Conceived as an instrument of military tacticians, nurtured as a way to disseminate academic papers, imagined as a vast library, touted as a new economic frontier, the Internet has confounded all who sought to define its significance narrowly in purely practical terms. If we have learned anything, it is that the Internet will always break out of the bounds by which we seek to define it.
By concentrating on its essential nature, however, two documents from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications admirably sketch the challenges and opportunities the Internet presents to the church and the world (available at www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/index.htm). One of these twin documents, The Church and the Internet, describes the potential of the Internet as an astonishing vision that we, the church, must see and act upon.
One year ago I offered some thoughts in these pages on the use of the Web by the local church (An Internet Strategy for Local Churches: Harnessing the Web for Mission, 2/19/01). While I think the points in that article remain valid, I now believe that these two Vatican documents deftly summarize initial discussion on the potential of the Internet for the church. The time has come for action.
The dot-com meltdown, the use of the Internet by millions of people in new ways as a response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and the increasing number of people using the Internet as part of their spiritual lives lend further support to the thesis that the church should make effective use of the Internet. As long ago as 1975 Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi that the church would feel guilty before the Lord if it failed to make use of modern media in its essential mission of evangelization. Pope John Paul II gave new urgency to this call in his message for the 36th World Communications Day, saying that the use of the Internet by the church is at the heart of what it means in the new millennium to follow the Lord’s command to put out into the deep.’ The pope then proclaims, I dare to summon the whole church bravely to cross this new threshold, to put out into the deep of the Net, so that now as in the past the great engagement of the Gospel and culture may show to the world the Glory of God in the face of Christ.’
Enable Two-Way Communication
Church sites should no longer contain just textual information. Previously, the principle of two-way communication could be considered merely a suggestion, but The Church and the Internet has now raised the stakes. The document describes two-way communication on the Web as a necessary manifestation of communio and points out the special character of the Internet as direct, immediate, interactive and participatory. This is not the one-way, top-down communication of the past, the document insists. As more and more people become familiar with this characteristic of the Internet in other areas of their lives, they can be expected to also look for it in regard to religion and the church.
An Internet action plan for the local church can address this consideration by providing direct e-mail contact links for everyone, including the bishop or the pastor and by providing direct e-mail access to experts.
The Church and the Internet notes that the Web has a remarkable capacity to overcome distance and isolation, bringing people into contact with like-minded persons of good will who join in virtual communities of faith to encourage and support one another. Of the 28 million Americans reported by The Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org) to have used the Web for religious and spiritual reasons (more people than have used Web auction sites, online dating services, or have engaged in online banking or stock trading), supportive activities are significant. Thirty-five percent have offered spiritual advice by e-mail, and 21 percent have requested it. Forty-one percent of all Internet users have sent or received prayer requests by e-mail since Sept. 11. Sites like Beliefnet.com offer a wide array of highly active online discussion groups pertaining to various aspects of faith.
I have noticed a great reluctance on the part of local churches to provide community-building discussion groups for the faithful. Often this hesitancy is based on a confusion between discussion groups and chat rooms (discussion groups allow participants to post messages and others to respond at any time; chat rooms are conversations in real time). Abuses of chat rooms have been widely reported in the media, but that should not prevent the church from cultivating flourishing discussion groups, even if volunteer moderators are required to ensure that inappropriate postings are promptly removed. Hanging back timidly from fear of technology or for some other reason is not acceptable, in view of the many positive possibilities of the Internet, The Church and the Internet warns.
Therefore, to meet the challenges outlined in this document, local church sites should provide ways for the faithful and even non-Catholics to share views and to confirm and sustain each other online.
Provide Deep and Fresh Content
Because relatively little usable information is provided by most official church sites, unofficial sites have sprung up to fill the gap. The document observes, It is confusing, to say the least, not to distinguish eccentric doctrinal interpretations, idiosyncratic devotional practices, and ideological advocacy bearing a Catholic’ label from the authentic positions of the church. The Pontifical Council suggests as a remedy that programs be put into place to certify such unofficial sites, but that is only part of the solution, for the gap these sites are filling must be addressed.
