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: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.