For years I have been something of a social media junkie, regularly checking my phone for updates on Facebook and Twitter (I’m too old for Snapchat) and posting my wisdom to the world at large. I have enjoyed receiving “likes” and retweets as much as the next person (more perhaps).
Yes, I was appropriately dismissive of posts about kittens and thought selfies were narcissistic and naff. But generally I didn’t question the value of social media as a whole. Certainly not from a Catholic point of view. After all, is social media not one of the primary forms of modern communication? Do Catholics not need to be there for evangelisation purposes? Indeed, couldn’t this be seen as part of my ministry as a priest, a sort of cyber parish?
But I recently met a seminarian friend who stopped using Facebook a couple of years ago. He swore that it had improved his life, especially his life as a Catholic. He challenged me to follow his example.
Immediately, I felt defensive, like a man addicted to gambling when his wife suggests he might consider laying off the horses for a while. My internal reaction rather took me aback: why did the idea of coming off social media seem so threatening? Was I actually addicted to the retweets and likes I received?
As I thought more about withdrawing from Facebook and Twitter, I spoke to people who raised various objections. Two alone seemed to have some merit. First, that social media is a platform for communication and therefore the Church should no more be absent from Facebook and Twitter than St Paul was from the Areopagus. Second, it is a way of keeping in touch with people with whom I would otherwise lose contact.
These two arguments alone gave me pause for thought. But as for the first, I wondered how many people had actually been converted through a tweet. I suspected not that many (perhaps Prof Stephen Bullivant’s team at St Mary’s can conduct some research on this). Perhaps just as many (if not more) people are put off the faith by the internecine warfare among Catholics online. Social media do not encourage nuance and moderation. They tend to accentuate the less pleasant side of communication, and the more outrageous comments tend to draw the most likes. Like journalists, social media users face the temptation to focus on the scandalous and divisive, something that doesn’t sit comfortably with St Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … if anything is excellent or praiseworthy … think about such things.”
As for the second objection, losing touch with people as situations change is natural. Trying to freeze every temporal relationship into a sort of cryogenic Facebook friend chamber is futile. A few weeks ago a Facebook friend of mine announced that he was back on the platform. I hadn’t even noticed that he’d left. That says it all.
In my case, the fundamental reason for leaving the world of Facebook and Twitter was the concern frequently voiced by Benedict XVI about the need for “interior recollection”. Social media tend to draw us to a surface, shallow engagement with the world. They encourage slavery to the moment, the passing fad, the current controversy. They militate against a centredness on the Word, leading us instead to an eccentric focus on mere words, the babble of Babel. As Benedict XVI observed back in 2005: “Silence is so lacking in this world which is often too noisy, which is not favourable to recollection and listening to the voice of God … let us cultivate interior recollection so as to receive and keep Jesus in our lives.”
Facebook and Twitter didn’t help me to cultivate inner recollection. They didn’t enable me to root myself in the depths of the presence of God. So they needed to go. It may be a different story for others, but I think that, at the very least, all Catholics should include their social media use in their examination of conscience.
I left Facebook and Twitter on Good Friday. I doubt my “friends” and “followers” have been left bereft or sense a gaping void in their lives that used to be filled by my posts and tweets. The reality is that most of them won’t even notice. (Nor will they when I actually die – but that’s for another day, I hope.)
Have I missed social media? Well, I am writing this on a post-Easter break in Whitby, and I’ll be honest. I wanted to take a picture of Whitby Abbey and post it, so that everyone could rejoice in my good fortune to be somewhere beautiful when they are sitting in their offices. But I had no way of doing so. So I didn’t take the photo at all, and instead enjoyed the view.
Fr David Palmer is a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham