“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12: 4-5)
It’s 4:22 p.m. as I sit down to write this. Like most Millennials, I carry my iPhone with me at all times. My backpack is busting at the seams, it seems, from the weight of my books on canon law, Catholic social doctrine, liturgical theology, and even a book on preaching. I sit down at the library, reading to dive into the deep, rich theological traditions of the Catholic Church, when my undisciplined finger twitches and I somehow end up on Facebook, the digital land of milk and honey, filled to the brim with videos of puppies playing in the grass, political rants, updates on a person’s recent job transition, Buzzfeed ‘listicles’ (“7 Things I Learned From My Ex”, “6 Things Disney Characters Taught Us About Life”, etc), and so on. Eventually, I scroll and see a post by the relatively famous American Jesuit Catholic priest, Fr. James Martin, SJ. As of the time of me writing this post, Fr. Martin’s official Facebook page has 467,384 ‘likes’, an extraordinary amount of a Catholic priest, and a drop in the bucket of the 77 million ‘likes’ of another esteemed public figure, Justin Bieber. Fr. Martin often posts on current happenings on the Church; for years, now, his official Twitter account posts daily reflections on the Gospel of the day, spiritual meditations, and updates on Catholic news. I see that today’s post is prefaced with an introductory nota bene– “NB: Two post limit. Be charitable. No ad hominem. Keep on topic please.” Scrolling down farther, I see another post, with the same preface. Scrolling yet even farther, I see another post. And another. And another- all with the same intro line. Of course, as someone who has followed Father Martin’s online ministry for years now, this is nothing new- but apparently, for some reason, it still needs to be said.
Wading deep into the waters of procrastination, my twitchy finger begins to type in a new URL. Suddenly, before my eyes, I come across a website with a beautiful header, a 19th century painting depicting a young Catholic priest distributing Holy Communion to a group of simple, plain-clothed peasants, all gathering together at the front steps of the Church to receive the Eucharist. As I scroll down the website, I see various blog posts by a variety of authors. To the right of these posts is a Twitter feed, which from what I can tell, is very active- sometimes ‘tweeting’ several times an hour. I scroll farther and farther down the website, and my interest is piqued by the titles of blog posts. Some are quite noble-“Help the Benedictines of Mary Build a New Church!”- others, (“The Heretic Pope”), not so much. Sometimes, the blog post is a news update; another time, it may be a homily by a priest. Sometimes, the post reports news from the US and Europe- the Church as it is experienced in the global South and East Asian countries, not so much. Sometimes, the posts are quite supportive of the Holy Father, especially in his announced “Year of Mercy”. But most of the time, not so much.
Catholicism has a contemporary crisis- in an age where former global boundaries have vastly shrunk, where one can observe a political protest in Iran, watch a wildlife expert wrestle an anaconda in New Zealand, or even watch the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Ecuador, the digital landscape provides information and interaction across cultures like never before, and by and large, the Church’s presence on the Internet is largely embarrassing, at best, and scandalous, at worst. The Greek word for scandal, “skandalon”, can be translated into English as “stumbling block”. To cause scandal is to cause another to stumble, whether by our words or actions. To be scandalous is to be the cause for another to stumble, whether by our public persona or who we present ourselves to be. Catholicism, as it is often expressed on the Internet, is a cause of scandal, of making others stumble, a roadblock to the path of Christ.
Since the beginning of the Church, as handed down by Christ to His Apostles, media has played an important part in the role of evangelization. St. Paul, author of a large portion of the New Testament, composed letters to communicate to the local churches, exhorting them, encouraging them, warning them, educating them, and correcting them. Whether by writing, art, hymnody, dance, the early Church communicated the Catholic faith through the media of their day. During the Renaissance period, the creation of the printing press allowed for a printing of Bibles, pamphlets, books, and newsletters, which were disseminated throughout all of Europe, bringing people to the Catholic faith (or persuading them to join the Lutheran church!). In the modern period, the evolution and spread of photography, magazines, audio and radio communication, and the telephone allowed for Catholic dioceses and religious orders to establish a media presence, where to educate their faithful on matters pertaining to their life of faith. With the dawn of mobile cellular phones, tablets, laptops and personal computers, and the explosion of Internet access for billions of people living on this earth, the Church is tasked with making Christ known and loved, through teaching, preaching, and the witness of holiness in the ordinary, daily lives of everyday Catholics. Dioceses now have large websites with listings of all of their offices and ministries, religious orders have online forms to fill out for potential candidates, parishes have an online presence with mass times and religious education information. As helpful as these resources are, they are not the front-lines of Catholic engagement with the Internet world, no more than American engagement with politics is with official, US government websites. If you want to find the newest, exciting, and most “lit” (as the youth say) place to discuss politics, it will be on social media newsfeeds, comment sections of online newspapers, and blogs. And if you want to find the crisis Catholicism faces in 2016, you will find it there.
