You may have heard that the blogosphere (the community of Catholic bloggers) has been involved in a bit of controversy lately. If you haven’t, good for you. The rest of us lost a week or two of our lives we can never reclaim. I’m really not interested in rehashing the sordid details of what started the battle.
Like all great controversies, this had nothing to do with what the Pope did or didn’t do. It was a chance for the warring factions in the Church to continue their war against each other. And they did so with a vengeance. While everyone wanted to gin up the outrage, most people watched on in disgust as orthodox catholics went after each other in ways they would never against their own vices or the devil. Once you stepped out of the echo chamber, it wasn’t “who was right” but rather “both were wrong.”
About the only good thing that happened out of this affair is the issue of civility in online discourse is being forced upon the Catholic consciousness. In my opinion, this is a discussion that is over a decade in the making. The unfiltered nature of the internet allows a lot of really interesting commentary. Without first being a blogger, I am pretty certain there is next to no chance my opinions would have found an audience in the “mainstream” Catholic commentary of that time. From there I would have never moved on to being editor here, and also having a fairly popular bi-weekly column elsewhere.
Yet for every blessing, there is a clear curse in the tradeoff. Having no editorial oversight means you can post opinions freely. It also means you inevitably post things you shouldn’t have. This problem occurs on steroids when you go to Facebook or Twitter. (Why is an interesting debate for another time.) A shoot might be raw and convey emotion better. Yet emotion can also lead to us saying some pretty stupid things.
If Catholics online are going to flourish and do something beyond ginning up controversy and peddling outrage porn, we need to keep a few things in mind. Since the way that debate occurs is difficult (but not impossible) to regulate, we can limit its damage by applying certain virtues to our online intercourse with our fellow Catholics
First and foremost, Catholics need to accept that there is such a thing as legitimacy in diversity. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean someone needs to be silenced or stigmatized. One of the truly regrettable parts of this entire affair is that people on both sides tried to make it personal. Various bloggers and writers had their jobs threatened. They weren’t threatened because they said something heretical. They weren’t threatened because they were under some punishment by their local ordinary. They were threatened because they said or reported something unpopular. Pope Benedict XV warned against this type of mentality a century ago (!):
As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline-in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See- there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.
In that exhortation, Benedict warns against breaches of charity. What might such a breach look like? St. Pius X condemned one style of breach that I feel is quite relevant.
…..It is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity. True the Apostle exhorted Timothy: “Accuse, beseech, rebuke,” but he took care to add: “with all patience” (11. Tim. iv., 2)… This charity, “patient and kind” (1. Cor. xiii., 4.), will extend itself also to those who are hostile to us and persecute us. “We are reviled,” thus did St. Paul protest, “and we bless; we are persecuted and we suffer it; we are blasphemed and we entreat” (1. Cor., iv., 12, s.). They perhaps seem to be worse than they really are. Their associations with others, prejudice, the counsel, advice and example of others, and finally an ill-advised shame have dragged them to the side of the impious; but their wills are not so depraved as they themselves would seek to make people believe.
“They perhaps seem worse than they really are.” How often does our writing about others reflect that? How often do we try to give someone the benefit of the doubt before hitting the post button? How often do we admit that nobody, for better or worse, is entirely consistent in their ideology?
In addition to these concerns about charity, we also need to exercise greater humility in our own actions. When you hit post, what are you bringing to the table that is unique and worth hearing? If you feel you need to protect the leader of the worlds largest religion from some amateur blogger/reporter somewhere “bashing” him, I submit the Pope will survive without your writing.
If you feel that you need to boldly step up and protect the Church from the pope, that without your counsel people will fall sway to some alleged errors the pope may or may not profess, be warned that Blessed Pius IX doesn’t really like such an idea (Quartus Supra , paragraph 10). While a pope being wrong isn’t something unheard of, it is wise to ask ourselves if things are what we see them to be, or is this another case of St. Gelasius’ warning that “the flock ought to follow the shepherd who calls them back to safe pastures, rather than the shepherd follow the flock as it wanders off the road”?
A final bit of advice would be to heed the admonition of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:1-5). In it he deplores the practice of Christians taking each other to court to attempt to get damages from the other. Normally such courts were coupled by non-believers, and shame was brought down upon all Christians because of this pettiness. St. Paul reminds them that instead they should have a “wise man who is able to judge the brethren.”
While individual mileage may vary, Catholics have such an institution present. It is called the local bishop. If you think someone is doing something so damaging to the Catholic Faith that they need to be silenced, present your case before the Bishop. After him, keep going up the chain if you feel the need to. While they might delay or reject taking action because they are modernist heathens, they also might delay or reject taking action because your little crusade is flawed and injurious to someone needlessly. Somehow, and I don’t know how, the point of the Catholic Internet seemed to be Orthodoxy Cop.
None of this is to say that debate or criticism can’t happen. It does happen, it should happen, and it must happen. As Benedict stated, everyone should be entitled to their own opinion in matters in which the Apostolic See hasn’t decisively intervened. Especially when the question isn’t doctrine, but how to apply said doctrine. Yet the way that debate occurs must be regulated, and that regulation must begin at home.
I understand the approach of “my brother is wrong, not evil, but given the fact Rome hasn’t ruled definitively, I have to allow him to speak, and if there’s a serious problem, rely on what the bishops say, not me” won’t lead to a lot of web traffic. Yet it just might help Catholics rediscover the purpose of writing as a Catholic: as a way to help further the Gospel and educate the faithful.