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Vatican on social media: Be a Good Samaritan on the digital highway

02 June 2023


Pope Francis speaks on a phone at the Vatican in 2021

Pope Francis speaks on a phone at the Vatican in 2021

THE use of social media should be ruled by a “culture of encounter” which “promotes friendship and peace”, new Vatican guidance states.

The document, Towards Full Presence, published on Monday by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, warns of the tendency of social media to sow division: “In a time when we are increasingly divided, when each person retreats into his or her own filtered bubble, social media is becoming a path leading many towards indifference, polarization, and extremism.”

The document argues that, if users are committed to listening to one another, however, and pay proper attention despite the “information overload” that the internet generates, social media can be a way to form new communities and strengthen existing ones.

The limitations of online communities are also explored, especially regarding the celebration of the eucharist: “One cannot share a meal through a screen. . . the eucharist is not something that we can just ‘watch’; it is something that truly nourishes us.”

The benefits of live-streaming services during Covid lockdowns are highlighted, but it is emphasised that such online interactions can be only complementary and not “substitute for . . . . an encounter in the flesh”.

The section “Watching out for pitfalls on the digital highways” discusses some of the questions posed by developments in artificial intelligence, and how algorithms designed to combat information overload create alienating “filter bubbles”.

Towards Full Presence repeatedly cites the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example for interaction, with its challenge to “step out of our comfort zone by making a voluntary effort to reach out to the other . . . beyond the boundaries of agreement and disagreement”.

Last week, the Prefect of the Dicastery, Dr Paulo Ruffini, said in an interview with Vatican News that the aim of the document was to provide “a theological and pastoral perspective on how to deal with technology that is changing”.

The Under-secretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Sister Nathalie Becquart, told the news agency that this was an “ongoing discernment”, and that the document had been developed through a “synodal approach involving many people”.

Pope Francis has called for a more synodal model of church life, and the Vatican is preparing for a gathering on Synodality in October (News, 14 February).

Sister Nathalie Becquart said that at a youth synod in 2019, members asked for advice on how to use social media in an appropriate way, and it was important for church leaders to recognise that social media “is the reality of the Church today, and the People of God”.

While remaining mindful of its dangers and limitations, the Church should embrace social media, the document says, because “young people — as well as older generations — are asking to be met where they are.”

The head of the National Service for the Pastoral Care of Persons with Disabilities of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Sister Veronica Donatello, told Vatican News that social media could be an important tool for people with disabilities, as it can provide additional ways in which to feel present at a gathering.

However, she echoed the document’s message that digital technology could only go so far in this respect, and could not be a substitute for personal encounter.

The secretary of the Dicastery, Mgr Lucio Ruiz, used a more positive image, while maintaining the distinction, by suggesting that social media could “enrich” what “is real”.

“The Church needs to go down to the ‘field’, something which Jesus told us to do, noting it is impossible to not be present. It is the culture, nowadays, and where there is man, there the Church needs to be present,” he said.

The document can be read on the Vatican website.

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