Facebook privacy scandal a wake-up call for Catholics, experts say

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As Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the senate with regards to the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal April 10 and 11, many Catholics wondered how this moral issue affected them and whether the Church could provide any insight.

Although the Church has not directly weighed-in about privacy and confidentiality in the contemporary sense, experts believe this to be a special opportunity for Catholics to reflect on the way they utilize this means of communication, encouraging them to remain truthful and not live a double life, while remaining cautious about the information they share.

“Not much has been said by the Church about privacy in this sense. Most of the discussion on the World Communications Day on social media has been about truthfulness,” said Dr. Jana Bennett, moral theologian at the University of Dayton and co-editor of the blog catholicmoraltheology.com.

However, truthfulness has a strong connection to privacy, she explained: “The idea that we need to have a private space or a private understanding of ourselves is connected to who we are as human beings, to our own individuality, to our identity,” she said, “[The fear] that our identity is taken can affect the ability to be truthful online.”

Sacrificing truthfulness, however, is not an option for a Catholic.

“[The Facebook scandal] teaches us to be more cautious than we have in the past, especially in the way of being truthful, since we worship Jesus, who is the way, truth and life,” Bennett continued. “We should be very concerned about how we practice that truthfulness in our own life, especially in our social media account.”

Brantly Millegan, founder and editor-in-chief of ChurchPOP, highlighted the importance of knowing the implications of sharing personal information online and of taking personal responsibility for it.

“In this era, in in which we have major companies [controlling great amounts of online information], it’s possible for them to get hacked or leak out information,” he said. “As a society and as Catholics, we have to think about what we want to share.”

“Facebook has a moral obligation for the common good,” he continued. “[Yet], when people give their information, they do it voluntarily – it’s a risk they take. Maybe you’re OK with that risk but don’t be surprised if that risk doesn’t always turn out the way you want.”

How online privacy affects Catholics

Many issues arose when the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, reportedly used the private information of millions of Facebook users to implement targeted advertisement during the 2016 presidential election campaigns, one of them being the power of the Facebook corporation to decide the flow and access of online content, a topic that clearly touches the Catholic world.

“Facebook is both a blessing and a curse because it’s by far the biggest and most important means of getting content out to people,” Millegan said. “The problem is that we’re highly dependent on this company. People talk about Facebook becoming too dominant.”

“A concern that Catholics have is whether Facebook will censor our viewpoint or injure our publications,” he said. “Zuckerberg said he doesn’t want to censor legitimate conversations, but he does have that power.”

[The Facebook scandal] teaches us to be more cautious than we have in the past, especially in the way of being truthful, since we worship Jesus, who is the way, truth and life.”

Other moral concerns that the privacy issue rises among Catholics is the responsibility toward their neighbor and the sharing of other’s information without their consent.

“I think Catholics need to take care to protect the privacy of people who don’t have control over social media, which goes back to our care and concern for the poor and vulnerable,” Bennett said. “This would include parents, who should be thoughtful when posting about their children, and churches, when posting photos of people online. I think people should be more truthful that everybody who’s been photographed has had a chance to give consent.”

Another example of this moral obligation is when people travel around the world and take photos of others’ state of life with the hope of helping, but without their consent.

“[Many times] people present themselves as being helpers for the poor people,” Bennett said. “But it can send the wrong message about the Church’s understanding of solidarity with the poor and also limits those people’s privacy.”

Catholic action

While many questions continue to arise regarding the use of social media and its implications, Millegan considers the modern idea of privacy “a huge open area for Catholic thought,” which would benefit from a “theology of privacy.”

Similarly, Bennett believes the Church needs to be “bigger and bolder” about this issue: “I think we have a mandate from the Second Vatican Council to be thinking about our communication and this includes thinking about the issue of privacy in a more comprehensive way,” she said.

Among the many pros and cons that the use of social media platforms brings to society, Bennett holds that one of the most important things for Catholics to keep in mind is the way it affects their life as a whole.

