This week brings two conferences of significance for the Australian Church and at which I am grateful to be sharing some thoughts. The first conference is CDMC, the Catholic Digital Media Conference (19-20 August, 2014) while the second event is Proclaim 2014 (21-23 August, 2014).
The potential to learn new skills, hear the collective wisdom of those practicing leadership in various Catholic fora, and gather with old and new online and real world friends makes these days a great source of personal and collective renewal.
The particular focus of CDMC is to offer insight from new media practitioners on how the Catholic Church and its agencies can use new media and social media to share the Gospel. While not prolific online or an expert in any sense, I shared the reflections below near the conclusion of this conference before joining a panel discussion to break open some of the contributions of the two days with fellow speakers. I hope these thoughts will be value to those wrestling with the nature and extent of the Church’s engagement with new technologies.
Digital technology represents a rich and challenging way of participating in God’s mission, and a frontier which can give new life to the Church. As a potential vehicle for evangelisation, digital media calls not simply on technical ability or ‘know how’ but invites our theological vision as Catholics of the possibilities that God offers us in this moment of ‘radiant ripeness’, when what is ancient and simple ‘[mingles] with what is new and strange’.
Setting the Scene
As people of the Incarnation and the Cross we are bound to recognise that there is overwhelming promise in emerging technologies as well as a shadow side to these developments. The Church and its communicators enter this space aware of the ways in which digital media can reveal and share the joy of the Gospel, calling humanity to its deepest destiny, and the ways in which this same technology can erode a sense of self, human vocation and community.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out that in our cities in particular, where large numbers of people rub shoulders, are unknown to each other, do not have direct dealings but yet affect and influence one another in thought, behaviour and expression, people can be caught between loneliness and communication.
The use of social media perfectly manifests this swing between individualism and association with others for we can be alone with our digital devices and yet watch world events unfold, aware that hundreds or even millions of others are doing so at the same time. We can hover between a sense of isolation and a loose form of togetherness, vacillate between privacy and the spectacle of mutual display.
The danger of this situation is that personal identity can be reduced to a matter of ‘being seen’ rather than being known, to the desire for publicity rather than authenticity. The notion of human community can also be emptied of its intimacy and personalism, reduced to the blips and squeaks of ‘a lonely crowd’. Even in matters religious, digital media can lead to superficiality, the ‘fortune cookie wisdom’ that fits neatly within 140 characters, as well as spiritual exhibitionism among even the committed, the virtual equivalent of wanting to watch oneself at prayer.
But none of this is inevitable. While isolation and superficiality are risks of any human endeavour, we as the believing Church can bring real and lasting treasure to the myriad of human desires, experiences and quest for meaning that takes place online, playing our part in the humanisation and sanctification of digital culture and the wider world.
As Pope Benedict has shared in his reflection on Christian engagement of new media, we as ‘believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived.’ By keeping alive these eternal questions and engaging the concerns and events of the world in the light of faith, Catholic bloggers, commentators, and leaders can bring real depth and consequence to the digital continent.
Catholic communicators can place before these vast audiences the sacred origin and sacred destiny of all humanity, the intrinsic dignity of each person that is at the same time a calling or vocation to encounter the person of Jesus, the ‘Perfect Communicator’, the living Word who speaks not only by a message but through the totality of his life and Spirit.
In the light of faith and in His example, Catholic media can advocate for the forgotten victims of history (many of them voiceless in a technological age) and be for the world even if at times it must be for it by standing against its deficiencies. In the light of faith, the lonely crowds and fragile networks can be opened to the witness of a real and embodied community of Christ whose worship and values are seen to shape the practices and commitments of its members. In the light of faith, the Church can reach out to those in isolation and stand for the poor in spirit and circumstance, bringing the rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching to bear on the needs of the present. In all of these ways, the Church can firmly take its place on the digital realm as a genuine locus of personal fulfilment and interpersonal communion.
Pope Benedict would conclude that while our Church does not ultimately bring technical solutions to the problems afflicting the world, what it does bring is a faith-filled realisation of the deepest needs of humanity which are not merely social but spiritual in nature. It is by reading and responding to the world at these spiritual heights, or rather at these depths, that Catholic media can shape contemporary culture and its online participants in an active and ongoing way.
