Social media need to promote more logic, kindness and Christian witness than bluster, star-status and division, Pope Benedict XVI has said.
Given that the online world exposes people to a wider range of opinions and beliefs, people need to accept the existence of these other cultures, “be enriched by it” and offer others what “they possess that is good, true and beautiful”, the Pope said.
Christians are called to bring truth and values to the whole world – online and off – remembering that it is ultimately the power of God’s word that touches hearts, not sheer human effort, he said in his message for World Communications Day.
The theme of the 2013 celebration – marked in most dioceses the Sunday before Pentecost, this year May 12 – is “Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelisation”. The papal message was released on the feast of St Francis de Sales, patron of journalists, January 24.
Social media “need the commitment of all who are conscious of the value of dialogue, reasoned debate and logical argumentation”, the Pope said.
Social forums need to be used wisely and well, which means fostering balanced and respectful dialogue and debate, he said, and paying special attention to “privacy, responsibility and truthfulness”.
Too often, popularity – garnered either from fame or strategic powers of persuasion – determines the “significance and effectiveness” of online communication, not “intrinsic importance or value”, he said.
Catholics can “show their authenticity” by sharing their hope and joy, and its source in Jesus Christ. Catholics also should give witness by the way they live their lives and how their “choices, preferences and judgments” are fully consistent with the Gospel, he added.
Mgr Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told reporters during a briefing that the Pope is asking everyone to take responsibility for creating a more humane culture online by being respectful, honest and contributing to the growth and wellbeing of individuals and society through social networks.
Very often in new media “the more provocative I am, the more strident, the more extreme I am in my views, the more attention I get”, he said. But, he said, the Pope “is calling for the importance of the quiet voice of reason; we need moderation, reason and logic otherwise our debates are going nowhere”.
Archbishop Claudio Celli, the council’s president, said even Catholic sites and forums can be plagued by an aggressive and divisive atmosphere.
“The problem isn’t so much displaying straightforward fidelity to particular dogmatic statements of the faith,” he said. The problem is how to best show God’s mercy and love, which is often more credibly and effectively done with actions and not just words, he argued.
“I knew my mother and father loved me not because they showered me with solemn declarations, but because they let me experience first-hand what it means to be loved,” the archbishop said.
The same needs to happen in the realm of faith, because what humanity needs more than anything is to experience first-hand God’s love and mercy, he said.
In his message, the Pope said: “Dialogue and debate can also flourish and grow when we converse with and take seriously people whose ideas are different from our own.”
Social networks are an important place for people of faith to reach out to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence”, the Pope said.
If evangelising is to bear fruit, he said, people need to remember that “it is always because of the power of the word of God itself to touch hearts, prior to any of our own efforts.”
The level of debate can be toned down and sensationalism avoided when people begin to put more trust in the power of God’s work “than any confidence we place in human means,” he said.
“We need to trust in the fact that the basic human desire to love and to be loved, and to find meaning and truth – a desire which God himself has placed in the heart of every man and woman – keeps our contemporaries ever open to … the ‘kindly light’ of faith,” Pope Benedict said.
He also reminded people to use online networks to invite others into a faith community, religious celebrations and pilgrimages – “elements which are always important in the journey of faith”.