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Caritas in Veritate and the challenges of new media

July 9, 2009

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Building on his message for the 43rd World Day of Communications, Pope Benedict XVI again addressed new digital technologies in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, released yesterday. In the sixth chapter, the Holy Father posited that the Internet's democratization of media increases our freedom only insofar as its use promotes fraternity, charity and, of course, truth:
For better or for worse, [new means of social communications] are so integral a part of life today that it seems quite absurd to maintain that they are neutral — and hence unaffected by any moral considerations concerning people. […]
Just because social communications increase the possibilities of interconnection and the dissemination of ideas, it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalize development and democracy for all. To achieve goals of this kind, they need to focus on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples, they need to be clearly inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth, of the good, and of natural and supernatural fraternity. In fact, human freedom is intrinsically linked with these higher values. The media can make an important contribution towards the growth in communion of the human family and the ethos of society when they are used to promote universal participation in the common search for what is just.
In the most recent episode of Witness (streaming online above in its entirety), Winnipeg's Archbishop James Weisgerber similarly cautioned against uncritical reading of online sources. Perhaps we’ve trained ourselves to believe that if information is published—even if it is self-published, like this blog post—then it must meet rigorous journalistic or academic standards. Understandably, we readily trust pro-life or faith-related media from like-minded authors.
It seems that when things appear on websites, they have a truth, simply because they’re there. […] In the tradition of the Catholic Church, it’s very clear that the teaching authority of the Church is the bishop. And I mean if the people do not trust the bishop or the bishops of the country, and prefer to trust some anonymous website, we have a real crisis in understanding of what the Church is. I suppose those websites can play some role in tweaking consciences and raising issues, but I don’t think we can give them the infallibility of truth.
The President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops does not suggest that lay Catholics should hesitate from using new media to serve the common good. Still, the Archbishop judges that, to the extent the bishops leave new media to others, the faithful will lack authoritative leadership and will turn elsewhere—as has already occurred, he admits, in the area of sanctity of life issues.
I think that has left us without a really strong program in promotion of the events of life within the country. And because there is a vacuum there -- you know, there’s a huge number of people in the Catholic Church who are very concerned about this issue and they’re looking for leadership -- this has been filled by many websites which have a very specific way of looking at things, which I don’t think is really Catholic.
And so the bishops really need to occupy that place and we are determined to do that. It’s going to take some time. [...] So this is one of the missions of the Church that I think has not been looked after. In theory and in teaching, we’re very, very strong, but in practical leadership, I think there’s a vacuum and we have to fill that.
It’s evident that new media can and does build up “natural and supernatural fraternity”, as the Pope describes. Examples include how Twitter users rapidly disseminated reports of the Iranian government’s recent suppression of protests. Yet in the fight against abortion, arguably the most important human rights battle of our time, Archbishop Weisgerber fears that new media has become a vicious battleground instead of a forum for communion:
What really hurts me most about this last six months is that people who are in favour of life and supporting life are fighting with each other instead of fighting for life. That is a terrible, terrible tragedy and that’s one we’re all accountable for. You know, there’s an expression in Scripture: “That is a sin that cries out to God”—good people fighting with each other.
NOTE: The interview with Archbishop Weisgerber was recorded prior to the release of the CCCB's report of its investigation of alleged pro-abortion advocacy by partners of Development and Peace, the international development organization of the Catholic Church in Canada. The report, which can be read here, encourages "an open and fruitful dialogue with Canadian Catholic groups" that launched the initial allegations.
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