In his message for the Catholic Church’s World Communications Day (the 48th iteration of an observance created by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s), Pope Francis elaborated on the theme of “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” The Pope began by observing that despite our ever-“smaller” world, in which “it would seem to be easier for all of us to be neighbours,” we still see “a scandalous gap between the opulence of the wealthy and the utter destitution of the poor” [he was invited to send his message to “Davos man” this year, but perhaps not next]. Francis then put in a hopeful word for social media and internet communication: “media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all….A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive….The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.”
If and when the internet serves as a means toward that end, it is indeed a blessing. I think the blunt headline that “the internet is a gift from God” might have made some think the pope is a naive nitwit, but Francis is well aware that “communication is ultimately a human rather than [simply] technological achievement.” If it is true that the pope has over 11 million Twitter followers but himself follows no one, he may well, however, be missing out on authentic encounters, perhaps not with Justin Bieber but with many older, wiser heads who have lately taken to tweeting. I would add that another recent papal address, given today to the Centro Italiano Femminile, founded in 1944 “to promote the involvement of women in Italy’s post-World War II reconstruction” (hat tip to John Allen of National Catholic Reporter–though soon heading to the Boston Globe), makes me wonder about the limits of what Francis is ready to “receive” in the way of encounter and solidarity with women. The Pope took note of recent “notable mutations” in the “identity and role of the woman, in the family, in society and in the church.” In general, he said “the participation and responsibility of women has grown.” Francis asserted with no apparent sense of irony that “in this process, the discernment of the Magisterium of the popes has been, and is, important.” No comment on that at this time from Simone de Beauvoir, the editors of Ms. magazine, Edith Windsor, Angela Merkel, or any female Episcopal bishops–perhaps because they are women, and women, the pope said, are responsible for “the irradiation of a clime of serenity and harmony.” On a good day, he could be right.