I was reading and enjoying Joseph Williams's article "#OnlyHuman" in the spring issue of Fare Forward when I came across this line concerning how to engage social media responsibly: "So what do we do? Some suggest we disconnect altogether, a weak cop-out that would throw the baby out with the bathwater."
Williams writes a few paragraphs later:
Like all distortions in our fallen world, these unique developments [social media] point us towards the solution to our oldest and newest problems—Christ’s sacrificial life, showing his love for us through his death on the Cross. We should do what we are called to do in all things. We should put it in perspective by laying it at the foot of the Cross.
I am at a loss as to how these thoughts cohere. As someone who deleted his Facebook account halfway through college (a decision catalyzed but not begun by my stumbling across this article), has never created a Twitter account, and couldn't distinguish one "social" app from another, my decision to abandon social networking was precisely a result of "putting it in perspective by laying it at the foot of the Cross."
Williams isn't alone in his position. I've also heard many friends argue that withdrawing completely from social networks like Facebook and Twitter constitutes an abdication of a forum of enormous potential for social evangelization. Some argue that young adults especially have a moral duty to take to the battlegrounds of social networks in defense of various social causes, lest one be content to let the millions of persons whose outlook is shaped powerfully if subtly by the trends and dynamics they witness online be swayed by liberal media campaign strategy. I have friends studying communications media at John Paul the Great Catholic University, where they learn how "to bring the light of the Gospel to all nations by passionately articulating the faith using new forms of communication." Many people do make good use of Facebook and Twitter in these ways.
Nevertheless, I want to argue in this essay that whether one creates and uses a Facebook or Twitter account is a vocational decision, not merely a moral or far less a recreational or social one, and that as such the decision to utilize or withdraw from these media is one that must be examined prayerfully in a vocational light.
The Goodness of Social Media
The Catholic Church unequivocally affirms the goodness and utility of social media. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications Inter Mirifica opens with the lines:
Among the wonderful technological discoveries which men of talent, especially in the present era, have made with God's help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which have a most direct relation to men's minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort.
Inter Mirifica goes on to outline the norms that must govern responsible use of social media and communications, concluding that innovative technologies should be engaged as tools in evangelization, at the service of the social and moral good that the Church continually promotes.
John Paul II revisited this theme in his 2005 apostolic letter Rapid Development. Writing more than 40 years after the Council, John Paul addressed a world awash in the Internet Age and on its way into the technological life of the third millennium. Underscoring his own affirmation of Inter Mirifica, John Paul writes in the letter’s first section (titled “Faithful Progress in the Wake of the Decree Inter Mirifica”) that:
the Church is not only called upon to use the mass media to spread the Gospel but, today more than ever, to integrate the message of salvation into the “new culture” that these powerful means of communication create and amplify. It tells us that the use of the techniques and the technologies of contemporary communications is an integral part of its mission in the third millennium … the communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior (Rapid Development 2, 3).
Pope Francis more recently reiterated this theme, one that will accompany the Church perennially now, in his address earlier this summer on the occasion of the 48th World Communications Day, when he said, “In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all”:
Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God … Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world.
As much as any papal approval, the obvious good fruits of the various social media apostolates—from the Catholic presses and journals for the creation and proliferation of which Inter Mirifica called, to Fr. Robert Barron’s Word On Fire ministry, to the various valuable Catholic blogs and online journals—bear witness to the goodness of social media when used to further evangelization in accordance with the norms of Catholic life and teaching.
Curmudgeonly disapproval of social media as realities that are more trouble than they’re worth has no place in Catholic teaching. John Paul goes so far as to affirm (citing earlier writings from his own pontificate) that “the communications media [are] pathways providentially given by God to intensify communion and to render more penetrating the proclamation of His Word” (Rapid Development 6, my emphasis); Francis registers that despites its occupational temptations and shortcomings, we “cannot justify rejecting social media.”
Qualifying and Distinguishing Social Media
What sorts of things qualify as “social media” in these documents?
Inter Mirifica states explicitly that “most important of these inventions are ... the press, movies, radio, television and the like …” (1). John Paul II, writing in 2005, acknowledges the internet as an increasingly central dimension not only of evangelical aspiration but of global communication and community generally; he places Inter Mirifica’s media within “a complete panorama of Church communications” (Rapid Development 9). In 2005 Facebook and Twitter were not established realities of social communications. Yet by 2014 Francis openly includes social networks among the objects of his exhortations: “[T]oday the social networks [which the Pope calls “environment(s) rich in humanity”] are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ.” And, of course, much was made of Pope Benedict’s (well, his advisors’) decision to create a papal Twitter account, this decision being a symbolic opening of the Church to the exigencies of the modern world, so it was said.
Truly, much of what can be said of social media generally also applies to Facebook and Twitter. Facebook describes itself as a “social utility that connects people with friends and others,” and Twitter says simply of itself, “connect with your friends.”
