The pandemic has revealed how inadequate our virtual lifestyles are for sustaining strong communities. Yes, the lockdowns, capacity limits, and other precautions were necessitated by a charity towards others in our society, especially the elderly and other vulnerable populations, and surely many lives were saved thanks to these measures. But even though the lockdowns were a drastic change, the fact is that many of us—particularly young people—have been living largely virtual lives for much longer than the past few months. This is what led Francis, in his 2019 exhortation to young people, Christus Vivit, to qualify his support for use of digital media. He stressed that, “It is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact” (88). The pandemic has only made this worse.
The last several months have stressed the Church in countries like the United states, where the pandemic has had the most impact and where many have been living under a shroud of fear and distrust of others. In Fratelli Tutti, Francis writes regarding the pandemic, “For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.” Many Catholics have not been to Mass in months and parishes have largely been resorting to a hodgepodge of virtual programs, communication by email, and YouTube videos in an effort to keep their parishioners engaged and involved, hoping that they’ll return to Mass when the pandemic subsides. Despite this increase in digital communication in response to our obvious need for engagement, Francis now expresses even more skepticism of the benefits of social media. He says in Fratelli Tutti, “Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity” (43). Francis seems to suggest that the use of virtual community-building efforts do nothing to assuage the pervasive concern that the pandemic and its aftermath will accelerate our fragmentation, including—but certainly not limited to—the death of the parish.
But first, we must admit that social media clearly has had its benefits. In Fratelli Tutti 96, Francis describes how our interconnectivity has made us “powerfully aware of the unity and common destiny of nations.” In Christus Vivit, he quoted from the final synod document, saying, “[Social networks] provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge” (87). But as much good as social media has provided in connecting the world, it has also perverted our sense of reality and, ironically, driven us further into isolation.
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis is particularly outspoken in his criticism of social media. First, as the Pope suggests, social media is not really communication, at least not in the fullest sense. We share our thoughts and talk about things that matter. But, as so often happens on social media, we engage with others’ words while the people behind those words remain remote. The virtual world connects, but it also intermediates, destroying vital information in the process of transmission. Specifically, virtual “dialogue” deprives us of all those non-verbal cues that help us to connect with others. Without hearing the hesitancy, without seeing people sweat—Francis’s words, not mine—it is nearly impossible to grapple with the prejudices and assumptions that underlie each other’s comments and to really connect with another person in their heart of hearts. We interpret every statement made online as the deeply-held belief of a confident interlocutor when, more often than we realize, it is a desperate cast out into the deep for affirmation, attention, or some superficial symbol of connection.
A related observation is that social media incentivizes increasingly outrageous behavior. Francis writes, in a section titled “Shameless aggression”:
Even as individuals maintain their comfortable consumerist isolation, they can choose a form of constant and febrile bonding that encourages remarkable hostility, insults, abuse, defamation and verbal violence destructive of others, and this with a lack of restraint that could not exist in physical contact without tearing us all apart. Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices. (44)
It has almost become trite to say such things, but it cannot be overstated just how abnormal our online interactions are. And the significance of this problem is so great that it has become necessary to address it in a papal encyclical. While such callous behavior can never be tolerated, what makes our behavior especially abhorrent is that for a significant number of people today, this is their primary mode of interaction with the world outside their immediate families. When we consider the impact of this on younger generations, we will inevitably see increasing skepticism about human goodness, let alone grace active in the world. Toxic online culture and the insular communities of like-minded people that social media fosters can close us off from awareness of God’s love. This can lead to a form of atheism more pernicious and difficult to uproot than its intellectual counterpart.
Another observation Francis makes about social media is that it is all too easy to exclude and include on our own terms. He writes, “Persons or situations we find unpleasant or disagreeable are simply deleted in today’s virtual networks; a virtual circle is then created, isolating us from the real world in which we are living” (47). Inevitably, this means a lack of perseverance through relationships and consequently a narrow understanding of the thoughts and beliefs of others. Community with those unlike us cannot be built on such superficial encounters. True dialogue requires an abiding presence with others, even those whom we disagree with or dislike, sometimes “in relaxed conversation or in passionate debate” (50). It requires that we “keep our attention focused, penetrate to the heart of matters, and recognize what is essential to give meaning to our lives” (50).
A passage later in the encyclical serves as a good example of this. In the seventh chapter, Francis describes the process of healing between aggrieved parties. He writes, “Authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest and patient negotiation” (244). To achieve reconciliation in conflict requires a commitment prior to dialogue—the commitment of both parties to be patient with one another and to endure each other for the sake of their relationship. This, quite simply, does not happen on social media, where conflicts are intense, burn brightly, and then are left to die when people lose interest or find another controversy.
Francis has challenged us to build a better world after the pandemic than the one we had before. As he said in March before the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing, this is a “time of choosing.” We have a choice. When it is safe, we must choose to break free from the virtual worlds that have defined so many of our lives in recent years. In our parish communities, our cities, and our countries, Catholics can exercise our Christianity in a unique way by creating places for debate and dialogue with diverse groups of people—in bars, in homes, in church basements, or wherever people can freely gather. True conversation appears to be a lost art in many ways. Do we even remember how to talk to a stranger, or to an enemy? Christians who discern the path forward with God in prayer can lead the way.
In our parishes, we need to consider our connections to the many people who remain tangentially attached to the Church but do not actively participate, or those who remain homebound because of illness, disability, or age. We must be physically present even to them. We must find concrete ways to bring the Gospel of hope and mercy to them, by our very presence. When we consider the suffering that exists and the lack of spiritual support provided by parish life, our physical presence with our brothers and sisters is an absolute necessity. Where people have been left in their profound isolation, Christians are called to provide true companionship. This requires making ourselves vulnerable, with “spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters” (50).
The world needs our physical presence. This is a hard thing to say while we are still in the midst of lockdowns in some areas, but it needs to be said. Virtuality is no replacement for the life-sustaining physical presence of another. It is in the moments spent together, sometimes in silence, sometimes awkwardly, where community is built. It is here in these “stable interactions” where a “consensus emerges over time” (43). By removing ourselves from the virtual world of hate and division and injecting ourselves into the real world, we certainly risk rejection and hurt, but in contrast to our online interactions, taking this risk will at least mean something. Indeed, as Christ reminds us in Matthew 25, we will find the incarnate Jesus there. In that case, it will mean everything.