Communications, Culture & the Church

Last night, Loyola University of Chicago kicked off its new program: a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies with a concentration in Digital Communication, offered by the university’s Institute for Pastoral Studies. They had a panel that included my friend and colleague Rocco Palmo and Kerry Weber from America magazine. Bishop Christopher Coyne, in-coming chair of the USCCB Communications Committee, was supposed to attend but the snow demons in New England interfered with his flight.

Archbishop Blase Cupich gave opening remarks at the event. He began with these words:

St. John Paul II in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, remarked that the means of mass communications have become not only the chief means of information and education for many people today, but also the chief source for “guidance and inspiration in their behavior as individuals, families and within society at large.” For this reason, he went on to say: “It is not enough to use the media simply to spread the Christian message and the Church's authentic teaching. It is also necessary to integrate that message into the ‘new culture’ created by modern communications. This is a complex issue, since the ‘new culture’ originates not just from whatever content is eventually expressed, but from the very fact that there exist new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology”(John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 37c, 1990).

Archbishop Cupich noted that these remarks of St. Pope John Paul II are all the more remarkable when you think that they were written before the internet became a part of our daily lives, before iPads was a misprint, when NCR was still a print weekly not an online daily.

Those of us who live in the online world to earn a living can easily forget the larger, and deeper, issues the technology at our fingertips raises for our souls. As +Cupich asked, “do these new media help or hinder the creation of genuine community? The experience so far is ambiguous.” I recall one evening a couple of years back, meeting an old friend for drinks. We sat outside at a café near Dupont Circle and at the adjoining table, five twenty-somethings were meeting for drinks and, at one point, all five were busily texting people not at the table. There, one could argue, the technology was frustrating the building of community. On the other hand, after a couple of days at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, it was very rewarding to have strangers come up to me and thank me for my work.

Many decry the fact that the internet has increased polarization in society and in the Church. “These technologies do facilitate a sense of community with a reach that can be truly “catholic,” at least with a small “c,” but they also make possible communities that are exclusive and not universal – communities which simply re-enforce one’s own world view to the exclusion of any other,” +Cupich noted. So does cable TV. If someone only watches Fox News, you would think that the only real news the past few days was the President’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast and you would not be reminded that President George W. Bush, on different occasions, said almost the same things that President Obama said. On MSNBC, a different, parallel universe exists. And, at CNN, they are waiting for the next plane to crash.

It is true that the tools that we use alter our views in ways that are deep and profound. My friend Mary Hirschfeld is one of the few people who speaks about markets in ways that make me think they are not entirely a bad thing, and one of her key themes is that we cannot forget that a market is a tool, not an end. But, tools alter our perception of ends, making some ends which might be worthwhile and proper seem unattainable and pie-in-the-sky, while making other more pernicious ends seem inescapable, set-in-stone. Certainly, the internet has altered the landscape of publishing enormously, and the importance of new content has never been higher. As someone who is pretty good at churning out new content, I like this, but I also recognize that a lack of editorial supervision over large swaths of the internet has made it a less reliable source of information than news organizations once were.

Some complain that the internet puts a premium on disputation and that this has fed the polarization in our society and Church. Perhaps. The fact that I can easily access George Wiegel’s writings the moment they are published certainly make my job easier on some days. But, I do not think we controversialists are any more vitriolic than were the controversialists of, say, the early eighteenth century when Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift were perfecting the art form. We all complain that our political campaigns have become brutish and nasty, but no campaign in my lifetime has rivaled the venom that was expended in 1800 by the partisans of tow of our Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, when they sought the presidency.

The thing that worries me most about the age of the internet is the sheer volume of information that is now available. In one sense, this is a very good thing. Twenty years ago, a producer at NPR looking for comment on a religion story probably had one name on file: Martin Marty. Now, mind you, Martin Marty is a good and wise person to consult on religious matters, to be sure. But, I do think it is better for the quality of public discussion that an NPR producer can now go online and consult NCR, and, and Millennial, and a variety of other thoughtful, informed voices on the issues of the day. But, a lot of what is out there in this democratized universe of information is rubbish.

The yet deeper issue as a Church is how we engage the culture. In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr published his book Christ and Culture in which he posited five basic stances: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. My problem with those I call Catholic “culture warriors” is that they seem stuck in the first stance, Christ against culture, at all times. There may be cultures – Nazi Germany comes to mind – when such a stance is required, but even in Nazi Germany, some parents were good to their children, some priests were kind to their people, some were able, perhaps in limited ways, to resist the evil in which they found themselves. But, the important thing is that we, as a Church, should recognize that at different times and on different issues, all five stances may be warranted. It is easy to pick one and find the psychological consolation that singular stance provides. But, it is counter-productive and, more important, it does not seem true to the Master’s example. He was, at times, against the culture of his times, other times of that culture, and at others transforming it and other times above it and sometimes using paradox to achieve both transformation and transcendence.

To be faithful, we should be prepared to be nimble as we engage culture. The internet age has increased our speed and our range and our capacities, but technology does not improve the human spirit or fine tune its ethical and spiritual resources. Kudos to Loyola for beginning a program that will look at these issues with precision and persistence. But, no matter how deep we go, it will always be obscene, and the Lord Jesus commands us to resist, that twitter limits one to 140 characters.





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