In my conferences during this formation term, I have focused on the business model of “best practices” as applied to what we do here in the seminary. For the final conference of this series, I would like to turn to a very specific issue, the issue of social networking and our relationship in general to the internet and the world wide web.
Last year I was invited by the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors (NCDVD) to make a presentation at their annual convention on social networking and its impact on seminaries. At first I thought the organizers were joking. As anyone knows, I am basically a techno-idiot. I have no space of my own. My face is not on a book. I believe that only birds should twitter and tweet. My initial response to the invitation was to say no, but then I realized, perhaps I needed more insight. Naturally, the first thing I was interested in as a scholar was what others were saying. So, I googled, because I do know how to do that. Needless to say there were hundreds of thousands of links to sites concerning the use of social networking. Google was not helpful. I then turned to members of the staff to find out what their thoughts were on the question. An elderly professor slammed the door in my face indicating that he thought the internet was possessed by the devil. Fair enough. Another indicated that he was frustrated by all of the email he receives. Our IT man was frustrated by his having to constantly monitor internet use for inappropriate sites. Another has a warning on his web signature: No inutile forwards. Clever and literate, I thought. Another is frustrated by the amount of useless information that is conveyed. TMI, TMI he kept repeating and I only later found out what that meant. Overall my cursory survey of the staff was about as helpless as Google. Now I was even more frustrated and so, as I always say, when in doubt, ask the pope. What did our Holy Father have to say about social networking and communication? In a statement for the 44th World Communications Day in 2010, Pope Benedict said the following:
The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel”. (Benedict XVI, Statement for the 44th World Communications Day, 2010).
Rather than presenting the phenomenon of social networking and techo-communication as a problem, the pope views it as an opportunity. Indeed it is.
The bottom line is this: Social networking and its attendant technologies are here to stay. They are a definitive part of our social landscapes and our horizons. As a seminary, our choice in the work of promoting and sustaining priestly vocations is not whether we will engage social networking and technology to connect with today’s (and tomorrow’s) generation, but how we will use it and form those with whom we are charged to use it responsibly in such a way that effective interpersonal communication that is necessary for quality pastoral encounters is not jeopardized. Moving past the theological discussion of the aftermath of a cyber centered universe, I would now like to engage a more practical approach to the challenges of social networking. I will do this in several sections. First I will look briefly at the phenomenon of social networking. Next I will examine how social networking interfaces with contemporary values, particularly in terms of the values (often countercultural values) that we seek to express in our lives as priests.
First: How do we define social networking? In general social networking is the use of some technology to communicate with others who are not proximate. More particularly, it is the process of building and/or maintaining community from a distance. In that sense it is as old as cupped hands or the use of tin cans to generate conversational ability. Social networking in its modern sense is preceded by older technologies of written communication, telegraphs and telephones. The advent of the internet provided new means and a new impetus to the possibilities for social networking. The internet, more than previous technological instruments, placed the world immediately at the disposal of everyone with a computer and did so inexpensively and efficiently.
One of the hazards of discussing social networking and trends is the lightening pace at which these trends change. The same can be said of statistics. At the risk of almost immediate archaism, I will try to land the statistical ball somewhere in the field of the contemporary situation. Almost 1.5 billion people employ email. Together they generate 247 billion emails per day. Every second the textual quantity of emails equals approximately 16,000 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare. In the world of texting. 2.3 million texts are sent each day. The average “texter” sends 357 texts per month, although this figure is skewed. Younger people tend to text a great deal more than their older counterparts. I recently spoke with an older lay student who was lamenting the family phone bill; her college-freshman daughter had sent 2,000 texts in a single month. Relating this story to a class of lay students, another woman raised her hand a said that her son had sent 20,000 texts in the previous month. Looking at social networking proper, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and new sites which appear almost daily have gained tremendous momentum in the past 5 years. Likewise the use of the internet to gather information has become a decided trend among younger people. The use of sites like Wikipedia and a dependence upon information gathered from various Catholic blogs has become one of the challenges of teaching in a technologically charged academic environment. A common cry I hear among some of my teaching colleagues is: “Where in the heck are they getting these ideas?”
Reflecting on the various aspects of social networking and realizing that the moment any reflection is made in the area of technology it becomes obsolete, I have arrived at eight challenges to seminary formation posed by the preponderance of social networking among younger people today.
