‘Love your neighbour’ on social media

A Vatican pastoral reflection urges people of faith to promote Christian values, not divisions on social media.

WelCom June/July 2023

A Vatican pastoral reflection urges people of faith to promote Christian values, not divisions on social media.

Catholics should make an ‘examination of conscience’ about how they use social media, how they allow it to influence them and about the opportunities it provides them to share the Gospel, build community and care for others, says the Vatican Dicastery for Communication.

The Dicastery for Communication has released a pastoral reflection on engagement with social media, including recommendations for how to better ‘love your neighbour’ online.

The 20-page text, ‘Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media’, published on 29 May 2023, addresses the challenges Christians face in using social media.

Topics covered in the pastoral reflection include information overload, constant scrolling, not giving others one’s full attention, being an ‘influencer’, witnessing to Christ, ‘digital detox’, the need for silence, intentional listening, and building community in a fragmented world.

‘One significant cognitive challenge of digital culture is the loss of our ability to think deeply and purposefully,’ it warns. ‘We scan the surface and remain in the shallows, instead of deeply pondering realities.’

The text is ‘not meant to be precise “guidelines” for pastoral ministry,’ the dicastery clarified, but seeks to promote a common reflection on how to foster meaningful and caring relationships on social media.

The Vatican’s pastoral reflection posits that social media’s constant demand for people’s attention ‘is similar to the process through which any temptation enters into the human heart and draws our attention away from the only word that is really meaningful and life-giving, the Word of God’.

‘Different websites, applications, and platforms are programmed to prey on our human desire for acknowledgment, and they are constantly fighting for people’s attention. Attention itself has become the most valuable asset and commodity,’ it says.

One significant cognitive challenge of digital culture is the loss of our ability to think deeply and purposefully.

Hooked on digital stimulation

‘Instead of focusing on one issue at a time, our continuous partial attention rapidly passes from one topic to the other. In our ‘always on’ condition, we face the temptation to post instantly since we are physiologically hooked on digital stimulation, always wanting more content in endless scrolling and frustrated by any lack of updates.’

The text highlights the need for silence and for schools, families, and communities to carve out times for people to detach from digital devices.

It warns that space for ‘deliberate listening, attentiveness, and discernment of the truth is becoming rare’.

‘Without silence and the space to think slowly, deeply, and purposefully, we risk losing not only cognitive capacities but also the depth of our interactions, both human and divine.’

Social media pitfalls

The document raises red flags about ‘pitfalls to avoid’ with social media, such as aggressive and negative speech shared under the ‘cloak of pseudonymity’.

‘Along the “digital highways” many people are hurt by division and hatred. We cannot ignore it. We cannot be just silent passers-by. In order to humanise digital environments, we must not forget those who are “left behind”. We can only see what is going on if we look from the perspective of the wounded man in the parable of the Good Samaritan,’ it says.

The text notes how algorithms’ content personalisation can reinforce people’s own opinions without exposure to other ideas, which at times can lead to ‘encouraging extreme behaviours’.

It also raises concerns about how social media companies treat people as commodities whose ‘profiles and data are sold’. The text underlines that social media ‘is not free: We are paying with minutes of our attention and bytes of our data’.

The text adds: ‘Increasing emphasis on the distribution and trade of knowledge, data, and information has generated a paradox: In a society where information plays such an essential role, it is increasingly difficult to verify sources and the accuracy of the information that circulates digitally.’

The text highlights how ‘every Christian should be aware of his or her potential influence, no matter how many followers he or she has’.

‘Our social media presence usually focuses on spreading information. Along these lines, presenting ideas, teachings, thoughts, spiritual reflections, and the like on social media needs to be faithful to the Christian tradition,’ it says.

It recommends that Christians should take care to be ‘reflective not reactive on social media’ to ensure that the way one treats others online is in itself a witness.

‘We should all be careful not to fall into the digital traps hidden in content that is intentionally designed to sow conflict among users by causing outrage or emotional reactions,’ it says. ‘We must be mindful of posting and sharing content that can cause misunderstanding, exacerbate division, incite conflict, and deepen prejudices.’

One question the text encourages Christians to reflect on is whether their social media posts are pursuing ‘followers’ for themselves or for Christ.

‘What does it mean to be a witness? The Greek word for witness is “martyr”, and it is safe to say that some of the most powerful “Christian influencers” have been martyrs,’ it says.

It urges people to remember that ‘there were no “likes” at all and almost no “followers” at the moment of the biggest manifestation of the glory of God! Every human measurement of “success” is relativised by the logic of the Gospel.

‘While martyrdom is the ultimate sign of Christian witness, every Christian is called to sacrifice himself or herself: Christian living is a vocation that consumes our very existence by offering ourselves, soul and body, to become a space for the communication of God’s love, a sign pointing toward the Son of God.

‘It is in this sense that we better understand the words of the great John the Baptist, the first witness of Christ: “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Like the Forerunner, who urged his disciples to follow Christ, we too are not pursuing “followers” for ourselves, but for Christ. We can spread the Gospel only by forging a communion that unites us in Christ. We do this by following Jesus’ example of interacting with others.’

Sources: CNA News, Catholic News Service

You can read the document in full on the Vatican website here.

Panelists pose for a photo after presenting ‘Toward Full Presence. A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media’, a document from the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, 29 May, 2023, at the Vatican press office. Pictured (l-r): Franciscan Sr Veronica Donatello, director of the Italian bishops’ office for people with disabilities; Msgr Lucio A Ruiz, secretary of the dicastery; Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the dicastery; and Xavière Missionary Sr Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, a member of the dicastery. Photo: Cindy Wooden/CNS