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Notre Dame symposium seeks ways to build community in an age of technology

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Zelda Caldwell - published on 07/02/21

Does the internet bring us together or make us even more alienated? We interview Dr. Brett Robinson, director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Church Communications Ecology Program (CCEP).

Last week Church leaders and graduate students from the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s inaugural Communications Ecology Program met at the University of Notre Dame to address the impact of social media and digital technologies on the life of the Church. 

The symposium capped off a graduate course at Notre Dame on “Evangelization and the Media.” The group of over two dozen students included pastors, communications directors, lay ministers and seminarians. Dr. Brett Robinson, Director of Catholic Media Studies at the McGrath Institute, led the course and program, which brought the students together with Church leaders from nine US dioceses.

“The event was designed to give Catholic lay and religious leaders an opportunity to discuss the effects of digital culture on their leadership and ministry,” said Robinson. “Social media, the internet and smartphones have had a profound impact on human relationships, families and community life. To understand these changes in the media environment is to understand the dramatic cultural shifts of the last two decades.” 

In an interview conducted over email, Robinson talked to Aleteia about the symposium and his thoughts on technology’s effect on the human soul.

Aleteia:  What was the consensus? If you were to poll the participants in the symposium, do you think they would say that authentic human connections are more or less possible in the digital age? 

Dr. Brett Robinson: It’s not that authentic human connections are less possible in the digital age — it’s just that we don’t get as much practice at it. When you think about how much of our lives have been automated via apps, from texting to banking to shopping and so on, we lose a lot of those very basic, physical human encounters on a daily basis that provide the glue for strong communities. The COVID pandemic demonstrated that we could accomplish most of our education, work and daily business online without ever leaving home. The consensus from that experience seems to be that something essential was missing and needs to be recovered. 

Aleteia: While people once talked a lot about the promise of technology, it seems that the symposium addressed focused on its perils. What have we learned about technology?

Robinson: I think attitudes about technology have become less optimistic as we have come to recognize some of the long-term social and psychological effects of heavy media technology use. Teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2007, the year the iPhone was released. The political divide in the US has grown even deeper with the increase of divisive rhetoric and conspiracy theories on social media. Our duty is not to condemn the technology as if the devices have a mind of their own but to reconsider the ways in which we as human beings choose to relate to one another. We should be asking whether our communication habits are contributing to healthy families and communities. The conference sought to treat the problem “environmentally” by evaluating more than just the messages we create online. Instead, we asked, how do these new forms of communication contribute to and/or detract from the strength of authentic human communities. Media has a key role to play in community life but it’s not the star of the show. 

Aleteia: Can you tell us about any promising proposals for making use of today’s increased (digital) connectedness for use in evangelization? 

Robinson: The conference featured a dozen proposals from ministry leaders who have been thinking deeply about technology and faith questions. Vincent Reilly from Orange Park, Florida, developed an approach he calls “Incarnating the Kerygma” — an approach to ministry and preaching that preserves the embodied experience of evangelization (“the Word became flesh”) while using new tools to provide a platform for parishes to share persuasive proclamations of the Gospel. Several of the proposals zeroed in on the vast educational potential of the internet to provide deeper instruction and formation in the faith. 

Aleteia: Are “digital fasts” something for everyone, and what should a digital fast look like?

Robinson: One of the proposals from Teresa Peterson of Tampa, Florida, was to create a podcast called “Making Space for Grace.” As communications director of her diocese, Teresa is aware of the negative effects that too much media can have on individuals and communities. As a corrective, she proposed a podcast and educational blog series to give parents and ministry leaders strategies for dealing with media over-saturation. “Making Space for Grace” includes tips like taking digital fasts on Fridays or Sundays to give the people the space to reconnect with family, friends, nature and prayer. All of the proposals did a wonderful job of harnessing the positive potential of new media while finding ways to mitigate its less desirable effects. 

Aleteia: What about divisive rhetoric in Catholic media and in social media?

Robinson: Divisive rhetoric in Catholic media was on the minds of many of our participants. Deacon Matthew Kuna from the Diocese of Allentown proposed a pastoral plan for Church leaders to deal with the division online that often seeps into the parish community as well. The proposal is built around the process of discernment, providing pastors with a strategy for helping parishioners evaluate the messages they are seeing online. Even the most divisive Catholic commentators are representing convictions that many people in the Church today hold, even if they are ill-informed. Deacon Kuna’s proposal would help pastors who are trying to help members of their community make sense of the information overload online. As bad as some of the online rhetoric can be, it can also provide a teaching moment. 

Aleteia: You note that all of the presenters focused on the “power of authentic forms of human communication” for building communities. Does authentic mean in the flesh? Is there a consensus that we should be using technology to facilitate meeting in person, rather than using technology to avoid meeting in person?

Robinson: There is a growing sense that technology is best used as a means rather than an end to forming authentic human relationships and community. As embodied creatures our desire is to dwell with one another and share experiences. The online experience lacks the “incarnate” dimension of our existence. The Catholic faith is rooted in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and that reality cannot be fully expressed in a tweet or viral video. We ourselves must become mediums of God’s love. As St. John says at the end of his second epistle, “I write to you now with paper and ink but I long to be with you face to face so that our joy may be complete.” 

Aleteia: In the course of the symposium and the graduate program, did you get a sense that Catholic media is an effective tool for evangelization? How can it be improved?

Robinson: Catholic media is like the sower that broadcasts the seed, the Word of God, liberally to all corners of the field. But as the parable of the sower reminds us, the ground is not always able to receive the seed in a way that helps it bear fruit. Rocks and thorns and birds can snuff out the seedling before it has a chance to take root. The implication for evangelizers is that we have to pay as much attention to the ground, the cultural environment we inhabit as we do to the seed that we are casting. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, a powerful media evangelizer in his time, used to say that he was an agriculturalist, a tiller of souls. This is good advice to remember in a complex media age. Remember the person on the other end of the line and do the hard work of preparing the soil (the soul) by cultivating authentic personal relationships rather than superficial ones. 

Aleteia: How can we evangelize today? 

Robinson: We spent a fair amount of time at the conference talking about the role of art and beauty in evangelization. We toured Notre Dame’s Basilica and discussed how the architecture and stained glass windows arrest the attention of the viewer and become a powerful moment for education and evangelization. This is what we mean by an “environmental” approach to Catholic communications. It’s more than what we post online, it’s the spaces we inhabit and the beauty we experience together that can persuade people, whether they have faith or not. 

Aleteia: In his keynote address, Fr. John Wauck of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross talked about the modern world’s sense of alienation and the way Catholic authors like Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor offered a means of reconnecting to “the mystery of being human,” through their writing. What would Walker Percy make of our world today?

Robinson: I think Percy would find the internet to be a great example of what he was diagnosing in his essays and novels. In fact, a lot of the ground he explored prefigured our current moment. His famous novel The Moviegoer could be retold today as The YouTuber. The way in which young people find so much meaning and immediacy in online experiences is a direct reflection of the tension experienced by Binx Bolling in the novel who lost himself in books and movies. It’s a syndrome that makes it hard to form lasting relationships. 

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