For one reason or another, Catholicism-on-the-Web is largely dictated by snarkiness, political divide, and general ugliness. I speak not as a “prophet of doom”, but rather as a realist. For years now, and in an escalating manner, Catholics on social media have largely caused scandal to others by showing the sad divide of our Church on a plethora of issues, or even in Her mission. Catholics who identify as “conservative”, “liberal” and everywhere in between are engaged in a war- not with the world, not with sin, not with unbelief, but rather each other. The Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, is a body torn apart by political strife and inter-ideological warfare- a total war, if you will. If you do not believe me, then check it out for yourself; Father James Martin SJ’s Facebook page is a prime example. The fact that a Catholic priest has to write a nota bene forbidding ad hominem attacks and encouraging charity in comments, when his primary readership are ‘practicing’ Catholics themselves, is a sign that something is wrong, and something needs to change. Father Thomas Roscia, a Basilian Father and Catholic priest most known for his work within media communications, hit this unfortunate truth on its head this past May when he warned, to a group of journalists of this “culture of death”, and stated that Catholic blogs have become “cesspools of hatred”. Within hours of this news being reported by Crux, websites such as The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, OneMadMomBlog, and Abbey Roads proved his point further, by continuing the calumny, erroneously accusing him of being “some liberal” and “renegade”, questioning if their hatred is not actually just a “zeal for souls”- as the saints throughout history have showed us, zeal for souls is a gift of God given by grace, and grace is a participation in the life and love of God- something that is clearly lacking in hateful words and actions. While Fr. Roscia’s point rang true, it probably won’t change anything, because those Catholics engaging in this polemic view themselves as righteous bastions of holy orthodoxy, and thus the more you criticize their approach, the more they believe they are serving the “Truth”.
I often imagine what non-Catholics think of Catholicism when they see Catholics comment on posts, whether regarding Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the Church’s understanding of marriage, among other issues posted on Catholic websites. I, of course, am biased- I am Catholic, and I keep up on all of the latest news and gossip in the Church. But I wonder what the experience is like for an inquisitive soul, who deeply desires to learn more about the Catholic faith, and yet when they search the hashtag “#Catholic” on social media or type “Catholic blog” on Google, they find such deplorable pulpits of doom, misery, and bitterness. I often wonder if these people truly believe that this is what the Church is about- anxious, angry individuals trying to assert their “truth” and impose it dogmatically, instead of doing actual research & learning what the Magisterium of the Catholic Church truly teaches. I often wonder how many dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of people have sought to explore Catholicism in 2016, and all they find is desolation and viciousness. I envision this curious onlooker who finally seeks to take his or her first step into the Christian life as one who approaches a king. The king, in his beautiful, majestic throne room, is excited to receive this new servant, a guest the king himself will wait on. So, the king orders his closest servants to go and bring the curious onlooker to the foot of the throne, but the king’s orders fall on deaf ears- his royal guard and closest servants are in the midst of a big, tumultuous fight after weeks and weeks of bickering. The king is looking at the curious onlooker, but he cannot get past the angry, crowded mess his servants have created; and ironically, the servants, whose job it was to serve the king and bring onlookers to his service, have themselves become the obstacles to which the person cannot be received by the king who desires the onlooker so dearly. This, for me, is the parallel of Christ the King, who, as St. Teresa of Avila says, “…has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” Christ, who has no body on earth besides the Body of Christ as seen in His Church, has willed that His Church be the instrument by which His Body can extend and encounter those outside, in need, and seeking His Truth. And when the members of His Body, the Church, become deficient and fight each other, it’s like a body which seeks to help someone in need, but cannot reach the person because the leg just kicked the chest, while the hand pulls the ear, and the knees smack against each other. This is the Body of Christ at war with itself, a Body broken, not out of love for the ‘other, but rather a Body broken due to its strain from its own members. This is not the will of God, and this is not the mission of the Church-in-the-world.
