“The Community of the Church: Walking in Step with the Spirit in Digital Culture”
Concilium 2018-4. Kirche der Zukunft
Concilium 2018-4. The Church of the Future
Concilium 2018-4. La Iglesia del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. L’Église du futur
Concilium 2018-4. La Chiesa del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. A Igreja do Futuro
Thierry-Marie Courau OP, Stefanie Knauss et Enrico Galavotti
Considering the work of the Holy Spirit is integral to the task of this collection of essays on imagining a future Church. This essay reflects on the community of the Church as it might emerge in the future especially in light of the advent of digital culture as one socio-cultural reality shaping life in our world today. Imagining the community of the Church in the future is a task beholden to pneumatology – to the theology of the Holy Spirit, and more specifically what we know about the Spirit’s work of animating the Church. Along these lines, this essay builds upon key pneumatological points, both essential to Church but also especially relevant to life in a digital age. Digital culture, as a culture defined by communication technologies also has the potential for deep resonance with pneumatology, as communication in the theological sense is a Spirit-led activity. In imagining the community of the Church in the future, this essay therefore is built around the Holy Spirit, and specific characteristics of the work of Spirit that are especially salient for thinking about Church, communication and digital culture. These characteristics include truth, life and power. Taking these each in turn, this essay will discuss their resonance for digital culture and offers directions forward toward a future Church.
Our world is always changing. Yet, with the advent of digital communications technologies, our world has undoubtedly changed in a remarkable way. Within a relatively short span of time, our ability to access, share and contribute to the flow of information has greatly expanded. In 2018 most of us take mobile media and ease of access to social communication for granted, and the contemporary generation of lay and ordained ministers see digital communication as part of the everyday reality of serving people and sharing the Gospel. In discussing our world so shaped by digital communication technologies, we are properly speaking about a digital culture, rather than just a set of tools or electronic gadgets that we have. Our use of these tools and gadgets has been profoundly impactful on the way we live our lives, interact with one another and with the world and the way we seek out, obtain and contribute to the flow of information available to us. As a result, we are living, thinking, interacting differently today, whether we are “online” or “offline”, which is a distinction that has become obsolete due to the ubiquity of the impact of communication technologies. We are always online, that is, thinking and behaving in a way that reveals the constant connectivity available to us.
This cultural shift has remarkable advantages but also poses some considerable challenges. The ease with which we are able to access and share information and to connect with people instantly is truly a great benefit. At the same time, navigating the constant availability of information and connection has some pitfalls. In 2018 we are struggling with authenticity and truthfulness of information and being able to distinguish truth from fake news. We are navigating how to still forge respectful, mutual human encounters with one another when these are mediated by words and images that appear on a screen. We are also grappling with the notion of authority who selects the information we are able to see and receive, who has a voice to contribute to the greater cultural narratives being told, who has the influence to “trend” or be heard. In the midst of this, the Church has a blessed opportunity to communicate the Good News to speak especially to these and other areas of contention in our world. As discussed below, each of these areas of truth, civil conversation and authority resonate with characteristics of the Spirit of truth, life and power.
Often, our pastoral planning conversations around digital culture take on a tone of urgency about keeping up with the times, keeping up with what “young people” are doing, all from the place of reacting to the shifts wrought by digital culture. This essay proposes another approach, which is for the Church to take a pro-active stance toward this cultural reality, and to recall our original mandate of communicating the Gospel to all the world1. We are called to be communicators of the Gospel regardless of the technologies available to us, and this call precedes digital or other revolutions in social communication. One hope of this essay is for the future Church to be a pro-active community that proclaims the Gospel in ways that not only speak to but also shape life in the digital age, guiding society toward authenticity, truth and encounter. We can do this by attentively listening and reading the signs of the times, paying close attention to the challenges and tensions that arise in our world today and proclaiming the possibility of life lived abundantly in the midst of these.
For the Church then, this remarkable cultural shift introduces the opportunity and the challenge of presenting the Gospel in new ways, in new contexts and speaking to new needs and suffering. Given that the Word of God and the Spirit of God both imbue the communication of the Gospel, the Church’s task in the digital age is therefore serving the Word and also walking in step with the Spirit so that the Word could be received, understood and become transformative in people’s lives. Truth, new life and power are three characteristics of the work of the Spirit, but are also three moments in the life of faith in responding to the Gospel. These three are also especially relevant to the realities of digital culture today. An awareness of these infuses potential, hope and possibility into the way the Church of the future might take shape in serving and transforming the world.
