Social justice and social media: A Roman Catholic perspective

Posted Sep 17, 2013 | New Media Project


By Kathryn Reklis

This is the sixth in a seven-week series on Social justice and social media.

Kathryn ReklisAs this series has highlighted, a commitment to “social justice” is shared by Christian denominations (and many others!) of almost every stripe these days, but Catholics have a special fondness for the phrase because its modern use was coined by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli, writing against the social ills caused by the industrial revolution. Pope Leo XIII was deeply influenced by Tagarelli and solidified social justice at the core of Catholic social teaching in his 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes).

The emphasis on social justice within Catholicism in particular represented a new articulation of the Roman Catholic Church’s self-understanding in the modern world. By the late nineteenth century, the papacy was finally reckoning with the full loss of its political power, which had been waning since long before the Protestant Reformations. This loss of a certain kind of power and influence led to another form of influence in stronger, more articulate, often counter-cultural moral and social teachings. Leo XIII’s call for labor unions and his condemnation of unrestricted capitalism were not spoken to woo or coerce powerful political leaders, but to offer a Catholic-based vision of a just society and to teach the responsibility of all Catholics to work to realize such a vision. Not political coersion but moral suasion would be the bedrock of the church’s influence.

We can see this legacy in action today, and especially thanks to social media, in the ministry of Pope Francis. Like his nineteenth-century Jesuit predecessor, Tagarelli, Frances has been outspoken on the social justice teachings of the Roman church: the preferential option for the poor, the immorality of unchecked capitalism, the need to promote the common good as the driving principle of society (as opposed, say, to wealth accumulation), and, most recently, the categorical rejection of military action in Syria. And new media have played a major role in spreading this message.

I love seeing representations of Catholic social teaching flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds. The viral nature of social media (the proliferation of links and common sharing) is largely responsible for making visible a richer fabric of Catholic teaching than many might have been aware existed. But I do have to wonder if this Catholic presence in social media is what I called in another context, “being in but not of new media.”

As Jim Rice quipped to me in conversation one day: the Pope has three million followers, but follows no one. If part of the revolution of new media is a non-hierarchical, horizonal, user-generated network of information, news, opinion, and sharing, isn’t the Catholic Church the antithesis of this mentality? Is the Catholic Church, as Jim also wrote in his post on Anabaptism for this series, the ultimate “magisterial” tradition? The whole ecclesial structure is built on a top down flow. Sure, I like most of what is flowing down right now, but isn’t that whole metaphor at odds with the ethos of social media? How does Catholic social justice meet the world of new media?

I find the most provocative and salutary uses of social and new media in the proliferation of Catholic voices those media make audible. From individual writers like Jamie Manson, Michael O’Loughlin, and James Martin, to collective sites like Catholic Moral Theology, or even more humorous Tumblrs like Mary Is My Home Girl and the humorous and provocative blog Good Catholic Dykes, you can’t spend much time in the new media sphere without realizing that Catholicism might be a hierarchical institution, but under its sprawling institutional umbrella is shade enough to nurture many, many expressions of faithfulness.

“Celebrating diversity” is not the sum total of social justice. Indeed, as Lerone eloquently reminded us in his recent post, social media can convince us that the action of “liking” a post is the same as self-sacrificial, sustained activism. Not to mention, many of us find the voices we prefer to hear most and amplify them, more than we engage voices that might really challenge our own beliefs (it is not hard to see the “liberal” bias in many of the sites I’ve highlighted).

On the other hand, as Verity’s introductory post suggests, the connections fostered through social media sharing are not all “weak links”—our social behaviors online can lead to real change. And Monica proposes a powerful vision for social activism when she imagines the social media force of #BlackTwitter married to the sustained communal engagements of African-American churches.

Something similar is at work in the diversity of Catholic voices available in the social media sphere. They represent different incarnations of Catholics wrestling with the teachings of the church in prayerful consultation with our native gifts of reason and deliberation (another strong Catholic emphasis). If the social teachings of the church call for each Catholic to realize the vision of social justice in the world, access through social media to examples of Catholics living into their faith is a witness to the manifold ways faithfulness to church teaching can be lived in the world today. Recognizing these voices as legitimate expressions of Catholicism—alongside the Pope’s Twitter feed—is also a way to call the church to live into its own teachings of justice for all. 

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University, and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

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