Communicating in the Gospel
On a practical level, I would suggest that despite the potential for such Christian influence, new technologies can run ahead of our ability to communicate as Church. While social media supplies us with opportunities that could not have been envisaged even a short decade ago, there is nothing automatic about our ability as Church to use this media effectively and to proclaim the Gospel with influence and real effect. Like all other gifts of God, including the Eucharist, we have to learn and reflect over time on how best to put these gifts into practice, on how to make these gifts come to life in relationship to others. In this respect, there are no ‘experts’, only better or lesser learners.
One of the ongoing challenges for our Church in engaging social media is to recognise that it is indeed social media and not designed to be encyclopaedic, concerned with the delivery of a multitude of facts. Belonging to an articulate tradition as we do, a tradition which includes a body of sacred teaching, we can still be tempted to employ new media as a blunt instrument for the dissemination of information. This is no doubt where we started, when the documents of the Church and the catechism were first placed online, when Catholic encyclopaedias and patristic texts were uploaded and parish websites published their Mass times.
Certainly, this supply of online information is valuable and has enabled greater and unrivalled access to the Christian tradition – Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, the manifold prayers of the Church – resources not instantly or as readily available to previous generations. We can affirm without hesitation that Catholic faith has content, a creed and beliefs, ‘that which it believes’, which calls to be shared and made present in the digital arena.
However, what social media reminds our Church with some importance is that this creed, this faith, these beliefs, also need to be received, to be heard in a way that others can understand and enter into. Social media reminds the Church that evangelisation is more than the transmission of data, that it involves not only proclamation but dialogue, a dialogue with which proclamation has an ‘essential bond’. Digital technologies must certainly be engaged by the Church from a standpoint of conviction, made use of in the unwavering, true light of the Gospel who is Christ, but that unfailing light, identity and conviction can only be brought to bear on actual human lives through discourse and exchange, persuasion and empathy, listening as well as speaking, receiving as well as offering, all those dimensions of human relationship and interpersonal dynamics that contribute to personal conversion.
In surveying the capacity of our social media to foster this sort of evangelising contact with others, it could be said that Catholic Twitter accounts, blogs and media can sometimes assume the religious literacy of their audiences, be prone to religious ‘shorthand’ or else address questions that are more germane to ‘insiders’ than ‘outsiders’. The danger of social media when it becomes self-referential, insular or rarefied in this way is that we can be essentially left talking to ourselves, conversation partners within a self-affirming Catholic subculture, while the wider culture moves on largely untouched and unmoved by the claims of Christian faith.
To highlight this risk of misaligning our communication to audience, note that our parish teams and ministries are now meeting second-generation unchurched families for whom the word ‘sacrament’ is foreign and strange, for whom the word ‘mission’ evokes only faraway places, for whom the meaning and implications of Eucharist would be barely known. As Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium,
We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.
If we confuse effective Church communication for ‘the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines’ our people will, as they already do in our pews, hear only fragments and, what is more, hear them from the outside rather than as participants in a conversation of eternal significance.
A Church in the (Digital) World
So how might the Church best be present within this digital world which remains only in its infancy?
It strikes me that when the Church has encountered new cultural terrain, enters new territory or encounters unexpected social conditions, one temptation to which it can fall victim is the instant desire to construct parallel infrastructure to secure Catholic identity in the public square. This form of Catholic replication of existing cultural forms has been a well tried strategy of the Church in times past but one that has its limitation in terms of evangelisation.
For example, the Catholic Church when founded in Australia quickly sought to develop a parallel school system to the State, established Catholic youth groups, Catholic debating societies, even Catholic tennis and bushwalking clubs aimed at the social and cultural reproduction of the Church. As the theologian Neil Ormerod points out, the aim was, in part, to ensure Catholics were held within the church from birth to death. One could travel through life with limited contact with ‘others’, whoever these ‘others’ might be, usually Protestants. Today in the realm of media, it is already possible to watch an exclusively Catholic television channel if one chose to do so.
A similar strategy of mimicry could be attempted online, in which the Church seeks to replicate technologies and media channels to create Catholic-branded platforms which serve much the same purpose as existing secular media. However, I think this approach is misguided, not only because it is inevitably expensive to create a parallel Catholic world online but because it misunderstands the theological basis of evangelisation which is to interact with the world, not present a self-enclosed alternative to it.