I. Authenticity and the Spirit of Truth
In his 2018 World Communications Day Message, Pope Francis decided to tackle one increasingly disturbing trend in social communications the frequent emergence and spread of fake news, especially in and through social media2. In his warnings against the effects of the fake news phenomenon, he exhorts us to be purified by the truth in such a way that “we discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, oppose. Truth therefore is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another3.” Truth is unitive, it forges communion, it is relational, and it is found in authentic communication as a free and mutual sharing between persons. Although Pope Francis does not name it such, the description here for truth resonates deeply with the Holy Spirit. Recalling the description of the Spirit as a trinitarian bond of gift and love that exists between the Father and the Son, concepts like communion, mutuality and interpersonal bond all have pneumatological foundations4. As Francis continues to describe truth, the allusion to the Spirit continues. For example, he notes that “we can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or on the other hand they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results5.” This brings to mind the Holy Spirit, particularly the fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 522-23.
The connection between the Holy Spirit and truth is established in the tradition. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of Truth who will guide you into all the truth’ in the Gospel of John and this title becomes part of the theological tradition6. As John Paul II discusses the Spirit of Truth in his 1986 encyclical Dominum et vivificantem, he connects truth with faith “the guiding into all the truth is therefore achieved in faith and through faith and this is the work of the Spirit of truth and the result of his action in man. Here the Holy Spirit is to be man’s supreme guide and the light of the human spirit7.”
As the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit works to reveal to us the Word so that we can understand and respond in faith. This revelatory process is also a process infused with communication, human and divine. As the Church continues to read the signs of the times in the digital age, the need for truth vis-à-vis the problem of fake news is a surface level sign of a much greater challenge and opportunity. As people living in a digital culture, do we retain the capacity to see reality for what it is? Can we remain open to be addressed by the Word in a way that our words (and sounds and images on the screen) reflect its Good News? Can we discern truth so as to have life and live it abundantly? The Church of the future, sharing the Good News in digital culture, has the opportunity to offer a witness to the truth, as inspired by the Spirit, and to recall not only its content but worth and value for living well as a society.
Fake news is but one symptom of the greater issue of the struggle for authenticity in the digital age. The rapid and mediated flow of communication allows for the easy conveyance not only of bits of fake news but for systematic dishonesty, propaganda and disinformation which have broader effects in shaping or manipulating a cultural narrative. On an interpersonal level, this foments a lack of dialogue, closed mentality, intolerance and potential violence. It also normalizes the tendency to separate what is being communicated from actual reality. This can manifest in social propaganda or simply in a false but happier, thinner, more popular image of oneself projected on social media. In either case, we lose trust in what is being shared, which is detrimental to authentic communication. If true communication is rooted in the mutual self-gift offered in love of the Triune God as it unfolds among the divine persons, a basic lack of trust in the truthfulness of human communication is deeply problematic8. The lack of trust is a roadblock to receptivity, a roadblock to sharing and mutuality, and ruptures the basic bond that communication is built upon. Recalling Pope Francis’ words above, this is the path to division and isolation rather than communion. The Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth and as the bond of Gift and Love that makes all love and gifting possible for us is sorely needed in context. Part of the task of the future Church led by the Spirit then is to witness truth as it emerges in and through gift and love, and leads toward communion with God and one another.
II. Words of Spirit and life
There is an integral connection between truth, communion and life. The Holy Spirit’s guidance into all the truth is a guidance back toward communion with God, which ultimately is eternal life. When we recognize reality for what it is, we also recognize that which keeps us estranged, isolated or apart from God, self, and others. It is the work of the Spirit in this regard then to not only reveal the truth but guide us back to communion, by grace overcoming that which keeps us separated. The Spirit’s work is therefore always uniting, bonding, reconciling, healing and life-giving. As the Spirit illuminates for us the Word in the process of revelation, this illumination always has a dynamism toward communion. Animated by the Spirit, the Church’s work of proclaiming the Gospel should also carry this uniting, bonding, healing and life-giving workactivity.
