Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Lay Apostolate and the web

'Lay Apostolate' series
Part 1: Where next?
Part 2: What do we need?
Part 3: The Lay Apostolate: a proposal
Part 4: Why not existing groups?
Part 5: The Lay Apostolate and the Internet

This is, I think, the last of my posts in this series. I have argued that, however admirable they have been and in some cases still are, existing groups for the Catholic laity, groups intended to add some value-added to weekly attendance at Mass, don't supply a particular thing - sanctification of members based on the liturgy - in a particular way - face to face meetings, but not too frequently. This is what the Confraternity of St Gregory sets out to do.

In this post I deal with the challenge of the internet and the social media. This is, after all, the big thing which has happened in the last couple of decades. And it is true that Catholics have done their best to use these to counter the isolation caused by the collapse of civil society. We may not know our neighbours, we may never see our fellow parishioners except for an hour a week during Mass, but we can engage in friendly chats with a bloke from Minnesota who shares our interest in fanons.

We have to come to some kind of view about how the internet fits into the range of things we do, or could do, as Catholics seeking to build up the Body of Christ. On the one hand, blogs and other social media make up to some extent for the lack of community on the ground; on the other hand, by doing so they have contributed to the further erosion of that community. For example, it is very difficult to get people to attend talks or buy magazines and journals, and the plausible consensus links this to the existence of unlimited (though generally shallow) information and commentary on the internet. Why pay for what you can get for free?

The overwhelming fact is that the internet can't provide us with face-to-face relationships. In some ways it undermines them, and in some ways it facilitates them, but it doesn't render them unnecessary. And while it may appear less necessary for us to meet each other if we read each other's blogs, it may actually be more necessary. Because blogs, and the social media in general, create (with or without our deliberately willing it) a public image of ourselves which can diverge from reality. And relationships built up on the basis of such public personae don't really reach us or sustain us.

Here's a slightly horrifying account of what romantic relationships can be like when facilitated by text-messaging and Facebook. It is true of blogging too. What am I really like, for example? Probably at least six inches taller than you imagine, for example, if you've never met me, and tubbier.

But above all we bloggers shouldn't fall into the assumption that the Catholic Church consists only of bloggers. What about everyone else? Most readers don't even comment. (Imagine that!) They are engaged in the phenomenon of social media as onlookers rather than participants. But I'm not complaining. Where there is a higher level of engagement, as with discussion forums, in my experience misunderstanding is more likely than a meeting of minds.

We need to drag ourselves away from blogs, Facebook, and twitter, long enough to meet our fellow Catholics in the flesh, to pray with them, to make pilgrimage together, to put their words (or silence) into the context of their faces and their body-language. If you want to look at it this way round, this will enormously enrich your on-line experience. But that's a crazy way of looking at it: we need to see each other because that is a fundamental human need, and the internet is offering us only an ersatz substitute.

The internet is fantastic for spreading information; it is good at encouraging debate; it is ok at keeping people in touch with each other; it is not terribly good at forming and maintaining relationships. But it is also mesmerising. The Confraternity's commitment to at least quarterly outings to the real world, to a real community, may be exactly what we need to keep sane.
Audience at the LMS One-Day Conference


  1. You aren't tubby! But you are extremely large.

    1. That did make me giggle!
      One of the reasons that this is needed is that women are no longer at home. I used to pop round to mothers' houses for coffee when the children were small. But then everyone else's children went to school (mine didn't!) and the mothers went to work (I didn't), so I don't see them anymore.