“Catholics need to be thinking about the way that they live online and how they live offline. A lot of times many people tend to see a separation between these two, and I don’t think that dichotomy exists,” she said. “We don’t always make a very good connection between how we interact with people online and what it means to be a Christian.

“We need to be more deliberate about ‘what virtues I need to practice today,’ regardless of where I am, and that includes my online activities.”

Featured image by Alex Wong | Getty Images

COMING UP: A time to reflect on death

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November is a month when the Church asks us to pray for the dead. After celebrating those in heaven on Nov. 1, we pray for all the faithful departed who await heaven while undergoing purgation on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead by granting special indulgences in November to assist the souls in purgatory. A plenary (or full) indulgence can be received November 1-8 and then a partial indulgence the rest of the month when we “devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead” or “devoutly recite lauds or vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Requiem aeternam”: “Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her/them. May he/she/they rest in peace. Amen.”

November, therefore, provides an opportunity to reflect upon death. Even the readings at the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent point us to the coming judgment and end of the world. We may not relish contemplating death but doing so constitutes an essential element of a life well lived, realizing that our life on earth will decide how we spend eternity. Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death and the same has been made for monasticism.  “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily,” the great Patriarch of monks, St. Benedict, directed in his Rule (ch. 4). A French writer, Nicholas Diat, put this maxim to the test in his new book, A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life (Ignatius, 2019). Diat, known for his three interview books with Cardinal Robert Sarah, visited eight monasteries in France — Norbertines, Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians — to talk to the monks about their experience of death.

He describes why he wrote the book: “The West has worked hard to bury death more deeply in the vaults of its history. Today, the liturgy of death no longer exists. Yet fear and anxiety have never been as strong. Men no longer know how to die. In this desolate world, I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death. Behind cloister walls, they pass their existence in prayer and reflection of the last things. I thought their testimonies could help people understand suffering, sickness, pain, and the final moments of life. They have known complicated deaths, quick deaths, simple deaths. They have confronted death more often, and more intimately, than most who live outside monastery walls” (13).

I found that Diat achieved his objective. Although the monks live very different lives, they still face similar human struggles, sometimes magnified by lack of distractions, including the dominance of technology in sickness and the last stages of life. The Benedictine Monastery of En-Calcat experienced many difficult deaths and the superior, Dom David, related how sedation can make it hard to die: “We no longer feel life. We no longer feel humanity. We no longer feel God approaching” (55). When death approaches more naturally (or should we say supernaturally), the monks can die the “most beautiful death.” Such was the death of Father Henri Rousselot, who died at 96: “His face in death was magnificent. He was supernaturally radiant. The monks had the impression that his features had been drawn by God. Everyone who entered this room was struck by his beauty. Each found the child that Father Henri had always been” (72).

Some monasteries experienced difficult deaths — young monks whose lives were cut short by cancer, or, in the case of the canon Brother Vincent, multiple sclerosis, sudden deaths, even in chapel, or cases of dementia or mental illness. It did seem, however, in my own assessment, that the more a monastery was withdrawn from the world and its cares the more peaceful the deaths of its monks. This was true especially of the Grand Chartreuse (see the film Into Great Silence), where the monks live like hermits in the silent seclusion of prayer. Here the monks, already anticipating heaven, seem to die miraculously by slipping away peacefully. “The beauty of Carthusian deaths, sweet and simple, seems to bear witness to the fact that the spiritual combat of the sons of Bruno is so powerful that, in the final hour, fears are abolished. In the last moments, the peace that dwells in them is so profound that the majority of them are not afraid to die alone. They have spent their lives in the silence of an austere cell that sees them leave this earth” (165).

The book does not treat simply the experience of monks, but a central question for us all: “No one knows how he will live his death. Will we be courageous, fearful, happy? Will we be cowards or heroes?” (114). It’s time to start preparing now!