Pope Francis gives books to Apple CEO Tim Cook during a private audience in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Jan. 22. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

Pope Decries Internet Trolls, with their “Harsh and Moralistic Words…Unfair Attacks”

January 22, 2016

Pope Francis met Apple’s CEO Tim Cook today—and also issued some strong words on the subject of social media:  

Pope Francis spoke out Friday over the increasingly aggressive nature of much political discourse and the use of social media as a forum for personal abuse.

In a message published on the same day that the Twitter-friendly pontiff met Apple boss Tim Cook, Francis said digital technology and the Internet could help bring people together but also had the potential to create deep wounds.

“Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred,” he said.

The pope urged politicians and others in positions of power “to remain especially attentive to the way they speak of those who think or act differently or those who may have made mistakes.”

And he emphasised the importance of everyone applying the same principle to encounters in cyberspace by showing respect for “the neighbour whom we do not see.”

“It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal,” Francis said.

This came as part of the pontiff’s annual message for World Communications Day, which this year will underscore the theme of mercy:

Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society.  How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony.  Words can build bridges between individuals and within families, social groups and peoples. This is possible both in the material world and the digital world.  Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred.  The words of Christians ought to be a constant encouragement to communion and, even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil, they should never try to rupture relationships and communication.

For this reason, I would like to invite all people of good will to rediscover the power of mercy to heal wounded relationships and to restore peace and harmony to families and communities.  All of us know how many ways ancient wounds and lingering resentments can entrap individuals and stand in the way of communication and reconciliation.  The same holds true for relationships between peoples.  In every case, mercy is able to create a new kind of speech and dialogue.  Shakespeare put it eloquently when he said: “The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I).

This passage, in particular, struck me as especially relevant for many of us who seek to evangelize online:

How I wish that our own way of communicating, as well as our service as pastors of the Church, may never suggest a prideful and triumphant superiority over an enemy, or demean those whom the world considers lost and easily discarded.  Mercy can help mitigate life’s troubles and offer warmth to those who have known only the coldness of judgment.  May our way of communicating help to overcome the mindset that neatly separates sinners from the righteous.  We can and we must judge situations of sin – such as violence, corruption and exploitation – but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts.  It is our task to admonish those who err and to denounce the evil and injustice of certain ways of acting, for the sake of setting victims free and raising up those who have fallen.  The Gospel of John tells us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).  The truth is ultimately Christ himself, whose gentle mercy is the yardstick for measuring the way we proclaim the truth and condemn injustice.  Our primary task is to uphold the truth with love (cf. Eph 4:15).  Only words spoken with love and accompanied by meekness and mercy can touch our sinful hearts.  Harsh and moralistic words and actions risk further alienating those whom we wish to lead to conversion and freedom, reinforcing their sense of rejection and defensiveness. 

…Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication.  It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.  Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups.  The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. 

Read it all. 

Photo: CNS / L”Osservatore Romano, handout