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June 02, 2011
In the world, not of it: Facebook & Catholic Evangelism
By Andrew Haines *

By Andrew Haines *

I spend too much time on Facebook. I’m working to fix that. Recently, I’ve gotten a little help from an unexpected place.

About 90% of my Catholic “friends” on Facebook drive me up a wall. Up. A. Wall. The newsfeed wall of my Facebook account, to be more specific.

I’ve got 700-and-some connections on the site — a pretty conservative number, all things considered. But lately I’ve found that I can’t log onto Facebook without being bombarded by pious images of (pastel colored) saints, public requests (and offers) to remember certain intentions during the rosary, and comment after comment linking the word “hugs” with “prayer warrior.”

All three together is enough to force my cursor back to the URL bar for an emergency trip to another site. Anywhere.

At first, I thought maybe my selection (or acceptance, really) of Facebook friends tended toward the zealously devout. But I began to realize, more and more, that being Catholic in a 2.0 world has become almost indistinguishable from emotivism. Social media is new soil for building up the Church. But many Catholics — “traditional” and “progressive,” alike — are failing to grasp the true meaning of Pope Benedict’s call to evangelize the “digital continent.”

The maxim to “be in the world, not of it” seems especially apropos, here. New media and web-2.0 apps are, quite definitely, a product of the world. And Catholics should be conscious and prudent when it comes to appropriating into personal life elements that can, quite easily, become vehicles for some very unholy content. There’s a hesitancy about social media — Facebook, Twitter, and the like — that causes believers to wonder just how such tools can (or ever could) serve the greater glory of God.

On the other hand, the potential of the interactive universe is too much to pass up. Where once we were limited to effecting Christian conversion in the hearts of our physical neighbors, now we can reach out to those around the globe and from entirely different walks of life. Catholics, as historical proselytizers, naturally desire to seize on such an opportunity.

What is happening though, I fear, is that caution is overtaking the evangelical spirit. Rather than pervading the world of the digital continent, we’ve begun setting up camp within it. In essence, we’ve begun to create our own digital continent. Instead of establishing beachheads and outposts with an eye to leading others toward Rome, we’ve begun to transport the comforts of the City into an electronic wilderness.

In short, many Catholics view the internet as a suitable place to grow in faith and virtue. But that view couldn’t be more wrong, or more destructive.

When Julius Caesar famously ventured across the Alps to meet the Helvetii and Belgae tribes, he never aimed to make Gaul his home. As a proud son of Rome, he sought to conquer the northern lands and their peoples, winning them for the glory of the Republic. The ultimate goal though was to expand Roman power, not to recentralize it in a foreign land. Caesar knew the value of preserving the patria; and in 49 BC, he returned there to inhabit it — and to rule it — himself.

The same thing is true for Catholics in the digital continent: there is a great deal to be won for the sake of the patria (the heavenly one more than the earthly). But the primary goal is not to inhabit a foreign land forever, but to introduce those who live there to the beauty of civilization.

Moreover, just as no good commander sets up a permanent outpost on foreign soil — for fear of becoming weak and indefensible — Catholics shouldn’t become too comfortable on the digital continent. They should be excellent navigators and explorers; but not inhabitants. Social media and web-2.0-based interaction are wonderful tools for sparking dialogue and conversion. But they don’t substitute for the human-to-human interaction that lies at the foundation of evangelical kerygma. Total conversion requires an encounter with a total person (i.e., the total Christ), and Christ is not incarnate in a digital body.

That Catholics seek to ‘conquer’ new media for the sake of the kingdom is laudable. But the longer we continue to relax in our surroundings — to make social media and the internet our home — the more at risk we become of losing what it is that makes us Christians: namely, our full participation in the living, breathing, human Christ, who is only truly present in the Eucharist.

Evangelism in a foreign land is fruitful only insofar as we can make an authentic call to discipleship to those who claim it as their home. That’s the goal of our progress in the digital continent — and it is helpful to recall that from time to time.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.
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