PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR SOCIAL COMMUNICATIONS
II. About the Internet
III. Some Areas of Concern
IV. Recommendations and Conclusion
1. “Today's revolution in social communications involves a fundamental
reshaping of the elements by which people comprehend the world about them, and
verify and express what they comprehend. The constant availability of images and
ideas, and their rapid transmission even from continent to continent, have
profound consequences, both positive and negative, for the psychological, moral
and social development of persons, the structure and functioning of societies,
intercultural communications, and the perception and transmission of values,
world views, ideologies, and religious beliefs”.1
The truth of these words has become clearer than ever during the past decade.
Today it takes no great stretch of the imagination to envisage the earth as an
interconnected globe humming with electronic transmissions—a chattering planet
nestled in the provident silence of space. The ethical question is whether this
is contributing to authentic human development and helping individuals and
peoples to be true to their transcendent destiny.
And, of course, in many ways the answer is yes. The new media are powerful tools
for education and cultural enrichment, for commercial activity and political
participation, for intercultural dialogue and understanding; and, as we point
out in the document that accompanies this one,2 they also can serve
the cause of religion. Yet this coin has another side. Media of communication
that can be used for the good of persons and communities can be used to exploit,
manipulate, dominate, and corrupt.
2. The Internet is the latest and in many respects most powerful in a line of
media—telegraph, telephone, radio, television—that for many people have
progressively eliminated time and space as obstacles to communication during the
last century and a half. It has enormous consequences for individuals, nations,
and the world.
In this document we wish to set out a Catholic view of the Internet, as a
starting point for the Church's participation in dialogue with other sectors of
society, especially other religious groups, concerning the development and use
of this marvelous technological instrument. The Internet is being put to many
good uses now, with the promise of many more, but much harm also can be done by
its improper use. Which it will be, good or harm, is largely a matter of
choice—a choice to whose making the Church brings two elements of great
importance: her commitment to the dignity of the human person and her long
tradition of moral wisdom.3
3. As with other media, the person and the community of persons are central to
ethical evaluation of the Internet. In regard to the message communicated, the
process of communicating, and structural and systemic issues in communication,
“the fundamental ethical principle is this: The human person and the human
community are the end and measure of the use of the media of social
communication; communication should be by persons to persons for the integral
development of persons”.4
The common good—“the sum total of social conditions which allow people,
either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and
more easily”5—provides a second basic principle for ethical
evaluation of social communications. It should be understood inclusively, as the
whole of those worthy purposes to which a community's members commit themselves
together and which the community exists to realize and sustain. The good of
individuals depends upon the common good of their communities.
The virtue disposing people to protect and promote the common good is
solidarity. It is not a feeling of “vague compassion or shallow distress” at
other people's troubles, but “a firm and persevering determination to commit
oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each
individual, because we are all really responsible for all”.6
Especially today solidarity has a clear, strong international dimension; it is
correct to speak of, and obligatory to work for, the international common good.
4. The international common good, the virtue of solidarity, the revolution in
communications media and information technology, and the Internet are all
relevant to the process of globalization.
To a great extent, the new technology drives and supports globalization,
creating a situation in which “commerce and communications are no longer bound
by borders”.7 This has immensely important consequences.
Globalization can increase wealth and foster development; it offers advantages
like “efficiency and increased production... greater unity among peoples... a
better service to the human family”.8 But the benefits have not
been evenly shared up to now. Some individuals, commercial enterprises, and
countries have grown enormously wealthy while others have fallen behind. Whole
nations have been excluded almost entirely from the process, denied a place in
the new world taking shape. “Globalization, which has profoundly transformed
economic systems by creating unexpected possibilities of growth, has also
resulted in many people being relegated to the side of the road: unemployment in
the more developed countries and extreme poverty in too many countries of the
Southern Hemisphere continue to hold millions of women and men back from
progress and prosperity”.9
It is by no means clear that even societies that have entered into the
globalization process have done so entirely as a matter of free, informed
choice. Instead, “many people, especially the disadvantaged, experience this
as something that has been forced upon them rather than as a process in which
they can actively participate”.10
In many parts of the world, globalization is spurring rapid, sweeping social
change. This is not just an economic process but a cultural one, with both
positive and negative aspects. “Those who are subjected to it often see
globalization as a destructive flood threatening the social norms which had
protected them and the cultural points of reference which had given them
direction in life....Changes in technology and work relationships are moving too
quickly for cultures to respond”.11
5. One major consequence of the deregulation of recent years has been a shift of
power from national states to transnational corporations. It is important that
these corporations be encouraged and helped to use their power for the good of
humanity; and this points to a need for more communication and dialogue between
them and concerned bodies like the Church.
