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Watch out for these moral (and psychological!) sins when sharing online

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We are capable, on an emotional and even physiological level, of becoming addicted to indignation.

Do you read or write material online that leads you to peace, freedom and clarity—or the opposite? Do you share material online that increases in your neighbor faith, hope and charity—or the opposite?

It is scarcely an exaggeration when I say here that I am typing this with one hand while holding up a mirror to myself in the other. I think that we Catholic consumers and producers of online content, especially that content that we identify as Catholic, need to undertake an examination of conscience, and we need to do so frequently.

I say that because I think that we often handle online content in a way that does more harm than good, regardless of our intentions. That’s a shame because the internet can be an amazing tool in the service of evangelization and catechesis. Let’s commit to habituating ourselves to making good use of such a powerful instrument.

Before we examine our conscience, we should make sure that our conscience is properly formed. We should be able to distinguish the following:

 

  • Slander: The attributing to another of a fault of which one knows him to be innocent.
  • Detraction: The damaging of another’s good name by the unjust revelation of a fault.
  • Scandal: A word or action that is a near occasion of sin for others.
  • Reputation: The good name of a person, which is the outcome of meritorious action.

 

The wisdom of the Church holds that a person has a right to his good name as his own possession, and to rob him of that precious property through our misuse of words can be a very serious sin. A good companion and guide for our examination of conscience in relation to our production and consumption of internet content is the great Catholic thinker, Josef Pieper. Everything he writes is sound and eloquent—here I want to recommend his little book, Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power. Here are some points Pieper makes that are worth reflecting on and bringing to prayer:

 

  • “Whoever speaks to another person … guided by something other than truth … no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact he no longer respects the other as a human person.”
  • “Public discourse itself, separated from the standard of truth, creates … an atmosphere of epidemic proneness and vulnerability to the reign of the tyrant.”
  • “The world wants to be deceived … but the world at the same time wants the right to disguise, so that the fact of being lied to can be easily ignored.”

 

Pieper identifies a challenge for us: We live in a world that rewards flattery and propaganda; and that same world can use the destruction of truth to open the doors to dictators of all kinds. In other words: Truth matters. Telling the truth matters. Telling the truth with clarity and charity matters.

Yes, there is much wrong with the world around us and within us. Yes, there are things worth getting angry about. Yes, there are even times when it may be prudent to raise one’s voice in order to be heard. The internet provides us with an incomparable tool to be heard and to hear. All the more reason, then, to challenge ourselves before we hit the SEND button or the PLAY button.

We have to protect our neighbor—those we speak to and those we speak about. We have to pause and ask ourselves: “Does this really need to be said? Is it my place to say it? Am I saying it with the right intention? Am I saying it in a way that will build up or tear down?”

We also have to protect ourselves. We are capable, on an emotional and even physiological level, to become addicted to indignation: “Look at what THEY are doing now!” Yes, we need to be kept informed, and we must also admit that we can move from being informed to praying the prayer of the Pharisee, who gave thanks to God that he was “not like other men.” We can covertly use internet production or consumption to remind ourselves (and others) of our implicit moral superiority. That’s not good for anyone.

I tell my students that once they post something on the internet, they give themselves an indelible “digital tattoo.” Likewise, what we consume via electronic text (and especially electronic image) makes a mark, a lasting impression on our soul. Let’s agree that we will pray to work for the good of our neighbor, the salvation of our soul, and the greater glory of God, each time that we use this powerful instrument of the internet.

When I write next, I will speak of taking a new look at some old devotions. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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