Two weeks ago on this blog, Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb analyzed the latest instance of Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, using his sizable Twitter account (now more than 117,000 followers) to undermine Pope Francis. “I believe Pope Francis is the Pope,” Bishop Strickland tweeted, in an effort to distance himself from the sedevacantist podcaster Patrick Coffin, “but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.”
The tweet was, of course, only the latest in a decade-long series of attacks on Francis. As Lamb, Massimo Borghesi and Mary Jo McConahay all document in their most recent books, this effort to discredit the Latin American pope is well funded, particularly in the United States—the consequence of decades of work by the religious right in this country to wed Catholicism to unfettered capitalism and a brand of social conservatism that takes its cues more from Fox News than from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Such a movement is directly threatened by Pope Francis’ advocacy for an “integral ecology” that combines care for the environment with a “preferential option for the poor,” his criticisms of the arms trade and exploitative industry and his advocacy for migrants and refugees to be welcomed and integrated into their adoptive countries.
This brand of neoconservatism has unfortunately also become entangled with liturgical traditionalism within the Catholic Church and even a tendency toward schism.
That a sitting U.S. bishop would need to clarify that he recognizes the legitimacy of the pope is an all-too-predictable consequence; that he paired that clarification with a public rejection of the pope in the same sentence would be laughable were it not so sad.
Bishop Strickland’s tweets prompted speculation (I was not immune) about how the Vatican might respond, and again sparked discussions of whether a faction of the American church is in schism. It was into this mix that the Vatican dropped a new document, “Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media,” on May 28.
The document, issued by the Dicastery for Communication and signed by its prefect, Paolo Ruffini (though surely approved by the pope before release), lays out a vision of social media that, for the first time in my 10 years of studying church documents on communications, struck me with its honesty about both the opportunities and ugly realities of the websites where we live part of our lives.
“Towards Full Presence” states clearly that there is a profit motive behind the majority of social media services that people use, and that we, as users, are the product (10); our attention and data are sold to advertisers, and the sites have a vested interest in keeping us engaged. They have found that the best way to do that is by showing us only what others like us engaged with, thus siloing us (15); more often than not, the most engaging content is that which sparks outrage.
The document even calls out bishops who have fallen prey to the outrage cycle and use social media to foment division:
We must be mindful of posting and sharing content that can cause misunderstanding, exacerbate division, incite conflict, and deepen prejudices. Unfortunately, the tendency to get carried away in heated and sometimes disrespectful discussions is common with online exchanges. We can all fall into the temptation of looking for the “speck in the eye” of our brothers and sisters (Mt 7:3) by making public accusations on social media, stirring up divisions within the Church community or arguing about who among us is the greatest, as the first disciples did (Lk 9:46). The problem of polemical and superficial, and thus divisive, communication is particularly worrying when it comes from Church leadership: bishops, pastors and prominent lay leaders. These not only cause division in the community but also give permission and legitimacy for others likewise to promote similar type[s] of communication (75, emphasis added).
The document is both honest and incredibly hopeful, particularly compared with some of Pope Francis’ more recent criticisms of social media that may make readers question whether such platforms are salvageable at all (cf. Fratelli Tutti 42-50). “Towards Full Presence” frames the question for believers not as whether to engage with social media, but how to do so conscientiously, with active listening and discernment, fostering genuine encounters and relationships with those who are different, using social media to galvanize positive action both online and off and ultimately using social media creatively to push back against division and to witness to the Gospel.
Although “Towards Full Presence” is well aware of the high stakes of the currently polarized ecclesial and social media landscapes, it also seems to be inhibiting its own message. The document states explicitly that it is “a pastoral reflection” and not “precise ‘guidelines’ for pastoral ministry”; it adopts what has jokingly been called a “pretty sketchy” naming convention; and it was signed by a prefect rather than the pope.
The document appears squarely aimed at the social media discourse in developed, Western nations. While it briefly mentions that communications technology is not available in some places due to a lack of resources, it omits any reference to nations like Russia and China, for example, that are well-developed but where the state represses access to social media. If this is an intentional positioning rather than an oversight, then it is clear that the problem the Vatican hopes to address is the one unfolding in Western, democratic states.
If the Vatican’s message is to make a dent in the seemingly impenetrable outrage machine or the phalanx of media outlets resisting Catholic social teaching, though, it will need to take steps that are stronger and more authoritative than issuing a “pastoral reflection.”
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.”