Moving the digital frontier from diatribe to dialog
(Excerpt from Archbishop Kurtz’s keynote address to the annual meeting of the Catholic Press Association on Wednesday, June 18 in Charlotte, North Carolina.)
I believe that the Catholic press will be called over the next decade to influence the new digital frontier by carving out a place for dialogue. This may well be your greatest challenge and deepest contribution to the new evangelization. Let’s call this a movement from diatribe to dialogue.
Merriam-Webster first gives the archaic usage for the word, “diatribe” – calling it “prolonged discourse” – coming from the Greek tribein meaning to rub and dia, meaning through. Diatribe means to rub through or, in my words, to wear out … to weary. The second usage says it clearly: a diatribe is “a bitter and abusive speech or piece of writing.” Sadly digital discourse, in part I suspect because it fosters anonymity and a penchant for the impulsive, is full of diatribe.
I will admit that I have entered the digital frontier. With 9,000 followers, I regularly tweet, and the tweets are linked to another 4,000 on Facebook. I have a blog that gets multiplied through these conduits. For me, it is part of my effort to communicate effectively and closely with people; this effort at digital communication is a start and an energizing one. But, and this is important, I have not ventured much into using new media to interact in real time. Not that I do not want to. I welcome dialogue. But too often these purported opportunities for interactive dialogue become the scene of bitter, ugly comments that only tear down the faith rather than build it up. This kind of communication does not further the new evangelization.
In contrast, I have had great outcomes with listening sessions or focus groups of all sorts over the past five years. We have used these groups in Louisville for everything from preparation for the Synods (the one in 2012 and the one for this October), our annual reports on accountability, our initiatives to promote vocations, and our development efforts. In short, the small group focus sessions have been enriching, and I would say have been the source of genuine and productive dialogue. This year, I began participating in a reading group circle of theologians and bishop and after three sessions, can report the same positive efforts. However, I have not seen this approach to dialogue progress in the digital frontier, and we need it desperately.
Moving from diatribe to dialogue will require creativity but also a sense of calm and serenity. Earlier I summed up the World Day of Communication message as giving two pieces of advice. First, don’t let your heart shrink and second, as the digital frontier picks up speed and gets more hectic, bring a sense of serenity and calm.
The new evangelization is about a calm and serene manner that is not pushy or preachy but creative. We must avoid the stance of five year old Johnny, whom his mother discovered in the bathroom with their new kitten. Though the door was closed, Mom could hear the little kitten screaming:
“What in the world are you doing to our kitten, Johnny?”
“I’m baptizing him, Mom.”
“Johnny, don’t you know that kittens just hate water!”
“Well, he should have thought of that when he joined my church!”
We are attracted not to the pushy and brash, sorry Johnny, but to the imaginative and creative. I had the privilege to serve as a delegate to the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome, and I love the “Message from the Synod Delegates to the World” document that emerged from that synod. This message used the word “serene” twice: once as serene confidence and the other as serene courage.
Over four centuries ago, your patron St. Francis de Sales also gave timely advice on this quality: “Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” This is so crucial and, indeed, urgent today because I have found myself increasingly surrounded by diatribe as I enter this frontier.
Cardinal Dolan of New York addressed this well in a talk on communication that he gave in Rome in April. Quoting from Rabbi Norman Lamm, he explains the meaning of the Hebrew word, anivut. The Rabbi explains that the word means, “a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse, graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”
Sounds to me like Jesus. You and I need to cultivate that humility and call others to join us there. Pope Francis has been eloquent in his call and leadership in this, and as I thought about these qualities, I remembered one of my favorite CS Lewis quotes: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but rather thinking of yourself less.”
This serene calm is so necessary as we seek to move away from diatribe and as we strive to bridge the growing interpersonal space between those who interact in the spheres of new media. The interpersonal distance is so ironic. We are within reach of each other like never before but more and more alone.
Recently I viewed a video that received the Kerygma Award. It was called Dis-connect, and in three minutes or so, the viewer eavesdrops on a conversation in a bar between a man and a woman who are discussing their relationship and the distance between them. As the woman speaks, the man half listens as he texts someone else. The woman does the same when he begins to lament the gap growing between them — humorous if not so darn true.
The speed we think we need to maintain is getting in the way of authentic encounters. But the gift of serenity would have us think twice about multi-tasking. The research is showing that it isn’t very effective anyway. Thank God for the “Don’t text and drive” campaign. I suspect it will lead the way to serenity and sanity!
Moving from diatribe to dialogue and spanning the growing impersonal distance among users will take the best minds and hearts. It will take creativity and surely serene confidence and serene courage and calm. But it needs to be done, and it needs to be done with a true love of Jesus and His people in and through the Church. I believe you will be the leaders. Together we must seek a path for interaction and dialogue. I believe that is what Pope Francis calls us to do in his “culture of encounter.”
He also addressed
- The call to understand and be true to the sacred trust placed in you by the People of God;
- The call to resist seeking a purely neutral stance and instead seek a loving one as belonging to Christ and His Church – that is, being in communio
- The call, to press and bishops alike, to be friends of Jesus and of each other.