By IHE Undergraduate Fellow Renee Rasmussen
College campuses have long been the center stage for culture wars, and my own university is no exception. Though cycles of political uproar remain constant, however, a significant change has taken place in recent years: no longer is this war fought face-to-face, but rather on the screen.
Venerable Fulton Sheen, an alumnus and professor who spent 23 years at The Catholic University of America, anticipated this shift, and worked through radio and TV, using the media to spread truth and cultivate authentic human relationships.
In our new age of social media, however, we seem to have lost touch with his mission. A public platform does not require credentials, much less etiquette and love. We are enticed by the thrills of likes and retweets. Social media has a way of making us all think we are Fulton Sheen, though we have neither his education, authority, nor rhetorical skill.
I have seen this especially among my peers in the ways we have leapt into social media to fight the just war of truth, but fallen prey to the dangers of social media.
Catholic campuses are not immune to the culture war. In fact, students on these campuses feel it more acutely. Those who choose a Catholic university (often at significant financial cost) in order to receive a strong foundation in Catholic morals and ideas are rightly shocked by the antagonism apparent among peers, professors, and administrators. This shock easily builds to frustration and anger, and students then use social media as an outlet for these emotions.
Now, I speak as a traditionally-minded Catholic who prefers the Traditional Rite. I could easily be considered a member of the “Return to Tradition” movement that has exploded among the younger generation of Catholics.
Yet, I have observed how this frustration and anger can cause students to feel as though they must do something to “fix” the campus. Good desires to uphold truth and find faithful Catholic peers can lead well-intentioned students to ghettoize themselves in resentment. They desire to wage a war of truth, but instead succumb to polarization that leads to greater division.
This polarization is occurring on both the right and left, driving wedges between “groups” and creating hostile environments where no real change, much less conversion, can happen.
Still, the pressure is always building to take to social media and make our opinions known, even though we well know that social media seldom changes anyone’s mind. We know the Twitter argument we spent a day obsessing over did not convert anyone, yet we continue to tweet.
Since quitting Twitter myself, I have been amazed to realize how much tension I carried from feeling that I had to constantly be involved in an invisible war.
The tension created by the social media environment is tangible and strange. It is not uncommon to be in a classroom with several people whose political views I “know” based on their social media profiles, even though we have never spoken in real life. Instead of serving as the basis for discussion, this “knowledge” is more likely to push everyone a little further inside of our own shells, afraid of inadvertently crossing a political line.
The culture war may be on our campuses, but it is fought on the screens, and no one leaves a winner. Rather, year-long friendships are broken, names are destroyed, lives are ruined, and no one changes their mind. It is a pointless exercise.
So, how does our generation fight for the truth without falling prey to the agitation, division, and radicalization that muddle it?
The first step is to delete anonymous Twitter accounts and put our names on our opinions. Faithful Catholics must make our presence on campus known, and stop hiding behind the anonymity and faceless nature of social media. We must live for truth and strive for holiness.
We live in a noisy world, and social media only makes it louder. It is imperative for young Catholics to turn off the noise and seek out the Lord in the silence of prayer. Having a life rooted in silence and prayer reminds us that we should do all for the glory of God, not for the glory of ourselves. It is important for Catholics to meditate with the Gospels with child-like wonder, and study doctrine without assuming we are already experts due to the Twitter arguments and YouTube debates we have greedily consumed.
Besides prayer, the easiest and most beautiful way to enact change during a radical time is to build up holy friendships and communities. Catholic college students should put their energy into shifting the culture back to Catholic ideals by actually living them out.
An authentic Catholic community on a college campus is one where friends can find the strength in each other to worship our Lord “in spirit and in truth,” humbling ourselves through frequent confession and Holy Communion.
I believe this can be brought about when students begin to embrace the smallest acts of bravery, like accepting the “white martyrdom” of interrupting a rant session among close friends, and instead encouraging prayer for the leaders whom we so freely accuse of causing spiritual harm.
The desperate need to fight for truth is an overwhelming desire in many young Catholics right now, and it is an innately good one. However, we must remember that the fight starts within; we must examine our own spiritual life before we can cause any change in the outward world. If we want to truly change the world, we must start with the small work God has placed right before us.
As Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once said, “No man discovers anything big unless he makes himself small.”
Renee Rasmussen is an English major and theology minor at The Catholic University of America. She is an IHE Saint John Henry Newman Undergraduate Fellow whose dream is to one day become a Catholic writer.