Faith Matters

Eamon Martin: Being a believer in the digital world

Christians should not stand outside the online world and look in with disapproval but should get involved, argues Archbishop Eamon Martin, who shares a 10 point 'highway code' for travelling through the digital landscape

Eamon Martin

Today's technology means we can hold a digital world in our hands

THE screen time facility on my mobile phone and tablet offers me a detailed analysis of the time I've spent on my favourite apps, on social media, browsing the internet, and working on texts like this one.

It tells me whether my total screen time is up, or down, on last week - which invariably leads to feelings of either guilt or self-congratulation.

For Lent I tried to go off all screens between nine at night and nine in the morning - but failed miserably.

Out at the Synod of Bishops on Youth in Rome last October we considered the massive impact of 'screen culture' - including not only mobiles and tablets, but also cinema, mini-series and video gaming.

We spoke about the exploitation of young people online, about the harvesting of their data, identity theft and scams.

However, the young people present pleaded with us that the Church should not just stand outside the digital world, looking in with disapproval.

The Church should also recognise that digital technology, and especially social media, is now a permanent part of the life and identity of the majority of young people - and, increasingly so, of all of us.

The distinction between the 'online' and 'offline' world is becoming more and more nebulous.

Nearly 60 years ago in 1963, the decree Inter Mirifica, 'Amongst the Wonderful', on the media of social communications, was published by the Second Vatican Council to set a positive tone for the Church's interaction with new media. Here are its opening paragraphs:

"Among the wonderful technological discoveries... made with God's help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which... have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort.

"The most important of these inventions can, of their very nature, reach and influence, not only individuals, but the very masses and the whole of human society, and thus can rightly be called the media of social communication.

"The Church recognises that these media, if properly utilised, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God.

"The Church recognises, too, that people can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss.

"Indeed, the Church experiences maternal grief at the harm all too often done to society by their evil use."

We should, then, consider the key question - 'Can we be believers in the digital world?' - in a positive, yet inquiring spirit.

'Believers', firstly in the sense that we recognise the positive and powerful possibilities of digital media for education, exchange of information, ideals and interests.

But 'believers' also in another sense, as believers in God, for whom the digital world presents a vast 'new continent' for meeting people, entering into dialogue with them, and opening up for them an encounter with Jesus Christ, and the challenges and the joy of his gospel.

Clearly a screen culture which massively prioritises image over listening and reading, will influence the missionary endeavours of all the great world faiths whose members have been traditionally known as 'people of the book'

In the opening section of his message for this year's World Communications Day, Pope Francis sets out the context: "Ever since the internet first became available, the Church has always sought to promote its use in the service of the encounter between persons, and of solidarity among all.

"With this message I would like to invite you once again to reflect on the foundation and importance of our being-in-relation and to rediscover, in the vast array of challenges of the current communications context, the desire of the human person who does not want to be left isolated and alone".

Pope Francis continues: "Today's media environment is so pervasive as to be indistinguishable from the sphere of everyday life.

"The net is a resource of our time. It is a source of knowledge and relationships that were once unthinkable.

"If the internet represents an extraordinary possibility of access to knowledge, it is also true that it has proven to be one of the areas most exposed to disinformation and to the conscious and targeted distortion of facts and interpersonal relationships, which are often used to discredit."

'Screen culture' presents opportunities for faith

Five years ago, I offered 10 principles to guide the presence of believers on the 'digital highways'.

1. Be positive, communicating the 'joy of the Gospel'.

2. Strictly avoid aggression and 'preachiness' online; try not to be judgmental or polemical.

3. Never bear false witness on the internet.

4. Fill the internet with charity and love, continually seeking to include a sense of charity and solidarity with the suffering in the world.

5. Have a 'broad back' when criticisms and insults are made - when possible, gently correct.

6. Pray in the digital world. Establish sacred spaces, opportunities for stillness, reflection and meditation online.

7. Establish connections, relationships and build communion, including an ecumenical presence online.

8. Educate young people to keep themselves safe and responsible online, particularly in light of cyberbullying and the prevalence and accessibility of pornography and online gambling.

9. "Give a soul to the internet," as Pope Benedict XVI once said - at all times witness to human dignity online.

10. Be missionary, remembering that, with the help of the internet, a message has the potential to reach the ends of the earth in seconds.

With these 10 principles in mind, I invite you to consider how we can be believers in the digital world and, conversely, reflect on the impact which the digital world is having on Church, society, on family, on interpersonal relationships and on each of us as individual persons.

Clearly a screen culture which massively prioritises image over listening and reading, will influence the missionary endeavours of all the great world faiths whose members have been traditionally known as 'people of the book'.

The digital world also has obvious implications for our contemporary understanding and use of key concepts like love, friendship, community, gathering and solidarity with others, especially the vulnerable.

Some speak of the 'me' or 'selfie' generation, which needs instant gratification and is nurtured by the narcissism and voyeurism of social networking - the extremes of this are seen in young people constantly checking their phones for likes and friends, obsessing for hours over their profile picture, or the macabre filming and instant sharing of tragic incidents like road accidents or the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

What can believers say into this space? How might we understand more fully the driving forces within cyberspace and witness by our example to a Christian, healthy, and wholesome presence online?

The Church should also recognise that digital technology, and especially social media, is now a permanent part of the life and identity of the majority of young people - and, increasingly so, of all of us

Pope Francis refers to the danger of creating "closed circuits" on the internet, with people all thinking alike and easily manipulable by powerful outside interests which can "facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate".

He cautions on the other hand against the isolation and loneliness which can pervade our internet use, and "the dangerous phenomenon of young people becoming 'social hermits' who risk alienating themselves completely from society".

How can Christians build bridges across the divides online, be reconcilers, peacemakers, comforters, instilling hope, love and faith?

I suggest that Church and society has much to evaluate and reflect on in these areas.

However, the sheer exponential speed of development of the World Wide Web, the immensity of questions raised about our identity and relationships and belonging - not to mention the huge ethical and moral questions it poses - can sometimes frighten us from even going there.

I leave my final words to Pope Francis from his message for World Communications Day: "If a family uses the internet to be more connected, to then meet at table and look into each other's eyes, then it is a resource.

"If a Church community coordinates its activity through the network, and then celebrates the Eucharist together, then it is a resource.

"If the net becomes an opportunity to share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering that are physically distant from us, in order to pray together and together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us, then it is a resource.

"We can, in this way, move from diagnosis to treatment: opening the way for dialogue, for encounter, for smiles and expressions of tenderness... This is the network we want, a network created not to entrap, but to liberate, to protect a communion of people who are free.

"The Church herself is a network woven together by Eucharistic communion, where unity is based not on 'likes', but on the truth, on the 'Amen', by which each one clings to the Body of Christ, and welcomes others."

Dr Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore. He chairs the Bishops' Council for Communications

Archbishop Eamon Martin

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