It was a call not for new teaching but for new ways to deliver the teachings of the Church. That was the gist of the reflection offered at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fall general assembly held last month in Baltimore.
Leading the charge was Bishop Ronald P. Herzog of Alexandria, La., a member of the bishops’ Committee on Communications. In an address he said the Church cannot afford to dismiss social networking as some sort of a passing social fad.
“I am here today to suggest that you should not allow yourselves to be fooled by its appearance. Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not, the Church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation,” Bishop Herzog said, noting the Church had been slow to adapt to new technology. “By the time we decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the Protestant Reformation was well under way.”
He backed up his support for social media by providing plenty of statistics establishing just how effective Facebook or Twitter can be, especially compared to other forms of media.
“There are more than 500 million active users on Facebook. If it were a nation, only India and China would have more citizens. The American Red Cross reported that it raised more than $5 million dollars, $10 at a time, through a text messaging service.
“One out of eight married couples in the United States say they met through social media,” he continued. It took 13 years for television to reach 50 million users. After the iPod was introduced it took only nine months for 1 billion applications to be downloaded.”
The Church has a new evangelization frontier at its fingertips and it’s good to see it using as many digital means as possible to evangelize. Bishop Herzog also told fellow bishops that a Facebook community started by the bishops’ conference in August now has some 25,000 fans.
Earlier this year, the bishops’ conference issued social networking guidelines that do offer some warnings. We continue to hear, see and read about problems associated with this still relatively new and very vast digital frontier.
Recently there have been several stories of online bullying, along with other types of unbecoming and possibly illegal behavior taking place on Facebook and other similar sites.
For example, while there is a high number of Catholic couples who met through social media, this year the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers also found that 81 percent of their members said they have seen an increase in the number of divorce cases using social networking evidence during the past five years.
In a statement on the organization’s website, Marlene Eskind Moses, president of the AAML, said Facebook tops the list with 66 percent of the information coming from that networking site, according to their survey.
And last month a New Jersey pastor of a Protestant church asked all married church officials to delete their Facebook accounts because of marital troubles in his congregation. Other pastors were also interviewed for the same Associated Press story expressing concern over seeing marriage break-ups related to connections made with a previous love interest.
Given the amazing outreach opportunity available to the Church through Facebook, it would be a huge loss not to take advantage of it. Proceed the Church should — because the Church exists to evangelize — but proceed into the Facebook frontier with caution.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of Catholic Connection, produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.