By Mike Nelson
THEIR MARRIAGE WAS breaking up, a woman recently told
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ron Rolheiser, because
her husband wouldn't talk to her – even though he did
spend several hours a day in Internet chat rooms where,
the woman said, "he doesn't have to deal with real
"There is a real danger in becoming addicted to
'electronic connection,' " said Father Rolheiser. "As an
information tool, the Internet is one of the great
educational tools in the history of the planet. But it
is information, not reality. It also has dangers, and
one of them is its potential I for overuse to the point
of forsaking actual human contact."
Father Rolheiser – a teacher and author who will
address two spiritually related topics at the upcoming
Religious Education Congress in Anaheim – is not alone
in citing the mixed blessings of advanced electronic
communications technology. Tools like the Internet,
e-mail and chat rooms have been a boon to the spread and
sharing of information, but in many cases have also been
a bane to the development of personal relationships.
"In electronic communication you miss that embodied
presence – the visual cues, the body language, the
changes in vocal tones – that nothing else can
communicate," says Dr. Wendy M. Wright, professor at
Creighton University in Omaha, who will address families
and parenting in two Congress workshops. There is no way
that electronic communication can reflect the whole
self. There is something about the pauses, the tonality
of real conversation that is more rewarding and
Wright acknowledges that e-mail communication has a
useful purpose; he uses it herself to talk with her
daughter who attends college out of state, and to
exchange messages with her husband, a fellow faculty
member at Creighton. But as the mother of 14-year-old
son who enjoys com- games, she is very aware of the need
to monitor the use of such "toys."
"The same is true for watching television," she says.
"All technology is open to damaging influences if it is
used as a substitute for what it means to be alive and
Father Rolheiser, as general council of his religious
order, lives parts of the year in Rome and Toronto, and
has family in western Canada. "And I am in touch with
all three places daily," he notes. "The fact that we
have such instant, almost free access to anywhere in the
world is a marvelous phenomenon. Nor can we be naive and
ignore that this technology and capability exists, even
though I have some artist friends who refuse to use this
because they say it is devoid of reality."
But Father Rolheiser readily agrees with his artist
friends that electronic communication has no soul. "Even
in a book, there is something on the printed page that
speaks to us in a way that e-mail can't," he says. "And
handwritten letters have become almost a lost art, yet
there is a soul attached to these that can't come
through in the generic, bland computer typeface that
posts our e-mail."
Wright agrees. "Seeing the actual ink on a printed
page of a personal letter makes a difference," she says.
"It says to the receiver that the sender cared enough to
spend time sharing part of himself. That's why I prefer
that or, even better, a phone conversation with my
daughter as opposed to the uniformity, the lack of
intimacy with e-mail."
Both she and Father Rolheiser find that electronic
communication offers great value to those who might
otherwise be go unheard – whether it be a shy,
introverted individual or a Third World nation seeking
information to compete more equitably. The key, they
say, is ensuring that such communication does not become
a substitute for real human contact.
"You run the same risk with anything that has the
potential for addictiveness or obsession," says Father
Rolheiser. "If a person finds himself able to talk to
anyone in the world electronically, but can't discuss
anything with his own wife in person, then there is a
line that has been crossed."
Father Ron Rolheiser will speak on "The Holy Longing"
(April 7) and "The Great Divorce Between Wisdom and
Life" (April 8) at the Religious Education Congress in
Anaheim. Wendy Wright will speak on "The Charism of
Parenting" (April 8) and "Ministering to Families" April