Use of the new information technology and the Internet needs to be informed and
guided by a resolute commitment to the practice of solidarity in the service of
the common good, within and among nations. This technology can be a means for
solving human problems, promoting the integral development of persons, creating
a world governed by justice and peace and love. Now, even more than when the
Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communications Communio et
Progressio made the point more than thirty years ago, media have the ability
to make every person everywhere “a partner in the business of the human
This is an astonishing vision. The Internet can help make it real—for
individuals, groups, nations, and the human race—only if it is used in light
of clear, sound ethical principles, especially the virtue of solidarity. To do
so will be to everyone's advantage, for “we know one thing today more than in
the past: we will never be happy and at peace without one another, much less if
some are against others”.13 This will be an expression of that
spirituality of communion which implies “the ability to see what is positive
in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God,” along with the
ability “to ‘make room' for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each
other's burdens' (Gal. 6, 2) and resisting the selfish temptations which
constantly beset us”.14
6. The spread of the Internet also raises a number of other ethical questions
about matters like privacy, the security and confidentiality of data, copyright
and intellectual property law, pornography, hate sites, the dissemination of
rumor and character assassination under the guise of news, and much else. We
shall speak briefly about some of these things below, while recognizing that
they call for continued analysis and discussion by all concerned parties.
Fundamentally, though, we do not view the Internet only as a source of problems;
we see it as a source of benefits to the human race. But the benefits can be
fully realized only if the problems are solved.
ABOUT THE INTERNET
7. The Internet has a number of striking features. It is instantaneous,
immediate, worldwide, decentralized, interactive, endlessly expandable in
contents and outreach, flexible and adaptable to a remarkable degree. It is
egalitarian, in the sense that anyone with the necessary equipment and modest
technical skill can be an active presence in cyberspace, declare his or her
message to the world, and demand a hearing. It allows individuals to indulge in
anonymity, role-playing, and fantasizing and also to enter into community with
others and engage in sharing. According to users' tastes, it lends itself
equally well to active participation and to passive absorption into “a
narcissistic, self-referential world of stimuli with near-narcotic
effects”.15 It can be used to break down the isolation of
individuals and groups or to deepen it.
8. The technological configuration underlying the Internet has a considerable
bearing on its ethical aspects: People have tended to use it according to the
way it was designed, and to design it to suit that kind of use. This ‘new'
system in fact dates back to the cold war years of the 1960s, when it was
intended to foil nuclear attack by creating a decentralized network of computers
holding vital data. Decentralization was the key to the scheme, since in this
way, so it was reasoned, the loss of one or even many computers would not mean
the loss of the data.
An idealistic vision of the free exchange of information and ideas has played a
praiseworthy part in the development of the Internet. Yet its decentralized
configuration and the similarly decentralized design of the World Wide Web of
the late 1980s also proved to be congenial to a mindset opposed to anything
smacking of legitimate regulation for public responsibility. An exaggerated
individualism regarding the Internet thus emerged. Here, it was said, was a new
realm, the marvelous land of cyberspace, where every sort of expression was
allowed and the only law was total individual liberty to do as one pleased. Of
course this meant that the only community whose rights and interests would be
truly recognized in cyberspace was the community of radical libertarians. This
way of thinking remains influential in some circles, supported by familiar
libertarian arguments also used to defend pornography and violence in the media
Although radical individualists and entrepreneurs obviously are two very
different groups, there is a convergence of interests between those who want the
Internet to be a place for very nearly every kind of expression, no matter how
vile and destructive, and those who want it to be a vehicle of untrammeled
commercial activity on a neo-liberal model that “considers profit and the
law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and
the respect due to individuals and peoples”.17
9. The explosion of information technology has increased the communication
capabilities of some favored individuals and groups many times over. The
Internet can serve people in their responsible use of freedom and democracy,
expand the range of choices available in diverse spheres of life, broaden
educational and cultural horizons, break down divisions, promote human
development in a multitude of ways. “The free flow of images and speech on a
global scale is transforming not only political and economic relations between
peoples, but even our understanding of the world. It opens up a range of
hitherto unthinkable possibilities”.18 When based upon shared
values rooted in the nature of the person, the intercultural dialogue made
possible by the Internet and other media of social communication can be “a
privileged means for building the civilization of love”.19
But that is not the whole story. “Paradoxically, the very forces which can
lead to better communication can also lead to increasing self-centeredness and
alienation”.20 The Internet can unite people, but it also can
divide them, both as individuals and as mutually suspicious groups separated by
ideology, politics, possessions, race and ethnicity, intergenerational
differences, and even religion. Already it has been used in aggressive ways,
almost as a weapon of war, and people speak of the danger of ‘cyber-terrorism.' It would be painfully ironic if this instrument of
communication with so much potential for bringing people together reverted to
its origins in the cold war and became an arena of international conflict.