Yet social networks like Facebook and Twitter are different than the ‘traditional’ social media enumerated by Inter Mirifica in this key respect, that these more modern platforms allow for a degree and scope of naked self-presentation previously unmatched. The profiling central to the dissemination of information on these sites sets them apart from TV or radio programs in that the medium through which information is communicated via social networks is wholly inseparable from the self-presentation one puts forward on one’s profile. The message and messenger are fused to an unparalleled degree, and this makes sense within the sphere that Facebook, for one, means to carve out: Not a sphere the purpose of which is the imparting of a message or theme (as in film) artistically and aesthetically—though some would argue that sharing photos or videos constitutes such an aesthetic sharing—but which endeavors to connect individuals together within a world society rooted in just that, connectedness.
The chief social draw of Facebook, Twitter, and similar outlets, then, is the same dynamic that renders them especially prone to idolatry in a way unlike the social media of Paul VI’s day: incorporation into a larger community in which personal experience gains value and currency precisely as shared experience, as knowledge made public for the sake of public consumption, or, put less crudely, enjoyment. Such incorporation dynamics image (and how could they not?) the incorporation proper into the worshiping Body of Christ. But they do so imperfectly and dangerously, at the risk of obscuring the altogether different dynamics of that other incorporation through which real communion—the goal of all communication!—is realizable.
Social Networking and the Norms of Communication
Now we have touched upon the elements of social networks that make them both desirable and dangerous: their assimilation to authentic communities achieved by incorporation into an entity the whole of which gives renewed meaning and import to the lives of its parts. (Such is the case in the charisms of the Spirit serving each their own function within the life of the Church.) Stated this way, one might wonder what is dangerous about social networks thusly understood. That danger lies in the dissimilarity between the kinds of communication that are possible via social (meaning, for the purposes of this essay, digital) networking as opposed to personal interactions.
Facebook (and Twitter, though to a lesser extent) is meant to be a social sphere in which connectivity is king, and presence within this community is signified not only chiefly but solely through “speaking up”—through posting, commenting, liking, sharing. Contributions to this digital society are fashioned only as output, as productivity. The price of citizenship in the digital community is the willingness to add one’s thoughts and words to the discussion. Facebook and Twitter users who produce no content but merely scan the digital horizon for interesting news both personal and recreational are not forging the bonds of connectivity; they are merely observing others’ forging of those bonds, even if they themselves benefit from that observation.
This dynamic’s undeniable prevalence in the digital community is evidenced above all in the perverted proliferation of self-disclosing posts (including “selfies”) the presence of which online is otherwise inexplicable. The majority of output on social networking sites, I would hazard to guess, would not have found its way online unless the poster understood herself to be a) benefiting somehow from this disclosure, precisely because b) in so doing she constitutes her personal presence within the community whose affirmation and shared vicariousness gives rise to (and arguably constitute as well) those feelings of beneficence. It’s no wonder that the history or record of one’s profile on such sites is called an activity log.
In this key respect—that communication via social networking is primarily if not solely an act of output or production—the dynamic of incorporation that makes these networks attractive also departs most fully from authentic communal incorporation. For, that latter incorporation is into a body the communicative norms of which not only permit (make possible) but positively encourage the opposite of the acts demanded by the logic of social networking: silence.
Reasons for Unplugging: Toward Interior Silence
The discerning reader may wonder why the writings of Pope Benedict were not mentioned at the outset of this essay. The answer to that query is that Benedict, not surprisingly, offers a reflective and (I would argue) more serious insight into the meaningful dangers of social media and networking: those institutions’ proclivity to shape habitual opposition to silence and the affective capacity to listen well.
Benedict began his final papal World Communications Day address with these lines:
I would like to share with you some reflections concerning an aspect of the human process of communication which, despite its importance, is often overlooked and which, at the present time, it would seem especially necessary to recall. It concerns the relationship between silence and word: two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved. When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness (my emphasis).
One may safely assume that Benedict, as Francis two summers afterward, does have contemporary social networking—as well as the phenomenon, if not label, of the “blogosphere”—in mind with this critique, being made aware of various evangelical ministries that utilize such outlets. And in this context, Benedict’s words evoke the interesting and ultimately telling questions: What does silence in the world of social networking look like, and how could it be distinguished from absence from those worlds?
Benedict’s entire address is characteristically thoughtful and conveys a genuine sense of interior stillness. (All of Benedict’s “spiritual” or pastoral writings bear this identifying mark: a delivery expressive of the same still, listening heart that he himself urges us to cultivate.) “Silence is an integral element of communication,” he writes; “in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.” With silence and as its fruit, “we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves.”
I pause here to note that both John Paul and Francis reiterate this same theme; I mean not to drive a wedge between these Popes’ perspectives on social media. John Paul writes in Rapid Development that “the Incarnate Word has left us an example of how to communicate with the Father and humanity,” including “in moments of silence and recollection” (5). Francis emphasizes that in the age of social media “we need … to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.”
