Why I am walking away from social media and my smart phone cold turkey:
In 2009, when I was ordained, I despised blogs and Facebook. But in 2010, in his address for the World Day of Communications, Pope Benedict specifically asked priests to use blogs and social media to help spread the Gospel. He warned about the dangers, but said at the time that it was his belief that technology/social media are “morally neutral” (meaning it depends entirely on how it is used).
So I dove in. I didn’t expect anyone to care about what I had to say, nor did I care if anyone liked what I had to say. But I almost immediately saw the power of social media. Just a few years later, I was flying to New Zealand to address a Eucharistic Congress there about how to use technology in Evangelization.
However, in 2015, in his encyclical Laudato Si, quoting Romano Guardini about the inherent dangers of technology, Pope Francis wrote the following: “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups…Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all” (Laudato Si, 107-108)
So, which Pope was right? I believe at the time Pope Benedict was asking priests to get involved, there was not evidence about the effect that social media and smart phones have on people because smart phones were just starting to become wide-spread. 2010 was the first year the majority of teens had a smart phone (55%). By 2015 though, when "Laudato Si" was written, evidence was already indicating a terrifying annual growth in teen suicide rates. Looking at yearly teen suicide rates, after a fairly consistent level through the 90’s and 2000’s, it jumps up in 2010 and increases sharply up through our own day. So I think both popes were right.
I have discerned that it is best for me to just walk away both from social media and my smartphone cold-turkey. I am doing this for several reasons.
1) Despite NOT being formed in the era of social media (thanks be to God) I still found, over time, it changing me in subtle ways. I knew, despite all my efforts to spiritually avoid it, that, over time, I became aware of what topics were more likely to spread around than others, and it was changing me, over the course of years, into someone I didn’t want to be.
2) I think it is wrong, at least for me, to draw people to social media (Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Parler, Instagram, Gab, MeWe, Snapchat and on and on), and that it does real damage to them. The whole playing field is slanted, not against a particular political party or ideology, but slanted against REALITY! That was what Guardini so wisely forecasted already in 1950, and we see that playing out in our own day. Catholicism is meant to be LIVED in real community, and that is how it spreads. It is one thing to spend some time online learning about Catholicism, it is another thing entirely to try to live Catholicism on social media. I believe that it can’t truly be lived, long term, online. And if I have given that impression and drawn people away from real community, I apologize.
3) I also realize I have covered every topic out there. I have taught EIGHT SEMESTERS of classes online for our high school religious ed program. I have preached on every topic under the sun in my 11 years as a priest doing online evangelization. I have gotten lots of letters and emails through the years thanking me for a homily or video that awakened in someone a call to join the Catholic Church. I am leaving my Facebook page, Twitter page and Youtube channel up in case anyone still wants to share those or revisit them.
4) In a war, I see why the troops in the trenches need to regularly rotate off of the frontlines. Battle fatigue is a real thing, and it is hard, day after day, to see all the evils in the world and to feel like you have to combat them all. I have realized that after 11 years in the trenches, I need a break. There are still lots of troops in the trenches who are continuing to do heroic work online.
It isn’t like this snuck up on me. I’ve been aware of this change taking place over time, and, in discussing this with brother priests through the years, have expressed that I know this is happening but that I consider it a cross that comes with the territory – a sort of thing to be endured. And I’ve carried this around for 10 years but consider it time to step aside.
5) I want to recommit to my parishioners. I don’t think I was as present to my parishioners as I could have been. It was also easy to blame the fact that I have 2 different parishes 30 minutes apart, and so it was easy to use that as a crutch. But I think I can be more present to my parishioners and to the poor in our communities vs. spending what amounted to several hours a day in online evangelization.
And on my walking away from my smartphone:
The most widely-read thing I’ve ever written was in 2017: “7 Reasons Why Your Smartphone is Like Bilbo’s Ring” (click here to read: https://on-this-rock.blogspot.com/2017/04/7-reasons-why-your-smartphone-is-bilbos.html) and I am only now understanding its appeal – it was and is becoming even more true. There is a line by a priestly figure Gandalf when Frodo tries to give him the ring at the very beginning of the movie: Gandalf begs, distraught: “Don't tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine."
I am not sure if there is a person who can wield a smartphone responsibly. For my part, I have resolved to step up to the edge of the Fires of Mount Doom, and throw my phone in forever.
I have ordered a new “dumb phone” from charity mobile. They actually give 5% of their profits to any pro-life organization on their list. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ “Office of Pro-Life Ministry” was on there so I selected them to receive a percentage of my monthly bill.
I invite you to prayerfully consider throwing your smartphone and social media into the fire as well. And to go out and meet your neighbor (according to COVID regulations).
I will continue to post the “Read the Bible in a Year” Podcast on Podbean and my blog until that finishes around Easter.
Also, when I return to my parishes around the beginning of June, I plan to preach on this under the title “My Last Homily Online” and will post that everywhere available to me so as to try to reach as many people as possible with my rationale for why I am logging off.
In conclusion, we just celebrated the Baptism of the Lord to bring our Christmas Season to a conclusion. There, Saint John the Baptist (for whom I am named) says “Christ must increase, I must decrease.” Those, as much as possible, are my own words now as well. “Christ must increase, I must decrease.”
I have lived in Brazil and Greencastle for the past 8 years; I look forward to meeting my neighbors when I return to my parishes this Summer.