Collage of Social Networks. Artist Tanja Cappell via Flickr

Faith in the Twitter Era

Friendship, follow, save...What do these words mean in the world of the web? Fr. Antonio Spadaro, Editor-in-Chief of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica (Catholic Civilization) and expert on new social media, explains how the internet is changing our lives.
Marco Bardazzi

“The question to ask oneself when talking about the Internet is, ‘What is its role in God’s project for humanity?’” While discussing how our life is changing in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Google + with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, there is no risk of lapsing into banality. The reason becomes evident after five minutes of hearing him speak: what he has to say is the fruit of the verification of ample experience in the digital world. It is the work of a patient missionary, sent to explore the frontiers of the web, who, like his Jesuit predecessors in the Reducciones (settlements for indigenous people in Latin America), realized early on that the desires and expectations of man’s heart are the same even if the latitude–or the web address–changes.

“The Internet is a place of experience, not of alienation,” he explains. “It can become alienating, of course. But this is where the educative challenge lies, in overcoming the digital dualism that wants the web to be, on the one hand, an anonymous place, and on the other hand, a supposed ‘real’ life where I am truly myself. It is necessary to salvage the Internet as a place of real experience, with the same ethics and subject to the same rules as ordinary life.”

Fr. Spadaro has overcome the real life–digital life dualism in his work. As the Editor-in-Chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, he directs an austere and prestigious journal that has been the authoritative voice of the Jesuits in the world since 1850. But these “paper” and traditional roots coexist peacefully with his blog, his studies of the Apple phenomenon, his forays via avatar on Second Life, his intense Twitter activity, and his analyses of social media.

Here the millennial intelligence of the Church shines through. We are discussing the Internet and digital life on a sunny, cold day while seated on a terrace that overlooks the Duomo (Cathedral) of Milan. On the table in front of us, we have the title chosen by Benedict XVI for the 2013 World Communications Day: “Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization.” This time, the Pope has prepared the event by speaking to the world also through his Twitter profile which had all the newspapers in the world talking even before his first papal “tweet” last December. And yet there is not a rift, but continuity, between the splendid spires of the cathedral and the Holy Father’s “social” gestures. Both are a testimony to the Church’s capacity to be in the world and speak its language, according to the tools of the era.

Reconstitution, not oblivion. The key word in the Pope’s message is “spaces.” “In talking about social networks, Benedict XVI does not define them as a ‘means of evangelization,’ but uses a concept of environment,” explains Fr. Spadaro. “A space is not an empty box, nor a container where you put old things. The Internet should not be considered an archive of materials, but rather a place, where a message is no longer transmitted, but shared. The logic of sharing radically replaces that of broadcasting. It is a fundamental step: the Church and the Magisterium have recognized well this dimension of the web as a social network. As the Pope has already said in his last two messages, the Internet is not an instrument to use, and therefore it is not an instrument of evangelization, either, because one cannot simply consider it an instrument, but a connective tissue, an environment.

And here the challenge becomes interesting, because the often lamented risk in recent years is that, on the Internet, words like “friendship” or “follow”–which are, not by chance, the terms that characterize the life of Facebook and Twitter users, respectively–lose their value. “In front of the social networks, the Church, which is called to be where man is, does not have the task of judging a phenomenon in general, but that of accompanying a humanity that is undoubtedly going in that direction. The Church must preserve the meaning of terms that have a very strong anthropological value, and understand how they translate positively in the digital milieu. Thus, it’s not about saying that this environment is ‘fake’ with respect to reality, but about preserving the anthropological value of words in the digital context, as well.”

“Let’s take the term save,” he continues, choosing a word that we all often use, not in the theological sense, but to indicate the gesture of securing a file on which we are working. “It means, ‘to preserve from oblivion.’ It is clear that the Christian concept would seem, paradoxically, to be the opposite: in the moment in which you are saved, your sins have been forgiven, and therefore forgotten. In reality, it’s not like that, because in the Christian vision, forgiveness is not oblivion–cancellation–but the reconstitution of fundamental relationships.”

The Internet as an experience entails, therefore, a necessary education. Fr. Spadaro willingly accepts the invitation to analyze words that are vital to the teaching of Fr. Giussani and then goes beyond, with his gaze focused on the public square in front of the Duomo, teeming with everyday life. “Experience is an openness of horizon and of gaze. Thus, on the Internet, one must not expect to take advantage of an instrument of evangelization, but to live evangelically. The fundamental logic is that of witness–otherwise, you end up in the ideology of Facebook profiles with lots of sappy little icons and Gospel phrases. Rather, even Facebook can be an environment where you live the faith by witnessing to an ordinary experience, in which the Gospel message emerges simply from what you do. Relationships on social networks can be fake or not, just like anywhere else; it depends on how you live them. With Facebook, for example, I stay in touch with former students, with people whom I married or whose children I baptized, with friends in the U.S.–and thus I continue to share the moments of their lives.”

Educating to a Gaze
By expanding the horizon from the circle of friends to the broadest scenario, this growing capacity that we have to share what we do is undeniably changing us on many fronts. This happens, for example, in politics and in that which, rightly or wrongly, is often indicated today as a 2.0 trendy version–antipolitics. “By empowering people’s ability to participate, the Internet leads to living something public in a more participatory way,” continues Fr. Spadaro. “The phenomenon of so-called ‘antipolitics’ is, in reality, the expression of a need to take part even more in politics. It becomes ‘anti’ when politics is not able to provide the instruments that respond to this need. It is a desire to live politics in a different way. If you create a dynamic that allows needs to be filtered and listened to, then the potential for giving voice to the people is enormous and can put the common good back at the center, rather than particular interests.”

And here we return to the need for what Fr. Spadaro defines as “education to the gaze and capacity to select contents,” which allows one to have the criteria needed to discern credibility and authority in the midst of the background noise that rages on the Internet. How can these qualities be developed? “As always in life, everything is born from a relationship. It’s one thing to follow passively, and it’s another to create relationships that allow you to develop the criteria for judgment. But the instruments for understanding if a person or a source is reliable are linked to a relationship. It’s as if I were to ask: ‘How can you verify if a friendship is reliable?’ You live it and you understand in time.”

Fr. Spadaro’s passion for the innovations that mark this historic phase of the great human adventure is no different from that of those in the Church who interrogated themselves centuries ago about the potential use of printing with movable type after having seen Gutenberg’s Bible. It is the complete opposite of the stereotype that the Church is an enemy of, or hostile to, the forward steps of scientific progress. “Technology is an expression of the spirituality of man. There is an aspect of this question that the Church has fully absorbed, reflecting on events like the detonation of the first atomic bomb: man can destroy himself, but it is precisely his capacity for evil that makes us understand that technology is a spiritual place. If evil were not possible, then it would not be spiritual.”

This theorem is true of the Internet, as well. And it should be kept in mind every time that one is tempted, for example, to attribute the “guilt” to Facebook or YouTube when betrayals or crimes that developed online are discovered. The possibility of evil makes these “social” environments into spiritual places–and therefore very human.