Like many powerful forces in this world, online communication is capable of building-up humanity or tearing people down and apart from each other.
The stakes are particularly high for those who wish to evangelize online. The presence of Catholics in social media, blogs, news media comment streams, and other fora has the power to bring people closer to Christ and His Church or to drive them away. Salvation is at stake.
There are myriad questions about how Catholics can navigate these digital waters in a Christ-like manner. How much screen time is too much? Which news sources are reliable? Is it ever worthwhile reading comment sections at the end of news stories or blogs, let alone contributing to them? When is it effective to share my beliefs and opinions online and when is it counterproductive? Why do people on the Internet seem so angry, when the same people are usually kind in every other sphere of life? And how can I share my Catholic faith online in a way that is attractive, appropriately challenging and persuasive?
It would be impossible in an article of this size to take-up all of these questions in any meaningful way, but we will consider three activities that are essential to our engagement with the digital world. These activities are evangelizing, socializing, and not scandalizing (leading others to sin).
At the turn of the millennium, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that the time had come for all of the Church’s energies to be devoted to the new evangelization. Given the astounding amount of energy most people today invest in various online activities, it would be impossible to follow this papal mandate without evangelizing in the digital world.
As early as 1963, Pope St. Paul VI recognized the privileged opportunity for evangelization presented by the mass media. Although it predated the Internet’s rise, Paul VI’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications Inter Mirifica offers a great deal of wisdom concerning evangelization in media like the Internet. Paul VI writes the following in Paragraph 2:
“The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss.”
How do digital media “spread and support the Kingdom of God?” Before thinking about how evangelizing Catholics use these media, it is necessary to see that the simple fact that these media draw people together provides a critical foundation. It is worth noting that the words communication, community and communion all have the same root-word, meaning a “bond” or a “link.” Communication performed rightly binds people together, and over time fashions community out of what would otherwise be a mere collection of individuals. When the bonds of community are elevated and spiritually intensified by God’s grace, then communion begins to form.
Similarly, it is no accident that the name of our spiritual union, forged by God’s grace, is also a word we use to describe the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. When we receive Holy Communion, we are drawn into the most intimate union possible with Jesus Christ and with all of those who are united with Him in His Church. The Eucharist is also known as the “source and summit of evangelization,” a concept taught by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent popes. This title for the Eucharist brings us full circle and reminds us that our online evangelization must flow from the graces and the union with Christ that the Sacrament of His Body and Blood brings.
What does this kind of eucharistic engagement with the digital media look like? It begins with the very simple virtues of commitment to truth, respect for the human person, kindness, and a sense of divine purpose. Pope Benedict XVI writes in his 2013 Message for the 47th World Communications Day:
“These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family.”
Those engaged in evangelization often speak of fostering a “culture of encounter.” Pope Benedict points to the truth that the Internet is a privileged forum for interpersonal encounters of various kinds. By using social media, for example, countless people have reconnected with old friends, classmates, neighbors and coworkers. Online discussion groups abound, as do groups that promote common interests ranging from the religious to the professional, from family life to hobbies. Digital media draw people together in a whole panoply of ways, seemingly offering something for everyone.
These encounters often either deepen into full-fledged relationships or strengthen pre-existing relationships. Such relationships, in turn, provide countless opportunities for evangelization. If union with Christ in His Church is the goal of evangelization — and there can be no more intensely personal relationship than this! — then it stands to reason that cultivating strong relationships with others will be the foundation for sound evangelization.
Pope Benedict also writes of the importance of seeking and sharing knowledge online. Of course, the highest form of knowledge is knowledge of God. Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of information available online, and the wide variety of people contributing to discussions of theology, philosophy and current events, ensures that a great deal of lies and misinformation will find their way onto people’s screens. That is why it is essential that well-formed Catholics, clergy and laity alike, share the truth in love (see Ephesians 4:15). Catholics do this both by presenting positive arguments for the Catholic Faith and by challenging falsehood wherever they encounter it.
Exactly when and how any given Catholic ought to engage in such online teaching and debates depends much on the person’s strengths and weaknesses, who the other people involved are, and the circumstances. But all Catholics share a responsibility to prepare themselves to engage in these ways, remembering the words of 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear.”
In general, the better informed Catholics are about their faith, the more they pray about their use of digital media, and the more they keep their eyes fixed on Jesus (see Hebrews 12:2) and on the goal of sharing Him and drawing other people to Him and His Church, the more fruitful any efforts at evangelization will be. Pope Benedict stresses the need for “authenticity” in digital communications, and that what is shared online is not merely information, but oneself. Also, such good dispositions and habits will make evangelization much more natural. A Catholic does not need to hunt for opportunities to share his faith online. Opportunities will present themselves with surprising frequency.
All of this fits very well with the frequent call of Pope Francis to go “out to the margins” of society in order to share the Gospel. Catholics have varying degrees of comfort and familiarity with digital media, but remembering Christ’s love for those we encounter online and their need for Him ought to fill us with a sense of urgency. As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “The love of Christ compels us.”
