Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Ten years ago, less than half of all Americans used any kind of social media in their lives. Now social media platforms are deeply integrated in today’s society, with the vast majority of Americans using at least one social media site, including 9 out of 10 Americans under 30.
As a result, social media has created both new opportunities and dangers for the Church’s mission to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. In this interview with the Register, Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Los Angeles archdiocese and founder of Word on Fire Ministries, reflects on both the good and bad changes brought about by social media in the past decade, and suggests ways in which Catholics, including his brother bishops, can exercise their call to discipleship and be Christ’s witnesses on social media.
How have you seen social media change over the past 10 years, especially in the life of the Church and the world?
Social media have exploded in range and popularity the last 10 years, and the Church, broadly speaking, has found innumerable ways to use them for the sake of the Gospel. This has been a tremendous boon to the Church and has aided our evangelical mission extraordinarily. I’m old enough to remember the ancient period prior to social media, and I can only smile when I think of the lack of Catholic content then, and how comparatively difficult it was to find materials, articles and basic information about Catholicism. When I contrast our time to that period, I can confidently say that, in many ways, we are in a golden age of evangelization and apologetics.
Do you believe that the good outweighs the bad effects we've seen? Many people struggle with loneliness, depression, and feelings of being overwhelmed by evil through social media exposure. We have the scandal of many committed Catholics treating each other like trash on social media. If Jesus says that the world will know we are his disciples if we follow his command to “love another,” doesn't this kind of behavior provide an anti-witness that turns people away from Jesus Christ and the Gospel?
Honestly, I think the jury is still out on this. I won’t gainsay anything I just said about the positive value of social media, but I also do not hesitate to observe just how awful they can be. The vitriol, character-assassination, and just plain hatred that one comes across every day on the social media is massively disheartening. Years ago, if someone wanted to complain about an opinion piece, he’d have to sit down, compose a letter, sign it, find an envelope and stamp, and send his vitriolic missive to an editor—who, most likely, would take one look at the diatribe and toss it into the trash. Today, anyone in his mom’s basement can dash off a hate-filled message and, with one press of a button, post it on social media where it sits, unedited, for all the world to see. Further, the very anonymity of the process encourages the venting of the most heinous and hurtful kind of rhetoric. A particularly disturbing phenomenon of the social media era is the “Twitter mob,” by which I mean the awful ganging up on someone, amounting to a kind of feeding-frenzy with the collective goal of totally destroying the person. And of course, extremism on one side of the ideological spectrum conduces to extremism on the other side.
The Church has always been, to a degree, marked by opposing camps, but this divisiveness has been exacerbated terribly by the social media. So in answer to your question, yes, the social media in many ways function as an anti-witness to the Gospel.
Do believe the Church needs to develop its vision and social teaching regarding social media?
I’d like to make a proposal in this regard, knowing full well that, as a lowly back-bencher in the bishops’ conference, I have no authority whatsoever to make it happen. But just as John Paul II, in Ex corde ecclesiae, called for the bishops to exercise greater supervision of universities operating under the aegis of the Church, I would recommend that we bishops exercise some authority over those who claim to teach for the Church in the social media space. There are, to be blunt, a disconcerting number of such people on social media who are trading in hateful, divisive speech, often deeply at odds with the theology of the Church and who are, sadly, having a powerful impact on the people of God. I do think that the shepherds of the Church, those entrusted with supervising the teaching office, can and should point out when people on social media are harming the body of Christ. I wonder if it's time to introduce something like a mandatum for those who claim to teach the Catholic faith online, whereby a bishop affirms that the person is teaching within the full communion of the Church.
Looking ahead at the next 10 years: what frontiers do you think lie before Catholics on social media who are sincerely desiring to live as true disciples and invite men and women into fellowship with Jesus Christ?
I don’t want to end on a negative note! I’m happy to have the opportunity to return to what I said at the outset, namely, that the social media can function as a wonderful means of evangelization. I would strongly urge the rising generation, those who have social media in their blood and their fingers, to delve deeply into the intellectual and spiritual tradition of the Church and then endeavor to propagate that wisdom through this marvelous tool. Start a website. Make videos for YouTube. Launch a Facebook page—and dedicate these to the Gospel. Paul used parchment, ink and the Roman roads; you use what our culture makes available today.
I would also give the following spiritual advice: before you say or write anything on social media—whether you are publishing your own material or responding to someone else—ask this simple question: do these words of mine constitute an act of love? Remember that to love is to will the good of the other. Therefore, even sharp and critical words can be an expression of love, if they are truly meant to help someone else. But if you are simply venting your spleen, or settling a score, or trying to show how clever you are, or joining an online feeding-frenzy—then don’t push the send button! One way to discipline yourself is to always allow a full day to pass before posting your comment online. There is an excellent chance that, with the passage of 24 hours, you’ll realize that the world would actually be a better place without your comment.
Also, remember Dorothy Day's line, “Everything a baptized person does every day should be directly or indirectly related to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” So before posting that comment or tweet, ask yourself whether it corresponds to one of the works of mercy. If it doesn't, don't post it – and be careful if the only work of mercy you practice is admonishing the sinner!
So, use the internet and social media, as long as you use them for the sake of the Gospel and in a spirit of love—that is, willing the good of the other. If I can adapt the words of St. Augustine: ”Love—and post whatever you want.”