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Monday, January 17, 2011

The Spiritual Network

On a recent visit to Rome I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. An affable and thoughtful Irishman, Monsignor Tighe explained to me the mission of the Pontifical Council, as well as shared some of his reflections about the promises and pitfalls of social communications in our time—with an emphasis on new media and cinema. I am very grateful to Monsignor Tighe for his time and expertise, and in the next few posts I want to share with you some of the highlights from our conversation, which is one way of gearing up for the release of the Holy Father’s annual Message for the World Day of Communications (a message customarily dated on the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, which this year falls on Monday next, January 24).

For those unfamiliar with its mission, a word about the nature of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. First, it is not the press office of the pope and the Holy See—although it does play a hand in granting accreditation to photojournalists and film crews, and to helping coordinate the global communications of larger Vatican events.  Rather, the mission of the Council is to promote the importance of the ministry of communication across the life of the Church. The umbrella term “communication” comprises print journalism, cinema, television, radio, and now all the various forms of new media.
One interesting point made by Monsignor Tighe concerns the way in which our networked society reflects the structure of life in the Church. In an important sense the Church’s structure is hierarchical, like a pyramid. But in another sense the structure of the Church is that of a sprawling network of communities, like those made possible by the Internet. Imagine someone, for example, who belongs to the community of his family, his workplace, his parish, his volunteer association, his alma mater, his team. This is a network of communities—all united, for the Catholic, by the spiritual energy of sacramental life in the Church. Our daily lives in the web of electronic media, where we move from a work email to a LinkedIn group to a news page to an online class, evinces an analogous and often complementary structure. I take it that Monsignor Tighe’s point is that, at its best, the networked society, by its analogous form, by its similar variety, range and flexibility, can enhance our lives in the network of communities we live in. The electronic network is in many ways made to serve the spiritual network. All hinges, however, as Monsignor Tighe observed, on whether truly human relationships are at the core of the networked society. By no means do all forms of new media understand what a truly human relationship is. The novelist Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books piece on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, linked at the bottom of my last post, is very interesting on this point. Here’s a morsel:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

If Smith is right, then there is an enormous amount at stake in carefully distinguishing between “the social network” of a media like Facebook, and a networked society that truly serves the spiritual network. Indeed, our very selves at our stake.      

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