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Bishops peer into cyberspace

NCR Staff

An unprecedented gathering of bishops from North and South America and the Vatican, held here March 26-28, pulsed with enthusiasm for the Internet and other new media technologies -- while also harboring deep reservations about their ethical and cultural implications.

The bishops’ overriding interest was in the potential of the digital media to contribute to what John Paul II has termed the “New Evangelization,” a renewed push to proclaim the gospel in modern culture. Speakers stressed that the Holy Father sees evangelization as the primary mission of the church, a prerequisite to improving the social order or entering into dialogue with other religions.

“The problem of globalization is not just one of social justice. It is also evangelical. In order to live in solidarity with others, we must share who we are,” said Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, in a keynote address.

In that light, several bishops argued that mastery of new communications technologies must be a priority for the church. “It’s essential that those who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ understand the terrain they hope to evangelize. That includes understanding and being thoroughly at home in the world of technology and media. This is the environment in which people today live,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, cohost of the event, in his concluding speech.

At the same time several speakers warned that the Internet, direct-to-home satellite television, wireless telephones and other new technologies can just as easily work to tear down faith and values as build them up. Others argued that the Internet represents a threat to established centers of power -- including the Catholic church itself. And a few voices even suggested that the Internet would force the church to shift its emphasis from proclamation to dialogue.

More than 50 bishops and archbishops, seven cardinals, and a slew of technology experts came to Denver for three days of speeches, panel discussions and high tech interactive presentations. Cohost with Chaput was Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Funding came from an array of individuals, foundations and Denver-area technology companies, some of which put up $10,000 each, as well as a grant from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute.

‘First fruit of synod’

By all accounts, the conference was unique in its international scope as well as its lineup of leading figures from the worlds of media and technology. Chaput described the meeting as a “first fruit of the Synod for America” in its emphasis on North-South solidarity.

One of the more provocative moments came early on, when Esther Dyson -- dubbed by the The New York Times Magazine as “the most powerful woman in the Net-erati” -- suggested that the bishops may find themselves on the receiving end of a broad cultural shift triggered by the information revolution. “It’s going to shake up every established authority in the world, including the Catholic church,” said Dyson, who is widely known for her views on the intersection of technology and culture.

“Where the Catholic church is a missionary church, reaching out to the peasants and the oppressed, the Internet is a very powerful tool to manage the process of making that happen. It gives people access to information and allows them to bypass local authorities. But where the church is established, the Internet lets dissidents communicate. It erodes authority.

“It will challenge you to be more open, more human, more accountable,” Dyson told the prelates. “Almost everything will be public, and that forces people to behave better. It will be more and more difficult to discuss things in corridors and behind closed doors,” she said, tweaking the bishops in attendance for scheduling a closed-door session on how to deal with the press.

In an interview with NCR, Neil Postman -- author of numerous books of media criticism, including Amusing Ourselves to Death -- said he agreed with Dyson on the anti-hierarchial character of the Internet. “If indeed it takes power away from the center and gives it to the margins,” Postman said, “we can anticipate not tomorrow but in a hundred years the Vatican will be far less important in determining proper Catholic liturgy, theology and so on.”

Foley, however, said he was unfazed by this aspect of the new technology. “While in one way it undermines hierarchies in that it undermines absolute control, I think that’s good,” Foley told NCR. “[But] also you have to have ... an expression of some type of authority to indicate what is authentic interpretation of Christian doctrine,” arguing that the bishops would increasingly play this role.

Dyson told NCR that she did not think the Internet lends itself to “evangelization,” to the extent that this word means a primarily one-way exchange. “With all due respect, that concept [evangelization] sounds like propaganda. If you want to evangelize, get on television. If you want to actually communicate and win people, you have to interact with them,” Dyson said. “The notion of saying ‘maybe we should change our policies on this’ [as part of dialogue] may sound kind of crazy, but in some sense that’s what the Internet is all about. It’s going to make the church very much more a living church.”

Chaput told NCR that while Dyson may be right about the two-way nature of the Internet, he believes it nevertheless provides opportunities for proclamation. “I think it’s a useful tool for evangelizing. I know many people roam the Internet looking for truth,” he said. “It’s part of the spiritual journey of many people, and we have to be present there.”

Consensus, not fiat

Br. Mary Aquinas Woodworth, the monk best known for his design of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert Web site, told NCR that he agreed with analysts who believe the Internet promotes decision-making by consensus rather than fiat. “On the Internet, you have to persuade people,” he said. “Arguments from authority carry a lot less weight. But I’m absolutely convinced the church’s teachings are true, and we can attract people,” he said.

For many speakers, it was less the impact on the church than the moral implications of the new technologies that seemed most worrisome. Leo Hindery, president of Tele-Communications International, a major international media company, warned the bishops that the Internet could be “stunningly immoral.” As an example, he pointed to the Jennicam Web site, which features live images of the bedroom of Jenni Ringley, a 21 year-old in Washington. “The camera runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, capturing such private moments as Jennie dressing, sleeping, working, playing with her cat and having sex,” Hindery said.

“[The Internet] has the power to corrupt absolutely, and your congregations need your guidance on how to address the ‘real world’ risks associated with it,” Hindery said. While arguing against government-imposed censorship, Hindery counseled the bishops, “Remind your parishioners that they have the power and the moral responsibility to be the censors for themselves and their families.”

