Can the Catholic Church help young people figure out how to use social media?
Editor’s note: Bishops from around the world will gather in Rome this October for the Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment. In March, a group of 300 young people met to create a document to guide the bishops’ conversation. This is the first in an occasional series looking at the topics raised in the document.
Rebecca Bratten Weiss knows the power of social media. It has allowed the writer and independent scholar to reach beyond her rural Ohio community and connect with other Catholic thinkers who help her develop ideas and form new relationships. She even has a new chapbook on poetry coming out, co-authored with another writer she met online. But she has fallen victim to the darker sides of digital culture as well.
Ms. Bratten Weiss, who writes at Patheos, was for more than 10 years an adjunct professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a powerhouse of traditionalist Catholicism. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Ms. Bratten Weiss posted her thoughts about Donald Trump and challenged Catholics who supported him. Some faculty had questioned her about her positions on feminism and her support for L.G.B.T. people as well as her critiques of tactics used by the Catholic pro-life community. She advocates for “a seamless garment, social justice approach to the abortion issue,” which draws the ire of some anti-abortion activists.
One day, she was called into a meeting with her department head and told she could no longer teach at the school, due to the opinions she had posted online. Websites such as LifeSiteNews and Church Militant ran with the story, which led to some online abuse, some of which contained racist and anti-Semitic messages. (Ms. Bratten Weiss identifies as Jewish-Catholic.)
Ms. Bratten Weiss is more careful with what she posts now, and more aware that anything posted online can be found by somebody with enough determination.
“I try to think of myself not as a private person using social media for personal communication, but thinking more in terms of being a public persona.”
“I try to think of myself not as a private person using social media for personal communication, but thinking more in terms of being a public persona,” she said. “Anything out there is on record, and you need to be able to defend it.”
This cautious attitude toward social media is echoed in a recent document crafted with the input of 300 young people who gathered in Rome last month. The group was charged with helping prepare bishops from around the world for a meeting at the Vatican this fall about young people and the church.
“While modern advancements in technology have greatly improved our lives, one must be prudent with its usage,” the document states. The document, which runs more than 7,000 words, summarizes a week of discussion and touches on a range of issues, including faith, evangelization and challenges facing young people, including employment, family and politics.
In a lengthy section, the document describes technology something of a necessary evil.
“While modern advancements in technology have greatly improved our lives, one must be prudent with its usage.”
Reliance on technology, it says, can lead to “the development of certain vices” and it laments that “new media” companies have so much power over the lives of young people.
As for the church, the group wants it “to offer formation to young people on how to live their digital lives.”
“Online relationships can become inhuman,” the document says. “Digital spaces blind us to the vulnerability of another human being and prevent us from our own self-reflection.”
Those sentiments echo the words of Pope Francis, even as he has been describing the internet as “a gift from God.” He warned in a 2015 speech in Philadelphia that becoming too engrossed in social media and other components of modern life can lead to a “radical sense of loneliness.”
Pope Francis also addressed social media in his 2015 papal encyclical on creation, “Laudato Si’”.
“Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences,” he wrote. “For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise” (No. 47).
“Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain...”
Brian Green, the director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, told America that he believes “churches, by the very fact that they bring people together face to face, can be contributors to ameliorating or perhaps reducing that isolation.”
“It’s one thing to look at a screen, to look at a machine, with an electronic interface that has very abstract people on the other side of it. To actually be in person with each other is very important,” he said.
Other challenges highlighted in the pre-synod document include the widespread availability of pornography, especially images with children, as well as cyber-bullying and the loss of collective memory.
Worries aside, young Americans heavily use social media.
A 2018 report from the Pew Research Center found that nearly 90 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States use some form of social media. Even if young people express some qualms about being in social media, more than half say it would be difficult to give it up, a higher percentage than for any other age group.
“Imagine if Jesus had social media, the amazing work he could have done and the influence he could have had in the lives of people.”
Father Rob Galea, a musician and author of the new book Breakthrough: A Journey from Desperation to Hope, has a large social media following. He recoiled at my summary of the document that said social media is a necessary evil. Responding to questions in email from America with a YouTube video, Father Galea said social media is “intrinsically good” and “an instrument we can use to influence the lives of others and to impact this world in a way that was never even imaginable.”
“Imagine if Jesus had social media, the amazing work he could have done and the influence he could have had in the lives of people,” he added.
He acknowledged that social media has its downsides. For example, sometimes his critics will point to selfies he posts to his more than 25,000 Instagram followers while working out and claim he is a narcissist. But people taking things out of context online is simply part of living in the digital space, he said, and the good vastly outweighs the bad on social media.
“I’ve seen lives changed, people coming to vocations through social media, people entering back into the church through social media,” he said. The key, he said, is to be authentic.
“I use social media to show people I am a priest, yes, and I choose to live counterculturally, yes,” he said. “But I’m also human. I’m a human being who struggles. I’ve struggled my whole life from depression, I’m not afraid to show that. I struggle in getting up in the morning and making time to pray. I find joy in exercise. There’s so much opportunity to show the humanity and attract people to the Gospel in a personal way. This is unprecedented. Jesus used to do this with his disciples, one on one, but now we can do it with multitudes.”
“I use social media to show people I am a priest, yes, and I choose to live counterculturally, yes. But I’m also human. I’m a human being who struggles."
Those at the highest levels of the church have also made reaching out to young people on social media a priority. And the Vatican seems intent on finding ways to use technology for good. Earlier this year, it hosted a “hackathon,” a three-day event aimed at harnessing the power of technology to solve migration challenges, foster interfaith dialogue and address other issues important to the church.
Pope Francis is one of the most followed world leaders on Twitter, and he set a record when he gained more than a million Instagram followers in under 24 hours. He has met with the heads of major technology companies, including Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook, longtime Google C.E.O. Eric Schmidt and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2016. He even delivered a TED Talk last year, calling for “a revolution of tenderness” and exhorting people to stand in solidarity with the global poor.
Mr. Green told America that social media is a “dual use” technology, meaning it can be used for good or bad purposes. The key, he said, is helping users veer toward the good.Young people, he said, express “a wariness around social media in particular, because they see how badly it can go.” He thinks we’re seeing a moment of reflection where some of the side effects of heavy social media usage are facing scrutiny.
"There’s going to be a pause, where people will look and say, ‘Maybe we’ve made a mistake here,’” he said. “How can we correct these problems? How can we keep getting the good aspects of the technologies we’ve produced and how can we try to reduce the negative aspects of them? I think we’ve reached that point already.”
He thinks the church could be a natural ally in helping to combat the loneliness and isolation often associated with social media usage—and suggested that Pope Francis might use his own influence “to model what good behavior on social media looks like.”
“This is truly one of the most important issues for the church to face at this point in history,” he said.