Last week (I mean before "the events of last week"), something on Facebook caught my eye, as it was meant to. A friend had shared it from a page with a generic "Very Catholic" name. I don't have that picture, but this is the same scene from a slightly different angle:
The picture came pre-interpreted, noting that the limbless crucifix was satanic and asking if the viewer could imagine a more blasphemous moment in this disastrous papacy (or words to that effect). When people took the bait and asked what they, as good Catholics, could do, they were invited to contact the page manager by WhatsApp (thereby giving their cellphone number to the organizers of the page).
Right away, I found out that there had been a "blasphemous, satanic" act, all right, but it had happened long before Pope Francis' election. On May 2, 2002 in Bellavista, Colombia, a bomb launched by FARC guerrillas missed the paramilitary fighters it was aimed at and blew up in a church where 300 people had sought protection. 119 people died; another 98 were wounded. The crucifix, as you see, was heavily damaged, too.
When Pope Francis visited Colombia in 2017, he offered a prayer before the restored portion of the crucifix: "grant that we might commit ourselves to restore your Body."
Unfortunately, the many (many!) people who had already shared the full image and its message of outrage against the Pope missed all that context, and the chance to make the Pope's prayer their own. They had been primed by the interpretation to see the picture of the Pope through a hostile lens.
These Catholics fell into a trap. Perhaps they had been "groomed" for something like this for a long time by the organizers of the "Very Catholic" Facebook page until they were ready to accept a venomous interpretation without question even though it was so easy to debunk.
That got me thinking about how many other posts and content creators like this there must be, daily churning out material that is deliberately deceptive, manipulative and provocative and sucking in even brilliant, savvy people like my friend. Not just on Facebook, of course, and not just on Very Catholic sites, but across the spectrum of platforms, and addressing every possible line of thought that serve their purposes.
This speaks to me as a Daughter of St Paul.
It calls me to make reparation for the sins these media creators commit and inspire (because sharing a post like that one can be a sin against the 8th commandment). It calls me to do my small part to alert the people in my circles to the need for particularly critical thinking when using social media: not every source labeled as "Very Catholic" or "Solidly Orthodox" is indeed "Catholic" or "Orthodox" at all (and some people who are not Catholic say some very solidly orthodox things!). It also challenges me to make an examination of my personal use of social media, and to reflect on the need for a certain kind of social media "asceticism" (self-discipline), especially given the temptation our culture fosters in terms of the "need to know what's going on" 24/7. That desperate need to know what's going on, or to have a key to make sense of what is happening, is what allows conspiracy theories (or vile interpretations of innocent and even holy events) to take root.
Our Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, author of The Prodigal You Love and the Memento Mori Lenten Devotional posted a Twitter thread that is just perfect for reflecting on personal media use. I am hoping my community will release it in a format suitable for parish distribution, but in the meantime, here it is, for you and for me:
1. Do I make an effort to inform myself in a way that is open to truth wherever it might be found or do I only read opinions and media with which I always agree?
2. Do I make an effort to find, understand, and read news sources that are objective and follow journalistic standards?
3. Do I regularly reduce complex issues to simplistic, partisan sound bites to avoid engaging honestly and vulnerably with people with whom I disagree?
4. Do I speak of my ideological opponents in a way that dehumanizes, stereotypes, or objectifies them? Do I speak scornfully or dismissively of those with whom I disagree rather than engaging with their ideas?
5. Do I allow feelings of rage, hatred, and bitterness toward those I see as political enemies grow in my heart?
6. Do I cultivate sin in my heart more than I cultivate virtue?
7. Do I read spiritual books as much as or more than I read the news?
8. Do I speak of and focus on political events more than the Church’s liturgical calendar?
9. Am I regularly distracted from my responsibilities by news, pundits, political arguments, and negative feelings toward those with whom I disagree?
10. What are my highest priorities? Where do I direct most of my energies? Do I put living for God first in my life?