New Technologies, New Relationships, New Areopagi, The Anchor, January 30, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Editorial
January 30, 2009

We are concluding Catholic Schools Week, which is an annual opportunity for the Church in the United States to focus on our young people and to remember that not only is the future of the Church in the hands and choices of our youth but so much of the present as well.

Last Friday, Pope Benedict reminded us of these truths, first by launching a Vatican YouTube channel and secondly by his Message for the 43rd World Day of Social Communications.

The new YouTube channel (youtube.com/vatican) allows people from across the world to see the Pope, to participate virtually in his liturgies, to view his general audience catecheses or Angelus meditations and so much more. While obviously open to everyone, this is not an outreach dedicated principally to nonagenarians, but to the young, who increasingly are getting their news and culture through video posting sites. Since everything is received, as St. Thomas Aquinas used to say, “according to the mode of the receiver,” Pope Benedict wanted to catechize our young people in a way most comfortable for them. This new outreach is a treasure-trove for Catholics of all ages, however, and should be readily bookmarked and frequently viewed by Catholics who use the web.

Pope Benedict’s message for the World Day of Social Communications, entitled “New Technologies, New Relationships,” was a powerful and unprecedented appeal to young people to become the apostles of this new communications frontier. He noted that the “digital generation” is particularly at home in this new world that “often seems quite foreign to those of us who, as adults, have had to learn to understand and appreciate the opportunities it has to offer.” For that reason he said, he wanted to share with them “some ideas concerning the extraordinary potential of the new technologies,” which he calls a  “true gift to humanity.” His thoughts show a deep philosophical understanding and practical familiarity with the emerging technologies and are pertinent to all of us, no matter how young we are.

The Pope begins by noting that young people, in particular, have grasped the “enormous capacity” of mobile telephones, computers and the internet to “foster connectedness, communication and understanding between individuals and communities.” They use these new means to chat with friends, make new ones, keep in touch with family members across great distances, seek information and ideas, share their opinions, conduct research, collaborate on projects, and so much more. The desire for connectedness and communication is a “modern manifestation of the basic and enduring propensity of humans to reach beyond themselves and seek communion with others.”  It is built into our nature by “the God of communication and communion,” in whose image we’re made.

For the new technologies to achieve the fulfillment of the desire for interpersonal communion, it is important, the Pope says, to keep a few things in mind.

First, there is a need for more than mere contact with others. The quality of the interaction must be in accord with the dignity of the human person, lest it harm rather than help us. “If the new technologies are to serve the good of individuals and of society,” he writes, “all users will avoid the sharing of words and images that are degrading of human beings, that promote hatred and intolerance, that debase the goodness and intimacy of human sexuality or that exploit the weak and vulnerable.” The “gift” of these new technologies can, in other words, turn into a “curse” if it is not bound to an ethics grounded on the inviolable worth of the human person, as happens in racist or pornographic sites.

Secondly, to keep the communication at the service of the human person means more, the Pope continues, than just avoiding harmful communication. It means using the new communications tools to focus on the most important questions and answers. “Dialogue must be rooted in a genuine and mutual searching for truth if it is to realize its potential…. Life is not just a succession of events or experiences: it is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this — in truth, in goodness, and in beauty — that we find happiness and joy.” Sometimes these new forms of communication can just be wastes of time, distracting us from more important matters and interactions. Even worse, they can occasionally form in us a new interior culture in which “choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.” This type of communication will not help one to become more human.

Thirdly, Benedict says we must understand, promote and guard the true meaning and purpose of friendship. Friends are much more than links on a Facebook page. “True friendship,” the Pope says, “has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience.” He particularly praises how the new technologies enable friendships and forms of cooperation with people on other continents and from other cultures. He encourages young people to form friendships that will help them “support and encourage each other in developing their gifts and talents and in putting them at the service of the human community.” At the same time, he calls them at the same time to be careful “never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship.” While the new means of social communication expand the opportunity for forming new friendships, Benedict adds that “it would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.” Too much time on-line may in fact “function to isolate individuals from real social interaction … necessary for healthy human development.”

He finishes his message with a explicit appeal to “young Catholic believers” to be at the Church’s cutting edge in evangelizing the new cyberspatial world by leavening the new technologies with their Catholic values. “Dear Brothers and Sisters, I ask you to introduce into the culture of this new environment of communications and information technology the values on which you have built your lives. In the early life of the Church, the great Apostles and their disciples brought the Good News of Jesus to the Greek and Roman world. Just as, at that time, a fruitful evangelization required that careful attention be given to understanding the culture and customs of those pagan peoples so that the truth of the gospel would touch their hearts and minds, so also today, the proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately.

“It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent.’ Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm. You know their fears and their hopes, their aspirations and their disappointments: the greatest gift you can give to them is to share with them the ‘Good News’ of a God who became man, who suffered, died and rose again to save all people. Human hearts are yearning for a world where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. Our faith can respond to these expectations: may you become its heralds!”

There are obviously many “young Catholic believers” who will not be aware of this great hope and mission Pope Benedict and the Church place in them. There are many others who will not know about the great on-line resources, like the new Vatican You Tube channel, the Church has placed at their disposal to help form them for this task. Please help spread the word to the faithful young Catholics you know.