The Pontifical Council for Social Communications offered "a Catholic view of the Internet" in two 27-page documents, "Ethics in Internet" and "The Church and Internet."
Archbishop John Foley, president of the council, told a Vatican news conference attended by five cardinals and scores of communications experts that he believed all prelates must "become Internet-literate to understand how to use its potential."
"This technology can be a means of solving human problems, promoting the integral development of person, creating a world governed by justice and peace and love," the council said in "Ethics in Internet."
But, it said, "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.
"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," it said. "But the benefits can be fully realized only if the problems are solved."
Archbishop Pierfranco Pastore, a former Vatican spokesman who is secretary of the council, said its documents were written to "offer principles, not concrete proposals." The council previously issued documents on ethics in advertising and in social communications.
The council also cautioned against excluding poor people and nations and women from the benefits of the Internet through a "digital divide." It said that public institutions have a responsibility to provide free Internet access to the poor.
Another serious problem, it said, is the risk of "cultural domination." By "transmitting the value-laden message of Western secular culture to people and societies in many cases ill-prepared to evaluate and cope with it," it said, the Internet is creating a crisis in marriage and family life in many parts of the world.
The council deplored attempts to block access to information on the Internet, use it to spread propaganda or "impede legitimate freedom of expression and opinion."
"Authoritarian regimes are by far the worst offenders in this regard," it said, "but the problem also exists in liberal democracies where access to media for political expression often depends on wealth, and politicians and their advisers violate truthfulness and fairness by misrepresenting opponents and shrinking issues to sound-bite dimensions."
In addition, it said, "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."
The council endorsed action to prevent "hate speech, libel, fraud, child pornography and pornography in general" as well as crimes like spreading viruses and stealing personal data stored on hard disks.
"Regulation of the Internet is desirable, and, in principle, industry self-regulation is best," the council said. Noting that a World Summit of the Information Society will be held in 2003, it said United Nations agencies also can help to defend the legitimate interests of all Internet users.
In "The Church and Internet," the council urged church leaders and members to use the Internet creatively for administration, internal communication, education and training as well as for spreading the gospel.
"The technology is new, but the idea is not," it said.