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Brantly Millegan - published on 01/24/14

It’s been everything from a totalitarian regime’s worst enemy to a vehicle for bringing porn into every household. But to Pope Francis, the Internet is a “gift from God.”

Hailed as “the most important development in computers in the last five years,” the first Apple Macintosh went on sale thirty years ago today. “[It] brings us one step closer,” the review in BYTE magazine at the time continued, “to the ideal of the computer as an appliance.”

In the years between the first desktop computers in the home to having smartphones in our pockets, there have been few areas of human life left untouched by the digital revolution. Changes in the flow of information due to computers and the Internet have both helped to bring down dictators, while also bringing the scourge of pornography into every home.

But to Pope Francis, the technology is simply “a gift from God.”

“In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another,” Francis said in his first World Communications Day message , “creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.”

“We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. […] Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.”

And he has set quite the example. In just the last ten months or so that he’s been Pope, he’s already become an Internet mega-celebrity of sorts. In 2013, he was named the most influential world leader on Twitter, his name was the most discussed named on the English language portion of the Internet, and his Twitter handle “@Pontifex” was the fourth most used word on the English language portion of the Internet (behind only “404”, “fail”, and “hashtag”).

But neither is Francis naive to the problems the Internet brings. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist. The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. […] The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us.”

We asked our Aleteia Experts what they thought of the digital revolution and its implications for the Church.

Introverts, Grassroots Movements, and Home-Bound Missionaries

“I'm one of millions of people who works better from home,” writes author John Zmirak, “without the distractions of office chatter, pointless meetings, and lengthy commutes to sterile office environments. That's a huge blessing.”

Zmirak sees these benefits helping a wide range of people. “Stay at home moms have a much greater chance to earn money from home now, and homeschooling resources are far more available. Worthy grassroots political movements such as the Tea Party are hugely helped by the Internet.”

But work, school, and politics aren’t the only things one can know do from home. “There are individuals who spend time in forums, evangelizing others,” says Tim Drake, New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. “I know of a home-bound man suffering from cancer who uses his time to evangelize non-Catholics online. In this way, he is serving Christ and His Church.”

Drake continues, “The Internet has made distant connections possible. It has opened the door to collaborations that would have been difficult, if not previously impossible. Platforms such as Skype allow us to instantly communicate with others in distant lands. What we're able to do with the technology is limited only by our imagination. Social networking and crowd funding has connected donors in Texas to those needing clean water in Africa, or a family in New Zealand with a young mother fighting cancer in Arizona.”

National Director for Priests for Life Fr. Frank Pavone says the Internet has been extremely useful for their pro-life work. “We at Priests for Life have increasingly used social media to save lives, to advance the protection of the unborn, and to mobilize people for the pro-life cause. We manage, for instance, one of the principal pro-life pages on Facebook. I encourage countless others to use these technologies to the maximum.”

Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary Ronda Chervin see advantages both for evangelization and charity. “Best of all… is how in every country of the world people could see the new Pope greeting them or, on the other hand, hear about a tragedy across the world, pray for the victims, and know to send donations.”

Allan Wright, Academic Dean of Evangelization for the Diocese of Paterson, agrees the Internet has great potential to empower the Church to help the needy. “In its best form this ‘global community’ can help diagnose illness and disease halfway around the world and provide solutions which can alleviate human suffering. It can increase awareness of political oppression and give voice to those who suffer injustice. It can bring historical to us in ‘real time’ and be a real agent of change in how we view others and the world such as aid to Tsunami  victims or aid to those who are still suffering the typhoon in the Philippines. The Internet can provide hope through the communication of the Gospel message which continues to bring life and meaning to those who feel outside the scope of God’s love.”

The Dark Side

But as Pope Francis pointed out, there are also significant downsides.

“I suppose that most technological advances are good things — most, not all. And all good gifts come to us from the Father of Lights,” begins Anthony Esolen, who teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. “But it is hard to go cheering loudly for the Internet, when its single most common use is to spread pornography, and when it threatens to erode our already tenuous capacity for reading, for contemplation, and for conversation.”

Fr. C. John McCloskey agrees with Esolen about Internet pornography. “Without a doubt in my mind the worst thing about the internet is the spread of pornagraphy, which is destroying families and degrading both men and women.”

And social media? As much as they can be used to help spread the Gospel, President and Founder of Ignatius Productions Fr. Mitch Pacwa is worried that it encourages children to bypass their parents. “Previous generations could not remain in so much contact with their peers but were required by the dominant adults to learn by listening to adults. Children had to listen to their parents, teachers, clergy and bosses throughout the hours of the day the children are not on the playground. However, the social media bring the world of their peers into their homes; they text during class and church services; they text and worse activity throughout the day, paying more attention to what peers might think about a reality TV show than they do to adults teaching them about reality.”

Associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture David Deavel points to the way the Internet can lead to shallow thinking. “While it increases our abilities to research and to communicate in ways and at speeds that are truly remarkable, the downside is that constant use of it can develop shorter attention spans and a certain thinness of thought. Perhaps part of this is the result of the fact that we can now pull up vastly more articles on any subject in seconds, learning in the process why the journalist Lars-Erik Nelson calls the Internet a ‘vanity press for the demented’–those who don't have much to communicate can do this more rapidly and with a larger audience, too.”

Deavel doesn’t think these problems are insurmountable, though. “What is needed, and I'm certainly speaking of myself first, is an asceticism of the web so that we can approach it with discipline and discernment as to how and when to use it for both communication and information. As writers like Christopher Dawson and Benedict XVI have written, for every technological development there needs to be a corresponding ethical and spiritual development in order for the benefits to truly outweigh the costs. The Internet is a place for information; wisdom is something we need to gain elsewhere so that we can receive the gift.”

“The Catholic Church Has Not Been Slow”

“Our Holy Father calling the Internet ‘gift of God’ is no surprise,” says Eugene Gan, Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who points out that the Church has a long history of encouraging Catholics to engage with new media. “The Catholic Church has been calling media ‘gift of God’ implicitly since the first official Church document Vigilanti Cura released in 1936!”

“A little contrasting context here: 1936 was during a time in our history when the media was viewed suspiciously as a tool for propaganda. That was also before Orson Welles' media landmark broadcast of the War of the Worlds! And way before the other media landmark date of the release of the first Apple Macintosh personal computer on January 24, 1984. The Catholic Church was already speaking of the media as a ‘marvelous thing’ in her 1963 document Inter Mirifica!”

“I wish the world knew this: the Catholic Church has not been slow to talk about or think about media and neither has she been negative about it!”

Brantly Millegan is an Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Second Nature, Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and is working on a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He lives with his wife and three children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.

The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:

Ronda Chervin is a Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

David Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine. He also teaches at the University of St. Thomas and the St. Paul Seminary.

Tim Drake is the New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host.

Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass.

Eugene Gan is Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. His personal website is www.frmccloskey.com.

Fr. Mitch Pacwa is an American Jesuit priest and the President and Founder of Ignatius Productions.

Fr. Frank Pavone is the National Director of Priests for Life, the Chairman and Pastoral Director of Rachel's Vineyard, President of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, and Pastoral Director of the Silent No More awareness campaign.

Allan F. Wright is the Academic Dean of Evangelization for the Diocese of Paterson, NJ.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.

Tags:
CatholicismFaithPope FrancisSocial MediaTechnology
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