critique the inherent limitations of digital communication versus what one can only assume must be real human-to-human contact, as any alternative is entirely susceptible to the same criticisms. “The one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image for oneself”—all of these are among Pope Benedict’s reasons for placing digital communication on the lower end of the communication spectrum. I pray readers that I am not alone in finding such criticisms so perplexing. “Is there,”he asks, “a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world other than the one in which we live?”Hmm. A very interesting question coming from the head of the Catholic Church. I’ve got to give it to His Holiness: I think we finally found something we agree on. As to whether or not such an interpretation was the one intended I am doubtful. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict really seems to have hit the nail right on the head this time, even if the nail he hit was not the one he was aiming for. So while that message you sent to the Holy Spirit may remain unanswered, know now that it’s not the result of those pictures you posted from that wild night last weekend —just chalk it all up to the one sidedness of digital communication.