By Eric Sammons
Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His upcoming book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.
A serious, even existential, threat to Catholicism looms on the horizon, and it’s hidden all around us. It could very well decimate the ranks of the Church, and perhaps is already doing so. It is insidiously dangerous because it upends the very foundations of Catholicism.
I’m not talking about the abuse crisis, or the lack of episcopal courage, or rampant heresy, although all those threats are dire indeed. But the Church has faced those types of challenges in the past and overcome them, albeit at times with significant losses.
I’m talking about a truly new threat: world virtualization.
The world has gone virtual. Though this trend’s been developing for decades, the COVID-19-related shutdowns finalized the process. We communicate easily with each other through texts, social media, and Zoom chats. Almost any product we buy can be delivered to our doorstep. We now even “attend” Mass online! For many (most?) of us, our lives happen more online than offline.
In the eyes of many, world virtualization is considered an unmitigated good. It allows greater connection, greater leisure, and greater access to information than ever before. There’s just one problem: it’s antithetical to living a well-balanced Catholic life. I would even argue that it breaks Catholicism.
If there is one word that sums up Catholicism, it’s “incarnational.” Our faith is founded on the incarnation—God became man. By becoming part of the physical world, God lifted the physical world to Him. Just as importantly, He made the physical world the means by which we reach Him. In other words, Catholicism is a very physical religion. It requires “stuff” in order to work: bread, water, physical contact, etc. Without the Sacraments (and sacramentals), Catholicism is reduced to a completely different—and false—religion.
Now before I continue, let me address the exceptions I can already hear. What about the hermit, or the Catholic prisoner of conscience put in solitary confinement? Am I saying that they are unable to practice Catholicism because they lack the physical “stuff”?
Of course not. But the very extreme nature of their lives points to the fact that they are truly exceptions, not the rule. An underlying truth about humankind is that God created us as physical beings and that “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18): God made us to be with each other. He also made the physical world to be the ladder by which we ascend to Him.
The digital world we are creating, however, essentially rejects direct human contact and interaction with the physical world. Even pre-COVID we had the phenomenon of smartphone-zombies—countless people staring at their screens and endlessly scrolling through their feeds throughout each day. But the COVID-19 restrictions have accelerated our descent into virtual-land, and many are now so fearful of disease that they don’t even want to be in physical proximity to others. This poses a serious problem for a Church based on physicality. Offering live-streaming Masses and virtual conferences only exacerbates the problem.
How should Catholics respond to this disturbing trend? By promoting incarnational, intentional living.
First, Catholics must be incarnational. We need to rediscover the superiority of the physical over the virtual. Recently I saw an advertisement for a “virtual theology of the body conference.” Talk about irony. If that doesn’t make one pause, I don’t know what will. After all, the theology of the body is supposed to remind us of the importance of our physical bodies and how they aren’t just the soul’s extra appendage, but an essential part of who we are. So let’s discuss this at a disembodied conference!
And of course, that pales next to the live-streamed Mass. I realize that many parishes are doing the best they can to adapt to extreme circumstances. In too many cases, however, many priests—and their parishioners—have taken a bit too much to the live-streamed Mass.
At best, such a Mass is a poor substitute for one in which members of the Body of Christ can actually be present at the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross (I don’t think the Apostle John would have Zoomed into Calvary even if that were an option in his day, although Judas might have). At worst, it sends a signal that the physical world—including the physical world of the Sacraments—is secondary and “non-essential.”
Man is both like and unlike the angels and the animal kingdom. We are a body-spirit hybrid, and it’s foundational to our being that the two work together. Unlike so many heresies old and new, we do not reject the physical aspect of our nature, but we understand that the physical enhances—or diminishes—our spiritual life. To interact with other Catholics in “real” life, to actually attend Mass and eat the Host, to speak to the priest in person in the Confessional—these are all physical activities that help lead us to God.
Second, as Catholics we must live more intentionally. Whenever a critique of the digital world is brought up, accusations of “going Amish” are thrown out. Rather than fight those accusations, I’m going to lean into them. It’s a common misconception that the Amish reject technology. They don’t reject technology, they make intentional decisions as a community as to whether a new technology is, on the whole, beneficial or not. And while we as Catholics don’t have to agree with their final decisions, we should embrace this intentional attitude.
Now, I’m no Luddite (another common epithet casually tossed out). I was deeply involved in the Dot-Com boom of the late 1990s as the first employee of one of the first web hosting companies and a co-founder of one of the first domain registrars. (My continued technology appreciation can be seen in my embrace of cryptocurrencies.) I’m currently the editor of an internet-only magazine, which the majority of readers access on their smartphones. But my long relationship with technology has led me to see that it’s not an either/or decision: either we reject all modern technology or we uncritically accept each latest technology the moment it rolls out.
Instead, we should take time to reflect on whether a new technology—and how we use that technology—helps lead us closer or further away from intimate union with Christ and a building up of his body here on earth. We should also ask if the new technology leads to a more disembodied, and therefore less incarnational, existence. Yes, modern communication methods have benefited society in many ways. Yet they have come at a cost.
One of the primary prices we’ve paid is the loss of direct connection. Instead of spending time chatting on the porch—or even on the phone—with a friend, we send quick, scattershot updates to dozens of acquaintances. We’ve seen a precipitous drop in religious affiliation in this century, which directly coincides with a tremendous increase in virtual “communities”—and the two trends may be related. Blithely ignoring the costs of modern technologies may spell suicide for Catholicism.
And of course, there is the obvious problem of being subject to Big Tech, which is becoming increasingly anti-Catholic.
Practically speaking, I think this should lead us to rethink two primary aspects of modern life: physical gatherings and the use of smartphones/social media. First, we must resist the urge to “go virtual” in our interactions with others. Find ways to physically meet with extended family, friends, and fellow parishioners. I was asked recently what Catholic parents can do to keep their kids Catholic, and my first thought was for them to spend time—real time, not virtual time—with other Catholic families. These relationships build an appreciation for the Real, which leads to a deeper appreciation for the Source of all Reality.
Second, we must seriously and urgently rethink our relationship with social media, particularly how we use it on smartphones, which are perpetually attached to us. How many of us can barely find time for prayer, but spend several hours a day scrolling through social media feeds on our smartphones? Even if Big Tech were supportive of Catholic values, the average time spent on their products far exceeds their value for most of us. Instead of scrolling through Facebook, we need to spend more time seeking the Face of God in His Book, the Sacred Scriptures.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we must dump all social media (although it might mean that for some). Our disordered relationship with social media could be reordered by simply removing it from our smartphones and only using it on our desktop computers. Perhaps we even consider a (gasp!) dumbphone. Steps like these help us control our usage instead of the other way around.
Incarnational, intentional living is not an easy path; in fact, most everything in our society today is set up to oppose embracing it. However, Catholics have always been called to be countercultural, and following this seldom-trodden path could be a means to living an authentically Catholic life in a culture that desperately needs that witness.