We are reminded by the document that the church’s practice of communication should be exemplary. This includes providing Web content that is comprehensive, engaging and constantly updated. If one were able to get useful information from a diocesan site, for example, why would one need to visit an unofficial site that offers questionable content? The local church must lead by example to assume the role such sites are now filling, and render them irrelevant.
Local church sites should provide a wealth of resources to evangelize, re-evangelize and catechize:
Provide a comprehensive link directory of approved sites that are regularly monitored.
Provide online scriptural resources, documents, questions and answers, articles and other materials. In today’s world, for example, it is inconceivable that a bishop would issue a pastoral letter and not make it immediately available on the diocesan site.
Provide online educational programs, interactive lessons, multimedia presentations, easy access to ordering recommended books, films and music.
Establish a structure for ongoing provision of fresh content through leaders, staff and volunteers, especially youth and young adults, who are more in tune to the needs of the digital generation and the possibilities inherent in this new medium.
Allow for a wide range of contributors. Make it easy for visitors to make suggestions, submit articles or other content, such as music files (assuming copyright laws are followed) or multimedia and other digital works of expression.
Embrace the Nature and Culture of This Medium
The pastoral instruction On Social Communications (1992) observed that often human experience itself is an experience of media. In its look and feel, a local church site should fully embrace all that is good in the present age. Do we need to be reminded once again that the medium is the message?
Tom Beaudoin’s book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X is an excellent resource for anyone seeking to establish a local church site. He notes that Xers may find the public face presented in cyberspace to be even more unwelcoming than their local religious institution seems to be. It is a terrific and sad irony, for instance, when Catholic dioceses set up Web sites that adorn themselves in Catholic garb from past centuries. These dioceses use the latest technology to show off a church of the past, not the future.
Images scanned from old holy cards, archaic typefaces, episcopal coats of arms and formal portraits of ordinaries in choir dress have no place in the overall design of a Web site. Rather, local churches should avail themselves of the full range of talent available to them that will provide an engaging and contemporary presence on the Web.
Link From the Virtual to the Real
How does the church lead from the kind of contact made possible by the Internet to the deeper communication demanded by Christian proclamation? Pope John Paul II asks, How do we build upon the first contact and exchange of information which the Internet makes possible? The Church and the Internet provides an answer to these questions: Pastoral planning should consider how to lead people from cyberspace to true community and how, through teaching and catechesis, the Internet might subsequently be used to sustain and enrich them in their Christian commitment.
The specifics of how this cyclical dynamic can be lived in the context of the local church could embrace a wide variety of approaches.
Parishes should strive to include qualitative information about parishes beyond their address, telephone number and Mass times. Is there a youth group? What kind of music is featured at which liturgy? What are the involvement opportunities at that parish for helping the homeless? What faith formation programs are offered? Like it or not, people today shop for a parish, and that process can be facilitated online. Site users are more likely to visit a parishand perhaps eventually joinif presented with such information rather than simply an address and the pastor’s name.
There are many other excellent insights contained in The Church and the Internet and its companion document, Ethics in Internet. My purpose here is to highlight those points that help to provide a specific action plan for local churches to face the opportunities of the Internet with what John Paul calls a sense of adventure. The pope continues to challenge us: The Internet causes billions of images to appear on millions of computer images around the planet. From this galaxy of sight and sound will the face of Christ emerge and the voice of Christ be heard?
Communio et Progressio (1971) reminded us that Christ is the perfect communicator. As we, his body, become more engagingly present on the Internet, we will become his face and voice on the Web. Our portrayal of Christ and our witness to the Gospel on the Internet must exude faith, vitality, tolerance, enthusiasm and trust in the Holy Spirit if we are to truly be the face of Christ in this new incarnation. This is a mission that is vital and urgent, and the time to act upon this call is now.