The Pope, Lonely on the Internet

Francis says the Internet is undermining people’s relationships, and the media isn't helping.

Gregorio Borgia / AP

Of all the media’s favorite blood sports, media criticism has to rank near the top. No one can fret about digital technology like the journalists who seem surgically attached to their smartphones. But the ranks of self-gazing critics should doff their hats to a new, sharper-tongued peer: the headline-grabbing, Twitter-loving bishop of Rome.

In his new encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis focuses mostly on environmental degradation and how it affects the poor. But over the course of more than 100 pages, he also covers a grab bag of other topics, including abortion, genetic manipulation, and the limits of technological progress. This segues into a surprisingly bitter critique of the failures of the media and the negative effects of online interactions, which he sees as fundamentally related: They both undermine human relationships, he argues.

“When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously,” he writes. Constant information overload distracts people from important issues, he says, including the lives of others. “Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of Internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim,” he writes. This creates “a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”

It’s not a new argument; in fact, The Atlantic has published cover stories on related anxieties. But it’s a little curious that this particular pope felt strongly enough about this topic to include it in his first solo encyclical, which is one of the most formal statements of Catholic teaching that a pope can make. Francis is wildly popular in the press, and his media savvy rivals that of even the most seasoned politicians. He wasn’t the first pope to join Twitter—that was Benedict XVI, his predecessor—but he uses the platform prodigiously, constantly sending prayers and messages to his 6.4 million followers about topics like income inequality and other social injustices. As Greg Burke, one of the pope’s lead PR guys, said in a speech in 2013, “I mean, the Pope scores goals, you know? ... The people are just eating this stuff up.”

“I think the pope himself would realize that there’s something not really full and complete about the kinds of encounters one can get electronically, whether it’s tweeting or working with the media,” said Steve Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. “I think that the pope would recognize that to a certain extent, he’s … falling into the same trap.”

On the other hand, Francis isn’t using social media in the same way as most other people. For as long as it’s existed, the Church has used any available means to spread the word of Christ—through sermons and pamphlets, for example. Arguably, the Internet is the newest and most important megaphone for a religion that depends on evangelization, especially in areas of the world like Sub-Saharan Africa where both Christianity and mobile-phone adoption are growing rapidly. Where it was once up to priests and pilgrims to teach people about the faith, now mobile Internet connections make the teachings of the pope globally accessible, even in remote areas.

The pope seems to recognize this, nodding to the “exciting possibilities” created by digital communication. But the point he’s trying to make, Schneck says, is that “all of these modern media are not value neutral.” The whole encyclical is about the soaring glory of creation, and the human responsibility to care for it. “Devices and displays,” as the pope puts it, don’t allow humans to access “the infinite depth and the infinite height of things. The spiritual dimension can’t fit into that way of thinking,” Schneck says.

Lack of contact with the poor “can lead to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.”

Loneliness. Obsession with technology. Spiritual flatness. These are hefty accusations to lob at the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and in some ways, they may be more connected to Francis’s age than his stature as a theologian. “For the pope’s generation, [the] media was telephones and the telegraph,” said Schneck. “There is a generational difference here.”

Even though the pope makes broad, sweeping warnings about the way people use technology, he reserves one particularly biting criticism for people who make media for a living. “Many professionals, opinion makers, communications media, and centres of power [are] located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems,” he writes. “This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.”

“Tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality”: If there’s ever been a more withering critique of the take, I’ve not come across it. No mainstream newspaper or magazine is obligated to follow the teachings of the Church, but even secular journos might do well to heed the pope’s call for “self-examination.” What perspectives are lost when so many reporters are focused on the powerful populations in a handful of cities? And what would coverage look like if more journalists spent time walking the streets among the poor?