Late in May the Surgeon General of the United States issued a new advisory about the effects of social-media usage on young people’s mental health, calling attention to what it declared an “urgent public health issue” requiring “the nation’s immediate awareness and action.” Five days later, the Vatican Dicastery for Communication published Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media. The eighty-two-paragraph-long document makes almost no mention of warnings like that in the Surgeon General’s report and other research. And its tone couldn’t be more different—generally approving, right from its opening paragraphs, as evidenced by these lines: “[E]xamples of faithful and creative engagement on social media abound around the world, from both local communities as well as individuals who give witness to their faith on these platforms.”
This expression of the Catholic Church’s relationship with an aspect of modern life seems a far cry from, for example, its stance on psychoanalysis in July 1961, during the pontificate of John XXIII. That’s when the “supreme” Congregation of the Holy Office issued a “Monitum” (a warning) prohibiting priests and religious from practicing psychoanalysis and ordered priests and religious who wanted psychoanalytic treatment to obtain permission from their superior. The prohibition had to do with the conflict between psychoanalytic theory and the Church’s teaching on sexuality. It was issued around the same time that psychoanalysis was first included in college curricula in the United States, between the publication of the first and the second Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I, in 1952, and DSM-II, in 1968). If the Church’s reflexive response to modernity was once to sound a warning, its reaction to social media seems like an embrace, albeit a chaste one. One wonders if this response reflects a more open and less suspicious vision of the modern world—or simply the impossibility of opting out. The document reflects Pope Francis’s very confident and sometimes too casual attitude towards the media in general. But in Rome they know that traditionalist and/or divisive voices have largely taken over social media and the Catholic digital space. It seems that the institutional Church knows it can no longer do anything about that, and that it may be better to feed the beast in hopes of taming it rather than just remain its victim.
Towards Full Presence is interesting in another way: it’s the first document of a Roman Curia dicastery to be signed by a layperson, Paolo Ruffini, an Italian journalist appointed to the Prefect of the Dicastery by Francis in July 2018 (the secretary of the Dicastery, Msgr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz, also signed it). At the same time, it’s a very papalist document: almost all quotations from Church teaching come from Francis. There is no mention of Vatican II—not the decree on mass media, Inter Mirifica, nor (and this is more serious) from the constitutions of Vatican II, including Dei Verbum, which has something important to say on the Church’s understanding of communication and tradition.
The document was in the making for a few years, growing out of “a reflection involving experts, teachers, young professionals and leaders, lay persons, clergy, and religious.” This pastoral reflection does not offer “precise ‘guidelines’ for pastoral ministry in this area”—maybe a good thing, given that its terminology already seems dated in light of recent and rapid advances in AI (which is mentioned perfunctorily). The document seems to have been written mostly with the loud and divisive U.S. Catholic social-media sphere in mind, but conversely, it also seems to reflect the techno-optimistic, market-of-religion stance to social media held by many influential American Catholics.