A Digital Etiquette – A Catholic Guide for Using Social Media

March 30, 2022

We live in a divided world. This reality applies both to the Church and the State. But as Catholics we know that it shouldn’t be this way. The very opening of the Second Vatican Council begins with a statement that is completely contrary to our present reality of a divided Church:

“Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission” (LG #1).

We believe that the Church is an “instrument” of “the unity of the whole human race,” but Catholic Twitter would seem to profess otherwise. Catholic social media as a whole can often seem like a hotbed of division, calumny, and rancor. This state of affairs shouldn’t be surprising given the amount of heretical ideas and schismatic solutions floating around ecclesiastical spheres. But what then can be done? Should we censor ourselves then and only speak about non-divisive issues? Not if we are going to be faithful to the Truth of the Gospel. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Our Lord says:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” (10:34-36).

Well then, if division is to be expected, then maybe keyboard warriors on Twitter are vindicated for turning the sword on potential heretics with all the vitriol they can muster. But that would go against both Vatican II’s claim that the Church is an instrument of unity and Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 that the Church might be one.

Where does that leave us then? Obviously, we need to strike a balance between intentionally causing division, or being unnecessarily caustic in our behavior, and simply ignoring or tip-toeing around potentially divisive issues, even important ones like schism and heresy.

I would like to propose a digital etiquette as a solution. Now the original idea of etiquette was not to censor people or to subject people to useless formalities to preserve class distinctions. That version of etiquette was a product of the Enlightenment. This idea was implicit in all civilizations and was about outlining the structure of civilized behavior. The Encyclopedia Britannica cites a translation of Beowulf which describes Queen Wealthow being “mindful of etiquette” by bearing a chalice to the King first and then to the courtiers. This is a perfect example of a conventional practice that is followed, not necessarily for moral purposes, but to dignify guests and to demonstrate the virtue of hospitality. There is a connection between etiquette and the traditional understanding of virtue. Jane Austen’s literature also explores the traditional connection between etiquette and virtue, which she identifies as affability. Etiquette, then, can roughly be defined as conventional norms for social behavior that are normally about moral principles, but are designed to improve the collective quality of life and to elevate civilized interactions.

Twitter and social media in general are not usually seen as platforms that display civilized discussion and insightful conversation, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Catholics, our interaction with the world should be exemplary. We should be a light in the darkness, a city on the hill (Mt 5:14). That applies to all areas of life, including social media. Our online presence should be radically distinct from the swathes of Twitter mobs that plague the internet. That is why developing a digital etiquette is of paramount importance. None of the measures that I outline here are new or original, and many people are already practicing them, but they need to enter our collective consciousness. We also should start ignoring people who clearly step outside of them: not to be elitist, but to provide a tangible means to curtail bad behavior. These measures are quite general, require interpretation, and are not designed to be a specific code of ethics. But, if followed, they could make substantial progress towards an authentic Catholic presence on social media.

1. Recognize that the internet is not a natural ally to the Church.

My former professor, Matthew Tan, has written extensively about the disembodied reality of the internet. Going on the internet is, to some extent, like entering the matrix. We are presented with an infinitely manipulable, manufactured interface, which is underpinned by binary code and which may or may not correspond with reality. It should be no surprise that, with these contingencies, the majority of transgender people are heavy internet users.

The Church, in contrast, is an implicitly incarnate reality. Our membership in the Church is contingent upon the flesh that Our Lord took upon Himself and the blood that He spilt in a particular time and place in history. That does not mean that the internet is incompatible with the message of Catholicism (in fact, it is one of the biggest means of conversion for Gen Zers), but we need to keep that reality in mind when engaging people and realize that no one can ever get a full picture of the Faith outside of a physical encounter with it. Social media can also never replace face-to-face human interaction because the Church is a community of believers and a tangible body: the Body of Christ here on earth.

2. Have realistic expectations with interactions on social media.

Due to the fragmentary and bite-sized nature of social media, changing a person’s mind on any important issue is very unlikely, especially ones that coincide with deeply held beliefs. For instance, it’s highly unlikely at this stage of the pandemic that anyone will change their mind about the coronavirus or vaccines through a Facebook post or a tweet. This is a simple matter of prudence. Pick your battles.