To make the point, we can learn from the Jesuit theologian Walter Ong who recalls for us the essential role of the Church in society as a leaven,
Yeast acts on dough, but it does not convert all the dough into yeast, nor is it able to do so or meant to do so. Its primary effect is to interact, and this interaction results in ferment and growth for both yeast and dough.
Like yeast, we do not have to sacrifice our own identity to interact and dialogue with others but it is a part of our identity to interact, not to remain isolated or take over the space of the world (the catholicity of dialogue and exchange is well captured in the ‘retweet’, in our ability as Catholics to share that which carries insight but that did not originate from us).
In a similar vein to Ong, the ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak writes of the need for the Church to take its place within rather than above or in parallel to the drama of the world,
To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Catholic media should not, then, aim at the creation of Catholic enclaves in the digital world but must develop the ability to express, represent and dialogue in the name of the Gospel in the midst of the various media in which the world already expresses itself and reflects upon its circumstances, meaning and destiny. Again, this calls on the ability of the Catholic communicators to dialogue in the faith as well as to proclaim it with conviction.
Ultimately, our ability to evangelise online will reflect our ability to evangelise in the world. There is nothing magic or enchanted about technology; it will reflect what is in us. The Cistercian spiritual master Thomas Merton reminds us that a condition for meaningful relationships and genuine communion with others is a spiritual identity and life of our own. Without an inner life grounded in our own dialogue with God, mass communications can only be a dull and disorientating roar:
How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark where there is no enemy . . . They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.
There is only one thing that Catholic communicators are called to express – the life and spirit of Jesus who in revealing God reveals humanity to itself. It is his message and life that bears upon every dimension of culture and progress, that is capable of making our world truly human and of our diverse and demanding lives and work a meaningful mission.
The task of communicators in the Church today is as wide as it is deep. They must make the case for digital technologies within the Church, by explaining and even, at times, defending their potential in a community that can grow slow. They must also educate or school themselves in the sources and insights of Catholic tradition while also standing at the window of the world, attending to the best practices in contemporary media and discerning how they might best serve the Gospel in a new time. Catholic media must even play a prophetic role for our Church, bringing the future into the present with the riches and insight of the past.
While all of this is demanding, our Catholic leaders in media can do all of this with the confidence and faith that to the ever evolving landscapes of the world, digital and otherwise, God has already addressed a living Word and that Word provides the light and promise to our path.
I hope to post my workshop from Proclaim 2014 in coming days which will focus on vision and practices for parish growth. Thank you for reading this blog and best wishes in your ministry and mission in the Church, Daniel.
 G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1932), 185.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 482.
 Cf. David Ranson, ‘To be Seen or to be Known’, The Faith Project, 27 August 2012. Available online at http://www.churchresources.info/missionspirit/0909/RANSON.pdf. Accessed 19 August, 2014.
 The Cistercian spiritual master Thomas Merton warns, with relevance to the digital realm, that for the sake of publicity we can forfeit our authenticity, ‘The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men. A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real’. Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, 362.
 Benedict XVI, Message for the 45th World Communications Day. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20110124_45th-world-communications-day_en.html. Accessed 19 August 2014.
 Pontifical Council for the Social Communication, Communio et Progressio 11. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_23051971_communio_en.html. Accessed 19 August, 2014.
 Benedict XVI, Address on 12 July, 2009. Available online at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/church-is-an-expert-in-humanity-says-pope. Accessed 19 August, 2014.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 251.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 34.
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.
 Neil Ormerod, ‘The Laity in the Australian Church’ in Neil Ormerod, et al., Vatican II: Reception and Implementation in the Australian Church (Mulgrave, VIC: Garratt Publishing, 2012), 68.
 Walter Ong, ‘Yeast as a Parable for Catholic Higher Education’, America (7 April 1990) as cited in Stephen J. McKinney and John Sullivan, Education in a Catholic Perspective (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2013), 168. My emphasis.
 Joseph Komonchak, ‘Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities’, 12; available online at https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hubbard-lecture.pdf. Accessed 19 August 2014.
 Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (London: Hollis & Carter, 1955), 162.
 Gaudium et Spes 22. See also the thought of Henri de Lubac who writes, ‘In revealing to us the God who is the end of man, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, reveals us to ourselves, and without him the ultimate foundation of our being would remain an enigma to us’; in Henri de Lubac, ‘The total meaning of man and the world’, Communio 35 (2008: 4), 626-7.