With an institution as rich in tradition as the Church, tradition can sometimes be seen as “stuck in the past”. Many times, this is for good reason and, truth be told, good to not be swept up in the latest fad. In the realm of communications, however, by definition, the need to reach out and connect with others is more important than the way it always been done. Of course, that isn’t to say that all things old should be abandoned.
The evolution of social media is not new. Human networks connecting people of like-mindedness have existed since the dawn of time. These connections are part of our basic human make-up and the Church is no different. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 decreed that upcoming weddings should be announced in advanced publically, which gave birth to the modern engagement period. Churches published banns, or formal notices, of upcoming weddings to inform the community and to give an opportunity for someone to speak in advance if they knew of some reason two should not be wed (Are they related? Did one kidnap the other? Was one of them already committed in marriage or religious life?). Parishes typically don’t publish these notices any longer, but Facebook does it for us. The essence is the same–spreading word throughout the community–but the methods have drastically changed over the centuries, and especially the last few years.
The Church is slow to move on new fads, partly because we’re too caught up in the work we’re already doing to stay abreast of the newest, greatest and latest. Sometimes, it is for good reason. Should baptismal, marital and other sacramental records be kept officially and exclusively in electronic form? There is too much to consider when these documents can be used in some legal contexts to prove marriages, births, deaths, legal status to rush into their use without accounting for how to maintain a safe, tamper-proof and disaster-proof system while also meeting a church budget that assumed simple ink, paper, photocopying, copying to microfiche, and non-critical electronic data recording.
But, in matters of reaching out to the faithful and meeting them where they are, the Church must always attempt to be at the forefront. Whether it is meeting us where we are spiritually, physically or, now, electronically, the Church cannot be the last to this party.
The sociological changes that we will be seeing in our society will keep researchers busy for centuries. The nature of human relationships is changing in completely new and different ways. I am only in my mid-twenties, but in grade school, we had pen pals. These were other students from other places around the country or world that we would communicate with to learn more about the cultural differences in other places. We wrote a letter–on pen and paper–and mailed it using a stamp and envelope across the ocean. Typically, a month–at best–a reply to come back. Pictures had to be printed, at the drugstore or some other photo lab, and send in the mail too. Today, children are growing up completely wirelessly connected to the world. Between Facebook, Twitter, texting, cellular data connections, camera phones and a lack of social experience regulating the polite use of these tools and a parental class struggling to relate to these new mediums, unable to use them in socially-acceptable ways themselves will lead to opportunities and challenges we cannot imagine today.
These opportunities and challenges will be faced head-on by our schools trying to find the balance between use of these technologies for education and the use for distraction. It will be felt by our Church in so many ways–counseling couples who find themselves so connected electronically that they forget how to connect face-to-face with each other or unable to unplug, by trying to teach a new generation Truth and the facts about our human existence when the pedagogical tools we are using are either out-of-date, untried or both. Even within the Church proper, new issues are arising that haven’t been seen in the history of the Church. Is using an iPad or Kindle as a Sacramentary a good thing? Is it sound with liturgical principles? If not, why not? Is the potential for distraction of the priest while using it worth the benefit? But, at the same time, what possibilities exist when there is an iPhone app that helps you keep track of what sins you want to confess, how long since you’ve been and gives you a customized examination of conscience to prepare for you for the sacrament?
With all of these unanswered questions, we cannot use them as a crutch to excuse us not entering into these new forms of media, communication and networking. Rather, it is the prefect opportunity for the Church’s leaders–the lay ministerial staff, priests and bishops–to interface with the rank-and-file faithful who are emerging experts in this field. We can explore what is possible, but ensure that we are not abusing technology and missing the essence of our human relationships in the process. Just as science has had to struggle with this balance, today’s advancement of technology and social media must find that balance between what is technically possible and what is justifiably good to do.
As this discussion advances today with the launch of a local lay-directed Catholic New Media organization, we are striving to blaze a path that will keep the timeless Truth of our faith known and present to an ever-evolving landscape of electronic communication. This is truly an exciting time to see this evolution and dialogue as it happens.