The New Court of the Gentiles: On the Gospel and the Internet | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | February 18, 2010The New Court of the Gentiles: On the Gospel and the Internet | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | February 18, 2010

"Just as the prophet Isaiah envisioned a house of prayer for all people (56:7), can we not see the web as also offering a space--like the 'Court of the Gentiles' of the Temple of Jerusalem--for those who have not yet come to know God?" -- Benedict XVI, Message for 44th World Communications Day (L'Osservatore Romano, English, January 27, 2010)


Pope Benedict created a stir in recently encouraging priests to know how to effectively use the various facilities that the internet makes available for communicating with others. Though he did not put it this way, we might say that, if so much junk is found on the web, why not put something else on? The fact is that there are good things, bad things, and everything else already on the web. Whether it is used or not is, for the most part, up to the user. We can turn it on; we can turn it off. This remains the basis of our freedom.

It would be an exaggeration—but not too much—to say that the web makes it possible for everyone to communicate with everyone else in the world, both singly and in groups. That is a divine privilege. Of course, no one has either the time or the desire to communicate with everyone about everything. Essentially, it remains a tool, to be used if it helps, avoided if it does not. The mark of maturity is to remain free enough to keep it as a tool under our reasonable and free control. But that freedom does require prior virtue and judgment.

Computers, cell phones, and more advanced systems appearing every day make us aware that easily available knowledge is greatly expanded for us. We can send or receive something from someone in Tokyo or Milano or Buenos Aires in the same time that it takes to send a note to someone next door. Amazing volumes of information with sophisticated reference capacities to find and relate them are available. Recently, I was talking to a lady whose new business, as far as I could understand it, was to make available to fire officials and others a technology whereby, in case need arises, what the inside of a commercial or public building looks like.

The papacy itself is no slouch when it comes to using worldwide media. It became obvious during John Paul II's time that not only was it easy to focus on one man with such an amazing personality, but that, in his own way, he could transcend the media's own philosophy and reach the hearts of people everywhere. Many of Benedict's trips have been international events. Others are widely publicized in certain cities, countries, or continents. Almost every public document of the papacy is available to us with a minimum of difficulty to find it. If someone wants to find some papal item, he can.

Many countries have independent Catholic media outlets or can use those of other jurisdictions. We have EWTN. Muslims have television and web contacts everywhere. Evangelical Protestants have often been pioneers. I have noticed that almost every parish in the country that I have tried to contact for one reason or another has its own web site. Likewise every school has its own easily available system. Many folks have their own personal web site, even Schall! ( It is becoming more and more difficult not to be on the web with Facebook, Twitter, and I do not know what all.

And, of course, Ignatius Insight itself is found on the web with its own location. Anyone can read it if he can find it and it is there even if he cannot. How many find it, I have no idea. But many do. It is worth the effort. It is far better, I suspect, to have thousands and tens of thousand smaller sites throughout the world than to rely on one big one that every one must listen to or read because that is all there is. That verges on controlled media and a totalitarian concept of the media.

In his Message, Benedict wrote: "Priests stand at the threshold of a new era: as new technologies create deeper forms of relationship across greater distances, they are called to respond pastorally by putting the media ever more effectively at the service of the Word." As a teacher, of course, one is quite aware that all of his twenty-year-old students know infinitely more about this technology than he does. They grew up with it. Few priests and laymen under the age of fifty are unfamiliar with new technology, granting that some are more expert than others. The problem in the future is not going to be familiarity with how to use this material. The issue is rather, as it always has been from St. Paul's "faith comes by hearing"—what is out there to be heard.

Thus far, we are relatively free to use the web. We hear that the Chinese often try to control everything that they can so that little contrary to the local political ideology can appear. If one cannot take a printed Bible into Saudi Arabia without causing civil disruption, can one find the same Bible on the web in Arabic? And if so, can he read it there without being accused of violating the law?

It was said that one of the main causes of the downfall of Communism was precisely the availability to sources of information outside party control, largely at the time via the personal computer. This freedom to make available our religion and what we are and hold may become a problem even among us. We have to pay attention to who controls these technologies and their use. Not a few think that religion is the "cause" of our social problems, so why should we let it loose on the web as a matter of public policy?

Much business and education today come through this means. We can buy something from the other side of the world. The web also has its darker side. The attraction and power of pornography is well known. It controls a sizeable amount of what is available to everyone, though technology has devised ways to limit its availability. One of the sources that provide guidance on how the destructive side of the web can be dealt with is the web site of the Ruth Institute.

The pope does not mention in this Message what might be called the more worrisome sides of the web and new technologies. It is said that many terrorist operations have been successful because of cell phones that enabled accurate communication. Many others have been stymied by the same means. It is an illusion to think that those who would use technology for criminal or disordered purposes are necessarily less sophisticated than those who would use it well. Just the opposite is often the case. Most organized crime and much illicit drug business are fully wired into internet.


"All priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, and the communication of his saving grace in the sacraments." Here, Benedict turns to the content of what is on the media. The Church has generally been careful about sacraments and media. For example, we cannot go to confession via the computer to a priest in Australia, even if it does appear face to face on our screen and we hear his voice, or read his words and he ours.

