Our guest blogger today is Sister Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, with some cogent commentary on Bishop Ronald Herzog's recent presentation to the USCCB's 2010 Fall General Assembly. You can also read the full text of Bishop Herzog's talk, titled Social Media: Friend or Foe, Google or Hornswoggle?
Sr. Margaret's commentary:
Nov. 15, 2010
On Nov. 15, 2010, Bishop Ronald Herzog, chairman of the USCCB Communication Committee, delivered a vital message—and monumental challenge—to his brother bishops at their Fall General Assembly, namely, to embrace social media and the ensuing culture in order to evangelize today’s world. Among other things, the bishop made a statement that raises a question: “The Church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way.”
Taken out of context, this statement suggests that all we have to do to bring young people—and lots of other people—into the Church is to pour the fine old wine of Jesus’ Gospel into new cultural wineskins. But the current situation does call for new teaching! In fact, Jesus described his message this way (Mt. 9:14-17), not vis-à-vis Judaism, but as an indication of the change of heart needed to understand it. Otherwise—to apply this Word to the issue under consideration here—we run the risk of losing both wine and skins, message and culture.
In fact, this is exactly what is happening. With data and concrete examples, Bishop Herzog makes that clear. There is a major disconnect between the two; the message is “dying” in the sense that it does not carry out the purpose it is sent for (cf. Is. 55:11), and the culture is impoverished, “divorced” from its spiritual roots, from what makes it truly human.
Certainly,Revelation remains intact, but in nuance, emphasis, and their very paradigms,the teachings need to change.
As a case in point, let's look at the egalitarianism that Bishop Herzog refers to. The singular status and role of the laity in the life of the Church, envisioned by people like Alberione, Escriva, and Lubich and mandated by the Second Vatican Council, has been gaining momentum over the past several decades, but it has required a watershed to turn it into a revolution. As nothing else before, the clergy sex abuse scandal and now the phenomenon of social media are each in their own way, calling upon laity to work side-by-side with clergy and religious in the Church's evangelizing efforts, equal in dignity and holiness.
This praxis has already begun leading to deeper theological reflection, the best of it building on the theology of the past several decades and taking new social realities into account. (I think, for example, of von Balthasar.) It has already been casting about for new language, new vocabulary; the old is no longer sufficient. New content generates new language, but new language also generates new content.
Social media give lay Catholics a new platform for asserting and exercising their baptismal right to evangelize sometimes on their own initiative, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Certainly union with their pastors is essential, as it is for all members of the Church, but they will not necessarily wait for direction or simply parrot what their pastors say. Nor should they, as long as ecclesial unity in essentials is safeguarded. Neither should their media initiatives take second place to any that religious or clergy carry out, or be limited only to what they might have to say to other laypersons.
This situation will bring about its own pastoral challenges, not the least of which are the urgent need for an extensive and practical faith formation and the need to determine anew who speaks for the Church and how. As the Church's dialogue with culture changes, so will her spokespersons need reconfiguring.
In reporting on a survey of diocesan communication directors, Bishop Herzog stated that they do not expect their bishops to learn Facebook or Twitter. The problem with this is that their bosses will be unable to offer the knowledgeable support that such staff do expect, because they will be unable to teach and lead within the new public relations paradigm set by social media.
Nowhere in Bishop Herzog's insights did I read that there would be no new teaching. In fact, I read the opposite. In support of this, he cited a one-time revolutionary teaching that “common folk should read the Bible.” Clearly, this issue of communicating one's faith in the Person of Christ within the digitally mastered culture is a matter of more than simple re-packaging. It is new wine.