How to explain the Catholic Church’s fascination with the Internet, as evidenced by regular positive pronouncements from the Vatican and the U.S. bishops’ conference, despite the Net’s well-documented downsides?

Its moral hazards are legion. Some independent analysts estimate that about 12 percent of all websites are dedicated to pornography, that 70 percent of all American men aged 18 to 24 view online pornography at least once a month, and that a quarter of all queries on search engines are pornography related.

The precipitous plunge into the Internet of, especially, young people also has raised a host of privacy issues. A recent New York Times Magazine cover story highlighted the uncomfortable fact that “the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever.”

Then there are questions of the rising incidence of identity theft, the inequity of the “digital divide” (even in the United States, only slightly more than half of households have broadband access), and the often-bemoaned coarsening of public discourse enabled by the lack of accountability in anonymous Internet forums.

On a more macro scale, some worry that young people are spending so much time in the “virtual world” that they have stunted their capacity for empathy, sustained conversation and interpersonal relationships.

And in a much discussed article for the Atlantic monthly, Nicholas Carr asked, “Is Google making us stupid?” Media “supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he observed. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

All this has real consequences for the Church, starting with the very basic challenge that a prerequisite to a prayerful encounter with Christ is to be still and “unplugged,” a state Catholic Americans experience less and less frequently unless they make a significant effort.

But instead of obdurate rejection of the “digital continent,” in Pope Benedict XVI’s words, the Church has embraced it as mission territory. “The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more St. Paul’s exclamation: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel,’” the pope said earlier this year.

The very nature of digital communications provides tools for evangelization that were unthinkable a few short decades ago: a wealth of information available to anyone with an Internet connection and new ways of collaboration and communication that overcome the age-old limitations of geography and even language. (For an overview of some of the best of the Catholic web, see OSV Newsweekly’s Catholic Internet Guide, Pages 9-12.)

The vastness of the digital continent also serves as a salutary reminder that the task of evangelization does not fall primarily to clerics. It falls on Catholic laity, who are called first to engage in lifelong formation in their faith through study, prayer and service, and then to be witnesses of that faith to whomever they encounter and wherever they find themselves. Increasingly, that will include the Internet. (At a very basic level, Catholics on the Internet should serve as beacons of charity in a sea of hasty allegations, misinformation and personal attacks.)

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all (digital) nations.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.