On a May morning eight years ago, I emerged from the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, my forehead shiny with water and oil, and my stomach empty but for the body and blood of Our Lord. I had, of course, been “received”.
Quite how I got there – pursued “with unhurrying chase, and unperturbèd pace” – is a story for another time. But were I to do it all again today, it strikes me just how different the whole journey would be.
My slow and meandering journey from atheism to Catholicism – by way of Preston, Oxford, Santiago and Fatima – incorporated all manner of influences, from drinking with Dominicans to studying the Fathers. But all this transpired way, way back through the mists of time. And back in that bygone era of the Noughties, the internet played almost no role in my conversion at all.
No apologetics websites, no liturgy blogs, no Bishop Barron videos, no breviary apps, no Catholic Herald podcasts, and – critically – no daily social media interactions with Catholic friends (almost all of whom unmet in the offline world, though no less genuine for that). For a contemporary twentysomething convert, that is now near-unthinkable.
Of course, this is far from a Catholic-specific shift. So much Catholic life happens online these days because so much of life as a whole happens online these days. As the influential web commentator AJ Keen writes: “Rather than virtual or second life, social media is actually becoming life itself … it is the architecture in which we now live.”
At 31, I am old enough to remember a time before home computers, and have spent most of my adult life without a smartphone. My undergraduates aren’t and haven’t.
That the Catholic Church, officially and (often much more successfully) unofficially, is so active online is perfectly natural. Pope Francis joining Instagram, like Benedict XVI joining Twitter, might prompt a collective raised-eye emoji from journalists. But they might be reminded that the Vatican itself was an internet pioneer: its website launched in 1995, the same year as CNN’s, and two years before the BBC’s. (Incidentally, those who gripe at how antiquated the Vatican’s website feels – “so web 1.0” – are shamelessly flaunting their age. They are clearly much too young to remember GeoCities sites with autoplaying midi soundtracks and a trail of stars following the cursor.)
The technological “permanent revolution” we are experiencing seems, on the face of it, to promise a golden age of evangelistic opportunity. The resources out there for attracting people to the faith, or for keeping them once they’ve joined, are astonishing. The Catholic/atheist dialogue and apologetics hub strangenotions.com, founded by the US Catholic social media tsar Brandon Vogt, is a case in point. Such a “digital Areopagus” is a godsend for the kinds of faith-curious unbeliever that I once was myself.
Furthermore, thanks to the wonders of the Verbum smartphone app, say, you need never leave the house without the Catechism, Summa, 30-odd volumes of the Church Fathers, and a great deal besides in your pocket. It’s no wonder that I’ve never felt the need to while away idle commuting hours playing Candy Crush Saga.
But things are not altogether so simple. They never are. For of course, the very same media being employed by Catholics for Christ and his Church are equally open to others to do precisely the opposite. Thus for every new Catholic whose journey home was sparked by something on the internet – and this could be anything from the on-a-whim download of a free Chesterton audiobook, to a Pope Francis retweet, to a heated argument about abortion with a stranger on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall – chances are that at least one cradle Catholic has had their faith weakened, or undermined altogether, by something online. Indeed, there is a growing body of scholarship about the rise and rise of “religious nones”, beginning in the early 2000s, which cites the catalytic effect ofthe internet. Catholic apologist @DrScottHahn might have 15,000 Twitter followers, but @RichardDawkins has 1.4 million.
To be fair, this is not a new problem either. The television revolution of the 1950s that beamed Fulton Sheen into the homes of millions of non-Catholic Americans likewise beamed Billy Graham into the homes of millions of Catholic ones.
And perhaps more ultimately influential than either, the I Love Lucy show gave everyone, Catholic or Protestant, something better to do on a Monday night than attend the local church Bible study, rosary circle, or whatever.
The realities of the situation should not, however, dissuade anyone from evangelising, or catechising, or simply being visibly and proudly Catholic in their online lives. (Do not underestimate the galvanising effect of knowing that one is not alone – that other Facebook friends, say, are also pro-life, or take Friday fasting seriously, or whatever.) The internet might not be some gold-paved, one-way road to Rome, but if that’s where “all nations” increasingly reside, then that is precisely where we are called to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28.19). To paraphrase Isaiah, “How lovely on the mountains are the mouse-clicks of he who brings good news!”
In his 1957 encyclical on “motion pictures, radio and television”, Pius XII – incidentally, the first pope to speak on TV – noted that “We often use these wonderful modern means … to move the hearts of men and exercise a saving influence on them.” The same principle applies to the “wonderful modern means” of the internet revolution (which is not to say that those same means cannot also be used for other, far less salutary ends). Benedict and Francis are doing their bit, of course. So too, notably, is the vibrant Catholic blogosphere, which Fr Tim “Hermeneutic of Continuity” Finigan once quite fittingly described as constituting a kind of loose ecclesial movement.
In fact, Catholic bloggers are particularly worth praising here, since, in certain Church circles, they often come in for a great deal of patronising scorn. True, there are some who show flagrant contempt for the Church hierarchy and magisterium, but those are a tiny minority. (And as someone who spends his days in the world of academic theology … who am I to judge?) Moreover, occasional sharpness of tone, if allied to a righteous cause, is no impediment to true holiness – just ask St Jerome, or indeed Our Lord himself (Matthew 23.33).
We have saints and Blesseds of the printed word (Francis de Sales, Titus Brandsma), and will before long surely have television-star saints too (Fulton of New York? Angelica of Irondale?). I am absolutely convinced that some of those whose blogs I now read will one day be raised to the altars.
Ours, of course, is an incarnate God. And just as Christ himself was “no bodiless phantom” (St Ignatius of Antioch), so too the Body of Christ today cannot subsist in a wholly virtual manner. Ultimately, the Church’s successes or failures on the digital continent won’t be measured in Facebook shares, Twitter retweets, or Instagram … well, whatever it is that people do on Instagram. (Not being as hip or tech-savvy as Pope Francis, I’ve no idea what Instagram actually is.) Instead, it will chiefly be measured, as it ever was, by the numbers of beaming, shiny-foreheaded new Catholics walking out of our churches and into the real Second Life.
Stephen Bullivant is a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and directs the Benedict XVI Centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @ssbullivant.
This article first appeared in the May 20 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.