Me? I am still struggling – what on earth is Facebook?

Well. Now the Pope has decided to make a pronouncement on communications in cyberspace, I thought I’d better have a look at what he had to say, since cyberspace is what you’re reading these blogs in. I was pretty impressed: it reminded me of what someone once said to me when I asked if someone he had just met was as intelligent as everyone said. “He was so darned intelligent,” was the reply, “I didn’t understand a word he said”.
 
Well, I did understand some of what the Pope said recently; but I also found myself struggling with parts of it. I usually give myself the excuse when stumped by some abstruse internet utterance or other that it’s a young man’s game, and I can’t be expected to keep up with it at my age, certainly nothing like as well as my 13-year-old grandson, let alone my son-in law, who is a professional digital nerd. Sending emails, Googling stuff and even writing blogs (thus becoming part of what is known as the Catholic blogosphere) I always thought was pretty good for an old chap like me: now here is the Pope, a decade and a half older, saying pretty difficult stuff, but obviously understanding the whole thing perfectly well, and making impressive sounding statements about it.
 
Being digitally illiterate, I’m rather dependent on commentators who seek to explain these things. What was the Pope actually saying? Russell Shaw, on a website called OSV Daily Take, reminded us that the title of the Pope’s remarks was “Truth, Proclamation, and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age” and then explained what it was about. “That’s a mouthful,” he opined, “but at least the focus on digital media makes sense. Digital is where the action is these days, and the emphasis on truth is a reminder that, whatever else digital media may be, they’re not a realm of fact but opinion. You say your piece, I say mine. In much of this egalitarian media world, one version of truth is as good as another”.
 
What? Is that really what the Pope was saying? “One version of truth is as good as another”? Surely not. That’s precisely what the Pope unceasingly tells us is not the case.

According to Edward Pentin, writing in the National Catholic Register, the “principal focus” of the Pope’s statement is the question of “social networking sites such as Facebook”, though “none”, he says, “is mentioned explicitly by name”:

The Pope’s message encourages all Christians to use this means of communication, and underlines its advantages for evangelisation. But the message also highlights the risks that go with digital media.

The Holy Father reaffirms many of the benefits and dangers of the digital age, saying social networks are a wonderful way to build relationships and community. But he warns against replacing real friendships with virtual ones.
 
“In the final analysis,” the Pope writes, “the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others.”

It’s a brave new world I don’t begin to understand. I feel like an ancient High Court judge, asking some question to which everyone but him knows the answer, like  “who are Posh and Becks?” What is Facebook? What’s the point of it? Why is it so dangerous? I don’t get it, any of it. Thank heaven, at least the Pope appears to.

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As a footnote to the main story, at a Vatican press conference, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said his dicastery was working on a set of guidelines with recommendations for appropriate style and behaviour for Catholics online. Does that mean I’m going to have to tone my blogs down? Surely not. On Protect the Pope, Deacon Nick Donnelly draws attention to the Pope’s warning that “The proclamation of the Gospel requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience”. He then comments, however, that:

“…in challenging the falsehoods and vitriol directed at the Holy Father and the Catholic Faith I have felt it necessary to bluntly name prejudice, intolerance and discrimination and hold those responsible for it to account. When someone appears to intentionally lie, it is necessary to identify them as liars; when someone appears to intentionally promote prejudice, it is necessary to identify them as bigots.”

Way to go, Deacon Nick; that’s my boy. I expect that’s what the Pontifical Council for Social Communications guidelines on the appropriate style and behaviour for Catholics online will recommend. Surely. Won’t it?

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