Pope Francis has promoted the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in many symbolic ways, from spectacular liturgical rites to quiet gestures of forgiveness to sinners who have sought his help.
Now, the social-media star @Pontifex is saying that acts of grace, kindness and mercy should even be attempted by believers whose work and private affairs take them into one of modern life's harshest environments -- cyberspace.
"Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart," argued Francis, in a statement marking the 50th World Communications Day. It was released at the same time as a private meeting between the pope and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
"Social networks," wrote Francis, "can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division. … The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. … Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected."
Believers can stand firm in defending the faith, he said, but "even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil" it's essential that they not resort to using words and arguments that "try to rupture relationships."
Alas, there's the rub, especially when "trolls" wreck havoc in online communities. Psychology Today, in the article entitled "Internet Trolls are Narcissists, Psychopaths and Sadists," defined the term this way: "An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. … Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response."
At the heart of the pope's argument is a call to focus on the humanity of those encountered online, even if they behave like trolls, noted writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" during her 12 years in the Catholic blogosphere. She is editor of the English edition of Aleteia.org, a global Catholic website.
"I think that trolls are miserable and they want the world to be miserable with them. They aren't even trying to make a coherent argument anymore," she said. "That's why I try to resist the temptation to punch down. … It's one thing to be involved in a real debate. It's something else to deal with people who are not even arguing in good faith."
The problem, especially in debates about faith, worship and doctrine, is that it's easy to focus so hard on winning that you "lose sight of the humanity of the person on the other side," said Scalia. That's crucial when the goal -- especially during the Year of Mercy -- is to "admonish" sinners who the church believes are in need of mercy.
Striving to "correct" errors, she said, doesn't mean "getting out your hammer and hitting people with it."
Thus, Pope Francis stressed that in all communication -- online and otherwise -- individuals should "select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony. … Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred."
While he never used the term "troll," the pope stressed that it's crucial for those inside the church to be bold and gentle at the same time -- especially when dealing with conflicts and problems that cannot be avoided.
"We can and we must judge situations of sin -- such as violence, corruption and exploitation -- but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts," argued Francis. "It is our task to admonish those who err and to denounce the evil and injustice of certain ways of acting, for the sake of setting victims free and raising up those who have fallen."
Nevertheless, he warned, "Harsh and moralistic words and actions risk further alienating those whom we wish to lead to conversion and freedom, reinforcing their sense of rejection and defensiveness."