Editorial: The dignity in social media

  • February 1, 2024

In the week that we looked into the online mirror and saw pornographic deep fakes of Taylor Swift staring back, Canada’s Catholic bishops published a compelling pastoral letter on Christian engagement with social media.

Our pastors, in their wisdom, do not pretend to have Hey! Presto! solutions to the wretched pathologies underlying so much internet activity, of which last week’s criminal abuse of Swift is only the most recent hideous example. Indeed, one of the key points in “Let Your Speech Be Gracious,” from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, is that even the fever swamps of social media do not preclude its enormous potential for good.

“We use (social media) to keep in contact with family and friends and distant cousins. We read both neighbourhood, national and international news on it. We connect with strangers who share our interests and hobbies,” they remind us.

But it is equally essential to remember, they point out eloquently, that we are not absolved from our baptismal commitments to faith, hope and charity just because we temporarily take on the role of keyboard warriors tucked in protective anonymity behind our screens. Au contraire, we can, in fact, work for the common good and “witness to core Christian values” by recalling ourselves to our Catholic selves in our online conduct, the pastoral letter says.

In that spirit of personal right conduct and evangelization, the bishops offer seven simultaneously practical and aspirational commitments we can observe each time we post on any available platforms. It’s worth perusing those commitments, excerpted in our Verbatim feature, if only for an immediate sense of the prudent, guiding, charitable tone that stands in contrast to the hectoring, denigrating language of so much anti-social media communication.

Our favourite of the commitments is the final urging, derived from Pope Francis, to keep in mind that those being responded to are more than imaginary heads generating abstract arguments with which we take issue. They are full human beings “who, just like us, have bad days and good days, experience a wide range of emotions, make mistakes, and lead complicated lives. (W)e must maintain a commitment to treat them with human dignity.”

It’s worth noting those words describe to a “T” the pedagogical imperative of the Catholic journalism course being run by The Register and its partners at the B.C. Catholic, Catholic Conscience and the Religion and Journalism Project. The 12-week course introduces experienced and emerging Catholic journalists to the necessity of “Speaking Truth in Charity,” that is committing to treat subjects of journalistic interest with human dignity above all.

It is not indulging nostalgia to claim there was a time in living memory when that was a principal obligation and virtue of all journalism, not just the Catholic variation. Undermining of that principal preceded the Internet’s ubiquity by at least a decade, though it’s indisputable that the sheer speed of digital communication hastened collapse of respect for the person.

Such ill-effect of digital speed on our social media conduct is a point that the pastoral letter generally, and the seven commitments particularly, might have emphasized a little more. After all, as individuals possessing inherent dignity and agency, we have the God-given capacity to control the Internet demand for reckless response. In the same way that we drive cars capable of going double the posted speed limit but don’t motor 160 kph through school zones, we can choose to bring a spirit of sedateness to the platforms we frequent.

Think, for example, if we treated social media posts as we once did the forgotten practice of letter writing. It was not only penning the missive that mattered but finding an envelope, finding a stamp, placing the address, walking to the mailbox, and pausing before dropping the epistle into Canada Post’s care. Each of those was a moment for reflection and even, in a Catholic context, a prayer for those with whom we wished to correspond.

The opportunities to speak graciously were abundant. For posting horrid criminal fake pornography of current celebrities? Not so much.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.