SOME AREAS OF CONCERN
10. A number of concerns about the Internet are implicit in what has been said
One of the most important of these involves what today is called the digital
divide—a form of discrimination dividing the rich from the poor, both within
and among nations, on the basis of access, or lack of access, to the new
information technology. In this sense it is an updated version of an older gap
between the ‘information rich' and ‘information poor'.
The expression ‘digital divide' underlines the fact that individuals, groups,
and nations must have access to the new technology in order to share in the
promised benefits of globalization and development and not fall further behind.
It is imperative “that the gap between the beneficiaries of the new means of
information and expression and those who do not have access to them...not become
another intractable source of inequity and discrimination”.21 Ways
need to be found to make the Internet accessible to less advantaged groups,
either directly or at least by linking it with lower-cost traditional media.
Cyberspace ought to be a resource of comprehensive information and services
available without charge to all, and in a wide range of languages. Public
institutions have a particular responsibility to establish and maintain sites of
As the new global economy takes shape, the Church is concerned “that the
winner in this process will be humanity as a whole” and not just “a wealthy
elite that controls science, technology and the planet's resources”; this is
to say that the Church desires “a globalization which will be at the service
of the whole person and of all people”.22
In this connection it should be borne in mind that the causes and consequences
of the divide are not only economic but also technical, social, and cultural.
So, for example, another Internet ‘divide' operates to the disadvantage of
women, and it, too, needs to be closed.
11. We are particularly concerned about the cultural dimensions of what is now
taking place. Precisely as powerful tools of the globalization process, the new
information technology and the Internet transmit and help instill a set of
cultural values—ways of thinking about social relationships, family, religion,
the human condition—whose novelty and glamour can challenge and overwhelm
Intercultural dialogue and enrichment are of course highly desirable. Indeed,
“dialogue between cultures is especially needed today because of the impact of
new communications technology on the lives of individuals and peoples”.23
But this has to be a two-way street. Cultures have much to learn from one
another, and merely imposing the world view, values, and even language of one
culture upon another is not dialogue but cultural imperialism.
Cultural domination is an especially serious problem when a dominant culture
carries false values inimical to the true good of individuals and groups. As
matters stand, the Internet, along with the other media of social communication,
is transmitting the value-laden message of Western secular culture to people
and societies in many cases ill-prepared to evaluate and cope with it. Many
serious problems result—for example, in regard to marriage and family life,
which are experiencing “a radical and widespread crisis”24 in
many parts of the world.
Cultural sensitivity and respect for other people's values and beliefs are
imperative in these circumstances. Intercultural dialogue that “protects the
distinctiveness of cultures as historical and creative expressions of the
underlying unity of the human family, and...sustains understanding and communion
between them” 25 is needed to build and maintain the sense of
12. The question of freedom of expression on the Internet is similarly complex
and gives rise to another set of concerns.
We strongly support freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.
Freedom to seek and know the truth is a fundamental human right,26
and freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy. “Man, provided he
respects the moral order and the common interest, is entitled to seek after
truth, express and make known his opinions...he ought to be truthfully informed
about matters of public interest”.27 And public opinion, “an
essential expression of human nature organized in society,” absolutely
requires “freedom to express ideas and attitudes”.28
In light of these requirements of the common good, we deplore attempts by public
authorities to block access to information—on the Internet or in other media
of social communication—because they find it threatening or embarrassing to
them, to manipulate the public by propaganda and disinformation, or to impede
legitimate freedom of expression and opinion. Authoritarian regimes are by far
the worst offenders in this regard; but the problem also exists in liberal
democracies, where access to media for political expression often depends on
wealth, and politicians and their advisors violate truthfulness and fairness by
misrepresenting opponents and shrinking issues to sound-bite dimensions.
