Editorial: Caught in the web

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It takes something extraordinary to rain on a triumph like the NCAA men’s basketball championship. But after Villanova prevailed in the final game on April 2, one of their players, 21-year-old Donte DiVincenzo, who is white, was asked by reporters about comments posted to his Twitter account quoting rap lyrics that included a racial epithet. He would have been 14 at the time he sent the tweet.

It’s a jarring lesson on the realities of the digital age: a young adult, basking in a pinnacle of achievement, finding himself suddenly an object of scorn because of an indiscretion of his younger self, preserved on the web.

In an essay published in his 2009 book “The Difference God Makes” (Herder and Herder Books, $19.95), Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, characterized the ethos of contemporary society as one where “Everything is possible, but nothing can be forgiven.” (He contrasted this to the Church, in which many things are not allowed, but all can be forgiven.) Nowhere is this more evident than online.

In his new apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis notes:

“Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others” (No. 115).

He adds, “It is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and always trying to teach them lessons. That is itself a subtle form of violence” (No. 117).

The insult added to the injury of this violence is that, as the adage goes, “The internet is forever.” And so we see not just the Villanova basketball player, but people of all ages trapped and forsaken like the ghost of Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” but tangled in digital chains that they themselves have forged over the course of their time online. And now, like Marley, they are condemned to eternal shame.

It’s a chilling reflection of the almost deity-like qualities we’ve imparted on “the cloud,” the totality of online information and computing power. Not only can it solve all our problems like God and answer all our questions like Solomon — or so we tell ourselves — but it also has the power to condemn us in this life.

And this is where Pope Francis’ words on holiness also help us. Holiness is a journey that presupposes that people can change, can start anew after a past failing, can escape who they once were. And forgiveness is a major part of that.

“Giving and forgiving means reproducing in our lives some small measure of God’s perfection, which gives and forgives superabundantly,” Pope Francis says in his new exhortation (No. 81). When we are forgiven, we experience the grace to persevere and even transform our lives. We aren’t confronted forever with our past. Faced with the ongoing realities of the digital age, we can do much to liberate and heal our brothers and sisters by forgiving them in this same way.

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board consists of Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, Gretchen R. Crowe, Matthew Kirby, Scott P. Richert and York Young.