One of the challenges experienced in digital culture is the breaking of social bonds, isolation and estrangement that can emerge. In a cultural context built around connectivity, this challenge is a surprising one. We have all the technological means available to us to establish connections amongst ourselves, and these connections should carry the potential to deepen into or to strengthen already existing relationships. Communication in and through the digital networks has the potential to be oriented toward a sense of communion, both in a temporal sense but also heralding eternal communion with God.
At the same time, connections do not automatically become anything more profound than just connections, and these connections can be experienced in a way that is the opposite of communion depersonalized responses or reactions to words on a screen, ad hominem attacks that do not take into consideration the dignity of the other, verbal harassment, threats, cyberbullying. Part of the relative anonymity of the screen allows for the emergence of these kinds of heightened responses, which are less likely to manifest as quickly and as strongly if two persons were meeting face to face rather than mediated by a screen. In any given comment feed we can see this occurring a thread of comments quickly escalating from a difference of opinions to name-calling, sarcasm, harsh words, strong emotions. One wonders about the outcome of such battles, which result less in a true exchange of different perspectives and the possibility or learning something new, and more so in anger, embarrassment, tribalism and the reinforcement of previously held ideas.
Openness to communion assumes an openness to that which is outside of ourselves. If connections remain a sounding board for one’s own ideas, this potential toward communion is hindered. It is the prophetic task of the Church to recall this potential toward communion, and to be a witness of open, listening, dialogical, mutual encounters in and through social communication. Instead of allowing the screen to function as a mirror that simply reflects back that which a person brings to it, the screen needs to remain a meeting point, a true mediator that reveals the possibility that there is much more to the persons who are posting or sharing particular bits of information there. There is always a full, dignified, contextual person behind the screen, and our social communication practices are in jeopardy if we forget this truth. As Pope Francis reminds us “the digital world is a network not of wires but of people9.” When we forget that there is a person behind the screen, it becomes easier to post flippant, sarcastic or hurtful words that lack the generosity of considering the dignity of the other.
Words that tear down, attack or hurt are fundamentally at odds with God’s revelatory Word and Spirit. The Spirit who guides us into all the truth is also the Lord and Giver of Life as we profess in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. God’s Word and Spirit are life-giving they create, animate, restore, resuscitate and ultimately call toward eternal life with God. Whenever our own words fail to be life-giving to others, they also fall short of expressing authentic communication performed in the image of the Triune God a gift of self, offered in love. Instead of harsh or cutting words, might we achieve making the same point in a way that offers possibility, hope, encouragement, and ultimately, the Good News to another person? In this we would be walking more in step with the Spirit who is Lord and Giver of Life. The future Church of the digital age might be especially attentive to standing as a witness to communication that is committed to be life-giving in this regard.
III. Authority and the power of the Holy Spirit
In early 2018, Facebook announced that it would shift what appears in the news feed away from showing postings by brands and companies and more toward postings by friends and family. In their own words, they instituted this change because they wanted to encourage more meaningful interactions among people10. Although seemingly a positive rationale, the company drew both suspicion and criticism for this shift. By changing the news feed, Facebook would change what information reaches people most readily, and many bristled at the obvious imposition of power and authority Facebook was demonstrating, even if toward an arguably positive end.
In our digital culture, new expressions of authority have emerged alongside traditional forms and these new expressions sometimes challenge what we have known and accepted as authoritative before. One significant ground for the exercise of authority is the process by which information reaches us, especially the selection of information and the order in which information is ranked or presented. Because of the vast amount of information available in and through digital networks, media companies rely on algorithms to rank and sort the information that reaches a particular user. What we see in a news feed or search engine result page is not at all random, but has already been sifted, ranked, arranged, and sometimes sold and bought to appear before us and get our attention. The power to determine what information appears and what does not to a particular media consumer is significant power, lending new authority to Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix and similar companies. A critical question to pose about their authority is how much the information shown reflects the actual activity of people using the platforms, and how much of it is pre-determined by the values and assumptions of the people behind these platforms.
