Church Uses Facebook for Sacramental Scrutiny at its Peril

For all Il Papa’s social media encouragement the last few years, the Roman Catholic Church continues to struggle with digital ministry practice, particularly where new media intersects the Church’s medieval sacramental structure. 

In 2011, a new smartphone app aimed to support preparation for and the practice of confession ended up generating more confusion than contrition when a not particularly social design invited people to conclude that absolution was granted by way of the Confession app itself rather than, according to Catholic teaching, through the mediation of the priest.

No wonder Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for World Communications Day earlier this year highlighted silence and listening—the heart of Christian practices of contemplation—by way of encouraging the development of “a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images, and sounds.” And, we might add, actions.

Blog a bit, tweet a bit, share your favorite liturgical recipes on Facebook if you like, the Holy Father seemed to be saying to the Catholic faithful, but once in a while, for the love of God, zip it.

All in all, not a bad idea, but I suspect the silence His Holiness had in mind had nothing to do with the kind of creepy, panoptical Facebook surveillance that led the Rev. Gary LaMoine of Assumption Church in Barnesville, Minnesota to prevent 17-year-old Lennon Cihak from receiving the sacrament of confirmation, a rite of passage usually administered to Catholic teenagers to “perfect the work of baptism” (the first of the sacraments, in Roman Catholic teaching) and mark their maturity as Catholic Christians. Likewise, the boy’s family members have been prevented from receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion at the church.

LaMoine singled out Cihak on the basis of a photo posted on Facebook which showed his support for efforts to defeat a proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would have defined marriage exclusively as between one woman and one man. The amendment was defeated by voters, with no small amount of support from progressive Catholics, who rejected energetic lobbying from the Church hierarchy on behalf of the proposed amendment.

In some Minnesota parishes, for instance, an expensively produced DVD mailed to parishioners in support of the now-failed amendment was returned in collection baskets with “Give to the poor,” “Care for those in need,” or Bible verses such as “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24) written on the packaging.

The DVD give-back was more than a gesture of spiritual or political defiance. It also highlighted the ethic of mutuality and equanimity at the heart of new social communication practices that have emerged from our engagements in digital social media locales like the Facebook page that became the focus of sacramental censure for Cihak and his family. 

The ethical environment of the new media world is early in its evolution, with occasions of cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, and other nefarious digitally-enabled transgressions rightly causing concern. But the overall culture of the internet, as it has morphed into social and mobile forms that have shaped relational practice both on- and offline, has generally retained the democratic, collaborative, transparent, and dialogical ethos of its earliest enthusiasts

No reasonable communicator these days, then, expects a passive mass of consumers to gobble up a magisterially-broadcast message whole, not having the opportunity to share their own, potentially influential, perspectives. Hence those Twitter hashtags at the bottom of your TV screen. We expect interactivity. We assume someone’s listening. We live ready for conversation. 

If you blast out a message—whether it’s a DVD, a tweet, or a smoke signal—and you think that’s the end of it, you haven’t been paying attention for the past several years to how communication works these days. So, perhaps the Pope is right: you ought to be listening more.

Likewise, it would take fairly rigorous monastic seclusion to have missed the memo on transparency as a virtue that is considered essential for ethical living in the digitally-integrated world. In the past decade, the Roman Catholic clergy abuse, News of the World phone-hacking, and Wikileaks scandals have marked new, and only very incompletely explored, ethical territory as we sort out the best ways to balance personal privacy and public safety as these are impacted by our engagement with new media.

But even given difficulties defining necessary and appropriate boundaries of personal, professional, and institutional transparency, we can see the virtue of transparency overall as having a stabilizing ethical function that invites openness and honesty while discouraging secretiveness and duplicity.

When Lennon Cihak felt moved to share his opposition to the proposed Minnesota marriage inequality amendment, he may have been inviting conversation or at least the nodding engagement that the Facebook “like” button offers. Indeed, many of his Facebook friends apparently “liked” or commented on the post without (so far) sacramental repercussions from Fr. LaMoine. 

Yet Cihak had no reason to expect clerical surveillance in a social community where the expression of personal perspectives is rich relational currency. It functions not merely as self-construction or -revelation, but as digital generosity which enriches relationships as it invites further engagement—in the best of cases, even with those of differing perspectives. 

Father James Martin, SJ, for instance, criticized LeMoine’s actions against Cihak and his family on both Facebook and Twitter, tweeting “If you deny the sacraments to those who favor same-sex marriage, you must also deny it to those who fail to forgive.” His Facebook page has spilled over with conversation—some of it heated, but most of it respectful—on the weight of Catholic teachings on sexuality in particular, and full acceptance of all of the Church’s teachings in general, in decisions regarding access to the sacraments. 

There is arguably something sacramental in this dialogical practice, at least some sort of “visible and invisible grace” pointing to the kind of compassion, love, and justice that is at the root of all Christian teaching. Christians, Roman Catholic or otherwise, draw these ethically essential virtues from the model of Jesus Christ. For LeMoine to ignore them at the intersection of his sacerdotal and social media practice is profoundly disturbing to the equilibrium for which Pope Benedict argued. Some might even say “sinful.”


*Elizabeth Drescher’s research on the ethics of digital social media participation is supported by a generous grant from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.