The Vatican has declared existing and emerging digital technologies as gifts from God to humanity; calling on all Catholics to ensure that the benefits they offer are put to service (Pope Benedict XVI
, 2009). How do we answer the Vatican’s call within the context of Catholic education? In a world transformed by digital innovation, Catholic educators need to be “bold enough to acknowledge and embrace [our digital landscape] as a new missionary territory for the twenty-first century” (Zukowski
, 2009, p.156). It is imperative that twenty-first century pedagogy is built into Catholic education’s visioning, and that the transformational power of digital technologies is leveraged to enrich our mission. This will require a readiness and willingness on the part of Catholic educators to stretch their pedagogy by stepping outside of traditional approaches to serve our youth, and empower them to enter a wide world of possibility within a digital milieu. If our intention is to have students grow in their faith beyond our school walls, we must form, inform, and transform them into discerning digital disciples; fanning into flame a thriving Catholic presence in a digital age.
“We can no longer ignore the opportunities that exist for our learners today. Our job is to create a [Catholic] education system that is better than the one we grew up in, as will be the duty of the next generation of educators. We must embrace what is right in front of us” (Couros
, 2016). Pope John Paul II
(2002) challenged the whole Church, which inherently includes Catholic schools, to “bravely cross this new threshold”, as “hanging back timidly from fear of technology or for some other reason is not acceptable, in view of the very many positive possibilities” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 2002). The Vatican contends that the Church needs to understand the Internet (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 2002); as an integral part of the Church, it is imperative that Catholic educators understand the Internet as well. The dramatic proliferation of new digital technologies in our society ought to have an equally
dramatic enhancement in "pedagogical strategies designed to address their ethical and responsible use within a uniquely Catholic framework" (Catholic Curriculum Corporation
, 2009). “With or without us, the digital civilization is forming a new way of being human” (Zukowski
, 2014). Jesus was known to “keep abreast of what was shaping the culture around Him” (Kandiah
, 2015); likewise, Catholic education must keep abreast and play a leadership role in helping students discover what it means to be a Catholic in a digital age.
Photo Credit: David Goldman (AP)
While young people are often more familiar with digital technologies and social networks than their teachers, Catholic educators must not confuse this comfort for knowledge. Despite the fact that students were born in the age of digital innovation, they are not
digital natives. The deceiving term of "digital natives" suggests that youth already know how to use the digital technologies in their hands in an ethical and constructive manner; further suggesting digital literacy is not a priority to integrate into curriculum. However, digital literacy is something that needs to be purposefully taught, modelled, and practiced—it is not innate, as the term “native” would lead one to believe, because "no one is born a native speaker of 'digital' the way no one is born a native speaker of any language" (Lowery
, 2013). The Vatican recognizes this as well:
Young people, as has often been said, are the future of society and the Church. Good use of the Internet can help prepare them for their responsibilities in both. But this will not happen automatically. The Internet is not merely a medium of entertainment and consumer gratification. It is a tool for accomplishing useful work, and the young must learn to see it and use it as such. (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 2002).
Having the latest smartphone, or being active on Facebook and Instagram, does not denote that students possess the essential twenty-first century knowledge, skills, and virtues for navigating our connected digital culture critically, effectively, nor faithfully. “As society becomes more technologically advanced, students will have increased difficulty finding success [in the future]… unless they possess the skills [and Catholic virtues] to use those technologies appropriately” (Okoye
, 2010, p. 3). Even if students never fully adopt the Catholic faith, it is the Catholic virtues that will guide them in their future. Therefore, it is incumbent upon educators to form, inform, and transform today’s youth into a generation of discerning digital disciples.
Catholic educators have the unique opportunity to “teach boldly the way modelled by Jesus” (Groome
, 2013, p.149). In His teaching, Jesus would use examples from everyday life (such as fishing and harvesting); His pedagogy involved connecting His teachings to people’s lived reality. In essence, Jesus’ teaching was rooted in real life, and Catholic educators ought to follow His eloquent example. The lived reality of young people today is that they are immersed in, and are therefore formed by, a digital culture. Catholic education has an opportunity to participate in that formation, and seize the opportunity to make education relevant to our youth’s lived realities in the twenty-first century.
According to a Pew Research study, ninety-two percent of teens report going online daily, and seventy-one percent are active on more than one social networking platform (Lenhart
, 2015). Their phones are often the first thing they look at upon waking up, and the last thing they look at before bed. A key area of Pope Francis’ papacy is mobilizing youth, and he is acutely aware of the importance that digital technologies play in this vision (Scammell
, 2016). Youth are the future of society and the Church; if we want to reach them, we need to meet (encounter) them where they are. Pope Francis models this digital encounter by being present on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Likewise, if Catholic education wants to be part of the conversation, it needs to move to where the conversation is taking place, lead by example, and harness the power of technology and social networking to build the reign of God within a digital milieu.
