While the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Vatican II wind down this year, next year will feature the 50th anniversary of World Communications Day. This day is the only annual celebration called for by the documents of Vatican II (Inter Mirifica 18). The 49th message (and the second by Pope Francis) came out just this past week. Given that it comes between the extraordinary and ordinary synods on the family, it is no surprise that Francis focused on the role of communications in the family.
In this year’s message, there are three insights I would like to pull out that I think are worth noting: communication as embodied, the dangers of poisonous communication, and the diversity of families.
1. Communication and embodiment
In a seminal text of Catholic teaching on social communications, Communio et Progressio, communication is defined “at its most profound level [as] the giving of self in love” (CP 11). In this year’s message, Francis notes that it is within the family that we first learn to communicate – to give ourselves to one another in love. Here, Francis offers the story of the Visitation, when Mary comes to see her cousin Elizabeth. In this story, the joy of encounter is expressed bodily and the nurturing of the children is profoundly corporeal. Theologian Brian Robinette describes the body as “the way personhood is enacted in the world,” thus supporting the claim that the giving of oneself that occurs in communication always necessarily involves the body.
This claim is particularly important for many ongoing conversations about social media and digital forms of communication. Everything from mobile phones to texting to Instagram are often accused of being disembodying, primarily because the face to face interaction that occurs when persons are in close proximity is removed. Electronic and digital mediation does make it possible to communicate across distances more quickly and easily than prior technologies (such as letters), but it’s not clear to me that it can be described as disembodied without qualification. As one example, consider the positive response by many members of the deaf community to Apple’s FaceTime application, which makes it easy to communicate at distance with America Sign Language.
2. Poisonous Communication
Francis also notes the frequency of “foul language….discord and poison” in contemporary communication. Briefly: Francis is looking at the internet trolls. From cyberbullying to the comments sections of news articles, viciousness is widespread. Unsurprisingly, Francis takes the “love my enemy” approach, claiming “it is only be blessing rather than cursing…that we can break the spiral of evil.” I think to some extent this is true, and that generally fighting back is not terribly productive. But it’s also the case that sometimes the best response to poisonous communication is to ignore it, to block it, and to seek support from others. Earlier today I read about Tess Munster, a plus sized model who has endured a tremendous amount of online vitriol. The story features one (extremely rare) instance of internet troll reconciliation. However, to respond to every troll that attacks would be exhausting and time-consuming beyond the limits of reasonable self-care, and it might only encourage them further. Perhaps the best thing to say about poisonous communication is not to participate in it ourselves.
3. Diversity of Families
From reading the message, I have no doubt that the image of the family Francis has in mind is the fairly common and somewhat idealized two parents with kids and extended family vision. Yet there is a moment towards the end where Francis offers a nice description of the idea of the family that can be help us to recognize the diversity of family types beyond this. He says “the family is a community which provides help, which celebrates life and is fruitful.” This description goes beyond the somewhat standard portrait, recognizing many other types of families: those that don’t have children but are fruitful in diverse ways, those found in religious communities (like the Benedictine monks here on Saint Leo’s campus), those who band together after disasters (whether personal, natural, or human-made) to offer succor and companionship, and many others besides. When I read this, I thought first of the groups that bonded on the Camino this past summer – which we referred to as Camino Families. We offered one another encouragement, first aid, food, directions, and prayers throughout the journey. We celebrated the richness of our lives together, and this led to the fruits of a powerful journey and newly forged and deepened bonds. While these groups were probably not on Francis’ mind when this was written, I have no doubt that I learned a great deal about giving myself in love to others through that trip.
 Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence, 22