Oh, we all know what it looks like.”Pope Francis is a heretic!!!” “You’re just a wackjob conservative”, “You effeminate sodomites are destroying the Church!” (All actual comments I have seen and documented on my newsfeed). We all know what it looks like- James Martin, SJ tweets “God loves you!” and Athanasius the Inquisitor of Heterodoxy replies “- but He also talks about judgement!!!!”. Traditional Catholic blogs cannot state with St. Francis de Sales’ douceur (“gentle sweetness”) the truths of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic faith. Nay, in order to build up their readership, they feel the need to tear down others, by sensationalizing news of Pope Francis and constantly criticizing the Church post-Vatican II. Whether by posting videos of “liturgical abuse”, whining about “clown masses” (as if they were ever a thing), or mocking Protestant ministers (especially when they’re women), the “conservative” Catholic presence has largely embarrassed the Church by not being able to affirm the truths of the faith civilly without resorting to bitter and insecure polemic. Oh, and let’s not forget Ms. Anne Barnhardt, who referred to Pope Francis as a “diabolical narcissist,” and in an interview at Creative Minority Report calls the pope a “fag hag.”
Catholic memes, another possible form of media, has sometimes been used responsibly for the promotion of the faith, and other times been used harmfully. I recall one meme in particular discussing the “punching of heretics”, a nod to St. Nicholas, who was said to once have punched Arius, a heretic, in the face at an ecumenical council. Another meme depicts a Christian crusader in full armor and garb, holding up a sword, with a chat bubble saying “Deus vult!” (Latin for “God wills it”, the infamous slogan of the crusaders inspired by Pope Urban II and his First Crusade in 1095). The comments are just as uninspiring, as they are filled with laughing emojis or “witty” comments in response. None of the comments discuss the sensitive nature 0f the Crusades or the destruction and havoc they caused. No comments seem to address the centuries of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic bias essentially sponsored by the Church throughout the medieval period, even up until the early 20th century. No comments mentioning that, because it isn’t “trendy”, as a Catholic on the Interwebz, to come to terms with actual history and crimes committed by members of our Church, fallaciously justified by “God’s will”.
And yet, the sharp, biting tone of Catholics on the Internet is not just reserved for the ‘conservative’ branch. The ‘liberal’ community of Catholics, mostly aged in their 50s, 60s, and 70s and children of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’, are susceptible to an exclusive ‘inclusiveness’, one that attacks the Catholic hierarchy except when they promote something in accordance with their personal beliefs and interests. Any discussion of traditional liturgy (the recent reactions to the possible return of ‘ad orientem’ was surprisingly negative), magisterial teaching on faith and morals (especially regarding marriage & the family, sexual ethics, contraception/abortion) are subject to ridicule and slander. Cardinal Burke and other traditionalist bishops are treated with such disdain and disrespect, with some in the comment section insinuating that he is a “closet homosexual” because he celebrates mass with traditional, episcopal, regal garb. Really, people? We need to do better than this.
“But it’s not just Catholics… it’s politics too,” you might add. Granted, it’s true. But the main difference (among many) between politics and the Catholic faith is that one is commanded by God to be proclaimed as “Good News”, and the other is politics. If these are the messengers of ‘good news’, I sure do not want to meet the bringers of the bad. The narcissistic and vile commentary of Catholic news & theology on both sides of the political spectrum taint the beauty of the Good News and turn it into their own warped, sinful creation. And put simply, this is a damn shame. It’s a shame because the Catholic faith is about much more than just the “do not’s”- in fact, the very source and summit of our life, the Eucharist, flows from a command to “Do this”. Until Catholic blogs focus more on what we, as Christians, are called “to do”, then we will forever be suffocated by a hazy fog of “do not’s”.