3. Do not hide behind anonymity.

Oftentimes, behavior on social media is influenced by anonymity. This is common knowledge. Don’t be a coward and say something to a person that you wouldn’t say to their face. St. Irenaeus once recounted how the Gnostic heretic Marcion met St. Polycarp and asked him, “Do you know me?” To which the saint responded, “I do know you, the first-born of Satan” (Adv. Hae. 3.3). Polycarp’s action was seen as saintly because Marcion was a manifest, unrepentant heretic who was actively sowing division by teaching that the God of the Old Testament was another evil god, and because Polycarp had the courage to denounce him in person. St. Polycarp was also a bishop and not a hypothetical Twitter user called RadTradDad with a profile picture of the Punisher saying “Bergoglio is a demon.” Don’t be that guy, and ignore him if you see him.

4. Use language well to elevate the conversation.

Everyone knows that social media has a tendency to corrupt language. We need to resist this trend. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche stated, “I fear we shall never be rid of God, so long as we still believe in grammar” (p. 22). The rationale here is that if we collectively submit to rules that govern our communication we witness to a higher power beyond state authority. George Orwell explored this theme in 1984 with the concept of “Newspeak.” Joseph Pieper also discusses a similar theme in Abuse of Language: Abuse of Power. This topic literally spans books, so, to be brief: Language matters. That doesn’t mean that we can’t occasionally use dumb emoticons or memes, but if we are losing our literacy, which we definitely are, that should be a major cause for concern.

But beyond grammar, we should employ good rhetorical skills when engaging contrary positions, avoiding fallacies, ad hominem attacks, and vulgar language. That doesn’t mean that we should be dry and humorless. Humor has always been part of the arsenal of good Catholic debate, particularly irony. But vulgarity has a tendency to derail good arguments. It is of the world and does not in any sense elevate us towards God. But the occasional use of a vulgar image to prove a point can be effective if it is used in an elevated way. Even the Church Fathers would infrequently use this tactic.

St. Irenaeus explained (and ridiculed) the Gnostic belief in Achamoth—the unfortunate mother of all material existence, who created the waters of the earth with her tears—in this way:

I feel somewhat inclined myself to contribute a few hints towards the development of their system. For when I perceive that waters are in part fresh, such as fountains, rivers, showers, and so on, and in part salt; such as those in the sea, I reflect with myself that all such waters cannot be derived from her tears, inasmuch as these are of a saline quality only. It is clear, therefore, that the waters which are salt are alone those which are derived from her tears. But it is probable that she, in her intense agony and perplexity, was covered with perspiration. And hence, following out their notion, we may conceive that fountains and rivers, and all the fresh water in the world, are due to this source. For it is difficult, since we know that all tears are of the same quality, to believe that waters both salt and fresh proceeded from them. The more plausible supposition is that some are from her tears, and some from her perspiration. And since there are also in the world certain waters which are hot and acrid in their nature, you must be left to guess their origin, how and whence. (Adv. Hae. 1.3)

It is a great, and hilarious, example of how vulgar imagery can be used in a civilized and delicate way to make an insightful point in a discussion.

5. Never post or read anything if it will make you lose your peace.

According to Fr. Jacques Phillipe, searching for and maintaining peace is the central struggle of the spiritual life. That means we shouldn’t use social media in any way that causes us to lose our peace. And if this proves impossible, don’t use it at all. No one needs social media, and we need to govern its use prudentially against all of our responsibilities in life. The first responsibility of any believer is the pursuit of personal sanctification. Which means that our social media use needs to be in line with that ultimate goal. Anything that we read, or any discussion that causes us to be anxious or distracts us from our present duty needs to be avoided. This is the hardest point to implement by far. It is also, by far, the most important, both for our individual, spiritual good and for the good of creating an authentic Catholic presence on social media. That is because one hundred percent of the toxic atmosphere on Catholic Twitter is the result of people posting out of fear and anxiety or responding angrily to posts that they shouldn’t be reading.

No platform is incompatible with Catholicism. But they all require sanctification. And there can be no sanctification without an intention to grow in personal holiness.

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Jonathan Quist

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