Is there a theology of social media? Our sacramental tradition values our bodily natures and the material substances of wine, bread, oil and water. Social media seem to overlook our bodies, instead drawing us into an abstract world of words and images.
Sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are known for generating belligerent, hurtful arguments. Researchers note connections between cyberbullying and social media; news stories tell of youth who become depressed and even consider suicide due to the horrific online actions of others.
Yet what can be put to evil use can also be put to good. Pope Francis noted in his 2016 World Communications Day message:
“It is not technology that determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups.”
I suggest that our Catholic theology should reflect our belief in God and shape our online life, just as with our offline life. I offer the following points for reflection.
— Never forget that what we do and say online affects real people.
It is easy to forget that the people with whom we interact online are flesh-and-blood people with feelings. Yet for all that, we also know that online interactions can have both positive and negative impact on peoples’ emotions and well-being, including physical well-being.
That is why our sacramental faith is not in conflict with our online participation. Full participation in the church’s sacramental life helps us to see others as made in the image of God, with the dignity that image entails.
Yet what about online sacraments? None of our seven sacraments are available online — not even reconciliation (which is often mistakenly thought to be offered online), though there are apps available to help people with examination of conscience.
However, there are numerous prayer opportunities for Catholics online — from praying the Liturgy of the Hours to rosaries to spiritual reading. Online prayer groups provide space for people to share their concerns, and so help us keep connected to the embodied lives of people, online and offline!
— Build and foster small online Christian communities.
A great benefit of online social media is to connect people who might otherwise become disconnected. This is important for churches! Illness, disability, frequent moves, changes in work schedules and doubts about our faith are all reasons people disappear from church attendance.
Social media can be a way to address social isolation and enable vigorous theological discussion about our faith. Some communities are wholly online (like online Bible study groups), some are online and offline (like my parish’s adult education group), some are devoted to particular faith practices (like eucharistic adoration), some form around common causes (like seeking just wages or using natural family planning) and some have common characteristics (like home schooling).
These communities enable us to teach, pray for others and respond to others’ needs — just as the Scriptures call us to do.
— Ensure online communities reflect Christian virtues.
It is easy for our small Christian communities to become isolated, or worse, to see themselves as better than “those other” online groups. Catholics are particularly bad at seeing the worst in other Catholics online — even though we share the Eucharist with each other! (This has been most evident recently in discussions about the pope’s declaration on the death penalty.)
The best Christian communities enforce ground rules prohibiting trolling but also cultivate respect when making arguments. In short, social media websites can enable us Christians to live by example online, just as we do offline. In a social media world that often features vitriol, we might consider how to proclaim and promote Christ’s own peace.
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(Jana Marguerite Bennett is professor of moral theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She is the author of “Aquinas on the Web? Doing Theology in an Internet Age,” and she co-edits the blog catholicmoraltheology.com.)