Learning to use social media well

Maybe it’s just me, but I have this total love/hate relationship with social media. I’ll have a week where I spend far too much time on Facebook, reading through discussion threads and even occasionally participating. But then I’ll get so fed up with myself for having invested (read: wasted) so much time there, that I completely disengage for weeks on end afterwards. I guess you could call it a bit of a Facebook hangover.

In general, I try to avoid interacting on social media. Lately it seems like an increasingly angry place, particularly when it comes to cultural, social, and political issues. Gone are the days of cute baby pictures and grumpy cat memes. But I also know that as Catholics, we don’t have the luxury of disengaging fully. It is our moral duty to pursue, promote, and extol the common good. The Catholic faith is not a privatized, individualistic means of working out our salvation, it turns out, but a faith lived and experienced in community. We come to receive the Eucharist in the Holy Mass together, after all.

But how do we engage on Facebook (or other platforms) in an era of such confusion and polarization, without completely losing our minds? And, is it even worth it?

It’s important, I think, to recognize both the limitations and influence of social media. On the one hand, platforms like Facebook and Instagram remain very poor substitutes for face-to-face, authentic engagement with another person. They offer a level of anonymity that allows for behavior that most people would probably be ashamed to exhibit in person. Worse yet, it is in one sense a form of make-believe — none of your interactions are actually happening in the real world. People would do well to take the time they’re spending on social media, and invest it into their parish community or neighborhood.

But all of that being said, we can’t deny that the digital continent wields a tremendous amount of reach, and potential influence. Before my conversion to Catholicism, I didn’t know any Catholics in real life. The only information I had was in books, and online. So, I came to really appreciate the small handful of Catholics with a strong web presence, who made the tenets of the faith accessible to me when I didn’t yet have a parish community of my own. Therefore, it makes sense for Catholics (who wish to do so) to live their faith publicly, online, and thus engage the larger culture. It should certainly not supplant in-real-life evangelization and community, but it can be an addition (or, as in my case, a precursor) to it. You never know who is watching and listening in to your discussion about the sanctity of life. You don’t know who is admiring your Catholic lifestyle. God does the real work here, of course, but we can certainly help plant the seeds.

And really, who better to confront the problems facing our culture than the very Bride of Christ? There is an enormous need for Catholics on the frontlines, upholding the dignity of the human person, demonstrating what the love of Jesus looks like, and doing the long, hard work of the Gospel. We live in a throw-away culture where now even people, created in the image and likeness of Christ, have become expendable. Yet as Catholics, we possess the truth about the dignity of the human person, and therefore are able to have our respective communities’ best interests at heart, even when it comes to shaping public policy. We are incredibly blessed to have the social teaching of the Church, marked by things like subsidiarity and a preferential option for the poor. (Participation in community is another!) If we don’t offer truth, beauty, and goodness to the world around us, who will?

Of course, this means that we need to educate ourselves about what the common good actually is. It seems like social media platforms these days are filled with little else besides emoting and arguing. Most people are well-intentioned, but may still not possess accurate information. (Sound familiar? This pretty much sums up half my Facebook feed!) So, we have to know our Catechism, be familiar with Sacred Scripture, and understand the reasons behind what our Church teaches. That way, if a controversial subject like gay marriage comes up in conversation, we can respond with both charity and truth. We can ask good questions, like what is the nature of marriage, and what is the state’s interest in marriage. We can explore the idea of love, and whether or not there is an objective property to it — and if someone claims there isn’t, we can consider the implications for society when love is merely a passing feeling. They say that more is caught than taught, and that is certainly true, but in order to participate well in a productive discussion, we must also have knowledge of what we speak.

Finally, and I know this is kind of obvious, we must first and foremost remain close to Jesus. Attending Holy Mass, spending time in prayer, and participating in parish life are really the only ways to keep the right focus in our topsy-turvy world. We won’t be troubled by the inevitable person “who’s wrong on the internet” because, ultimately, our life is not lived there. We have other, better things to think about and do. Plus, how can we be assured that we’re thinking correctly about something when we are not walking closely with our Lord? This is also crucial to drowning out the ever-present noise that threatens to invade our very souls. The peace of Christ must first dwell in our own hearts for us to be of any use to the rest of the world!

During Lent, my goal was to spend less time on social media. Maybe a better goal for me, though, would be to learn to use it well.

