It’s been said that the COVID-19 crisis is “accelerating history.” It seems more decisions have to be made–by individuals, communities, societies, and the entire world–more quickly and with less certainty, less consultation, and less complete information. Even though it’s hard to imagine an environment that is more immersed in news and data. I’ve heard a new term: we’re living in an “infodemic.” Catholic values can help in a few ways: questioning any urges to rush to judgment without encounters with diverse people beyond the usual power brokers, an abundance of truth-seeking curiosity and well-intentioned journalism; and a readiness for authentic discourse in local communities and parishes, not overridden by externally packaged talking points based on labels, falsehood, and defamation easier to plant at the national-media level.
Today’s decisions are more weighty, more complex, and more connected to an array of factors. Some of the variables are trivial, like what kind of mask we’ll wear to which open store; some of them massive and secular, like how our political and financial infrastructures can handle the burdens we’re placing on them; and some of them massive and spiritual or values-based, such as how we shall treat our elderly, or people losing their lives and livelihoods and incomes, raising questions of justice. solidarity, and human dignity.
A lot of these challenges have to do with communication. How well are we being informed, and by whom? How well are we informing ourselves? Whom do we trust to give us the most valuable information? Have we given up trusting all institutions and trusting only ourselves, which is a burden when we know we and our resources are flawed? Are we judging the value of information on the basis of its foundations in truth and reality, and how are we determining truth and reality? Are we exploring and weighing all the aspects of these challenges, including the questions of conscience they raise, or are we confronting the challenges mostly on the basis of emotions,, snap judgments, and conformance with pre-packaged solutions? If we do recognize that questions of conscience are being raised, how do we decide whether our consciences are well-informed, by whom, with what kinds of rights and responsibilities to be exercised?
We might be trying to process many important thoughts with benevolent goals at rapid speed, unless we are distracting or withdrawing ourselves from important internal dialogues; or unless we are trapping ourselves in what Pope Francis has described as a potential “digital culture” of isolation and artificial realities and monolithic thought which is often “fake” or defamatory; or unless we are withdrawing from communities and from any sense of participation in a vibrant communication ecology; or unless we are dismayed at how assessing all fine points of fact and complex costs and benefits is just too darn hard. Healthy communication, most readily achievable at the local level, taps fully into people’s hearts, minds, and souls. It desires for us unique and diverse creatures to come together for the common good, sharing certain truths and values in communion with God so as to learn from Him and share His gifts of love and providence.
All these considerations relevant to the flow of knowledge and ideas have to do with communication. The Church has provided many guidelines and resources for good outcomes. At the moment, it’s useful simply to outline a few of them. These are ideas I summarized (notes for myself ) as I prepared for my May 20 interview on the Sheila Laugminas “Closer Look” radio program on the Relevant Radio network. You’ll see much more about these points below in blogs I have been writing for years, pondering how Catholic values can bring renewal to communication nowadays; it has been weakened and may be overburdened if too many crucial issues mount up and too many people witdraw.
- Remember recent World Communications Days and the pastoral messages from Pope Francis. WCD takes place on the Sunday before Pentecost. WCD 2018: A journalism for peace, seeking more knowledge, not to defame but to empower; genuine, simple trust in truth, rejecting a post-truth world and seeking truth in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. WCD 2019: Caution toward social media which have become anti-social by operating with exclusion and manipulagtive algorithms , plus engagement through enragement and closed-mindedness through labels and groupthink and the fostering of artificial realities. WCD 2020: Storytelling. We have to keep telling stories that unite and empower and encourage us at a time when we’re losing our confidence in institutions and people and God; sharing with each other and with God stories based in the story of redemption history plus the real-world parables Jesus told. God lives with, and sustains, His people, by embracing them as storytellers. Annual WCDs occur on Sundays before Pentecost. There are few other resources available focused on WCD and Pope Francis’s pastoral remarks about values-rich communication as a path to piece.
- Communication, community, communion. Pope Francis has discussed this triptych for a Catholic ethos of effective local connection-making. The three build upon each other in the healthy communication ecology of a parish or other extended-family setteing.
- Science vs. religion, post-truth attitudes. We have a crisis of communication: Post-truth society, no common ground. The science-intensive phase leading to COVID-19 social distancing and mass-quarantining provided immense amounts of data, but it turned out society did not know which data to trust. Some statistics misinformed us or simply were lacking. Science proved not be a foolproof alternative to faith-informed knowledge, and it is a resource that can be taken too far and manipulated like any information resource.
- Pope Francis is the only world leader who is seeking–and frequently speaking about–Christian values as forces that can aid the renewal of socially polarized language and non-constructive discourse in the public square.
- In a relativistic and moralistic age, we feel we need to do and enforce the right thing, but we reserve to ourselves the identification of that right thing. We become chief judge and executioner. An individual with this approach may now be the person operating a social-media site and acting as the “gatekeeper” or filter for the information exchanged there. Whereas the traditional journalistic gatekeeper role in newsrooms fostered a relatively balanced package of news, the ubiquitous “publishers” of social media pages tend to compile and present only the news that agrees with their perspective and affirms the same story lines day after day. “Objectivity” served as a goal in ensuring individual news stories and the entire news product contained a variety of perspectives and told multiple sides of a story, but professional and amateur journalists alike are less inclined today to see objectivity as either possible or desirable.
- Starting in March 2020, I saw social distancing as a kind of retreat time. it was like God had allowed conditions of quietude and changed perspective that invited all people of good will into a Lenten time of reflection. Some undergoing social distancing and lockdowns spent their time in order to develop a lot of insights into how little we know and how vulnerable we are. There are practical, secular , spiritual 0and very human reasons to be of two minds. Chesterton talks about how reality is best explained by and captured by paradox. It’s possible to hold two apparently contradictory aspects of reality in the mind at the same time, but the media don’t always allow for this if there is a more simplified, compelling message to be conveyed.
- As discussed in my most recent blog about social distancing, it’s possible to imagine that the next stage in the recovery from COVID-19 challenges will require the People of God to step forward from reflection and renewal they pursued during their lockdowns and to engage in robust dialogues about policy options and implications where secular and faith-based values confront each other. These have not been comfortable conversations in the national media or in highly politicized conflicts within the federal government. Will it be possible to ensure that Catholic values have a seat at the table whenever urgent decisions must be made regarding human dignity, justice, compassion, fairness, and respect for unique and diverse perspectives along with what is perecived as “the common good” and “the American way”? To effectively utilize a place in urgent social discourse like that which awaits us, I believe we must be prepared, with knowledge and enthusiasm, to ask moral questions which get to the heart of the matter and incorporate the “big picture.” It is an opportunity for the Church to evangelize among its members and to evangelize countless others, and in some cases, the stakes may never be higher. The kind of storytelling Pope Francis has recommended in his 2020 message for World Communications Day will be a valuable part of that preparation for evangelization, since we will need to build from a single, unifying embrace of the story of redemption, of God’s relationship with us, as it has existed in the past and in this moment, in the lives of individuals, communities, societies, and the world.