13. In this new environment, journalism is undergoing profound changes. The
combination of new technologies and globalization has “increased the powers of
the media, but has also made them more liable to ideological and commercial
pressures”,29 and this is true of journalism as well.
The Internet is a highly effective instrument for bringing news and information
rapidly to people. But the economic competitiveness and round-the-clock
nature of Internet journalism also contribute to sensationalism and rumor-mongering, to a merging of news, advertising, and entertainment, and to
an apparent decline in serious reporting and commentary. Honest journalism is
essential to the common good of nations and the international community.
Problems now visible in the practice of journalism on the Internet call for
speedy correcting by journalists themselves.
The sheer overwhelming quantity of information on the Internet, much of it
unevaluated as to accuracy and relevance, is a problem for many. But we also are
concerned lest people make use of the medium's technological capacity for
customizing information simply to raise electronic barriers against unfamiliar
ideas. That would be an unhealthy development in a pluralistic world where
people need to grow in mutual understanding. While Internet users have a duty to
be selective and self-disciplined, that should not be carried to the extreme
of walling themselves off from others. The medium's implications for
psychological development and health likewise need continued study, including
the possibility that prolonged immersion in the virtual world of cyberspace may
be damaging to some. Although there are many advantages in the capacity
technology gives people to “assemble packages of information and services
uniquely designed for them”, this also “raises an inescapable question: Will
the audience of the future be a multitude of audiences of one?...What would
become of solidarity—what would become of love—in a world like that?” 30
14. Standing alongside issues that have to do with freedom of expression, the
integrity and accuracy of news, and the sharing of ideas and information, is
another set of concerns generated by libertarianism. The ideology of radical
libertarianism is both mistaken and harmful—not least, to legitimate free
expression in the service of truth. The error lies in exalting freedom “to
such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of
values....In this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their
place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and ‘being at peace with
oneself”'.31 There is no room for authentic community, the common
good, and solidarity in this way of thinking.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSION
15. As we have seen, the virtue of solidarity is the measure of the Internet's
service of the common good. It is the common good that supplies the context for
considering the ethical question: “Are the media being used for good or
Many individuals and groups share responsibility in this matter—for example,
the transnational corporations of which we spoke above. All users of the
Internet are obliged to use it in an informed, disciplined way, for morally good
purposes; parents should guide and supervise children's use.33
Schools and other educational institutions and programs for children and adults
should provide training in discerning use of the Internet as part of a
comprehensive media education including not just training in technical
skills—‘computer literacy' and the like—but a capacity for informed,
discerning evaluation of content. Those whose decisions and actions contribute
to shaping the structure and contents of the Internet have an especially serious
duty to practice solidarity in the service of the common good.
16. Prior censorship by government should be avoided; “censorship...should
only be used in the very last extremity”.34 But the Internet is no
more exempt than other media from reasonable laws against hate speech, libel,
fraud, child pornography and pornography in general, and other offenses.
Criminal behavior in other contexts is criminal behavior in cyberspace, and the
civil authorities have a duty and a right to enforce such laws. New regulations
also may be needed to deal with special ‘Internet' crimes like the
dissemination of computer viruses, the theft of personal data stored on hard
disks, and the like.
Regulation of the Internet is desirable, and in principle industry
self-regulation is best. “The solution to problems arising from unregulated
commercialization and privatization does not lie in state control of media but
in more regulation according to criteria of public service and in greater public
accountability”.35 Industry codes of ethics can play a useful role,
provided they are seriously intended, involve representatives of the public in
their formulation and enforcement, and, along with giving encouragement to
responsible communicators, carry appropriate penalties for violations, including
public censure.36 Circumstances sometimes may require state
intervention: for example, by setting up media advisory boards representing the
range of opinion in the community.37
17. The Internet's transnational, boundary-bridging character and its role in
globalization require international cooperation in setting standards and
establishing mechanisms to promote and protect the international common good.38
In regard to media technology, as in regard to much else, “there is a pressing
need for equity at the international level”.39 Determined action in
the private and public sectors is needed to close and eventually eliminate the
Many difficult Internet-related questions call for international consensus:
for example, how to guarantee the privacy of law-abiding individuals and
groups without keeping law enforcement and security officials from exercising
surveillance over criminals and terrorists; how to protect copyright and
intellectual property rights without limiting access to material in the public
domain—and how to define the ‘public domain' itself; how to establish and
maintain broad-based Internet repositories of information freely available to
all Internet users in a variety of languages; how to protect women's rights in
regard to Internet access and other aspects of the new information technology.