Socializing without scandalizing
“How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one!” (Psalm 133:1)
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur.” (Luke 17:2)
One of the obstacles to evangelization in the digital media is the toxic climate of certain blogs, social media discussions and “news” outlets. It is difficult to imagine anyone spending any significant amount of time online without encountering the bitterness, sarcasm, personal insults and dismissive attitudes that characterize much of the online “conversation” about religion, politics and society.
Decades before this dramatic turn for the worse in our social discourse, Pope St. John Paul II in a letter to the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac expressed grave concern about widespread disrespect for the human person (emphasis added):
I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical significance and the mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical than of the moral order.
What can Catholics do to encourage wholesome and (especially) holy social engagement? How can Christ’s disciples be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16) online? Here are some rules that may prove helpful in engaging with virtue and grace those we meet online. The attraction to give exactly ten rules is irresistible:
1. Consider your purpose
Why are you online? With whom are you hoping to engage? What are you hoping to accomplish? Acting with a sense of purpose can do much to bring about what is good and avoid what is evil.
2. Remember all of your audiences when you post something online
What your high school friends find hilarious may not be so funny to your boss. And the examples can get worse from there.
3. Don’t do online what you would never do offline
Do you relentlessly hammer people with politically motivated insults at Sunday dinner or your book club meeting? Then why should you do it online?
4. Follow the J.O.Y. principle. Think of Jesus, Others, then Yourself
Putting it this way may seem a little corny, but if we followed this rule the world would be a much better place. Think of what God wants you to do online, and then think of the people with whom you engage. What are their needs, their aversions, their openness to friendship with you and with Jesus?
5. Take a universal approach
The three “universals” in our philosophical and theological tradition are the true, the good, and the beautiful. How does your activity in the digital media promote truth, beauty, and goodness? Does anything you do diminish them and therefore need to be changed?
6. Don’t do today what you’ll regret tomorrow, or 30 years from now
So simple, and yet so often unheeded, this rule recognizes not only the general need we have to do good and avoid evil, but also the fact that what we do online is etched in a permanent record. Our digital activity leaves footprints that are never completely erased. For this reason, it is best never to act out of anger or frustration online. It’s easy to mess-up when you are fired-up.
7. Misery loves company, but “company” doesn’t want or need your misery
The genuine sharing of one’s suffering, and the support such sharing elicits, can be one of the great benefits of social media use. But mere complaining, of which there is an abundance online, drags people down and fosters bitterness, cynicism and resentment. There is a difference.
8. A little suspicion can go a long way
If a news story seems to good … or too bad … to be true, then it just may be false. If a tidbit of good information, or a funny meme, comes from a problematic website, think about the impact of connecting your contacts to that site. Even sites that are okay in themselves but run lurid ads ought to be avoided. In other words, think not only about all the people with whom you are communicating, but also about all of the content you are sending their way. A critical eye can be extremely useful.
9. Only the Pope is the Pope
Not every issue requires every person’s commentary. Pronouncing public judgment is rightly done by a few people, and seldom, not by everyone all the time. One person’s way of thinking or acting is often not the only way (though sometimes it is). The Catholic Church has a wide scope of dispositions and activities that can legitimately be called faithful. It is essential to respect them all and to persevere in charity, even as we challenge each other to “repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
10. You can’t give what you don’t have
This classic principle of human life shapes all communication, but especially evangelization. “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus teaches in Luke 6:45. We need to pray, to perform acts of charity and penance, and to read Sacred Scripture and the classics of the Church’s Tradition if we are to fill our hearts with all that we would like to share with others.
Into the deep
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4)
The explosion of digital and social media has created an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to share her faith in the Lord Jesus. While this new mission territory is unfamiliar to many Catholics, others have done much to share the Gospel online and have created a path many others can follow.
In social media, blogs and other burgeoning digital fora, people are searching for community, knowledge, and a sense of belonging and meaning. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, particularly, Pope St. John Paul II, teach that Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question. Because they have Christ, Catholics have the answer their neighbors, family members and friends are seeking online.
In order to share Christ and the Church’s Faith in these new (and some not-so-new) media, Catholics need to dedicate themselves to holiness of life, strengthening their union with Jesus through the sacraments, prayer and works of charity and penance. They must pray for the Holy Spirit to fill and enlighten them, and to enliven them with great faith, hope and love, so that they will be able to share with others the gifts they have received.
Evangelizing online is not so very different from other forms of evangelization. It is the mask of anonymity that can sometimes inhibit online communication, causing a de-personalization of what ought to be a fully human form of encounter, engagement and mutual enrichment. Disciples of Christ will do well to foster in themselves and their fellow evangelizers all the virtues needed to unleash the Gospel with clarity and beauty, persuasively and lovingly drawing as many people as possible closer to the one Lord and Savior of all.