The Church considers education in the area of digital media and technology not only an opportunity, but a need (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 2002). This opportunity and need is beyond developing a technical skill set; it is about building the capacity to use technology from a Catholic moral perspective… as a gift from God to humanity. The Church has spoken of the “urgent duty” Catholic schools have to educate youth about Catholic virtues in their social communication and interactions (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 1971). In today’s digital culture, wherein students are increasingly social in online spaces, and wherein their messages travel faster and spread further throughout the digital landscape, the urgency is even greater.
Teaching about the Internet and new technology involves much more than teaching techniques; young people need to learn how to function well in the world of cyberspace, make discerning judgments according to sound moral criteria about what they find there, and use the new technology for their integral development and the benefit of others (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 2002).
How do Catholic educators ensure they are forming a generation that makes “discerning judgments according to sound moral criteria [online]” and “uses technology for their integral development and the benefit of others”? It starts with moving away from learning about
something, to learning to be
something: students need to learn how to be
digital disciples. In fact, one of the central roles of a Catholic educator—and an integral dimension of the identity of Catholic schools—is to mentor youth toward authentic discipleship. “Simply waiting to react to the next inappropriate misuse of technology is no longer an option if all Catholic stakeholders are to leverage and realize the full potential of these technologies in their schools” (Catholic Curriculum Corporation
, 2009). A proactive approach must be taken to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and virtues they need to be discerning disciples within a digital civilization.
In Matthew 5:1-12, Jesus speaks to a crowd of people, sharing with them eight special attitudes that we ought to have as disciples of Christ. These special attitudes (known as the eight beatitudes) lead one to experience happiness and blessings from God. If Jesus were to speak to a crowd of young people today, I believe he would encourage the same attitudes he preached about over 2,000 years ago, emphasizing the critical importance of these beatitudes also flowing into their digital lives. I believe the beatitudes are a powerful idea/framework for building discerning digital disciples, which is what inspired me to create the visual below (Digital Beatitudes). It features a host of ethical and moral questions for youth to discern when reflecting upon their use of digital technologies and their demonstration of virtues in online spaces.
Click to enlarge and download.
Why is it critical that Catholic education play a leading role in the meaningful formation of discerning digital disciples? “The Internet is a door opening on a glamorous and exciting world with a powerful formative influence; but not everything on the other side of the door is safe and wholesome and true” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 2002). Furthermore,
The Internet is a hyperlinked, digital environment, [whose] non-linear structure provides users grappling with a topic or problem the means to ‘surf’ broadly or to dig deeply through links that connect all sorts of text, audio and video resources. This places responsibility for interpretation [discernment] more heavily on Internet users (Lytle, n.d.).
The responsibility also rests heavily on the educators of these Internet users. As previously mentioned, youth are not
digital natives that will automatically resist “the easy path of uncritical passivity, peer pressure, and commercial exploitation” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 2000); rather, they need to build their capacity for critical interpretation to make faithful moral judgments and choices. Discernment is an integral part of nurturing informed conscience formation, which is the pedagogical calling of every Catholic educator; this conscience formation must extend to the digital lives of our students as well.
A quality Catholic education, with an intentional focus on digital literacy and discernment, should render firewalls obsolete. That being said, many schools (both separate and public) are intent on blocking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications
(2002) has said that “a merely censorious attitude on the part of the Church toward the media is neither sufficient nor appropriate.” So why are many schools so consumed with blocking and so reserved when it comes to educating about the Internet? It is imperative that all schools talk, not block; educate, not abdicate
. Catholic schools have the added advantage of integrating the faith dimension to elevate moral judgment among youth online; guiding them to learn to discern, and harmonize faith and reason. Instead of asking “what sites/apps do we need to block?” Catholic schools ought to be asking “what knowledge, skills, and virtues (beatitudes) do we need to develop?”
Society tends to look at the internet as a dangerous place where youth have access to explicit content. Yes, the internet certainly does have a plethora of explicit content… but so does television, magazines, radio, etc.; even our modern culture in general. The material exists even if we irrationally took the internet away. It is impossible for Catholic schools to block youth from every immoral artifact on the Internet, but it is
possible to educate youth about how to faithfully discern and navigate a world infiltrated with this kind of material. In essence, Catholic educators need to view the Internet as “a gift evoking a call”, as opposed to a “threat provoking fear” (Zukowski
, 2009, p.156). Catholic schools must provide ample opportunity for students to experience the positive power of digital technologies and reclaim digital spaces for making a positive difference. As youth continue to be immersed in, and impacted by, a digital culture, “success will likely be measured by how effectively Catholic educators can help them to develop and discern what is true, good and beautiful with the human heart, an informed conscience and the critical filter of the Catholic social teachings” (Catholic Curriculum Corporation
, 2009). This does not require firewalls, as firewalls are no match for a truly informed conscience.