Moreover, many Catholics, in their social media presence, do not realize the damage they do by their vitriol. Many blogs will affirm their hatred and masquerade it as “defending the TRUTH!!!” and “orthodoxy!!”, when it is anything but. These snarky Catholics have lost their sense of the theological virtues, of faith, hope, and charitable love. They have placed partisan politics and ideology over self-sacrificial discipleship of the Crucified One. As a practicing Catholic who fails quite frequently but continues to seek mercy and grace, I understand that matters of faith and morals are important. But there is no excuse for justifying the polemical nature of Catholic commentators on the blogs, newspapers, and social media- none. Do polemics have a role in the faith? Sure, I would say that the tone and style of early Christian apologists (Justin Martyr comes to mind) or even some popes were warranted. However, not everything Justin Martyr or early defenders of Christian doctrine was a reactionary response to issues of the day- rather, they spent much more time in prayer, study, and community to focus on the locus of the Gospel- Jesus Christ, a person who seems to be lacking in the depths of Catholic social media and blogs.
When the early Church was so concerned about their “enemies”, even from within, the inspired authors of Sacred Scripture encourage us to focus on the kerygma- that is, the preaching and announcement of the Good News. This does not simply mean that they would ignore big issues of the day, but rather, it is a call to focus on the preaching of the Gospel message first. How many Catholic blogs have you found recently dedicated on the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel? How many ‘top voted’ comments on Facebook pages dedicated to Catholicism have been about the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of grace and its relation to nature, the beauty of God’s creative action, or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us sinners, as well as the beauty of the Resurrection and what our mission as Church is- as people called in service to Christ and neighbor. I do not find many. Instead, I find blogs dedicated for “thin” liturgy (a term used by David Fagerberg, professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame), that is, the focus on rubrics and rules regarding our worship, instead of talking about the One whom is the object and source of our worship. What Catholic blogs need, more now than ever, is two things: one, a radical re-orientation to the Gospel message and the basic kerygmatic proclamation of the Christian message, and two, a rediscovery of charity. I am not advocating for a watering-down of the truths spoken by Christ Himself as recorded in Sacred Scripture, but what I am advocating is a discussion of these truths in a spirit of fraternal charity and kindness. Our Church needs less polemicists and more grace-filled messengers of Jesus Christ; our Church needs less hatred of the ‘other’, and more mercy for those who we disagree with; our Church needs less of what’s going on currently in Catholic social media circles, and more of what Pope Francis is trying to usher in: a year of favor from the Lord, a year where we find new ways to seek forgiveness from God and change our lives to be missionaries and disciples of Mercy Himself. We can only do that when we lay down our arms and embrace each other. Far from being a ‘soft’ witness, this tenderness is what Jesus calls His disciples to when he says, “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). When mercy is seen as weakness and as a message that needs to be constantly and anxiously by the warning “God judges too!”, one realizes that we, as Catholic Christians, are still very, very uncomfortable with the path Jesus invites His disciples to follow, one which we learn from through meekness and humility of heart (Matthew 11:29). As the newly-canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Part of the issue plaguing Catholics and their presence on social media is this very forgetting of the fact that we belong to one another. If we are supposed to be the Body of Christ, we better be broken for others, and not broken because of each other. Until then, we risk becoming a grave annoyance, one that will forever turn people ‘off’ from the saving act of God in Christ Jesus, or worse, become a scandal- a stumbling block- that prevents others from following Christ.
It is now 5:54 p.m. My iPhone is still with me, my backpack is still a penance to carry, and I have not gotten any of the work I need done for tomorrow. I spent the last hour and some-odd minutes scrolling endlessly between the blogs. In the same way my grandmother had her “soaps”, where she would flip and watch a little bit of each, piecing together an odd story from the same general narrative, I have my “sites”- my favorite Catholic websites to check out, where I try to piece together what, besides the externals & pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, actually make these blogs and Facebook pages “Catholic”, and it’s not exactly clear to me. But what does come to my mind, very clearly, are the words of Christ, echoing the Prophet Isaiah: “”These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8).