In particular, the question of how to close the digital divide between the
information rich and the information poor requires urgent attention in its
technical, educational, and cultural aspects.
There is today a “growing sense of international solidarity” that offers the
United Nations system in particular “a unique opportunity to contribute to the
globalization of solidarity by serving as a meeting place for states and civil
society and as a convergence of the varied interests and needs...Cooperation
between international agencies and nongovernmental organizations will help to
ensure that the interests of states—legitimate though they may be—and of the
different groups within them, will not be invoked or defended at the expense of
the interests or rights of other peoples, especially the less fortunate”.40
In this connection we hope that the World Summit of the Information Society
scheduled to take place in 2003 will make a positive contribution to the
discussion of these matters.
18. As we pointed out above, a companion document to this one called The
Church and Internet speaks specifically about the Church's use of the
Internet and the Internet's role in the life of the Church. Here we wish only to
emphasize that the Catholic Church, along with other religious bodies, should
have a visible, active presence on the Internet and be a partner in the public
dialogue about its development. “The Church does not presume to dictate these
decisions and choices, but it does seek to be of help by indicating ethical and
moral criteria which are relevant to the process—criteria which are to be
found in both human and Christian values”.41
The Internet can make an enormously valuable contribution to human life. It can
foster prosperity and peace, intellectual and aesthetic growth, mutual
understanding among peoples and nations on a global scale.
It also can help men and women in their age-old search for self-understanding. In every age, including our own, people ask the same
fundamental questions: “Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going?
Why is there evil? What is there after this life?” 42 The Church
cannot impose answers, but she can—and must—proclaim to the world the
answers she has received; and today, as always, she offers the one ultimately
satisfying answer to the deepest questions of life—Jesus Christ, who “fully
reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”.43
Like today's world itself, the world of media, including the Internet, has been
brought by Christ, inchoately yet truly, within the boundaries of the kingdom of
God and placed in service to the word of salvation. Yet “far from diminishing
our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us
on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in
some way the age which is to come”.44
Vatican City, February 22, 2002, Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle.
John P. Foley
(1) Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Pastoral Instruction Aetatis
Novae on Social Communications on the twentieth anniversary of Communio
et progressio, n. 4.
(2) Pontifical Council for Social Communications, The Church and Internet.
(3) Cf. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics in
Communications, n. 5.
(4) Ibid., n. 21.
(5) Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes, n. 26; cf. Catechism of the
Catholic Church, n. 1906.
(6) John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, n. 38.
(7) John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, n. 2,
April 27, 2001.
(8) John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America,
(9) John Paul II, Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, n.
3, January 10, 2000.
(10) Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, n. 2.
(11) Ibid., n. 3.
(12) Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, Pastoral Instruction on
the Means of Social Communication, Communio et progressio, n. 19.
(13) Address to the Diplomatic Corps, n. 4.
(14) John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, n. 43.
(15) Ethics in Communications, n. 2.
(16) Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Pornography and Violence
in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response, n. 20.
(17) Ecclesia in America, n. 56.
(18) Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace 2001, n. 11.
(19) Ibid., n. 16.
(20) John Paul II, Message for the 33rd World Communications Day, n. 4, January
(21) John Paul II, Message for the 31st World Day of Communications, 1997.
(22) Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, n. 5.
(23) Ibid., n. 11.
(24) Novo millennio ineunte, n. 47.
(25) Message for the World Day of Peace 2001, n. 10.
(26) John Paul II, Centesimus annus, n. 47.
(27) Gaudium et spes, n. 59.
(28) Communio et progressio, nn. 25, 26.
(29) John Paul II, Address to the Jubilee of Journalists, n. 2, June 4, 2000.
(30) Ethics in Communications, n. 29.
(31) John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, n. 32.
(32) Ethics in Communications, n. 1.
(33) Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris
consortio, n. 76.
(34) Communio et progressio, n. 86.
(35) Aetatis Novae, n. 5.
(36) Cf. Communio et progressio, n. 79.
(37) Ibid., n. 88.
(38) Cf. Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, n. 2.
(39) Ethics in Communications, n. 22.
(40) John Paul II, Address to the UN Secretary General and to the Administrative
Committee on Coordination of the United Nations, nn. 2, 3, April 7, 2000.
(41) Aetatis Novae, n. 12.
(42) John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, n. 1.
(43) Gaudium et spes, n. 22.
(44) Ibid., n. 39.