Catholic schools need to take the Internet from being an engine for consumption to an engine for virtuous contribution and creation. As a global collective, some 3.6 trillion words are composed every day on e-mail and social media (Thompson
, 2013). In an overwhelmingly secular culture, how many of those 3.6 trillion words reflect a Catholic voice? Likely not as many as there ought to be. Herein lies both opportunity and need. Some people doubt that their online presence matters and believe the cybersphere is already too abundant with information. Others think that online spaces have an impenetrable dominant voice, deeming online participation pointless. But online presence does
matter. Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop” (as cited by Le Joly & Chaliha
, 2002, p. 122). The digital ocean truly is less without our Catholic drops. “The fact that so many of us are writing—sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see—has changed the way we think… and that is accelerating the creation of new ideas and the advancement of global knowledge (Thompson
, 2013). If used wisely and intentionally, our youth can also use this medium for the advancement of a thriving Catholic voice and genuine Catholic beatitudes online. This is why it is imperative that Catholic educators provide opportunities for students to develop their informed conscience, faithful voice and digital literacy, so that they, too, can meaningfully participate in our connected world.
The two-way interactivity of the Internet is blurring the old distinction between those who communicate and those who receive what is communicated… creating a situation in which, potentially at least, everyone can do both. This is not the one-way, top-down communication of the past. (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 2002).
Every voice and every idea matters; even if the audience is small—Catholic educators need to empower student voice in our digital age. Traditionally, youth had a limited voice, as publishing was primarily reserved for academics, authors and journalists. But today, with digital technologies, young people can
get their ideas out there—possibly around the globe—and are able to have a voice in a way they once could not. “You don't need to write a book to influence a culture. Your Facebook status, your tweets and… your blog posts could be a means by which you are able to offer up a Christian perspective on life, culture and justice” (Kandiah
, 2015). Catholic education needs to embrace this new reality and what it affords our learners and our faith!
Consider...the positive capacities of the Internet to carry religious information and teaching beyond all barriers and frontiers. Such a wide audience would have been beyond the wildest imaginings of those who preached the Gospel before us... Catholics should not be afraid to throw open the doors of social communications to Christ, so that his Good News may be heard from the housetops of the world” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 2000).
(2014) has praised the Internet for being a medium for Christian witness that can reach the peripheries of human existence, and had said, “By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8)”. Again, the Internet is a fundamental aspect of the lived reality of youth today; “preparing students to enter this Internet frontier grounded in the Catholic ethos, digital dialogic skills, [and the beatitudes] enables them to be witnesses, if not missionaries, of sorts, in the new [digital] cultural context” (Zukowski
, 2009, p.159). Furthermore, for those youth who have lost or fallen away from their faith, a thriving Catholic presence online could be a place where they receive daily reminders of God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and mercy.
Catholic schools also need to focus on leveraging the Internet to build community. Pope Francis
(2014) professed “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters… The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.” The Internet offers Catholic schools unprecedented opportunities to reach out and connect their students with people outside of their immediate communities, presenting the “remarkable capacity to overcome distance and isolation, bringing people into contact with like-minded persons of good will who join in virtual communities of faith to encourage and support one another” (Pontifical Council for Social Communications
, 2002). Pope Francis
(2016) has further acknowledged the immense potential that social networks offer in facilitating relationships, encounter, solidarity, and promoting the good of society. These encounters through digital connections can also empower students to advance social justice both locally and globally. “When students are able to listen to the people directly affected by development issues, they are more likely to engage them as equal partners in the quest for social justice and equality, than the passive recipients of charity" (Catholic Curriculum Corporation
, 2009). Digital technologies, for all intents and purposes, can act as a catalyst to bring humanity closer together; promoting peace and justice in our connected, yet broken world.
This post ends in a prayer; a prayer for Catholic education to embrace digital technologies and become a model for the future of education. Heavenly Father, we pray for the intercession of St. Isadore of Seville, patron saint of the Internet; help us to honour the Internet as a gift from God to humanity, and answer the call of ensuring that the benefits it offers are put to service for our students. May we guide our students to use the Internet as a tool for seeking wisdom, and an instrument for our Catholic presence online to flourish and multiply. Jesus, may what we do in our classrooms always begin with Your inspiration and continue with Your powerful help. May our pedagogy follow Your eloquent example, and connect to the lived realities of our students. May Your spirit guide us in developing future generations of discerning digital disciples. This is our prayer in Your name. Amen.