In this context, several figures at the conference argued that the church might want to consider developing ratings systems for Web sites and other Internet content. Given the kind of filtering technology that already exists, the church -- or Catholic entrepreneurs -- could offer parents software that blocks out content the church deems immoral and pulls in sites the church approves. At least one Catholic technology firm is already marketing such software, though without specific church approval.

Dyson identified another moral issue surrounding the Internet -- the capacity of users to send and receive anonymous messages. “Anonymity should be discouraged because it’s not socially healthy,” she said. “But the world is not perfect, and in an imperfect world, sometimes anonymity is necessary. If you don’t allow anonymous postings, you’re driving away what maybe you ought to hear.”

Chaput struck a different note. “From my perspective, anonymity is in some ways the worst aspect of the Internet,” he told NCR. “People can lack the courage of their convictions. People can do mean things. I’m not in favor of establishing laws that limit anonymity, but for human beings to be in real relationship, they have to know each other.”

Issues of justice, especially in an international context, were never far from the surface in Denver. Several communications industry leaders painted a rosy picture of a technological future for Latin America, suggesting that as the cost of satellite transmission comes down, more and more people will be able to afford access to high-speed data. One spoke glowingly of favelas throughout the region dotted with satellite dishes, arguing that “telecommunications offers entertainment on a cost-effective basis. Other entertainment options are often closed to the poor.”

Many bishops, however, were less sanguine. Bishop Julio Teran Dutari of Quito, Ecuador, said that the poor in his diocese have little realistic hope of entering the new digital age. Chaput confronted the industry leaders, saying, “You are all wonderfully creative American businesspeople, but globalization can often be negative for the South. There’s a sense that American companies sometimes exploit the less sophisticated.”

His comments brought a swift response from Dr. Ray Nettleton of Formus, a Denver high tech firm. “We are not there to suck money out of a country and impoverish it further. We want to see it grow,” Nettleton said. “The economics will get better as time goes on. By the end of the decade, everyone on earth will be able to access high-speed data.”

In a videotaped address, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony raised the issue of access. “If the new information technologies are to serve the truth and promote the common good rather than exploit the poor and vulnerable to the benefit of a computer elite, then legislation and regulation to guarantee access to these systems is a pressing demand,” Mahony said. “As I see it, the issue of access is the overarching new justice issue.”

Products and pictures

French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger argued that the seductive nature of First World media images can actually impede efforts to build better societies around the world. “Among the poorest, in the most underprivileged countries, the products and pictures of the rich nations are substituted for the real objects that the material condition of men would require. This means eating, taking care of one’s own health, dealing fairly with one’s children, family and neighbors,” Lustiger said.

“The sad result of this fascination is that, in the less-developed countries, people prefer to allocate their scant financial resources to the purchase of useless gadgets or even harmful drugs, rather than invest in the infrastructures that would allow [them] to improve their difficult conditions of living.”

Postman agreed that the information revolution would not be of much help in solving social problems. “If there are children starving in the world, it’s not because of insufficient information,” he said.

Foley defended the church’s emphasis on expensive media technology in the midst of global poverty. Technology provides “much more intellectual richness to all areas of the continent” that otherwise would not be able to afford it, Foley told NCR. “So I don’t think it’s a distraction from building infrastructure. I think it’s a presence of the church with a religious and spiritual message which is essential in the midst of all the material distractions which they would otherwise have from the media.”

Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Judith Zoebelein, who runs the Vatican’s Web site, pointed to another moral question mark about the Internet -- community. “It’s an incredible poverty to me to see a young person in a chat poring out their emotional intensity to an anonymous presence ... going from electronic relationship to electronic relationship without knowing anyone,” she said in an address to the bishops. “Technology can be used in a contraceptive way that does not allow God to create new life through it.”

Such critical reflection notwithstanding, it was clear that the bishops intend to move aggressively into the new media. The closest thing to a plan came toward the end of the conference in an address delivered by Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, a Colombian who serves as prefect for the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. After warning his brother bishops not to underestimate the enormity of the cultural changes underway -- “It is the end of the world as we know it,” he said -- Castrillón said the church must push ahead. “At the beginning, the fruits of our labor may be meager, but now is the time for action,” he said. The church must be “Christ’s digital lips and feet.”

Castrillón recommended building Web sites, using online documents to promote catechesis, staging teleconferences to teach about the faith, using the Internet to engage in “personal dialogues” with seekers and to offer them “spiritual company,” and finally to make sure the “networks and agencies” of the church have a strong presence in the digital media. It is critical, Castrillón said, for “clerics and catechists to be au courant with technology.”

Castrillón also argued that the Internet and other technologies should be employed inside the church to facilitate closer communication between the pope and the various dioceses and parishes of the world. Castrillón said that this communication should be centralized in his Vatican congregation.

Other speakers argued that with the advent of satellite transmission of broadcast signals, both radio and television represent growth areas for the church. Greg Liptak of Jones Intercable, another Denver-area communications firm, urged the bishops to consider becoming major content providers. He argued that the growth in the number of radio stations, and the coming increase in the number of TV channels because of digital cable, will create a tremendous scramble for new programming in both areas.

Liptak said that rather than investing in radio and TV systems themselves, the bishops should concentrate on producing programming that will be attractive to media providers. “A lot of these technologies are very expensive, and it’s hard for me to envision that the church should invest in infrastructure,” he said. “That’s where the real costs are -- in owning satellite networks and television stations and radio stations.” Jones said the question for the bishops ought to be, “In the evolving media environment, how does the mission of the church match the mission of the provider?”

National Catholic Reporter, April 17, 1998