First is the danger of constructed realities. Social networking communities are not real communities. They are constructed. This constructed reality has two essential components, one the fact that what is there is only the result of what is put there. Essentially there are no accidents in cyber communities. The participants have the ability to “edit” their lives, putting forward only what is considered meaningful and perhaps, attractive. While this may not seem to differ significantly from what we might experience in real communities, I think it does in that in real engagement there are other clues to read that might reveal stories behind the masks. In a meaningful way, all cyber communities are what we might term “second life” communities. In cyber communities we have the ability to conceal what we do not want others to see. There is no “warts and all” in cyber communities. This might be as innocent as not sharing significant challenges with our cyber neighbors or as deceptive as lying about one’s age, personality or even appearance. The second constructed aspect of cyber communities is the lack of alterity. My friends are by nature those like myself. I do not have to include others in my cyber world if I do not like their politics, religion, skin color or other aspects of their lives. The other, an essential component of real life, is able to be excluded from constructed communities. Segregation is real and its effects in the long term may be as severe as those of the real world. In the seminary world, constructed communities most often take the form of like-thinking individuals. The cyber community becomes a crucible of single-mindedness. It is difficult to see the possibilities for priestly formation in such communities. Parishes are messy affairs. They include people who do not think like I do, look like I do, or act like I do. Hyper-socialization in cyber communities can condition seminarians and priests to a false set of expectations about what real communities should be like. There is no perfect community. Likewise, I am never a perfect member of a community. Seminarians will say they are seeking affirmation for their beliefs, which are often counter cultural in cyber communities. Those beliefs in order to be truly counter cultural however, have to encounter the culture, real people who will challenge and at times thwart them. An example of this outside of the question of social networking is the resistance experienced from some seminarians for engaging a program of Clinical Pastoral Experience (CPE). Some seminarians say they do not want to do CPE because CPE groups have a reputation for being hostile to Catholic beliefs. My common response to this complaint is: So is at least some of the culture you are going to engage in your parish community and the broader neighborhood. If you cannot defend your beliefs to a controlled group of CPE participants, how can you defend it in the “real world”? Seminarians must be formed to realize that they cannot control the world around them in every detail. They cannot cushion themselves from people who do not think as they do on particular issues. They cannot avoid encountering alterity in its many forms. Nor should they. Authentic priestly ministry means encountering the real community and bearing witness to your beliefs. If these beliefs are from God, they need no defending. If they are not, then they must necessarily fall.
A second challenge of social networking in seminary life is what I term the prevalence of an “alternative magisterium”. I am not proposing a new theological category here. I am merely trying to describe how the legitimate exercise of Church authority is sometimes compromised in the pundit-like atmosphere of contemporary cyber communities. Catholic blogs, internet sites, etc. pose a problem in that they present opinions about various aspects of Church life as though they are facts. Many of our seminarians diligently follow various blogs and other sites. A few years ago I was appalled to read in a popular Catholic newspaper, the following headline: “Orthodox Catholics say ‘no’ to their bishops”. As a theologian, I do not know what that means. Our perception of orthodoxy, particularly as priests, is inextricably tied up with our relationship with our ordinary. The exercise of the Church’s authentic magisterium is compromised by commentators, whether in print or online, who question the validity of that authority. Dealing with the question of who speaks authoritatively to those in formation for priestly ministry is crucial to the outcome of that ministry. Orthodoxy is not adjudicated in the blogosphere, it is uncovered and experienced in the living reality of the Church. It is experienced in real relationships by people who have real responsibility for its authentic expression. Seminarians who garner theological opinion from cyber space endanger the authentic relationships they should be building with their ordinaries, those responsible for expressing to them in a significant way the Truth found in the Catholic Church. For us the ancient adage remains true: Where the bishop is, there is the Catholic Church. Theological opinions in cyberspace that are inimical to the authentic teaching of the Church’s magisterium have to be disregarded. The antidote for this challenge is two-fold. One is careful listening to what seminarians are expressing in the classroom and challenging these positions when they are contradictory to the Church’s authentic magisterium. Seminary professors should always ask for the source of problematic opinions. Second, relationships between seminarians and their ordinaries should be cultivated from the beginning of seminary formation. This is important for a number of reasons. It allows both the ordinary and the seminarian to develop the authentic human relationship that is necessary for a quality obedience to be expressed between the two and it allows for the healthy development of an understanding of the relational quality of orthodoxy in the life of the Church. While the relationship between a seminarian and his ordinary cannot be based merely on personality, authentic personality is a place to start when in search of the teachings of the Church. Cyber relationships are not.
