In the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church got a reputation -- not always fairly -- for looking out on modernity from a fortress of medieval nostalgia, fearing and despising what it did not always understand. This was especially true of the embattled mid-nineteenth century papacy, symbolized by Pius IX issuing anathemas from an ever decreasing area of papal land.
The cycle only broke with Leo XIII, who reconciled Catholics to Republican democracy and issued the first of the great social encyclicals engaging the Church with the challenges of modern capitalism. Leo XIII was no liberal -- although there a few ultramontanes and integralists who thought he was something worse -- and there was nothing uncritical about his view of modernity. But he accepted it as a fact, seeking to discern in it what was of God and what was not; and to redeem what was not.
Benedict XVI increasingly reminds me of Leo XIII. The comparison struck me when I was reading his recent book-length interview, Light of the World. His prose has something of the passion and precision of Leo's. But it's the way he affirms what is good, before going on to alert us to what needs redeeming, that seems so Leonine.
Take his message yesterday for World Communications Day, on the feast of St Francis de Sales. "New horizons are now open that were until recently unimaginable," he says, speaking of the new communications technologies; "they stir our wonder at the possibilities offered by these new media and, at the same time, urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age".
Used wisely, he goes on to say, they can "contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being."
That's an almighty plug for Facebook and Twitter from the Successor of St Peter.
And in case there's any doubt, he spells it out. "I would like to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible."
He goes on to identify the key element of these new media: the ability to share. This has led to a new appreciation of communication itself, he says, seen as "dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations".
But there is a serpent in the garden: "the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one's interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence." That's obvious from the "online personalities" which some people develop: avatars with egos, who make sharp, scathing, denigrating comments.
The serpent's main object, of course, is to distract us from the real stuff: offline relationships. "Who is my 'neighbour' in this new world?" asks the Pope pointedly. The question is even more challenging when we consider Jesus' definition of a neighbour, as one whom we cross the road to help, the one in need whom we do not know and usually ignore. How can the Samaritan be "good" online?
"Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting?" asks Pope Benedict. Virtual contact might lead to, assist, or maintain direct human contact; it doesn't replace it.
Pope Benedict goes on to talk of how the social media may be used to evangelize, but he's clear that "direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of faith".
I've often argued over the years with Catholics who believe that the news media can or should be used to evangelize; I've always insisted that it can't be -- although, by clarifying and explaining, it can be used to clear the obstacles to evangelization. Jesus is, literally, hands-on; we encounter Him in the person of others. Love, in short, happens offline.
But love can't happen without connection. Christians being present on the internet, as Pope Benedict says, help prevent the web depersonalizing people, or manipulating them. It's a means of sharing -- in ever faster and more powerful ways.
And that's surely part of God's plan.