COMING UP: We should have listened to Pope Paul VI

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Happy Humanae Vitae 50th Anniversary!

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a whirlwind.  Parties, parades, some great fireworks shows.  Oh, and did you see the Hollywood All-Star Tribute to Pope Paul VI?

OK, maybe not so much.

It’s a shame, really. If everyone had somehow, miraculously, listened to Pope Paul VI back in 1968, the world could be a very different place today.  Heck, we might not even have a need for the #MeToo movement.

Allow me to explain.

Up until the 1960’s, it was pretty universally recognized that sex between people of childbearing age came with the distinct possibility of the aforementioned childbearing.  Birth control methods up to that point were somewhat rudimentary and unreliable.  Procreation was an inherent part of sexual activity — part of its meaning.  So respecting a woman meant not putting her at risk of a pregnancy she wasn’t prepared for.  And she in turn had a clear-cut, universally recognized reason to be indignant if a man was pressuring her.

But The Pill changed all of that.  Young people (and a lot of older people, too) figured that, without that pesky fear of pregnancy, they could indulge in sexual activity whenever, and with whomever, they chose. It would be fun, they thought.  Sex feels good, they thought.  Why not have more of it, with more people, they thought.

And then Pope Paul VI said “no.”  In Humanae Vitae, he essentially said that Pill or no Pill, birth control was still not morally licit.

The young people of the Free Love Generation were not disappointed by this news — only because I would imagine they were too busy making love and not war to notice an obscure, 23-page theological document released by a celibate guy who was way older than 30.

But, had they been smart, they might have paid attention to the following passage from that obscure theological document:

It can also be feared that the man who becomes used to contraceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman, and no longer caring about her physical and psychological equilibrium, come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion. (HV 17)

Does that sound at all familiar?

The problem came because, as much as the generation of the 1960’s wanted Free Love to really be free, it isn’t.  They figured removing the risk of pregnancy would remove the “strings,” and everybody could just consensually enjoy everybody else’s body with no ramifications.

But there is a saying: “Nature bats last.”  Sexual activity was designed by God, not by us.  And he, in myriad ways, designed it to be a profoundly, deeply, inherently meaningful act that touches the very core of the human psyche and spirit.  Everything about it — physically, chemically, emotionally and spiritually — is built around the fact that it is a profound act of self-giving love that places the couple in the context of entering into and cooperating with him in his most sacred role — as Creator of the miracle that is a new human person. Sex speaks a language, and the possibility of procreation is an essential part of that language.  It says “I give myself to you, and to the new life that may come forth from my gift.”

And as hard as we might try, we can’t change that.

I think women, being the ones who conceive and bear that life, are more naturally sensitive to this meaning.  We can’t always articulate it, but it’s there. And hence, we are more reluctant to play with it carelessly.

When the sexual revolution attempted to sever sexual activity from the possibility of procreation, they were essentially attempting to render sexual activity meaningless.  They were saying “from now on, this is just something we do with our bodies.  It can mean as much or as little as you want it to mean.”

This is wrong on so many levels.  For one, it takes away women’s power.  When we recognized that sex is powerful, meaningful and life-altering, a woman had the backing of her family and her culture in saying “No, I will not place myself or my future children at that risk, and if you don’t respect that, you clearly don’t love me.”

Now, women are more or less on their own in fending off the male sex drive — which, for good or for evil, could probably be considered one of the most powerful forces in the world.  If sex is meaningless, then why in the world would she object?  He wants it, and it might be fun for her too, so why wouldn’t she be nice and acquiesce?

It takes a very strong, very well-formed and dare I say holy young woman to have the courage to say “I believe that God created sex with an inherent meaning, so my final answer is no” and watch him walk out of her life forever.  For the vast majority of young women, who can’t articulate what they inherently sense about the sacredness of their bodies, it’s a lot easier just to go along with the program and try to keep the guy.

And then it moves from acquiescing to keep the boyfriend, to acquiescing to make the powerful man happy so that I can get the job, or keep the job, or get the role in the movie, or whatever.  The world becomes one big quid pro quo arrangement whereby we are expected to trade on our bodies to get what we want or need.

And the woman becomes “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment.”

The hard lesson we should have learned from Humanae Vitae is quite simply that our bodies have meaning, that sexual expression has a meaning, and that God is God and we are not.  And that when we start tinkering around with that meaning, people get hurt.

We should have listened.