Bill discussed subjects related to this post on Catholic radio with program host Matt Swaim on October 6. Click on the archive here and advance to the 1 hour-17 min. mark.
The encyclical sent forth to all the world by Pope Francis on Saturday, intended as an invitation to fraternal dialogue, “social friendship,” and profound concern for a human ecology in crisis, was the perfect opportunity for spiritual reading on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
I immediately began to browse the new document, “Fratelli Tutti,” in search of guidance for applying Christian values to the renewal of various forms of communication. The pope has emerged as a leading voice among global leaders proclaiming that humanity’s pursuit of peace and society’s efforts to solve problems collaboratively are intertwined with the wise use of information in our minds and hearts. His pastoral warnings about trends in journalism, community discourse, digital culture, and personal storytelling have inspired me to write countless posts in this OnWord.net blog, as well as a book called When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, and to ponder the intersection of Catholic discipleship and secular dialogue as we try to heal today’s cultural polarization.
Sure enough, the encyclical contains a section on the damage social media and other channels of news are doing to human beings through isolation, defamation, divisiveness, and retreats into artificial realities. The pope supports values-informed use of current communications technologies. But he has made it clear–in documents like the Church’s annual messages for World Communications Day–that replacing genuine, sustained human interactions of community and communion with profit-driven, emotion-fueled, algorithm-shaped interactions on our respective screen devices poses a threat to individual dignity and the sustainability of humanity.
The real surprise, delight, and galvanizing challenge of the encyclical arose from the vast context of Francis’ concern and the aura of an urgent appeal for awareness and change flowing from a father’s loving–and broken–heart. Like all good encyclicals, this rather long and wide-ranging document can remind us why we call our pontiff “papa.” I’m especially grateful for this papa who so often draws upon the inspirations of joy, simplicity, humility, poverty, and multi-dimensional love from Saint Francis of Assisi.
The inspiration has prompted the pope for many years to talk about a culture of encounter, where we reach out to people at the margins of our lives and seek to share the Church’s message of faith, hope, and charity with them. But, in the age of this pandemic, with perfect storms of injustice, fear, policy confusion, and societal disfunction threatening to outlast the virus’s own hazards, he is extending his talk of encounters and talking about “social friendship.” This embraces the whole world while still caring deeply about each individual; in times of trial, we share the sufferings and joys of Jesus Christ, whether or not we recognize them as such. We may or may not refer to Jesus by name, but he is present in the joy and love of every genuine encounter. We are wise to invite that presence and to avoid thinking we can survive these times in self-sufficient isolation.
I plan to meditate more and write more about this encyclical because it is so rich a resource for our time, for everyone, for everything that really matters now and in the future that we must confront together. We all have a stake in reading Pope Francis’ words and heeding them in the spirit of Saint Francis. Both men help us to see how wounded we are and how badly all God’s children need to encounter each other on the macro and micro scales–to gather as a loving family with humility and hope, in a sustainable human ecology.