Editor’s note: This week on the Gloria Purvis Podcast, Gloria speaks with the Rev. Josh Johnson about the toxic nature of social media and what Catholics can do to bring the love and truth of Christ to Twitter. Father Johnson is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. He is the author of several books, including Broken and Blessed: An Invitation to My Generation, and host of the podcast “Ask Fr. Josh” from Ascension Press.
You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt of their conversation below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Gloria Purvis: It seems like a lot of what some prominent lay Catholics say on social media is very much the anti-Gospel. A lot of what they say is cruel. A lot of what they say is meant to inflame and enrage rather than enlighten and console. How do we discern those kinds of voices? How should we react to that?
Father Josh Johnson: First and foremost, we need to pay attention. After I spend time reading somebody’s Twitter feed or scrolling through somebody’s Instagram posts, do I become a person who is more virtuous? Am I more patient? Am I more kind? Do I pray for people more? Or do I start to brood? Does it cause me to be very judgmental of other people? Does it cause me to gossip?
So what are the fruits? You know their work by the fruits. How is their work affecting me? Some of these people that are on social media are sharing things that are not edifying to the body of Christ.
After I spend time reading somebody’s Twitter feed or scrolling through somebody’s Instagram posts, do I become a person who is more virtuous? Am I more patient?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold each other accountable and we shouldn’t call out sin. But some of us need to examine our own consciences. What’s my motive? Why did I write that? Was it to get people to follow me? Was it to get more likes? Was it to tear down this other person? Do I rejoice whenever I see a brother or sister in the body of Christ fall?
GP: There are folks who believe they cannot turn off social media, who believe that they have to do something every day because they want to maintain their followers. They want to get more followers. But I keep thinking if you’re more devoted to that, and you’re seeing that it’s harming you, harming your soul, harming your relationship with Jesus Christ, you have an obligation to turn it off at that point.
JJ: We must decrease. It goes back to the Gospel. Look at Scripture: How did Jesus respond? After he did his ministry, people began to try to promote him and make him a king. They wanted to exalt him. And what did he do? He left. He went away by himself to pray. He did this active ministry, and then he went away for more time to be with the Father. Every time people began to say, “Oh glory, hallelujah, hosanna,” he always exited left. He wasn’t trying to be a celebrity. He didn’t want the crown of people’s affection. The crown he took was the crown of thorns.
That is very wise of you to say: Am I more concerned about followers and likes and shares? And if so, then what’s my motivation? If I post something, I post it for the good of the church. I post it for the good of the body of Christ. I post to help people become aware of sins that they didn’t know were still operative in the church, in the body of Christ, in secular society. I post so you can become aware and so that you can then take it to your own prayer, to discern how the Holy Spirit might be inviting me to address these evils in our world today.
How much time are you wasting right now on social media that you could use to serve the poor at a homeless shelter, that you could be using to learn about unjust institutions?
We see sometimes that there might be a Twitter thread, and there might be somebody who is on Twitter all day long, literally from morning to night, commenting on everything. And I’m like: How much time are you wasting right now on social media that you could use to serve the poor at a homeless shelter, that you could be using to learn about unjust institutions? How much time are you with your family, your friends? What are you doing to build a civilization of love?
GP: To be super big [on social media] shouldn’t be the goal. Your goal is to be faithful. But if you do have all those followers, it does make me think that you have a special responsibility. You have more responsibility when you have more followers because these are people that are listening to what you’re saying.
JJ: It’s true. We will be held accountable by God for our tweets and our posts and our gossip. The Book of James makes it very clear that gossip is a terrible sin. It can tear down. So we need to have custody of our tongues and custody of our thumbs. When we go on Twitter, [we can say to] God, “I need you to possess my hands whenever I go into these places and spaces.”
St. Theresa Avila says, “He has no hands but ours, no body but ours.” And Christ has no Twitter thumbs but our Twitter thumbs.
Because what we post can turn someone away from the Gospel. It can turn someone away from the church because they might think, “Well, this person represents the church.” There are some Catholic theologians, some big Catholic celebrities out there. There are Catholic clergy. And because of their platform, people think, “Well everything they’re saying must be what the church teaches. And if that’s what the church teaches, I can’t rock with that.” And then they leave. They walk away from Jesus. They walk away from the sacraments. And so the Lord will hold us responsible for what we posted.
GP: Some people might say, “Why be on social media at all?” But I think one of the things St. John Paul II wrote about the new evangelization is that we need to be where the people are. A lot of people are on social media. That’s mission territory, too.
JJ: We must be where the people of God are so we can communicate God’s word to them, God’s love for them, God’s truth to them. As a priest, I’m responsible not just for the people who show up at Mass. I’m responsible for every single person who lives in the geographical boundaries of my parish, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, whatever their background is. I am responsible for them for their good. So I’ve got to get out of my church, go through my neighborhoods, walk around, meet them where they’re at and invite them to a relationship with Jesus and ask them, “How can I best accompany them in their walk toward eternity?”
The reality is a lot of our people today are on social media. And because that’s where they’re at, we need to be there because the enemy is going to be there. And the enemy is going to be there to tempt them with suggestions, with lies, with discouragements, with accusations, with the invitations to be divisive. We have got to be the face and the voice of Christ. St. Theresa Avila says, “He has no hands but ours, no body but ours.” And Christ has no Twitter thumbs but our Twitter thumbs.