Catholic institutions and media outlets must hold themselves to the highest standards, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a Jan. 24 pastoral letter that focuses on social media.

As a communication tool, social media has great potential to “serve a fundamental human good: the building of bridges among people by the sharing of information,” the bishops write in “Let Your Speech Always Be Gracious,” released on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, who was known for his graciousness in speech and is patron saint of writers and publishers.

The Canadian bishops “applaud the missionary spirit of those who have chosen to witness” through social media, and they “admire the creative work” of Catholic parishes, schools, and organizations that use social media to engage people with opportunities for greater participation in local faith communities.

However, the letter comes with a warning: We mustn’t be naive. Echoing Pope Francis, the bishops warn that Catholics using social media must have a realistic understanding of how the platforms work and the dangers they can pose.

“The design of the platforms and the algorithms that dictate their performance can play on the worst of our human tendencies, leading to online environments that violate the core Christian values of truth and human dignity,” the bishops write.

“As Pope Francis notes [in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti], ‘Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction, or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community.’”

They also “can give the illusion of creating bridges between people when it is, in fact, tearing apart our common life.”

If Catholics share their faith with others online “in ways that are not grounded in charity, prudence, and truth, we may end up doing harm rather than good.”

The bishops encourage Catholics on social media to “pause and reflect — both individually and communally — on their engagement with social media and on how they might be part of the larger effort to claim the ‘digital continent’ for Christ, most particularly by the quality of their conduct online.”

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To help guide Canadian Catholics in their use of social media, the bishops offer seven commitments that can be made to better engage with people on social media:

  1. Check for accuracy: Be vigilant for false information and never use social media with the intention to manipulate or deceive others.

  2. Seek greater perspective: Social media platforms make money by keeping people online, showing them people and information that conform to their interests and beliefs. “We will need to be intentional about seeking information from sources to which we are not already inclined or predisposed.”

  3. Value human dignity: Always assume the best of people, and don’t conflate their ideas with their “personhood.”

  4. Bring curiosity into the conversation. Always seek to open dialogue rather than “simply trading debate points.”

  5. Distinguish between intention and impact: Don’t confuse how you feel about something someone says online with who they are or how they intended for you to perceive them.

  6. Privilege “real life” encounters: Social media should complement, not replace, face-to-face relationships and encounters. “If social media does not lead to more profound physical presence with one another in the larger picture, then it is no longer a helpful resource for the Christian life.”

  7. Tend to one’s online time: Be mindful of how long you are spending online. The bishops suggest fasting from screens once a week and taking a “technology Sabbath.”

“Individually and together, we commit to moving forward with courage, aware of both the great potential and the great challenges of this new way of communicating with one another,” the bishops conclude.

The pastoral letter ends with a variation on the traditional Prayer of St. Francis, which Pope Francis used in his 2018 message for World Communications Day. 

In May 2023, the Vatican Dicastery for Communication released “Toward Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media.” The document called on Catholics to make an examination of conscience about how they use social media and to educate themselves about its potential pitfalls.

Social media a ‘paradox of our times’

Archbishop J. Michael Miller said the Canadian bishops’ pastoral letter on social media shows how much social media is “a great paradox of our times” in which unprecedented access to information collides with “the tendency for many to engage only with content that echoes their own views.” 

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Social media’s ability to transmit information offers the Church a powerful opportunity to spread the Gospel, a reality that’s illustrated in “Let Your Speech Always Be Gracious,” the archbishop told The B.C. Catholic. Online dialogue in social media also presents Catholics with a challenge to “broaden our horizons” and “engage with diverse perspectives.”

The archbishop welcomed the letter’s proposed “technological Sabbath,” saying a balance between “digital engagement with real-life interactions and spiritual reflection” is vital for nurturing spiritual life and cultivating “genuine relationships” within communities.

“The popularity among many faithful of giving up social media for Lent testifies to the desire for this balance.”

Archdiocese of Vancouver communications director Matthew Furtado also weighed in on the letter. In his previous work as youth coordinator for St. Matthew’s Parish in Surrey, Furtado said he would ask youth “whether they would prefer to be teenagers in the current age of social media or before its advent.” 

“Every single one instantly expressed a desire to grow up in a time without social media," he said. 

Their response is “revealing, yet paradoxical,” Furtado said. “Despite recognizing the complexities and pressures that come with online platforms, young people also feel a compelling need to be part of it, driven by a fear of missing out.”

Yet social media is a “powerful tool,” Furtado said, pointing out the combined total of Facebook followers for parishes in the Archdiocese of Vancouver parishes exceeds 55,000, which “underscores the significant role social media plays in our faith community.”

This article was originally published at The B.C. Catholic and has been reprinted here with permission.