In today’s address on the occasion of the 45th World Day of Social Communications (it’s amazing to think about how ‘social communications’ have changed over that time), Pope Benedict XVI had some interesting things to say about social media, networking and the place of Christianity in that realm.
Benedict XVI began his remarks with a statement noting the rapid developments in communications technology, particularly the internet, while observing the impact such change has caused.
I would like to share some reflections that are motivated by a phenomenon characteristic of our age: the emergence of the internet as a network for communication. It is an ever more commonly held opinion that, just as the Industrial Revolution in its day brought about a profound transformation in society by the modifications it introduced into the cycles of production and the lives of workers, so today the radical changes taking place in communications are guiding significant cultural and social developments. The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.
Following his earlier statements, both in his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate and in other addresses, the Pope encourages, if cautiously, the Church to note that today’s young people are not simply embracing this technology as a supplementary feature of everyday life, but instead find that they are more and more engaged with this technology as the normative experience of communication and relationship-building.
Young people in particular are experiencing this change in communication, with all the anxieties, challenges and creativity typical of those open with enthusiasm and curiosity to new experiences in life. Their ever greater involvement in the public digital forum, created by the so-called social networks, helps to establish new forms of interpersonal relations, influences self-awareness and therefore inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being. Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for “friends”, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.
While his entire address is worth quoting in whole, I cannot do so because of space limitations, but I invite you to read it here. I will close with an invitation the Pope extends to all Christians in the digital age.
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.