The Internet and the Catholic Church Exploratory E

ssays Research PapersThe Internet and the Catholic Church

This essay addresses the question: Does more harm than good come from the internet? And the answer is sought from the largest Christian denomination (one billion members) – the Catholic Church. There is no condemnation of the internet by this church body; rather the Vatican, official voice of the Catholic Church, maintains that the internet is “not a threat”(Church).

Calling the Internet an opportunity and a challenge and not a threat, the Vatican issued two documents encouraging the church to embrace the technology and help guide it to benefit all humanity. The documents said the Internet’s interactive nature could help the church achieve the vision of communication between its members, moving away from the one-way, top-down communication of the past.

Among practical responses to potential ethical and social problems related to the Internet, the documents recommended more industry self-regulation, a voluntary church “certification” of sites that call themselves Catholic, and careful supervision of children’s Web surfing(Ethics).

The two 27-page documents, “Ethics in Internet” — a reflection on ethical issues — and “The Church and Internet” — an assessment of online pastoral opportunities — were released at a Vatican press conference. The documents were prepared by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Russell Shaw, a U.S. journalist who serves on the council, headed the drafting process.

The Internet ethics document emphasized the technology’s tremendous power and opportunities, saying it could help bring together every person on the planet in a “world governed by justice and peace and love”(Ethics) “Today it takes no great stretch of the imagination to envisage the earth as an interconnected globe humming with electronic transmissions — a chattering planet nestled in the provident silence of space,” it said. “The ethical question is whether this is contributing to authentic human development.”

Beyond obvious Internet problems like pornography, hate sites, and computer hacking, the document said areas for concern included:

— The “digital divide” between those with Internet access and those without. It said ways must be found to make the Internet accessible to less-advantaged groups, and called on public institutions to establish sites that provide comprehensive information resources free of charge and in multiple languages.

— The potential for cultural domination, especially by Western secular culture.

— Defending freedom of expression and exchange of ideas. It condemned authoritarian regimes that block access to information, but also wealthy politicians’ privileged access to media in democracies and the reduction of issues to sound bites.

— The effect on journalism. The economic competitiveness and round-the-clock nature of Internet journalism “contribute to sensationalism and rumor-mongering, to a merging of news, advertising and entertainment, and to an apparent decline in serious reporting and commentary”(Ethics).

The document also called for continued study of the Internet’s possible effects on psychological development and health, “including the possibility that prolonged immersion in the virtual world of cyberspace may be damaging to some. Fundamentally,” the document said, “we do not view the Internet only as a source of problems; we see it as a source of benefits to the human race. But the benefits can be fully realized only if the problems are solved”(Ethics).

One solution was enforcement in cyberspace of laws against hate speech, libel, fraud and child pornography, it said. It also called for international agreement on ways to promote women’s access to the Internet and to protect privacy and copyright. “Regulation of the Internet is desirable, and, in principle, industry self-regulation is best,” the document said, citing as an example industry codes of ethics. In addition, Internet users must develop the “capacity for informed, discerning evaluation of content,” beyond standard computer literacy skills, it said.

The other document, directed specifically at Catholics, said the church at all levels must become more Internet-fluent “to communicate effectively with people — especially young people — who are steeped in the experience of this new technology, and also to use it well”(Church). It said Internet contact could never replace physical church community life or the direct proclamation of the Gospel, but “it can complement them, attract people to a fuller experience of the life of faith, and enrich the religious lives of users.”

Of particular value was the Internet availability of religious resources, including online libraries, and the technology’s ability to “overcome distance and isolation.”

The church could use the Internet for evangelization, catechesis, news, apologetics, governance and administration, and “some forms of pastoral counseling and spiritual direction,” it said. The Internet also provides an effective technological means of achieving the church’s council vision of a greater flow of information and views between pastors and faithful, it said.
“Along with opening up channels for the expression of public opinion, we have in mind such things as consulting experts, preparing meetings, and practicing collaboration in and among particular churches and religious institutes on local, national and international levels,” the document said(Church).

For the church the Internet poses some special problems, including the presence of hate sites that target the Catholic Church and the proliferation of non-Catholic Web sites that identify themselves as Catholic. Unofficial groups had a right to have an Internet presence but sometimes caused confusion by applying the “Catholic” label to eccentric doctrinal interpretations, idiosyncratic devotional practices and ideological advocacy.

A system of voluntary certification at the local and national levels under the supervision of representatives of the magisterium (church teaching authority) might be helpful in regard to material of a specifically doctrinal or catechetical nature. The idea is not to impose censorship but to offer Internet users a reliable guide to what expresses the authentic position of the church.

The document also suggested study on whether the Internet exacerbated the tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to church teaching. Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the communications council, said local bishops would bear the ultimate responsibility for the proposed certification.

A council member, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said he thought the certification idea was unworkable because of the Internet’s rapid evolution and its reach beyond diocesan boundaries. Bishops should focus instead on promoting the positive, helping Catholics in their dioceses become discerning Internet users.

The document urges parents to carefully supervise their children’s Internet use. Noting that young people often are more adept at the Internet than their elders, it said good parenting might require adults to improve their Internet fluency. The fundamental parental duty here is to help children become discriminating, responsible Internet users and not addicts of the Internet, neglecting contact with their peers and with nature itself.

It recommended that parents install filtering technology in computers that are available to children “to protect them as much as possible from pornography, sexual predators and other threats”(Church).

Church and the Internet
Ethics in Internet