ROME — A week into the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops, it’s abundantly clear that a strong share of the prelates gathered in Rome understand that the clerical sexual abuse scandals have to be a front-burner priority in whatever the synod does or says.
As one English-speaking small working group put it, the crisis can’t be “skimmed over tangentially in a few short sentences.” Instead, they said, “the shattered trust, the trauma and lifelong suffering of survivors, the catastrophic failures in case management, [and] the continued silence and denial by some of these awful crimes and sins” all have to be acknowledged.
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That doesn’t mean, however, that a summit of bishops charged with pondering “young people, faith and vocational discernment” doesn’t have multiple other questions to address.
One of the more intriguing to emerge from the first round of small group discussions last week, the reports from which were released on Tuesday, is the ambivalence of the digital world in which so many young people live and move and have their being in the early 21st century.
Those working groups technically are called circoli minori, or “small circles.”
The working document for the Synod of Bishops tends to treat the digital realm as a fact of life for youth to which the Church must adjust, and a basically positive one. The first English-speaking working group captured that sentiment by saying that new technologies “open up online educational opportunities, and also new possibilities for the exchange of information, ideals, values and common interests, which ‘have potential to unite people across geographical distances like never before,’” quoting the document.
A few of the working groups seemed to take a different tack. For them, cyberspace is instead a far more ambivalent place, and part of the Church’s role is to speak clearly about the risks as well as the rewards.
The German-speaking bishops took up the issue most directly, flagging various ways in which the digital realm can induce youth into morally destructive choices.
“We believe that digital reality should be described in more concrete terms in terms of its positive potential but also in terms of its destructive dangers (for example, age of entry into viewing hard pornography and violence in boys is on average 11 years),” they said.
So important was the question for the Germans that they actually added a footnote to their report.
“We do not know the implications of continuing to stay in digital worlds for young people in the long run. See the medical talk of ‘digital dementia,’ or new addictions or lack of concentration, of dwindling ability to read more complex texts, lack of relationship skills or the like.”
One can, of course, debate the merits of those concerns in isolation, but the bigger picture is that it’s hard to imagine many other global institutions even inclined to consider them in a serious way.
Another small group, this one an Italian-language group led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and widely considered one of the most impressive minds at the senior levels of the Catholic hierarchy, came at the topic in another way.
“The transversal dimension of the web, as was highlighted in the democratic dream of young people twenty years ago, has been reversed in the progressive experience of a ‘fort’ that everyone controls and orients,” they said.
Anyone who spends even a modicum of time online these days would probably see the point.
More practically, as Anglo-Saxons tend to be, the first English-language group underlined other objections.
“We raised concerns about the exploitation of young people online, including the harvesting of their data, identity theft and scams,” they said.
The third English-language group flagged another potential drawback that ought to resonate with Americans in particular – the danger that online activity reinforces one’s biases rather than challenging them.
“Are these media allowing to meet new people and make new connections, i.e. diversity? Or are they being used to empower friendships already present, i.e. sameness?” the bishops asked.
Yet another English-language group underlined yet another concern.
“Immersion in the virtual world has produced a kind of ‘digital migration,’ which is to say, a wandering away from family, cultural, and religious values into a world of privacy and self-invention,” they said.
“Just as many immigrants feel uprooted from their spiritual homes, so many young people in the West can experience the same kind of rootlessness, even while remaining physically in place.”
What’s relevant isn’t so much whether the bishops so far have produced compelling answers, but it would at least appear that they’re asking good questions. Today’s young people spend an astonishing share of their time in the digital realm, and no analysis of the forces shaping their lives would be complete without a consideration of the positives and negatives of those experiences.
To bring us back to the beginning, this may be another reason why it’s so critical for the synod to be perceived as handling the abuse crisis responsibly. It’s not just because doing so is long overdue for its own sake, but because it’s the price of admission for being taken seriously on anything else – including the promise and the peril of life online.