Pope Benedict XVI made no bones about it. 

“There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world,” he wrote in his 2011 World Communication Day Message

That way, he went on to explain, encompasses far more than simply using the media to catechize, apologize or defend the faith. In other words, being “Christian” in the digital world is not just about inserting religious content into different media platforms.  

Rather, Pope Benedict wrote, it’s about how all of us use the media every day.  

It’s about how we Google, surf and tweet. How we chat on Facebook. How we comment on blogs. It’s about the websites we visit, and it’s about the amount of time we spend on those websites. It’s about the relationships we form in the virtual world, and it’s about the relationships we’re charged to nurture in the real world. It’s about being witnesses every day, in every way, regardless of where we’re witnessing: home, school, work or the comment boxes at www.nytimes.com

But how do we do that? How do we Google, surf and tweet like Christians? How do we follow the pope’s instructions? 

Eugene Gan, professor of interactive media communications at Franciscan University of Steubenville, has the answer. 

Or, more accurately, the Catholic Church has the answer, an answer it has given through dozens of encyclicals, apostolic exhortations and other documents on social communications. Gan is just the one who synthesized those documents to make the answer clear. 

Late last fall, a few months before Pope Benedict released his message, Gan published "Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media" (Emmaus Road, $11.95). In the book, he lays out seven “keys,” or principles, that should guide Christians’ forays into the digital world. All drawn explicitly from Church documents on social communications, those seven keys are the “way” of which Pope Benedict speaks. 

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor sat down with Gan to hear more about the “seven keys.” Here’s what we learned. 

Balance 

What it means:  

Two things. First, it means having a balanced view of media, looking at it from all angles so that an accurate understanding of it can emerge. Second, it means using media in a balanced way, not spending inordinate amounts of time texting, tweeting or gaming. 

Why it matters: A balanced view gives us a fuller and more accurate understanding of media — the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s what, for example, can help us understand why Facebook might be a great tool for college campus ministry, but inappropriate for a 12-year-old. Likewise, balanced use ensures that we’re investing our time and energy in the things that matter most — work, prayer, family — and not losing ourselves in the virtual world. 

How to: Don’t unthinkingly reject or accept any form of media without carefully considering its merits. Limit the amount of time each day that you use the media purely for entertainment. At least occasionally, fast from media. Shut off cell phones at dinnertime. Don’t check email over the weekend. Give up Facebook for Lent. 

How the Church says it: A balanced view: Media consumers “must take into consideration the entire situation or circumstances, namely, the persons, place, time and other conditions under which communication takes place and which can affect or totally change its propriety” (Inter Mirifica, No. 4). 

Balanced use: Media consumers “should exercise self-control. They must not allow themselves to be so beguiled by the charms of the media’s products or by the curiosity that these arouse that they neglect urgent duties or simply waste time” (Communio et Progressio, No. 52). 

Attitude awareness 

What it means:  

Cultivating a critical awareness of the messages, both good and bad, in all forms of media.  

Why it matters:The messages that come at us through media affect us, for good and for ill. The more aware we are of the messages and agendas contained within any given media and the more we understand the viewpoint of the media maker, the less susceptible we are to being taken in by harmful messages or using the media in ways that might be unhealthy.  

How to: Employing this key is all about research and observation. First, research the media. Find out who makes it, see if they’ve given interviews that talk about why they do what they do or what they hope to accomplish. Next, examine the media content. Look for what behaviors are encouraged and discouraged, rewarded or mocked. Ask if the media promotes ideas and behaviors that are in accord with the Christian faith. 

How the Church says it: “The means of communication ... enrich men’s minds if their character and function is understood. On the other hand, men who do not sufficiently appreciate their importance, may find their liberty diminished” (Communio et Progressio, No. 64). 

Dignity of the Human person 

What it means: Creating and using media in such a way that it always upholds, reflects, promotes and defends the dignity of the human person, in body and soul. 

Why it matters: Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists to serve the human person, to enlighten us about who we are, to spread information, build human community and to help us love one another more fully and truly. And when it’s not doing that — when it propagates lies about who we are, when it encourages people to treat one another with disrespect, when it objectifies human persons and human bodies, or when it isolates people from the human community, replacing, rather than facilitating, real world relationships — it’s not serving humanity. It’s harming it. 

How to: Never use the Internet to view pornography. Never participate in online communities that treat real people like objects. 

When you’re with another person, only answer the cell phone or respond to text messages when it’s absolutely necessary. 

Don’t post intimate details about relationships or family situations on social-networking sites. Never use technology to spread gossip or to speak ill of others. 

How the Church says it:“The human person and the human community are the end and measure of the use of the media of social communication; communication should be by persons to persons for the integral development of persons” (Ethics in Communication, No. 21). 

Truth-filled 

What it means: In word and action, our use of media should be filled with truth. It should conform to reality and help lead others to a deeper understanding of reality.  

Why it matters: Media connects with people on the level of emotion, and through those emotions it can attract them either to good or evil. Because of that it is a tool that can make truth more compelling and lies more believable. In a way, what’s true for movies, video games or websites is also true about us. Pope Paul VI said that the best teachers of the faith are the best witnesses to the faith. And we can’t be good witnesses if we’re lying on Facebook or copying papers off the Internet. We can’t illuminate truth for others if we can’t tell the truth ourselves. We also can’t know ourselves or give ourselves if we’re not being ourselves. 

