A spiritual reflection on the pope’s message for World Communications Day 2018

By Estella Young, OP

The Holy Father’s decision to tackle “fake news” for this year’s World Communications Day (WCD) on May 13 comes at a time when governments worldwide are grappling with the abuse of social media for political gain and to inflame racial and religious sentiments.

The Catholic Church is no exception, with its members vulnerable to distorted reporting about the Church, her members, and her teachings.

Why World Communications Day?

Realising that technological advances had fundamentally changed the way people communicate and access information, Vatican II called for an annual celebration to remind Catholics to use social communications for the salvation of souls. It is celebrated the Sunday before Pentecost, the feast marking the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the start of their ministry to all mankind.

Fifty-two years after the first WCD, the evil fruits have grown more poisonous: the deliberate spreading of lies; the slanting of news to provoke strong emotions; and the withdrawal of people into comfortable “echo chambers” where they hear only what pleases them.

People fall prey to falsehoods, sensationalism and conspiracy theories because they lack the skills to sift fact from fiction, to identify media bias, and to find authoritative sources.

The insidious power of “fake news”

Although some of these “evil fruit” seem uniquely modern, Pope Francis traces their roots to the Garden of Eden. The serpent, he writes, created the first “fake news” by disguising evil as good, provoking the Fall and the tragic inheritance of human sin.

The serpent appealed to Adam and Eve’s greed for knowledge and power, and he appeals to us in the same way today.

Our greed for social influence encourages us to share falsehoods which excite our emotions, regardless of whether they are good or true. Our greed for fame provokes us to bend the truth and lower our moral standards to
create more attractive social media posts, because all we care about is how many people “like” and “share” them.

We end up enslaved to superficial and self-centred relationships; to insecurity and low self-esteem; to an obsession with external appearances; and – worst of all – to the drowning out of that interior silence where we communicate with our God.

As Pope Francis puts it: “Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life.” When we are addicted to the emotional highs of sensationalised and falsified news, we can no longer appreciate the truth, goodness and beauty of the real world that God created.

Why truth matters

All human societies need truth so that people can find a common basis for interaction. But for Christians, truth goes far deeper:

• God tells us that He is the God of Truth (Is 65:16).
• Jesus says that He is the Truth (Jn 14:6), and that He has come to testify to the Truth (Jn 18:37).
• The Holy Spirit, which descends at Pentecost, is the Spirit of Truth (Jn 16:13). Each Person of the Holy Trinity embodies Truth itself.

Clearly, truth is more than just accuracy. Truth characterises our very relationship with God. Pope Francis writes that the Bible uses the word “truth” to denote trustworthiness: “Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall … The only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – is the living God … We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us. This alone can liberate us: ‘The truth will set you free.’”

And since truth characterises our relationship with God, it also characterises our relationship with each other. We communicate to build human community. Pope Francis writes that “We can recognise the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.” A factually correct statement becomes untruth when it is used to hurt another person or obscure the voice of God.

He does not mean that Catholics should avoid discussing painful or controversial issues. But we are called to do so in a way which is informed by the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Only then do we build a communion of peace in our world. Only then do we become Christ to others. 

Estella Young is a lay member of the Dominican Order in Singapore.

Catholic journalists, communication and media professionals are invited to attend the WCD Mass held on Sunday, May 13, 10.30 am, at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. The rosary will be recited at 9.45 am for the intentions of WCD. To learn more about how you can be a defender for truth, visit www.fakenews.catholic.sg.