But Benedict of the three most fully articulates this theology of silence vis-à-vis social media and networking, juxtaposing it with that richest and most pregnant silence, that of Christ on the Cross. The passage prefacing this reflection merits full reproduction:
If we are to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions, then silence is a precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive. Amid the complexity and diversity of the world of communications, however, many people find themselves confronted with the ultimate questions of human existence: Who am I? What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? It is important to affirm those who ask these questions, and to open up the possibility of a profound dialogue, by means of words and interchange, but also through the call to silent reflection, something that is often more eloquent than a hasty answer and permits seekers to reach into the depths of their being and open themselves to the path towards knowledge that God has inscribed in human hearts.
Were not these the questions that Christ asked while hanging upon the Cross? “Why have you forsaken me?”—who am I, who is God, can I no longer hope in his presence? And are not these the questions that ground the impulse to take to social media in the first place for answers both experiential and informational? Yet the logic of social networking encourages its participants to establish communion through output, and as such, silence has no personal or communal value in the online world; silence does not contribute to the online community; the more silence, the less communication is established. Without communication, no communion is reached.
Yet: “The eloquence of God’s love, lived to the point of the supreme gift, speaks in the silence of the Cross,” Benedict writes. “God’s silence prolongs his earlier words.” Thus, laying one’s life at the foot of the Cross yields the overwhelming silence of—among other things—reverence. Reverence for the supreme sacrifice of Christ, who endured in silence the mockery of his persecutors, who endured in silence the loneliness of the Cross. Silence is the chief mark and sign of reverence. Are we surprised that in an age in which the dominant cultural community is the digital community, a generation that doesn’t know how to listen is given over to various forms of irreverence? Or that such irreverence is evinced in the affective behaviors of public “selfie” taking and by other actions that suggest a self-conscious awareness of the value of codifying one's life’s intimate and beautiful moments via digital outputs, media activities? That this generation surrounds itself with social ambience (which obtains fever pitch in the online community) so as to avoid the silence that it deeply yearns for, and needs?
Facebook, Twitter, and the like become habits for those who engage them (if not social addictions). Habits are characteristics that incline one toward particular acts, with particular views in mind. Each of us ought to respect the goods of friendship, sociability, and communion with God (these seem to me the most pertinent) in each of our activities. But if the logic of social networking encourages digital “talkativity” and disourages (because renders inseparable from absence from the community) silence; and if without silence we cannot listen to God and contemplate those large questions that Christ asked on the Cross; what does this mean for our embrace of social networking? And is it possible that we can enable and further our own and others’ participation in these goods by unplugging from social networking, in all which that unplugging entails for our lives, habits, dispositions, and availabilities?
A Vocational Decision
The conclusion of this reflection is not, and by the Church’s lights cannot be, a wholesale rejection of social media, nor a diatribe against its intrinsic evils. Social media and social networking do have intrinsic temptations, but that is true of every good. The relevant question is whether in the course of one’s discernment one perceives that placing the question of Facebook and Twitter at the foot of the Cross of Silence yields a response that calls for abandoning social networking, like the dropped nets of Galilee, not because fishing is evil, but because one is called to cultivate silence in a way incompatible with commitment to those outlets.
“We are all challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert,” Francis cautions. “Everyone should know how to foster an attentive discernment and constant vigilance, developing a healthy critical capacity regarding the persuasive force of the communications media,” John Paul teaches (Rapid Development 13). And while “the appreciation of the media is not reserved only to those already adept in the field, but to the entire Church Community” (8), and “the positive development of the media at the service of the common good is a responsibility of each and every one” (8), one can responsibly support and endorse just this project despite himself avoiding creation and maintenance of a profile. In the great incorporation into Christ’s body, some are called to blog, some are called to evangelize via Facebook and to educate via Twitter. Others are not. The only imperative incorporation is into Christ’s body; all others serve that cardinal community. Were incorporation into the digital networking community to be a duty in the way some construe it, one couldn’t justify not being as active as possible in it. But the goods that perfect us are not commensurable as such, and admit therefore of no such linear quantitative calculus.
The cloistered’s retreat from the world understands the world (the good of marriage and so many other “secular” opportunities for full-being) as good; the Catholic’s retreat from social media sees it as good. But the “best” decision one can make in respect to discernment is to accept the particular and irreplaceable task that Christ calls him to in the building up of the Kingdom that he will hand over to his Father on the last day.
Pope Francis calls in his World Communications Day address for a renewed “culture of encounter.” For many more persons than presently realize this, the communion that embeds and guides communication efforts will be realized more readily if one drops one’s social networking nets and thereby either avoids a temptation particularly vicious given one’s temperament, or liberates oneself for more stillness, silence, prayer, and contemplation (as Paul lauds the unmarried for being capable of).
And there, at the foot of the Cross, one might throw the socializing baby out with the digital community bathwater and embrace a fuller silence of reverence. Babies in the bath can be rather noisy, after all.