How to: Use your Facebook page to post links to interesting articles about the faith and culture that proclaim truth. Don’t avoid difficult discussions about God or morality in online forums. Never misrepresent yourself online. Never use the Internet to pass off another’s work as your own. Exercise the same charity toward others online that you would in person. 

How the Church says it: “Every communication must comply with certain essential requirements and these are sincerity, honesty and truthfulness. Good intentions and a clear conscience do not thereby make a communication sound and reliable. A communication must state the truth” (Communio et Progressio, No. 17).  

Inspires 

What it means: Media is a sign that can help us in our journey to heaven. But to do that, it has to be pointing us in the right way. It has to inspire us toward the good.  

Why it matters: The Church considers media a “gift from God” because of what media can help people accomplish. It can impart a desire for understanding, wisdom and virtue. It can enlighten and raise questions. It can point beyond itself to something greater, something bigger, and show us the way to get there. That’s why media exists. That’s why God gave it to us. But if we’re not using this gift in that way, we’re wasting it or, even worse, abusing it. 

How to: Avoid media that aims to inspire you in the wrong direction, away from God and away from truth. Feature a running list on your blog or Facebook page of songs, books, movies, etc., that are inspiring you to live a holier and happier life. Don’t use media just to “kill time.” 

How the Church says it: “Today it takes no great stretch of the imagination to envisage the earth as an interconnected globe humming with electronic transmissions — a chattering planet nestled in the provident silence of space. The ethical question is whether this is contributing to authentic human development and helping individuals and peoples to be true to their transcendent destiny” (Ethics in Internet, No. 1). 

Skillfully developed 

What it means: The media Catholics develop — blogs, Web pages, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos and more — should conform to the secular media industry’s technical standards of excellence. This applies to parishes, dioceses and apostolates, as well as lay Catholics working professionally or on their own with media. 

Why it matters: Like it or not, packaging matters. It’s what increases credibility and believability, as well as captures and holds people’s attention. If Catholics aren’t using the media effectively, creating websites, blogs, podcasts and videos that are as sophisticated and effective as those found elsewhere in the culture, our message loses credibility, no matter how true it is. 

How to: Do your research. Visit websites designed by those with the money to research what people want and expect. Think: secular news organizations and entertainment magazines. The content may not be great, but the delivery always is. Encourage your parish to have a Web page, as well as a Facebook page. If they need help designing it or monitoring comments, volunteer for the job. And make sure everything is updated regularly. 

How the Church says it:“[Catholic communicators] have a duty in conscience to make themselves competent in the art of social communication in order to be effective in their work. ... People today have grown so used to the entertaining style and skillful presentation of communications by the media that they are intolerant of what is obviously inferior in any public presentation” (Communio et Progressio, Nos. 15, 130). 

Experience-based 

What it means: Media should be related to the human experience, rooted in the realities of the world in which we live. It also should be an experience, an experience that appeals to our senses. 

Why it matters: Media needs to take on familiar flesh and speak a language we know so that we can truly hear and understand the message it presents to us. Its effectiveness depends on how well it reflects our experience of the human condition. Likewise, media’s power is sensory. It touches the senses first, through sights and sounds, in order to shape emotions, thoughts and actions. Harnessing media’s power demands we never forget that. 

How to: Embed YouTube videos on your blog or social-networking page to add the dimension of sensorial experience to ideas you’re discussing. Incorporate stories about yourself and your life into your blog, even if the topic is faith or politics. Let yourself be known through the media that you use, so that those reading the media have a sense of you and your credibility. 

How the Church says it: “While he was on earth Christ revealed himself as the Perfect Communicator. Through his ‘incarnation,’ he utterly identified himself with those who were to receive his communication, and he gave his message not only in words but in the whole manner of his life. He spoke from within, that is to say, from out of the press of his people. He preached the divine message without fear or compromise. He adjusted to his people’s way of talking and to their patterns of thought. And he spoke out of the predicament of their time” (Communio et Progressio, No. 11).

Papal Wisdom (sidebar)

Selections from Pope Benedict’s Message for the 45th World Communications Day 

“The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my ‘neighbor’ in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.” 

“In the digital age too, everyone is confronted by the need for authenticity and reflection. Besides, the dynamic inherent in the social networks demonstrates that a person is always involved in what he or she communicates. When people exchange information, they are already sharing themselves, their view of the world, their hopes, their ideals. It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others. To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently ... preferences and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. ... Christians are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (see 1 Pt 3:15).” 

“The task of witnessing to the Gospel in the digital era calls for everyone to be particularly attentive to the aspects of that message which can challenge some of the ways of thinking typical of the Web. First of all, we must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its ‘popularity’ or from the amount of attention it receives. We must make it known in its integrity. ... It must become daily nourishment and not a fleeting attraction. The truth of the Gospel is not something to be consumed or used superficially; rather it is a gift that calls for a free response. Even when it is proclaimed in the virtual space of the Web, the Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives. Direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of the faith!” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. 

Read insights from Catholic media leaders here