“We are members of each other”
From social media communities to the human community
Dear brothers and sisters:
Since the Internet has been available, the Church has always s tried to promote its use at the service of encounter between people and solidarity among all. With this Message, I would like to invite you once again to reflect on the foundation and importance of our being-in-relationship; and to rediscover, in the vastness of the challenges of the current communicative context, the desire of man who does not want to remain in his own loneliness.
The metaphors of the “network” and the “community”
The media environment is now so ubiquitous that it is very difficult to distinguish it from the sphere of everyday life. The network is a resource of our time. It is a source of knowledge and relationships until recently unimaginable. However, because of the profound transformations that technology has printed in the logics of production, circulation and enjoyment of content, numerous experts have highlighted the risks that threaten the search and the possibility of sharing authentic information on a global scale. The Internet represents an extraordinary possibility of access to knowledge; but it is also true that it has manifested itself as one of the places most exposed to misinformation and conscious and planned distortion of facts and interpersonal relationships, which often take the form of discredit.
It must be acknowledged that, on the one hand, social networks serve to keep us more in touch, meet and help each other; but on the other hand, they also lend themselves to a manipulative use of personal data in order to obtain political and economic advantages, without respect for the person and his rights. Among the youngest, statistics reveal that one in four boys has been embroiled in cyberbullying episodes.1
Given the complexity of this scenario, it may be useful to reflect again on the metaphor of the network that was proposed at the beginning as the foundation of the Internet, to rediscover its positive potentials. The figure of the network invites us to reflect on the multiplicity of routes and knots that ensure their resistance without a center, a hierarchical structure, a vertical organization. The network works thanks to the sharing of all the elements.
The metaphor of the network, transferred to the anthropological dimension, reminds us of another figure full of meanings: the community. The more cohesive and supportive a community is, the more it is animated by feelings of trust and pursues shared goals, the greater its strength. The community as a network of solidarity requires mutual listening and dialogue based on responsible use of language.
Clearly, in the current scenario, the social network community is not automatically synonymous with community. At best, social media communities are able to test cohesion and solidarity; but they often stay only in aggregations of individuals who cluster around interests or topics characterized by weak bonds. In addition, identity on social media is based too often on the contrast against the other, against which it does not belong to the group: it is defined from what divides rather than what it unies, leaving room for suspicion and the explosion of all kinds of prejudices (ethnic, sexual, religious and others). This trend feeds groups that exclude heterogeneity, which also favor unbridled individualism in the digital environment and sometimes end up fostering spirals of hatred. What should be a window open to the world thus becomes a showcase in which to exhibit narcissism itself.
The network is an opportunity to foster encounter with others, but it can also enhance our self-de-insulation, like a web it catches. Young people are most exposed to the illusion of thinking that social media fully satisfies the relational level; this is the dangerous phenomenon of young people who become “social hermits”, with the consequent risk of departing completely from society. This dramatic dynamic reveals a serious tear in the relational fabric of society, a laceration that we cannot ignore.
This multiform and insidious reality raises various ethical, social, legal, political and economic issues; and also challenges the Church. As governments seek legal means of regulation to save the original vision of a free, open and secure network, we all have the possibility and responsibility to promote its positive use.
It is clear that it is not enough to multiply connections to increase mutual understanding. How can we re-find true community identity by being aware of our responsibility to each other also on the network?
“We are members of each other”
A possible response can be outlined from a third metaphor, that of the body and members, which St Paul uses to talk about the relationship of reciprocity between people, founded on an organism that united them. “Wherefore, stop lying, and speak truthlessly to your neighbor, who are members of one another” (Eph 4:25). Being members of one another is the profound motivation with which the Apostle exhorts us to abandon the lie and to tell the truth: the obligation to guard the truth arises from the requirement not to deny the reciprocal relationship of communion. In fact, truth is revealed in communion. Instead, lying is the selfish rejection of the recognition of one’s belonging to the body; it is not wanting to donate to others, thus losing the only way to find oneself.
The metaphor of the body and members leads us to reflect on our identity, which is founded on communion and alterity. As Christians, we all recognize ourselves as members of the one body of which Christ is the head. This helps us to see people not as potential competitors, but to consider even enemies as people. There is no longer a need of the adversary to self-defined, because the gaze of inclusion we learn from Christ makes us discover the alterity in a new way, as an integral part and condition of the relationship and proximity.
Esta capacidad de comprensión y de comunicación entre las personas humanas tiene su fundamento en la comunión de amor entre las Personas divinas. Dios no es soledad, sino comunión; es
love, and therefore communication, because love always communicates, more, communicates to itself to find the other. In order to communicate with us and to communicate with us, God adapts to our language, establishing in history a true dialogue with humanity (cf. Conc. Ecum. Vat. II: Const. dogm. Dei Verbum, 2).
By virtue of our being created in the image and likeness of God, which is communion and communication-of-yes, we always carry in our hearts the nostalgia of living in communion, of belonging to a community. “Nothing is as specific to our nature,” says St Basil, “as entering into relationship with one another, needing one another.”2
The current context calls us all to invest in relationships, to affirm also in the network and through the network the interpersonal character of our humanity. Christians are more rightly called to manifest that communion that defines our identity as believers. Indeed, faith itself is a relationship, an encounter; and through the impulse of God’s love we can communicate, welcome, understand, and correspond to the gift of the other.
Communion in the image of the Trinity is what distinguishes precisely the person from the individual. From faith in one God who is Trinity follows that to be myself I need the other. I am truly human, truly personal, only if I am related to others. The term person, in fact, denotes the human being as a “face” directed towards the other, which interacts with others. Our lives grow in humanity as we move from individual character to personal character. The true path of humanization ranges from the individual who perceives the other as a rival, to the person who recognizes him as a traveling companion.
From like to amen
The image of the body and members reminds us that the use of social networks is complementary to the encounter in flesh and blood, which occurs through the body, the heart, the eyes, the gaze, the breathing of the other. If the network is used as an extension or as expected of that encounter, then it does not betray itself and remains a resource for communion. If a family uses the network to be more connected and then is at the table and looks into the eyes, then it is a resource. If an ecclesial community coordinates its activities through the network, and then celebrates the Eucharist together, then it is a resource. If the network gives me the opportunity to approach stories and experiences of beauty or suffering physically distant from me, to pray together and seek together good in the rediscovery of what unies us, then it is a resource.
We can thus move from diagnosis to treatment: opening the way to dialogue, encounter, smile, caress… This is the network we want, a network made not to catch, but to liberate, to guard a communion of free people. The Church herself is a network woven by Eucharistic communion, in which union is not founded on likes but on truth, on the amen with which each adheres to the Body of Christ by welcoming others. Ω
Vatican, 24 January 2019,
Feast of San Francisco de Sales.
1 In order to react to this phenomenon, an International Observer on Cyberbullying based in the Vatican will be instituted.
2 Regole ampie, III, 1: PG 31, 917; Cf. Benedict XVI: Message for the 43rd World Day on Social Communications (2009).