The new report Catholics' Use of New Media from CARA has some revealing news about the perception of Catholics about social networking. It is not good news. Most Catholics use social media, but few use it to read about or share Catholic faith. Over on his Patheos blog, Deacon Greg Kandra nicely summarizes three areas of concern expressed by respondents that seem to keep them from embracing this new way of learning and communicating about faith:
"The top three concerns cited by respondents for the Church’s presence online were the lack of a system for the Church to validate sites and content as authentically Catholic (45 percent), the lack of civil tone in conversations happening on the internet (43 percent), and the reluctance by Catholic Church leaders to use the Internet (42 percent)."
I would agree that while new media presents a wonderful opportunity to share Catholic faith, these are major concerns. My personal observation is that the majority of Catholic engaging actively in using social media are out of touch with the needs, interests and outlooks of the average American Catholic in the average parish. What is out there is uninteresting, or even hostile to someone who is not particularly interested in the Latin Mass, who thinks his or her parish priest celebrates the liturgy just fine, who actually likes (and sings) popular modern American church music, who does not home-school his/her children and who does not regard the dominant American culture as particularly evil. Overwhelmingly, those who have much to criticize about the Church have embraced social media as a way to have a "bully pulpit" for their particular agenda. Sadly, some of the most popular bloggers are also some of the most uncharitable toward Catholics who are not like them.
I know I am stepping out on a limb and taking a risk here, but perhaps more Catholics would be comfortable using social media to explore and share faith if the tone of what is out there were more inviting, charitable and felt like the familiar voice of the Church of their own personal experience. The issue is finding an authentic Catholic voice that re-evangelizes Catholics instead of criticizes them for not being good enough Catholics.
Yes, there certainly needs to be validation of whether a site providing information about the Church is authentically and reliably Catholic. Yes, the tone of all communication about the faith needs to be civil in tone. Yes, the leadership of the Church needs to step up to use this new forum for communicating - and not in a top-down manner, but in one that engages and accepts the concerns of the average Catholic adult. We need a kinder, gentler Catholic internet that invites and engages people with charity.
The Church, it seems, has a long way to go. Yet this week, when the Bishops gather, the only related issue on their agenda - after the presentation of the above-mentioned report - is to talk about how fast they can shut down theologians on the internet who challenge Church teaching. That is a top-down response to the first concern from the survey, which ignores the fact that the internet is a forum for free speech, communication and interaction and not subject to that kind of policing. The concern from the CARA study is about "validation" of sites, not condemnation. We have already seen that the latter approach does not work, since Michael Voris of The Vortex continues to post extremist apologetics videos that are widely shared by more "conservative" Catholics - even after being publicly censured by the Archdiocese of Detroit.
A more appropriate response would be for the official Church to find and affirm the voices of qualified, approved bloggers, video producers and other social networkers who fairly present the Catholic faith from its center. What about permitting, training and supporting people in diocesan offices to use social media well? A survey of diocesan personnel a while back (can't lay my hands on it, but I recall that this desire was communicated to the USCCB) indicated they actually want the bishops to provide this kind of help. The official voice of the Church is largely missing from the world of social media, with the exception of a few blogging bishops and priests and a few forward-thinking dioceses. Most diocesan personnel, frankly, try to stay a bit "under the radar" because there is no official guidance or affirmation for their use of social media - and some degree of risk.
Lastly and this is just my personal opinion, sometimes Catholic content provided through social media may not be particularly attractive to the average Catholic, but is preachy and critical in tone. It's no wonder the average Catholic is reluctant to engage. Where is the content that relates the faith of average people to everyday life and engages real life issues in a healthy way? It's out there, but in my experience these are mostly not bloggers who get national recognition, who publish books about social media, who flock to social media conferences or get invited to meet with the bishops. What the USCCB needs is a blogroll that includes all the voices of the Church, not just the loudest.