“We are members of one another” (Eph. 4:25)
From social network communities to the human community.
This year’s Message for World Communications Day provides a helpful overview of the internet, detailing some of the challenges of the pervasiveness of the digital continent which we find so greatly influences so many aspects of our lives. These challenges become the basis for the Pope’s insights and concrete suggestions as to how we can make the internet fulfill its great potential as a resource for building up the solidarity of the whole human family. Rather than offer a commentary on the Message, I am simply going to give a quick summary, with the challenges Pope Francis raises, his insights, and the wisdom he offers to “humanize” the internet.
In this year’s Message, Pope Francis highlights these challenges of the internet today:
- The internet used as a source of disinformation (conscious and targeted distortion of both facts and interpersonal relationships)
- The internet used to manipulate, for political or economic advantage, while disrespecting the person and his or her rights
- The internet “works” [only] when all its elements share responsibility
- Social network “communities” are not automatically true communities, but often promote an identity based on opposition, or what divides us. Social network communities that start with what divides gives rise to suspicion, exclusion, the “venting” of prejudice, the growth of unbridled individualism and narcissism, and can incite spirals of hatred.
- The illusion that connecting digitally is the same as in-depth personal relationships—an illusion that most easily deceives young people
- The risk of isolation or alienation from society
All of these challenges threaten the building up of true communion of the human family. Pope Francis offers us a metaphor drawn from Saint Paul to give us a framework in which to respond to these challenges: “Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each to his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25).
This metaphor is particularly helpful for Christians, who see ourselves as members of the Body of Christ. And it helps us to remember that other people are not potential competitors, nor adversaries, but persons like us: our brothers and sisters.
The question then becomes, How can we find our true communitarian identity, aware of the responsibility we have towards one another in the online network as well?
Pope Francis offers these helpful insights:
- Multiplying connections is not the answer.
- We don’t need an adversary in order to define ourselves.
- Created in the image of the Trinitarian God who is Communion and Communication-of-Self, every human being longs to live in communion, to truly belong.
- As Christians, we are called to manifest that communion which marks our identity as believers. Faith itself is a relationship, and our encounter with God’s love for us becomes the impetus for us to welcome, understand, and respond to the gift of “the other”
- See (and use) the internet as an extension of in-person (in the flesh) encounters.
- In the Church, true unity is based not on “likes,” but on the truth, on the “Amen” by which each one clings to the Body of Christ and welcomes others.
The advice Pope Francis offers is not easy; in fact, I think this year’s message is among the most challenging of all the World Communication Day Messages. But, the solutions offered here are more urgent than ever before. In this Message, the Church is calling us to infuse all our interaction on social media with the same human characteristics that we use in face-to-face interactions: respect, friendliness, seeking common ground, sympathy, compassion, even smiles and tenderness.
- Learn to see with the all-encompassing gaze of Christ, from whom we can discover that “otherness” is an integral part—and condition—of true relationship and closeness with another. (We can only receive the “gift” of the other when we are open to their “otherness.”)
- Invest in relationships.
- Affirm the interpersonal nature of our humanity—including online. We are truly human only if we relate to others.
- Move from “individual” to “personal”: the authentic path of becoming more human is to move from being an individual who perceives the other as a rival, to a person who recognizes others as traveling companions.
- Use the internet as an extension of in-person (in the flesh) encounters.
This year’s World Communications Day Message offers us all timely, much-needed wisdom of how we can use the internet to liberate, to protect communion among people, to promote truthful and respectful encounters, to open the path to dialogue, deeper encounter, and expressions of genuine human connection.