A third challenge of social networking is a perceived but false sense of anonymity in posting. There is a seductive aspect of seeming privacy in internet conversation. I sit in the privacy of my office or room. I post to a wall on Facebook that is only viewed by my “friends”. I do not have the ability to see the reactions of those to whom I am speaking (unless I am using a webcam). I may never get particular feedback on my postings. Yet, they are “out there”. I express sentiments or opinions about various things that I would never proclaim over a microphone in a crowded room. After all, I am only taking to my friends. The internet presents a perception of intimacy that does not exist. Thus, conversation becomes public that was never meant to be public. A great deal of time is devoted in seminary formation today to instilling in seminarians a perception of appropriate speech. How should ideas be expressed? What is the appropriate audience for different forms of speech? I would not say to an entire congregation in a parish they same things I would say to my brothers priests in the rectory. I would not say it in the same way. Different modalities of speech are necessary in human discourse. These distinctions get lost in internet communication. Anyone with the technological savvy of the average fourteen year old can see practically anything on the internet. The fine distinction of friends and walls is lost in the determination of a junior league hacker. Anything and everything can be seen. What is available, however, is less of a formation question than the perception of anonymity the seminarian has. The priest is a public person. What he says and does, even his most private thoughts and actions always have the potential of becoming known. We have too much evidence in the press to presume otherwise. Should we be preparing new priests to be paranoid? By no means, we must prepare them to be responsible for what they say. With the deacons here in the seminary, I use a simple tool to illustrate this point. All of them, with the permission of their bishops are asked to post to a blog on priestly spirituality. They have to sign their names to every posting. Such blatant exposure of their ideas and thoughts has the effect of making them think more carefully of what they are doing in other areas of cyber communication.
A fourth challenge in this area is related to this. It is the possibility in cyber communications of a boldness of expression without the nuances of interpersonal communication. Even in direct personal communication the possibility of misinterpretation is always present. As the form of communication becomes more removed, that possibility becomes greater. In Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, there is a famous scene in which Mortimer sends a letter to the executioner who is to visit the imprisoned King Edward that is so ambiguously worded that it could be interoperated either as a mandate to kill the king, or a mandate not to kill the king. This ambiguity is meant to protect the scheming Mortimer from the consequences of regicide after the fact. Letters, messages, telegrams (remember those?) even telephone calls bear the potential for problematic interpretations. Likewise, email, postings and tweets. Because of their truncated nature, these cyber communications also have the potential to be bolder in expression than might be desirable in older forms of communications. When I am restrained by few words, when I am texting or typing on a phone, I am more likely to engage in hyperbole and boldness of tone. At times this may be problematic. I communicate something that may seem confrontational by the receiving party or parties. I am also encouraged to boldness of speech because I do not have to see the consequences of what I am saying reflected in the reaction of the receiver. The receiver does not have the facile ability to question me or my intentions. Cyber communications are rife with the possibility of being misconstrued. They also reinforce a growing comfortability and perhaps a bias in favor of confrontational speech that is perceived to be at a safe distance. The continual use of cyber communication can also effect the person’s ability to learn and read nuances of personal communication. This is a serious debilitation for priests who must depend upon these nuances to fully appreciate and interpret pastoral situations. The fullness of pastoral situations cannot take place by Twitter. Speech that is too bold and un-nuanced can have a deleterious effect on pastoral credibility.
A fifth challenge is the inability to retrieve cyber communications. Emily Dickinson once wrote in a letter to a gossipy friend: “We must be careful what we say, no bird resumes its egg.” Once it is out there, it is out there. I am always somewhat amused when I receive emails from colleagues or seminarians and then, a few seconds later, receive a recall notice. There seems to be the perception that the recall notice somehow cancels the existence of the original email. Yet, there it remains in my inbox. In was recently reading an account in the news of a murder trial in which the suspect had done a Google search for terms such as “chloroform” and “suffocation”. She was fully convinced she had erased this information from the memory of her computer, yet forensic technologists were able to retrieve this information from the depths of her hard-drive.
A sixth challenge regarding social networking is the question of opinion versus fact. This is a fine distinction and one that bears a number of theological nuances. In the priesthood, there is always the need to consider the carefulness with which ideas are expressed, in particular their relative weight. We spend ample time in seminary formation instilling into you the ideal that priests always speak on behalf of the whole Church and never engage in a public discussion of any private opinions they may hold. The religious submission of will and intellect promised by the priest at his ordination ensures that the private opinions of the priest are irrelevant to the public discourse of the Church, a discourse that he leads and guides in his role as shepherd. If the priest has private opinions contradictory to the teaching of the Church (a situation difficult to imagine), he keeps those opinions to himself. He is bound to do so. This distinction is not in question. He is an agent of the magisterium. Of course, there are areas of Church life where the priest may authentically exercise his preferences and opinions. A simple example might be the way in which he ties his cincture. It is of little consequence for the life of the Church whether the priest prefers to wear the cincture with the ends both hanging to one side, or whether he prefers the ends to hang down to either side. It does not matter. It is equally important that the priest not attempt to make important matters those things that are not. For example, if he presents the question of the cincture as a matter of importance, when it is not. As seminary formators, and as priests and seminarians, we are familiar with these distinctions and how they get exercised in the daily life of the Church. With parishioners, it is not necessarily so. The priest is perceived as having an authoritative voice. He needs to be perceived in this way in order for him to assist the ordinary with the exercise of his authentic prophetic office in connection to the bishop. For many average Catholics, information and opinions placed on a priest’s blog may be given a degree of weight which the priest did not intend. Nevertheless, the opinion is there and because the priest exercises a legitimate authority among the faithful, it is sometimes taken that all of his communication bears this authority. Whether the confusion is formal or not, it is there. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to correct a seminarian who placed on his blog some rather forceful opinions about some contemporary church music. Now, of course, he is not a priest, but he should be conditioning his public speech to the degree of responsibility that the priest needs to constantly exercise. He told me that he had a right to his opinion. I told him that by the exercise of conscience he certainly did. However, he did not have a right to express that opinion in such a way that his legitimate authority would give credence to the opinion that was not necessary for the reader to accept. The faithful are always prone to say: “If the priest said it, it must be true”. Too many of our Catholic faithful have been confused by priests presenting their conflicting opinions about non-essential or essential matters in Church life as authoritative. Do the faithful need to be more discerning in the way in which they read communications by the priest? Certainly, but priests need to be more discerning in the way in which they present their opinions. The casual and indeed, seemingly friendly and personal nature of internet posting, whether on blogs or walls can lure even well-meaning priests to express something that can be misinterpreted by the faithful as bearing an authoritative weight it does not have.
Another challenge in this area for seminary formation is so common I have given it a name, the e-bomb. The e-bomb consists of challenging or confrontational communication expressed in electronic form. In the news we constantly read of people (mostly men) who break up with their romantic interests by sending them texts. No one could deny the callous inappropriateness of such an action. Confrontation is made easier by the anonymity of electronic forms of delivery. What is callous in a fiancé is sinful for the priest. Using electronic communication to correct or confront others is always problematic because it denies the essential dignity of the person who deserves personal engagement. Seminarians have a tendency to send out emails to their peers correcting their behaviors. Occasionally this will be extended from the individuals who might need to be corrected to all of those in the community. The community-wide correction is a product of new technology. The irony of it is that it seldom hits its target and ends up making innocent parties angry at the sender. Correction in a seminary has to be done personally and directly. This can also be problematic for the formation staff. As formation personnel we cannot send the message that it is alright to confront people electronically. Likewise, we have to be careful not to respond to emails we receive that are problematic with an equally problematic response. The formation staff has the responsibility of demonstrating appropriate confrontation of difficulties, even when the temptation is to fire off an equally explosive e-bomb of our own. The use of the e-bomb is something that must be addressed in seminary formation because its deployment in the world of parish life is not only problematic but deplorable. One of the greatest formation challenges we encounter today is how to re-teach pastoral communication in which the basics of communication have never really been mastered.
The final area of challenge is related to this concern. It is the corruption, or perhaps more pointedly the failure to develop appropriate interpersonal skills. At a very basic level this applies to the area of grammar and forms of expression. The continual use of truncated words and expressions has robbed at least a generation of the ability to construct a sentence. Numerous authors have addressed this question asking the pointed question: Is Google making us stupid? Are we more able to communicate effectively with one another in this era of highly sophisticated means of communication? Are our vocabularies, our abilities to spell correctly and our forms of speech gaining or loosing in an era of heightened computer literacy? It is in many ways an ironic question and still more ironic in the sense that we might not even be able to answer it because we have been robbed of the ability to ask it.
Often I wonder in a world of greater communications if we have not suffered a corruption of critical ability for doing authentic theological reflection. This is a complex concern. One that undoubtedly requires a further conference to consider and I have gone on long enough here. Contemporary scholars of mental functioning report that the age of the computer has had the undesired effect of limiting the attention span of the modern person. In today’s world three minutes is about the sustainable limit. If you are interested you can read the last seven points of this talk on my blog, completing the sense of common concern expressed at the beginning of these too long remarks.