A simple example is the phenomenon of “trending”, whereby relevance is measured according to the frequency of popular engagement with the topic of a posting. Yet, what is the process by which a platform determines what trends? Algorithms have a mysterious reputation, and the answer to how much a company like Facebook promotes certain values or points of view is ambiguous. In this context, a consumer might rightly wonder not only if the information retrieved is fake news, but also whether it carries an agenda, and whose agenda this is. This, too, introduces a level or mistrust into the process of social communication.
Where do we encounter the Holy Spirit in this and how can the Church address this shifting expression of authority with the Gospel? Our language of describing the Holy Spirit often includes reference to the Spirit’s power. We make reference to divine action and human action responding to grace all performed “by the power of the Holy Spirit”. Yet, as paragraph 687 of the Catechism describes the Spirit’s agency, it is a “proper divine self-effacement” of the Spirit who “reveals God, makes known to us Christ, his living Utterance, but the Spirit does not speak of himself.” In this light, the power of the Holy Spirit is far from the kind of worldly or self-aggrandizing power that wields forceful authority over the weaker. The power of the Holy Spirit is instead a power of self-gift that is extended to draw us into the bond of divine love. Here, too, we return to the theological notion of communication as self-gift offered in love and to the Holy Spirit as both the love and the gift, and the agent of all loving and gifting. Power and authority as revealed by Word and Spirit convey the unexpected humility, self-emptying, sacrifice, the cross. As expressions of authority and power over information continue to shift in the digital world, divine power and authority revealed to us as self-gift brings a profound reminder that there is another way to exercise these concepts. On the more practical level, imagining how self-gift would manifest in social communication is a salient exercise, especially concerning how it would provide a counter-example to or displace self-promotion and the agenda-driven sharing of information. A prophetic task of the future Church would be to witness what self-gift can look like in digital communication practices.
The Church is never apart from the work of the Spirit. As we imagine the future Church sharing the Gospel in digital culture, discerning how the Spirit moves in Church and in culture is essential. This essay sought to name some tension points that have surfaced in digital culture, suggesting connections to Word, Spirit and the tasks of a future Church along the way. Truth, authority and life in this light are not just tension points but three areas of hope and possibility where a pro-active Church can do excellent work already today.
This essay explores digital culture and advocates for how the Church can be a pro-active presence in this context especially if attentive to three critical socio-cultural developments wrought by digital communication technologies: truthfulness, potential for authentic encounters, and shifting notions of authority. By emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit as both constitutive of Church but also transformative for each of these three developments, the essay proposes building on pneumatological foundations toward a future Church, one that can be a prophetic and pro-active witness in digital culture.
Daniella Zsupan-Jerome Ph.D. is professor of pastoral theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. She is the author of Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age (Liturgical Press, 2014) and Evangelization and Catechesis: Echoing the Good News Through the Documents of the Church (Twenty-Third Publications, 2017) as well as of several articles and essays on the relationship between faith and digital culture, along with a number of pastoral and devotional resources. She is also co-editor of Authority and Leadership: Values, Religion Media (Blanquerna Observatory, Barcelona, 2017).
Professor of Pastoral Theology
Notre Dame Seminary
2901 S. Carrollton Ave New Orleans,
LA 70118 (USA)
- Mark 16:15.
- Francis, The Truth Will Set You Free (Jn 8:32). Fake News and Journalism for Peace. Message of His Holiness Pope Francis For World Communications Day. 24 January 2018. https//w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20180124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html
- Francis, The Truth Will Set You Free.
- See for discussion on the Holy Spirit as Gift and Love paragraph 10 in John Paul II, Dominum et vivificantem. 18 May 1986. http//w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_18051986_dominum-et-vivificantem.html
- Francis, The Truth Will Set You Free.
- John 16:13; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 692.
- John Paul II, Dominum et vivificantem, 6.
- For the definition of communication as a divine gift of self offered in love, see paragraph 11 in Pontifical Council for Social Communication, Communio et progressio. 23 May 1971. http//www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_23051971_communio_en.html
- Francis, Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter. Message of Pope Francis for the 48th World Communications Day. 24 January 2014. http//w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20140124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html
- A. Mosseri, News Feed FYI Bringing People Closer Together. 11 January 2018. https//newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/01/news-feed-fyi-bringing-people-closer-together