Catholic Social Teaching on Emerging Technologies

Emerging digital technologies and the advancements of the internet including social media can be used as a powerful force for good. They can be used to communicate the truth, especially in a world of falsehoods and they can be a means for spreading the joy of the Gospel in the rapidly developing “digital continent”. They can also be used to raise awareness about the various violations against the life and dignity of the human person with great speed and in discernment with great accuracy.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ

Ephesians 4:15

Pope Francis began his Message for the World Communications Day in 2019 by stating that since the inception of the internet, the Church has always promoted its use in the service of encounter between real persons and of solidarity among all.

In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to Young People and the Entire People of God (Christus Vivit), Pope Francis recognised the prevalence of the digital environment: “It is no longer merely a question of ‘using’ instruments of communication, but of living in a highly digitalized culture that has had a profound impact on ideas of time and space, on our self-understanding, our understanding of others and the world, and our ability to communicate, learn, be informed and enter into relationship with others” (Christus Vivit 86).

Pope Francis recognised that the internet and social media provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge. He further recognised that the digital world is one of social and political engagement and active citizenship, and that it can facilitate the circulation of independent information providing effective protection for the most vulnerable and publicizing violations of their rights (Christus Vivit  87). However, the Church has also recognised the danger of the prevalence of falsehoods on the internet “If the Internet represents an extraordinary possibility of access to knowledge, it is also true that it has proven to be one of the areas most exposed to disinformation and to the conscious and targeted distortion of facts and interpersonal relationships, which are often used to discredit. (Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Communications 2019)

Therefore putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members of one another.

Ephesians 4:25

In  his Message for the Word Day of Communications 2014, Pope Francis talked about the importance of encounter and solidarity in the digital sphere: “…A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive.   The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.” However, he also recognised that despite their capacity for genuine encounter, digital spaces can become inhuman: “the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, even to the extreme case of the ‘dark web’. Digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” (Christus Vivit 88, 90)

Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have also recognised the pitfalls of communicating without discernment, of choosing to exist solely inside one’s own echo-chamber and ignoring those who feel isolated and excluded from the digital and real worlds:  “The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression.  The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.…The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us.  We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind” (Message for the Word Day of Communications 2014).

Despite, their pitfalls, they still exhort us not to reject social media entirely but to approach it with “deliberateness and calm” while taking the time to “be silent and to listen”.

Pope Benedict XVI recognised in his Message for the World Day of Communications 2013 one of the other dangers of social media “Popularity, for its part, is often linked to celebrity or to strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation. At times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner.”

The Pre-Synodal Document on Young People the Faith and Vocational Discernment  recognised the tragic paradox of the digital divide where in some countries technology and particularly internet is accessible while the most basic needs and services are still lacking.

In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI also talked about the importance of being truly inclusive: “Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important. The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.”

The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church identifies the correct purpose of the media, which can similarly be applied to social media: “The essential question is whether the current information system is contributing to the betterment of the human person; that is, does it make people more spiritually mature, more aware of the dignity of their humanity, more responsible or more open to others, in particular to the neediest and the weakest.”