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Pope's guide to social networking


FacebookThe internet is not Pope Benedict's natural metier. So his World Day of Social Communications address last week allowed readers to see how an elderly, intelligent man might reflect on the massive changes in social communication. He was characteristically perceptive in his focus on large questions.

He recognised the importance of the internet for expanding human communication. He measured its value by the extent to which it enhances and deepens human relationships, and was even-handed in his assessment of the advantages and risks it offers.

He urged Christians to take it seriously, and stressed the importance of embodying Gospel values in both the truth that is communicated and in the way in which it is communicated.

The document is interesting for what it reveals of the author as well as of the topic. Benedict retails large theories about the significance of the internet, but the scholar in him refers to them as 'an ever more commonly held opinion'. He prudently reserves judgment on areas outside his expertise.

From Plato's day, older people have seen new ways of communication as a problem primarily for the young. As a result the anxieties they express about new technologies are often more about the development of young people than about the technologies themselves. The fact that 12-year-olds used to play Monopoly for ten hours a day was not an indictment of Monopoly.

Benedict also associates social networking with the young. But his tone is not elegaic. He trusts in their freedom to use it well.

Most striking in his address is his unequivocal endorsement of the internet's possibilities for expanding and deepening human communication. The internet is to be embraced and shaped in such a way that it realises its full possibilities. So, while allowing that the Gospel will challenge some of the ways of thinking that are typical of the web, he encourages Christians to go for it:

'I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible. This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life. The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness.'

Endorsements don't come much stronger than this.

The address invites the reader to ask further questions that it does not treat itself. It studies social communication as a personal phenomenon, focusing on the ethics of the way in which individuals use it.

But social networking has also large political and economic dimensions which help shape that use. We need to ask who profits from the internet, how advertising revenue helps shape the images and information we receive, how repressive governments attempt to control the internet and can be undone by it. It would be good to see these public aspects of social communications receive sustained ethical reflection by Catholic thinkers.

For Catholics the Pope's insistence that the human values of the Gospel should be embodied in the form of communication as well as in its content will be challenging. Much that passes for conversation online is characterised by intolerance and disrespect. Catholic online publications are not exempt. It is hard to see how they can endorse respect unless they moderate contributions to discussion, and exclude personal rancour.

One of the most interesting questions raised by the address concerns the distinction made between internet and face to face communication. These are often strongly opposed. Benedict insists that face to face content is central to the church, because it is central also in human life. So he seeks a balance between virtual and face to face communication.

The relationship between different forms of communication, however, is quite complex and worth exploring further.

Take, for example, a weekly exchange of love letters over a long time, with their variously probing, self-reflective, endearing, encouraging and challenging passages. It would be hard to argue persuasively that this kind of communication is necessarily less intimate or deep than face to face communication. Certainly it is different, and the correspondents may long to meet face to face. But the couple may communicate more deeply through their writing than in any meeting.

Online communication can also be intimate. We might expect some forms of social communication, such as Facebook and Twitter, to be less self-revelatory because they address a larger audience. But in that respect, they should not be compared to intimate face to face communication, but to unstructured group conversation. They can encourage a depth of communication they do not achieve.

Ultimately all communication is mediated. It takes place through symbols. In face to face communication, for example, we are always interpreting signs. We read people's faces, compare what we see with the inner image we have of them, and adjust our image by what we learn in the new exchange. The same engagement between image and the encounter takes place in writing and in internet communication.

Perhaps the best contribution of the churches to reflection on the internet might be to explore the rich body of reflection on word, image and symbol they have developed over centuries in speaking of the communication between God and human beings. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Pope Benedict, World Day of Social Communications, Facebook, twitter



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Existing comments

Fiona Douglas' personal story (How my English teacher saved my life) in ES on June 30 2010 is worth another reading in the light of this discussion.

Michael Grounds | 03 February 2011  

a useful contribution until the last paragreph.It seems to say that there is a "God" and that there has been a communication between Him and us over centuries. There have been rich communications, from humans, as to what constitutes good behaviour but no convincing evidence that it comes from "God" As one might borrow, freely, from a New York Bowery character- "if God is so great why ain't we all rich" in all things!

frank hetherton | 03 February 2011  

A Church built largely on the blogging and messaging of one Saul of Tarsus should surely welcome such a generous endorsement of contemporary means of communication...

margaret | 03 February 2011  

Andrew your review of Pope Benedict's address on Social Communication opens up many interesting questions for further analysis. As for instance your comment, "We need to ask who profits from the internet, how advertising revenue helps shape the images and information we receive, how repressive governments attempt to control the internet and can be undone by it. It would be good to see these public aspects of social communications receive sustained ethical reflection by Catholic thinkers."

This sentence covers a broad sweep of ethical issues which hopefully most reflective members of a social democracy might review. Of particular interest, given current international tensisons, is the question of how governments of all hues, including Australia's, attempt to control the internet. This highlights an issue requiring constant vigilance as it impinges upon three fundamental principles of a democracy - freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press.

