The perils of surfing the Internet
THE NEWS that new Vatican rules are to allow cloistered nuns limited access to modern means of communication, including the Internet, has provoked a few smiles (as John Ryan's cartoon this week demonstrates). But why? Most humour derives from a perception of the incongruous: and in this case the joke, surely, is that here is a class of persons who have enclosed themselves away from the world — with all its evils, distractions and temptations so that they can direct their minds towards God; and here they are being given permission to indulge in what can be one of the world's most morally perilous and dangerously obsessive activities: surfing the Internet.
They have also been given permission to watch television but in a tightly restricted way, in order to "safeguard [their] spiritual meditation" and to "preserve the silence of the cloister". One assumes that similar restrictions — perhaps to particular websites — have been devised for the sisters' protection. But as many who have succumbed to the lure of the web will attest, the call of the surf is strong, adventures of the mind beckon seductively, all one needs is to click on to a good search engine and inside a minute one can have stumbled (almost by accident) into Sodom or Gomorrah, where the adventure is liable to take a very nasty turn indeed, and where the silence of the cloister will avail little.
None of this, of course, is by itself a reason for forbidding religious sisters the use of the net. But such thoughts are bound to present themselves: here is a new medium, powerful for good, but also with a potential for the most unspeakable evil, no less unspeakable that it is an evil in the mind, where all wickedness begins.
But Christians individually, and the Church corporately, cannot ignore the potential of the Internet for good. In the words of the American Catholic bishops, in a document entitled Renewing the Mind of the Media, published last year, "The internet, unknown to most until quite recently, is now an essential tool for business, education and other kinds of communication". Quite simply, the benefits of the "information super-highway" are too substantial to be ignored. Every diocese (and many parishes) have their own website. If you want the text of any major encyclical, go to the Vatican website and you will fmd it.
But to the vulnerable, the website has a destructive potential of which parents in particular need to be more aware than most of them are. Religious sisters, who live in communities of prayer, and who have the spiritual strength and maturity to withstand such material will still, undoubtedly, consider it prudent to use the internet with extreme circumspection. But the children — how are we to protect them?
It is a real problem. As the American bishops put it last year, "the utility of the internet has already been compromised by those using it to sell sex and violence or to transmit messages of hate. This gateway to a vast world of learning and information is also a means of adults and children accessing obscenity, violence and prejudice. 'Adult' and hate-provoking web sites appear on the internet as do the equivalents of adult bookstores. Parents do not want the intemet to bring into the home these kinds of environments from which they would normally protect their children, but they can feel helpless to prevent this happening".
What is to be done? Many children today have their own online computers in their own rooms. Simply to disconnect them would be to rob them of the real benefits that such access to knowledge can bring. Traditionally, the answer would have been that it is the government's job to stop it. Part of the problem is that much if not most of the worst material is completely out of the control of our government. And since the government from whose territory — the United States of America — most of the objectionable material emanates is debarred by the American constitution (as interpreted by the US Supreme Court) from doing anything which might be interpreted as an interference with "free speech", the rest of us must suffer, too. Obscenity can be a reason for withdrawing this protection: but in most cases American law is powerless to act.
This creates a problem which must, therefore, be solved in some other way. To a large extent, we are at the mercy of the American obscenity laws. Governments world-wide should bring pressure to bear on the US (though the likelihood of that happening in the present climate is remote). And the ingenuity of man could surely devote some way — analogous to the V chip — in which parents might exercise control over what enters the house by way of the modem.
The American bishops have already called on their own government to "seek to persuade the industry to create the products by which consumers can block unwanted material for themselves or their families". Perhaps the Vatican might sponsor the necessary research. That would be a boon, not only to the world's families, but to our religious communities, too: no more stories about nuns surfing the net.