This is the original version of Bill Schmitt’s report on sections of Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation dealing with digital media culture as it affects young people.
Pope Francis has once again expressed a set of prayer-provoking insights about our use of contemporary media and Catholic stewardship of the “Good News” amid a changing information culture that distorts human community. He is expanding on a crucial theme, echoed in his World Communications Day messages and elsewhere: pastoral concern about online networks’ pitfalls, alongside their potential—and their need—for evangelization.
Christus Vivit (“Christ is Alive!”), the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, includes a section analyzing “the digital environment” that endangers society in ways we need to take more seriously. This wake-up call about today’s news-sharing tools intensifies the responsibility Catholics and all advocates of the common good should feel toward the hearts and minds of so-called digital natives.
Memorable quotes and terms punctuate the comprehensive diagnosis of high-tech toxicity which is one of the topics in the new document:
- “It is no longer merely a question of ‘using’ instruments of communication, but of living in a highly digitalized culture that has had a profound impact on ideas of time and space, on our self-understanding, our understanding of others and the world, and our ability to communicate, learn, be informed and enter into relationship with others.” Pope Francis suggests the short-attention-span approach that “privileges images over listening and reading” has damaged our “critical sense.” (paragraph 86)
- “The web and social networks … provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge.” Here, the pontiff is upbeat, appreciating technological incentives for “social and political engagement and active citizenship”; these encourage young people to stand up for the rights of the vulnerable. But he cautions that this new “public square” is not open equally to all citizens around the world. (87)
- “It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact. Indeed, the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, even to the extreme case of the ‘dark web.’” Cyberbullying, pornography and various channels for exploiting people reflect the non-incarnational character of online connections “blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” This adds to risks of addictions, isolation and “a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality.” (88) An environment of remoteness “creates a delusional parallel reality that ignores human dignity” and invites a “digital migration” into a lonely world of rootlessness and “self-invention.” Young people “must find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.” (90)
- “It should not be forgotten that there are huge economic interests operating in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process.” Various social media tend to favor encounters only among those who think alike, discouraging debate and creating “closed circuits” that incubate prejudice and hate. “Fake news,” about which Pope Francis has written before, reveals “a culture that has lost its sense of truth and bends the facts to suit particular interests.” Individuals’ reputations are subjected to “summary trials” online—a phenomenon from which “the Church and her pastors are not exempt.” (89)
- “What do I ask of the elders among whom I count myself? I call us to be memory keepers. We grandfathers and grandmothers need to form a choir. I envision elders as a permanent choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.” While this inspiring summons is not found within the digital-media section of the Apostolic Exhortation, it critiques our online culture’s obsession with spontaneous, emotive, knee-jerk reactions that leave little room for historical, contextual understanding. (196) “We have to realize that the wisdom needed for life bursts the confines of our present-day media resources,” Pope Francis says. (195) Implicitly challenging the technology’s ability to divide generations, he says older persons “can remind today’s young people … that a life without love is an arid life.” (197)
- “Young people need to be approached with the grammar of love, not by being preached at. The language that young people understand is spoken by those who radiate life, by those who are there for them and with them. And those who, for all their limitations and weaknesses, try to live their faith with integrity.” (211) With this instruction, Pope Francis joins his two immediate predecessors in reaffirming the words of Pope Paul VI: “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, he does so because they are witnesses.” Information and formation must go together, just like catechesis and evangelization, and they must be incarnated in flesh-and-blood experiences of accompaniment over time.
- “If the young grow up in a world in ashes, it will be hard for them to keep alive the flame of great dreams and projects…. The experience of discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of fundamental certainties, fostered by today’s media culture, creates a deep sense of orphanhood to which we must respond by creating an attractive and fraternal environment where others can live with a sense of purpose.” Many young people feel they have inherited “dreams betrayed by injustice, social violence, selfishness and lack of concern for others,” Pope Francis comments. (216)
This recalls the pontiff’s 2018 message for World Communications Day (about which I offered reflections in a book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?). There, the pontiff directed us to the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. Noting the necessity of a “journalism for peace” practiced by all of us as news consumers (and as news generators or publishers), Pope Francis admonished Christians to stop the betrayal, cultivate a humble sense of self-donation to others and bridge the chasms of online orphanhood: Where there is hatred, we must bring love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light.
Note: As covered in a previous blog post, Pope Francis wrote more about the responsible use of social media in his 2019 message for World Communications Day. A blog dedicated to insights for a faith-filled renewal of journalism, media and communities of conversation continues here. The book, When Headlines Hurt, last month was awarded the Seal of Approval of the Catholic Writers Guild.