Nor does Mass on television count for Sunday Mass, even though, if one cannot make it for legitimate reasons, one is exempt anyhow. These two sacraments, on reflection, make us aware of the Church's attention to the relation of sacraments to one's unique person and that of the priest in his official role. This immediacy was something that the pope, in another way, emphasized in Deus Caritas Est, when he talked of the need of immediate, not bureaucratic, charity. On the most fundamental things, persons are to be present to persons. If everyone in the world has my e-mail address, I will still be quite lonely if I have no personal contact with actual human persons in real situations of human life in all their range from life to death.

The pope does find a fruitful connection between the central teaching of Christianity and the availability of web services. Jesus is the Word. "Gathered and called by the Word, the Church is the sign and instrument of the communion that God creates with all people, and every priest is called to build up this communion, in Christ and with Christ." The Church is where this presence of Christ is found in the world. That is, in the sacraments and in the teachings handed down to us intact from the Apostles.

Paul told the Romans that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." For this calling, people first need to hear. They need preachers to be sent to them. It is this passage, I think, that stands behind the pope's present Message. How is it that we can by-pass governments, languages, opposition, distance, and time to make this "preaching" and "hearing" available? But suppose we have the greatest speaker in existence saying the greatest of things on some web site or television station. It does not follow that anyone will listen to him, or even recognize him. Nor does it follow that ordinary and unknown speakers and teachers will not also be more effective in practice than any of the so-called great speakers. In Church tradition, the Cure d'Ars, the patron saint of parish priests, has always been a reminder of this mystery.

"The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity" causes us to be aware of Paul's further admonition that we are to "preach the Gospel." Benedict has, I think, spent a good part of his pontificate in addressing himself to the perplexing question of reaching the non-believers, as well as the sinners, with the central teaching of Christianity about meaning in the world and what is beyond it. This Message is an acknowledgment that means for transcending many cultural and political boundaries do exist and can be effective.

"Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources." Benedict even names a few of them: "images, videos, animated features, blogs, web-sites." Basically, if such things can be used for "dialogue, evangelization, and catechesis," well, use them. The purpose is "to help our contemporaries discover the face of Christ." The use of this technology must be well learned. If the competition to follow other religions, philosophies, or ideologies is first class, our response must strive to be first class. Priests need to be "savvy" about what the media can and cannot do, but first they are to be priests who are "close to Christ."

Many contemporaries do not know God, or think it not possible to know Him. "Christ must be experienced in the digital world not simply as an artifact from the past, or a learned theory, but as something concrete, present, and engaging." This happens through the evident belief and sensibleness of those using this means to contact and communicate with others.

Like a book, one never knows who sees a website. On the other hand, something like e-mail is directed to one or more persons as individuals who receive what is sent to them. When anyone receives an e-mail, he is free to open it or simply delete it. We must insist that we keep this freedom. Faith, however it arrives to us, involves our freedom to reject it. But it also involves the freedom to listen to what it presents of itself.

"A pastoral presence in the world of digital communications, precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, non-believers and people of every culture, requires sensitivity to those who do not believe, the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute." We should not ourselves be unaware that these same followers of other religions, non-believers, members of other cultures, the disheartened, all have their own websites and means of communication with us.

We deal with a literate, inter-active world here. One might legitimately say that, besides the "Court of the Gentiles of the Temple of Jerusalem," which the pope cited at the beginning, we also encounter a Babylon out there of competing worldviews, opinions, and religions. For many, we are just another voice in Babylon—but a voice, we hold, that contains the Word, if they would but hear.

Since this is the pontifical "Year of Priests," this Message refers especially to them. The pope does not want priests on the web who are not what they are ordained to be. "Priests must always bear in mind that the ultimate fruitfulness of their ministry comes from Christ himself, encountered and listened to in prayer, proclaimed in preaching and lived witness; and known, loved and celebrated in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation." The priest is not there to simply tell us what he knows, but what he has heard and passed on. He is not the center, as he is too often tempted to be, especially in a digital world.

So the media, in Benedict's view, like all instruments, ultimately should lead us back to the Face of Christ, to the Eucharist and Confession. These are the two encounters that we do not find in their reality on the web. Once we understand why these latter sacraments require our personal presence, we will understand that, in the Church, our life is not conceived as a distant contact with far-off or unseen images of a distant God. Rather, in the Church the reality of our personhood in contact with other persons there before us, all looking to that eternal life in the Word that is promised to us. We are not abstractions. The Word is indeed made "flesh," even through the digital world.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Why Preaching | Peter John Cameron, O.P. | The Introduction to Why Preach: Encountering Christ in God's Word
What a Homily Should Be: Doctrinal, Liturgical, and Spiritual | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
We Are All Called To Be Evangelizers | Fr. C. John McCloskey, III, and Russell Shaw | Introduction to Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith
Can Catholics Be Evangelists? | An interview with Russell Shaw
Hearing and Living the Truth | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers
Evangelization 101: A Short Guide to Sharing the Gospel | Carl E. Olson
Evangelization & Imperialism | Carl E. Olson
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | Joseph Pearce
The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Apologetics | Fr. John R. Cihak
"Be A Catholic Apologist--Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | An Interview with J. Budziszewski

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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