Essentials of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church on Communications and Social Media

Essentials of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church on Communications and Social Media

What is the Church’s general attitude towards the media? All means of communication are very important for society, and thus also for Catholic Social Ethics. Since Vatican Council II (Inter Mirifica 1-2), and especially with Pope John Paul II’s teachings and the testimony of his attitude towards journalists and communicators, the Church has stressed its positive outlook towards the media. At the same time, she continually calls for discernment, since “the world of mass media also has need of Christ’s redemption” (The Rapid Development, 4). (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 376; Redemptoris Missio, 37) Can we speak of a media ethics? Who would be responsible for it? When speaking of media ethical issues, the Church looks mainly at the people who work in the media more than the “instruments” of social communications. It only makes sense to talk about morality where free choice is involved; thus it is not the instruments, but what people do with them that is the primary ethical concern. Consequently, we can speak of the moral duties of various groups: media producers—such as journalists, scriptwriters, film directors, photographers, editors, etc.; but also media owners; public authorities; and even of responsibilities of media users. Although people speak about “the media” doing this or that, it is not some blind force of nature beyond human control. Even though the use of the media often has unintended consequences, it is still people that choose to use the media for good or for evil (cf. Ethics in Communication, 1). (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 560-561; Ethics in Communication, 1) What are the most relevant principles of media ethics? To begin, it must be said that the community of persons and the human person are the end and the measure of communication. Ethical principles and norms relevant in other fields also apply to social communication: “Social ethics principles, like solidarity, subsidiarity, justice and equity, and accountability apply also to the media world.Communication must always be truthful, since truth is essential to individual liberty and to authentic community among persons” (Ethics in Communication, 20). Truth further demands the dissemination of responsible information; media content should not promote xenophobia, discrimination, or nationalism disguised as patriotism (Pacem in Terris, 90). In the case of conflicts, the media should be on the side of the weak—of the victims, not of the powerful: “the decision makers have a serious moral duty to recognize the needs and interests of those who are particularly vulnerable —the poor, the elderly and unborn, children and youth, the oppressed and marginalized, women and minorities, the sick and disabled—as well as families and religious groups” (Ethics in communication, 22). At the same time, this must be done without exploiting the vulnerable for ideological purposes. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 414-416, Pacem in Terris, 90) What should one keep in mind when using the media? “The first duty of media users is to be discerning and selective. Parents, families and the Church have precise responsibilities they cannot renounce” (Compendium, 562). This responsibility is twofold: to “govern” the media consumption of their children, and to educate their children in virtue so as to foster temperance, develop a critical mind, and promote sound value judgment. Catholics have the duty to be correctly informed about the life of the Church. This requires, on the one hand, that the faithful search for reliable sources, and on the other that pastors be transparent. The faithful, pastors and people working in Church communications should be aware they are at the service of the whole communion of the Church. Does the Church promote freedom of speech? Yes. The Church upholds freedom of speech, which is closely related to the freedom of religion. If one is without the other, they become devoid of meaning, a merely formal and apparent freedom. Both freedom of speech and freedom of religion are threatened in today’s society, especially by religious extremists and intolerant relativism. In the case of the latter, people become subjects to what the last Popes have called the “tyranny” or “dictatorship of relativism.” Without truth, it is power that governs. The powerful often intimidate and even silence believers through political and economic pressure, manipulation, or even psychological violence. Are there limits to freedom of speech? As it has been said for freedom of religion and conscience, “the just limits of the exercise of religious freedom of speech must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority through legal norms consistent with the objective moral order” (Compendium, 422). Can and should the government intervene? The government can and should intervene when it is needed for “the effective safeguarding of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also by the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally by the need for a proper guardianship of public morality” (Dignitatis Humanae, 7). (Vatican Council II. Dignitatis Humanae, 7) What makes social media different from other means of communication? Social media distinguishes itself from “old” media in that its audience is more active, intervening in the communication process. Users are also content producers themselves, rather than mere consumers. Social media platforms have opened up an entire world, allowing us to share our lives, knowledge, joys, and sorrows with other people. On the other, hand, with social media, the boundaries between what is public and private become less defined, and the multitude of “connections” can be confused with and replace authentic relationships. What are some of the challenges posed by social media and other new technologies? Social media and other new technologies pose new challenges to human culture inasmuch as they are shaping personal relations and changing family and social relationships: “Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that ‘silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist’ (Benedict XVI, Message for the 2012 World Communications Day). The media can help communication when they enable people to share their stories, to stay in contact with distant friends, to thank others or to seek their forgiveness, and to open the door to new encounters. By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, (…) we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it. Here too, parents are the primary educators, but they cannot be left to their own devices. The Christian community is called to help them in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good” (Pope Francis, Message for the 2015 World Communications Day).