Social media in-and-of-itself is a good. Social media has given me the opportunity to become a writer and to grow in knowledge and skill in that area. I have been able to interact with people across the world who have written to me in response to articles that I have been blessed to publish. We can now keep up with friends and family worldwide and make new friends across the globe. This is a wonderful side of technology; however, there is a dangerous trend in Catholic circles to respond to others in writing in a manner that is uncharitable at best, and sinful at worst. I know I am not the only person who has watched this trend with deep concern. I left Facebook for this very reason. I got tired of the fighting and yelling. Now I only deal with it in the combox of my articles and the hate filled emails I receive on occasion from professed Catholics.
Here are some suggestions that we need to keep in mind as we engage with others, Catholic and non-Catholic, in social media.
We are called to be Christ to the world.
Every Mass we attend ends with one of the following “Go forth, the Mass is ended, Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Do we glorify God when we scream and rant at other people who we disagree with on social media? Can we evangelize in this manner? No, in fact, chances are when we act in this manner we need to get to Confession when it is next available. Plus, the people we are engaging with will shut down immediately.
Our Baptismal call is to bring the world into conformation with the Most Holy Trinity. This must be done in charity, truth, and also with respect of the free will of the other person. Admonishment of the sinner must be done in love and charity, not out of our own sinful anger and pride. And as hard as it is to understand, admonishment of the sinner is a call by God and we are not to go around admonishing everyone. Typically, when we “love” to admonish others, we are ignoring our own sins.
“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”
No one will be converted to Christ if they are browbeaten by the other party. Our admonishment, when it is called for, must be born of charity and prudence, not anger and pride. Admonishment is a holy endeavor.
Not every thought in our head needs to be shared on the Internet.
The advent of social media has given us a false sense of importance, which very often leads to pride. We are convinced that every thought in our head must be shared and that we have the right to tell everyone what we think. From the Catholic perspective, this is not true. We have an obligation to live lives ordered to prudence. This means checking our tongue and discerning whether we are really called by God to engage another person in debate. It also means accepting in humility that our every thought is not necessarily correct. We often do not understand our own motives or how experiences and emotions can blind us in the face of certain topics. Prudence must be the order of the day, so that we can avoid sinning in social media. We must learn how to discern when to share our thoughts and when to keep them to ourselves.
If sinful anger rears its ugly head, then walk away.
Sinful anger is a powerful beast that is very difficult to control. It is often confused with righteous anger, but they are not even remotely the same thing. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that sinful anger desires vengeance. It is the desire to tell another person off, to rant, rave, and hurt another person. It often comes with a know-it-all attitude and the heavy, and deadly, sin of pride. Both sinful anger and pride are deadly sins because they blind us to God. Sinful anger also blinds us to reason and leads us to irrationality. We end saying deeply hurtful and sinful things to another person. If vengeance begins to drive us in social media, then walk away. Shut off the phone, laptop, tablet, or computer and go for a walk. Pray for peace. If we give in and attack another person in sinful anger, then it is time to get to Confession. Once a year isn’t even close to enough Confession if we want to seriously progress in holiness. Sinful anger and pride are destructive and deadly for a reason. Another thing to keep in mind is when we respond in sinful anger, we are placing the receiving person in a position of near occasion of sin because they may fall into sinful anger in response. We have an obligation to protect others from near occasion of sin too.
We don’t have a right to correct everyone.
There is a classic xkcd comic that sums up nicely how so many of us feel when we allow pride to blind us on the Internet. In the comic the one character asks if the other is coming to bed and the one on the computer replies, “I can’t this is important. Someone is wrong on the Internet.” We aren’t required to agree with every author or Facebook friend. You aren’t required to like all of my writing, for instance. That’s not why I write. I write because God gave me this gift and called me to use it at this point in time. But, we need to keep in mind that unless something is a glaring error, our corrections are born out of opinion, not necessarily fact. We do not have a right to go around correcting everyone. In fact, this type of behavior is typical of the person struggling with pride. How do I know? I struggle with pride and anger, that’s how I know. Your opinion and mine are not necessarily the right one, so it is better to bite our tongues than to end up writing a comment or email that comes across as arrogant and prideful, which it usually is. Let’s at least be honest with ourselves. I’ve done it too.
True discourse is born of civility.
Many of us enjoy engaging in discourse with others. I have always enjoyed a good debate, but in recent years I gave up on debating in social media. It always resorts to ad hominem attacks, that is, personal attacks. We are not our ideas. We are “embodied spirits” to quote Saint Thomas Aquinas, so resorting to ad hominem attacks is to dehumanize the other person. It is to assume that the sum total of that person is their ideas. In order for us to be able to discuss issues with other people, we must accept that ideas do not make the person. We also need to accept that finding truth is a journey and everyone progresses at a different pace. All we can do is be a guide. We must be willing to be open, even in disagreement, and foster a spirit of civility in all things. I know this is a challenge. It’s hard for me when I get ranting hate mail from readers, but charity demands civility. There cannot be open dialogue if we do not remain in a spirit of love and civility. Yelling always closes off dialogue.
We can’t evangelize from a place of sinful anger.
Here is the question we must ask ourselves when we seek to engage with others in social media: Do I desire to bring Christ to others or to be right all of the time? It is impossible to evangelize others, even cafeteria Catholics, when all we do is rant and rave at them. The assent to moral truths comes from an encounter with the Living God. When we love Christ, then we are able through the supernatural gift of faith, to love His teachings. A person who does not know Christ or love Christ cannot possibly fathom why we live as we do. This is precisely why our job is to show people Christ. It is not to tack on wins for our ego.
Most of the time when we first encounter someone struggling with the Church or Christianity we need to listen. We have to come to them with an open heart to hear what their struggles are in accepting Christ and His teachings. Perhaps they have been hurt, are burdened by guilt, struggle with anger, or they are confused. We can’t possibly reach them and proclaim the Good News if all we do is talk, especially if all we do is yell at them. I can also tell you this is true as a writer. If you are going to yell at me, I am not going to listen to your point. I will either ignore it, delete it, try to write a short charitable response, or laugh at the absurdity of it. I have done all of these things. When we engage with others, Catholic and non-Catholic, in social media, we are dealing with other human beings, not a computer screen. We need to stop dehumanizing others in social media.
The Internet and social media are wonderful tools. They are goods in themselves as long as we use them in a properly ordered manner. They are not a chance for us to go carte blanche and sin in cyberspace to strangers, family, or friends. We can still sin sitting on our couch at home with a computer or phone in front of us. We have an obligation to be light and truth to others in charity. We do not have a right to be right all of them time, yell at people, or voice every word that goes through our heads. We must foster through habitual action the virtue of prudence. We need to be more willing to listen. We need to stop being presumptuous, which is another sin. It’s time to start approaching social media as Catholics and that is with an open heart that gives the benefit of the doubt, while sharing the Good News. We cannot possibly share the love of Christ if we are locked in sinful anger and pride. Let us go out and ‘glorify God by our lives’.