Such freedoms are central to any ethical debate and hopefully that debate will be ongoing, robust and widely enjoined. However what is interesting in this internet debate is the blurring of the oft quoted philosophical distinction between practical and theoretical discourse (or more classically, to use Kant's distinction of pure and practical reason, between practical reasoning such as ethics and theoretical reasoning such a metaphysics, mathematics, logic, and science). Ethical analyses concerning the internent require the ethicist to leap beyond the limitations of practical reasoning into the domain of metaphyics with a consideration of the internet's status as a virtual reality.

What is interesting is not only the nature of "persons" within this domain, most of whom internet users will never have "face-to-face" contact with, but the question of the existential and moral status of these "persons". This blurring of the metaphysical divide between real and virtual has huge implications for ethicists, firstly by what we mean as "persons" and secondly their moral status which then leads onto the question which you hope would "receive sustained ethical reflection by Catholic thinkers."

Hence I would add to your questions which Pope Benedict's address raises and suggest the ongoing value of examining the metaphysics of virtual reality.

John Edwards | 03 February 2011  

I wonder if I could be afforded an extra bite of the cherry? Frank Hetherton's comments are interesting, if only because for me the mathematical complexity of the physical universe is replete with the signature (should we say "communications"?) of an intelligent maker. This is even before we get to considering the greater wonder of the consciousness of human beings acting not only as conscious beings but also as moral agents. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant considered man's sense of moral agency a sufficient proof of the existence of God. This would suggest that the provenance of good behaviour is to be found internally, as Frank suggests, rather than externally Whether "God" should make the best of all possible worlds for us to live in is a moot point which has occupied philosophers for centuries past, and I suspect for centuries ahead. True, there is a message embedded in this wonderfully complex world of ours, both made and of our making, both real and virtual - but exactly what that message is constitutes a great intellectual and moral challenge. And yes, the communication is ambiguous but needs to be wrestled with regardless of the conclusion one comes to. Certainly it is not a question easily ignored given its implications.

John Edwards | 03 February 2011  

In answer to Frank Hetherton's borrowed question, "if God is so great why ain't we all rich(?)', I summise that the response could be, God made us all abundantly rich. It's the actions of humans that has divided those riches inequitably and then created new riches that have a value negatively correlated to the extent that it's shared. "Rich" is a relative term. Absolute truths leave no room for relativity.

Thelston Traveller | 04 February 2011  

Thelston Traveller, I like the cut of your jib.

THis was an interesting article. I am frequently surprised by some of the sermonising about the internet, and to be honest quite pleased and refreshed by the Pope's take on it all.

The internet as a means of communication is akin to the development of the printing press. Opportunity abounds for many messages, not the least of which is the message of love and forgiveness and justice.

I would agree that the internet can be an illuminating and life-giving way for the message. But just as a romance is not complete with in love letters, but is made manifest in person, the same with our message as a church. We just need not be too pushy, too soon but let it grow.

MBG | 05 February 2011  

I think that when people as old as the Pope or the Queen start commenting on (or using) Facebook, it shows that it's already a little passé. (No offence intended. I am coming up to a half century, and have to squint to SMS. Where are the eyes of yesterday, and the ears of last Spring?)

Penelope | 07 February 2011  

To frank hetherton who asked "if God is so great why ain't we all rich" in all things.

God did indeed create a perfect world where the first humans were “rich in all things”.
Mankind already had been given the gift of a “free will” - which God wanted for every person.
Without “free-will” we would all be mere puppets with meaningless lives - and of no joy to the Creator.

The trouble with mankind, is that they allowed themselves to become arrogant and saw themselves as potentially as great as the Creator.
This was the original sin … the sin of pride.
(remember, the Creation Story in Genesis was described metaphorically / simplistically to an uneducated audience ).

Because of Humankind’s sin, humankind has inherited a “broken world” and all its associated problems of sorrow, sickness, all the problems of inequity resulting from individual greed (exercised by callous god-less humans divorcing themselves from morals and ethics).
The human problem is still … that we all need to review and overhaul our lives … that we all need to take part in a “revolution of the heart and mind” and turn back to God, who alone can heal our “brokenness”.
We all need to re-think who we are and why we are here - the complete overhaul must begin with ourselves.
Remember …

Jesus was not interested in the earthly trappings of power as the crowds insisted on making Him King, and escaped into the mountains; conversely He became the target of their rage when they saw that He was more interested firstly in their moral overhaul rather than their immediate rescue from political and physical repression .

This is the concept that the audiences listening to Jesus were too impatient to comprehend:
1. That he was giving them the true tools which would enable them to radically transform the world by first transforming themselves; and that world peace could only take place when they turned back to God and an honourable way of life … whatever the circumstances of their (and our) lives.
2. That their transformation (and ours) must begin with them/ourselves. That even their eventual physical freedom (from brutal repression) had to begin with themselves and their turning back to God; thus becoming a living example of the kind of humanity they wanted to create around them.
3. We have a choice … of becoming members of God’s healed family and a healed world … or continue living in an ever-increasing “broken-world”.
4. We have “free-will” to make that choice.

ad | 18 February 2011  

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