For years I have been something of a social media junkie, regularly checking my phone for updates on Facebook and Twitter (I’m too old for Snapchat) and posting my wisdom to the world at large. I have enjoyed receiving “likes” and retweets as much as the next person (more perhaps).
Yes, I was appropriately dismissive of posts about kittens and thought selfies were narcissistic and naff. But generally I didn’t question the value of social media as a whole. Certainly not from a Catholic point of view. After all, is social media not one of the primary forms of modern communication? Do Catholics not need to be there for evangelisation purposes? Indeed, couldn’t this be seen as part of my ministry as a priest, a sort of cyber parish?
But I recently met a seminarian friend who stopped using Facebook a couple of years ago. He swore that it had improved his life, especially his life as a Catholic. He challenged me to follow his example.
Immediately, I felt defensive, like a man addicted to gambling when his wife suggests he might consider laying off the horses for a while. My internal reaction rather took me aback: why did the idea of coming off social media seem so threatening? Was I actually addicted to the retweets and likes I received?
As I thought more about withdrawing from Facebook and Twitter, I spoke to people who raised various objections. Two alone seemed to have some merit. First, that social media is a platform for communication and therefore the Church should no more be absent from Facebook and Twitter than St Paul was from the Areopagus. Second, it is a way of keeping in touch with people with whom I would otherwise lose contact.
These two arguments alone gave me pause for thought. But as for the first, I wondered how many people had actually been converted through a tweet. I suspected not that many (perhaps Prof Stephen Bullivant’s team at St Mary’s can conduct some research on this). Perhaps just as many (if not more) people are put off the faith by the internecine warfare among Catholics online. Social media do not encourage nuance and moderation. They tend to accentuate the less pleasant side of communication, and the more outrageous comments tend to draw the most likes. Like journalists, social media users face the temptation to focus on the scandalous and divisive, something that doesn’t sit comfortably with St Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … if anything is excellent or praiseworthy … think about such things.”
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