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

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: John Paul II, youth minister

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.