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Online Catholic Community? Let’s Get Real

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 10/09/14

Web-friendships will never replace "heart speaks unto heart" conversations with the real people

When was the last time you wanted to jump up and shout, “Wait a minute! That can’t be right!”? That happened to me a few weeks ago. I heard a fellow gushing about how social media was the linchpin of the New Evangelization. I listened with an open mind. Then he began to extol the merits of the Internet’s social media, especially its audio/video elements, over and above the merits of the printed word.

He declared that, “Text is boring. It can only be used to impart information. Text cannot spark the imagination or stir emotion. Text cannot be used to form community. With the advent of the Internet and social media, we can begin to move hearts and form communities in the virtual world in a way that printed words on a page could never do.”

That’s when my inclination to jump up and shout emerged.

Apparently, he’s not heard of (much less read) the Rule of Saint Benedict or the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, texts which have been forming communities for centuries. I doubt he’s encountered Dante’s "Divine Comedy" which surely stirred imaginations (although the speaker did give a favorable mention to pop-up books, so I hold out some hope he might encounter Dante someday). Has he read the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Lots of emotional content available there. "The Lord of the Rings"? "Narnia"? (The movie adaptations don’t count.)

It discourages me, but doesn’t surprise me, to meet an enthusiastic young person who swoons over social media but gives no evidence of a habit of serious reading. What alarms me, however, is what appears to be an ignorance of the harmful effects upon Catholic life that stem from an uncritical celebration of the assertion that “the Internet/social media are going to save us.” Let me give a few examples.

In "Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers," T. David Gordon wrote that one reason Johnny can’t preach is not so much because of what’s taught at the seminary (which may be just fine) but because of what Johnny brings to the seminary — an attention span and moral imagination stunted by a diet of television and the Internet/social media. Neil Postman appears as a prophet now, sounding the alarm about the overwhelming influence of television back in 1987 with his classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." (I will include some more references at the end of this piece.) Both authors make clear that an uncritical reliance on electronic media can hamper people’s ability to receive the Gospel, rather than expand it. Anyone who doubts that hasn’t spent the past 20 years reading student essays and engaging students in conversation, as I have.

What I find especially alarming about the uncritical advocates of “virtual communities” is that they seem unaware that “virtual” communities are not real communities — indeed, they can be distractions from, or, worse, substitutes for real community life. Virtual communities can be turned on and off at will; they don’t make real demands of personal presence and vulnerability; they can’t make moral claims on our time and our undivided attention. But real people and real communities can. And that’s why I think some people flee to the ether of the “virtual” — it’s just too much damned work dealing with the person at the other end of the breakfast table, whether at the family home, the rectory or the convent. Online, there is always somewhere else to go if the virtual community calls forth too much effort, intimacy or accountability. The people in our homes, our religious houses, our parishes, you know — the people who are right there in front of us — well, they just stay themselves all the time. And they have a bad habit of knowing our faults and our broken promises. How much easier it is to open a new tab in the web browser, or follow another Twitter account, or to find a new set of “friends” on Facebook. Used with lots of enthusiasm but little prudence, these various social media compress our imagination, preclude contemplative stillness, purge silence, and distance us from the very real people who need us — people who, by the way, are made in the image and likeness of God.

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