As someone who dips an occasional toe into the roiling waters of what is commonly called Catholic Twitter, I was deeply grateful for the Vatican’s release of Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media. My only question is this: Is anyone out there listening?
The document, released by the dicastery for communication in late May, notes that the “pressing issue” remains of how both individuals and the ecclesial community “are to live in the digital world as ‘loving neighbors’ who are genuinely present and attentive to each other on our common journey along the digital highways.’”
“Pressing issue” is, perhaps, an understatement. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes looking at what Catholics are talking about on social media these days will know that the discussion, if it can be called that, can sometimes make the most toxic parish council meeting look like a kindergarten bun fight.
The ugliness of current political discourse has seeped into religious debate, both in tone and in a pointed focus on topics such as migrants and refugees, vaccines and LGTBQ+ rights. Perhaps many of us have become more aware of the problem given the widespread coverage of Bishop Strickland’s “here I stand” moment this past May, declaring on Twitter that he rejects Pope Francis’s “program of undermining the faith.”
But the issue is much more than a few high-profile clerics dancing with dissent. Any Catholic with an internet connection can find really stunning assertions about the state of the church today. While what you see can shift based on everything from which accounts you follow to seemingly random algorithms, this week alone I’ve seen Pope Francis described as “a snake,” a “sodophile,” and as someone who “appoints enemies of the true Christ.” (If you haven’t figured it out already, social media is a hotbed of Francis haters.) People on all sides frequently lob labels like “heretic,” “bigot” and “apostate”—and those are the names fit to print!
A couple of thoughts come to mind whenever I see these online battles. First, would the combatants speak to each other this way if they bumped into each other on the steps of the church after Mass? Would they dare speak to each other in a similar fashion if they were face to face? And second, have the debaters stopped to think about the impact of their words on others, including the gullible and the searchers with few supports? The internet is a wonderful way to connect with the world but learning to discern can be challenging. When we begin from a position of arrogant certainty, we help no one.
The anonymity of the internet allows everyone from armchair quarterbacks to schoolyard bullies to weigh in, often with little information or education to back up assertions. In no way does this further the pope’s discussions on the differences between evangelizing and proselytizing.
Evangelization "does not begin by seeking to convince others, but by bearing witness each day to the love that has watched over us and lifted us back up,” the pope says. Tell that to the people debating the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) online. It’s not hard to think that social media warriors were on his mind as he spoke.
The simple answer would be for those who are offended or disappointed by the tenor of social media spats to close our accounts or stay away from the topic. But real harm is being done via misinformation, whether willful or ill informed, and by the constant confident assertions by posters arguing about what the Church really believes. Every time I look at certain Catholic accounts, I see seekers given bad advice and information, and those who are brave enough to differ receiving responses ranging from being told to go to confession to assurances of possessing a one-way ticket to Hell. This, I will gladly report, is not my usual experience of church—and such knee-jerk judgment mocks the spiritual life—but I think we need to be aware of what is happening. While social media posts don’t reflect the entire church, it is important to be aware of where the cracks may be appearing.
As attention turns to the fall synod meetings, battle lines are being drawn, with many proclaiming this to be a key moment of renewal in the life of the Church, while detractors argue that the synod will lead to schism—or worse. Many feeds are filled with images of Cardinal Sarah, a great proponent of silence, with those posting arguing that we know all we need to know and that lay people need to shut up and listen to a few select members of the Church hierarchy.
On the other side are those who appreciate the synodal efforts, as Fr. Giacomo Costa, S.I., consultor of the general secretariat of the synod, has said, to use the “method of conversation in the Holy Spirit,” remaining particularly conscious of those whose voices have not traditionally been heard by the church. In other words, we are to listen—and not only in one way—to our church family and beyond.
And so, the petty, presumptive Twitter wars become distracting noise at this critical juncture which is, perhaps, exactly what those afraid of a new way forward, those angered by the approach of Pope Francis, hope to achieve.
But if we return to "Toward Full Presence," with its stated desire to break down the political walls that keep us from fruitful conversation, we’ll be reminded that our online encounters, even if hidden behind anonymous handles, should be geared toward collaboration and cooperation rather than division and assertions of who is the better, more faithful Catholic. It’s a timely topic that should be preached about and discussed in Catholic schools and universities. It’s a document that should be taken to heart in this time of renewal. But if we can’t even get all bishops on board, how do we move forward as “loving neighbors,” whether online or in person?
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.