For the Catholic Church, social media is just another means through which its mission of evangelization is accomplished. She’s had plenty of experience doing missionary work, but her stumbles and mixed messaging on social media have left many faithful people confused.
Take for instance, a recent Pew Research Center poll which found that only 31% of self-professed Catholics believe the host is the body and blood of Jesus.
“It represents a massive failure…if on this central matter of our belief and practice there is so much deep misunderstanding,” Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles said.
There are many reasons why this could be happening, but I’d argue that a large part is due to the confusion that many church figures create when they speak online.
As many of us know, posting online is a tricky ordeal that can come with unforeseen consequences. Compounding this fact is the delicate messaging required when talking about controversial subjects such as gay marriage, abortion and the ordination of women. Anyone trying to bring clarity to these subjects by writing a tweet or publishing a Facebook post is trying to keep a candle lit in a tornado. People conflate, twist, confuse or miss a quote out of context. Many times, this is through innocent misunderstanding, but other times with Machiavellian motivations.
Misinformation is rampant and not exclusive to Catholicism. Companies have struggled to walk the line between being platforms of free speech and being arbiters of information. One of the ways they’ve tried to cope with this is by giving out checkmarks — a visible symbol of an account’s legitimacy and influence. Here’s an idea: why can’t the Church come up with a “yellow checkmark” — a visible symbol of an account’s apostolic authority, that way we can know whether a priest, bishop, nun or even lay person has the full weight of the Church’s authority in matters of theology and philosophy.
“You are Peter, and on you I will build my church.”
The Church is not a democracy. The bestowing of church authority was direct and continues to this day in the form of apostolic succession. Only bishops can make declarations of church teaching — not Susan from the parish council. We need a visible way for social media users to know that when Trent Horn tweets about the resurrection, we can be certain that what he’s saying is in line with Church teaching, since he has that golden yellow checkmark, while Susan from the parish council’s rant on her church’s lack of colorful vestments, is not. That way, misinformation is contained, and the integrity of Catholic teaching can be maintained on the web, which is the main source of information for most people.
It’s hard to see this actually happening. It’s not because of the question of who will decide which people get a checkmark (the Vatican), or for reasons of controversy (even if someone were to post something equivocal, it would create such a scandal that their checkmark would be revoked), but because of the enormous bureaucracy that’d be required to bring the leadership to agree to this idea. Such lassitude in organizational effectiveness is reminiscent of a priest who told Napoleon (with a sense of the ironic), “You won’t be able to crush the Church, we [the clergy] have tried for 1800 years and failed.” Golden yellow checkmarks or not, the need for authenticating information online is more dire than ever before.