Stephen Kent

I love the digital world, the Internet, by whatever name.

This morning, I paid bills, made an airline reservation, refilled a prescription, communicated with my physician and planned for a visit from longtime friends coming to town. That was before draining the second cup of coffee.

I’d rather suffer outage of the telephone and cable. I have to admit, however, that as a tool of genuine communication and for the exchange of thoughts, the digital world has yet to fully mature. It has the potential to be an open public forum where people share ideas, information and opinions, where new relationships and community can occur, Pope Benedict XVI said in this year’s message for World Communications Day.

The pope’s language, however, is extremely conditional, using “whens” and “ifs.” Communication in the digital world could foster dialogue and debate if conducted with respect “and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness,” he said.

This dialogue and debate is conducted in a variety of digital spaces. The legacy print media have attempted to keep up by offering comments sections on their websites to allow readers to express opinions.

One newspaper, however, did away with its comment section because “these discussions frequently became marked by intolerable levels of hectoring polemic; sometimes accompanied by calumny and distortion.” That’s the explanation from Catholic publication, The Southern Cross, South Africa’s Catholic weekly.

We have great tools for communications, but how we use them is in question. Sometimes, online communications are like note-passing in elementary schools. Anonymous messages of uncharitable content are circulated with no idea of the source.

The digital age has significantly lowered the bar for who can communicate with millions. Once it required vast capital to equip a newspaper or broadcast network. Owners had some self-interest in making sure of the competence and character of those reporting or commenting on the news. That was credibility. Now, anyone can say anything to more and more people, more efficiently than ever.

The technological changes “pose demanding challenges to those who want to speak about truth and values,” the pope said in his message.

Herein lies the problem: the misunderstanding of liberty. There have been flawed ideas through American history about the meaning of freedom, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford said recently.

The Enlightenment taught that liberty was a matter of “choice between various options … whatever the individual in his or her autonomy makes a decision for,” Cardinal Stafford said. This contrasts with the traditional Christian teaching that freedom is recognized only in the pursuit of virtue.

“The growing dialogue in social networks about faith and belief confirms the importance and relevance of religion in public debate and in the life of society,” Pope Benedict said.

Social communication must be used to unite, not divide. The means exist to communicate ideas. The challenge to accomplish this with love can begin at home.

As our friends in South Africa said, “In discourse on the faith with fellow Catholics, our default position always must be that we all act in love for the church. We are served well to ascribe the most generous interpretation to other Catholics’ motive.”


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: