“Fight all error, but do it with good humor, patience, kindness and love. Harshness will damage your own soul and spoil the best cause.”
-St. John Cantius
“A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.”
-Pope Francis, 1/28/14
In the above quote, Pope Francis notes the power of the internet to join people together. While many today engage in collective hand-wringing over the negative effects of technology, our pope has instead taken the optimistic road. Lauding the internet’s ability to bring us closer together, it can also lead us to become a tighter-knit community.
But while there is great potential for unity through the world, there is also the potential for abuse and unchecked aggression. Anyone who has run afoul of pro-abortion-choicers on Facebook or in the comment boxes of bloggers knows how vicious the commentary can get. Profanity can run rampant, along with personal attacks against one’s intelligence, physical characteristics and familial connections. In extreme cases, one finds threats to one’s own health and family tossed off as casually as a classroom insult or a sports-based debate riposte.
More distressing is the number of Catholic media figures that are sinking to this level. Reports and personal experience stories are mounting of vulgarity, bullying, personal attacks and other forms of unacceptable behavior emerging from Catholic bloggers and their fans in the web-culture. Ironically, these attacks rarely center around the traditional ‘hot button’ issues of abortion, or even mid-level issues like ordaining women to the priesthood. More often today, Catholics are finding themselves the target of verbal abuse, ‘unfriending’ and banning from blogging boards for disagreeing with Catholic bloggers on peripheral issues like water-boarding, lying to save unborn children, or giving a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Indeed, another part of this disturbing, emerging trend is the tendency of some Catholic bloggers to pronounce others as ‘not-Catholic’ if they have the ‘wrong’ opinions on these issues. Such bloggers equate detractors with pro-abortion choice Catholics, or Catholics who hold outright heretical views. Ironic, considering that virtually all heresy is an attempt to usurp the rightful authority of the Church, and Catholic bloggers who declare others as ‘un-Catholics’ are claiming an authority reserved for the Church alone.
It is true that some people who post in the comment boxes of a blog will not be convinced by anything a blogger or commentator will say. It is also understandable that some ‘combox’ posters can be frustrating to deal with.
But a Catholic blogger must be above the fray that characterizes most internet debates today. Realize: You are not, in the end, only trying to convince the person you are arguing with. You are also trying to convince the bystander who is only reading. In your commentary and answers to your detractors, you are also witnessing to the bystanders who may be on the fence with regards to the Church, and an uncharitable comment could easily knock them off into the wrong side.
Karl Keating noted in his classic work Catholicism and Fundamentalism that to bring others into the Church, one must argue to explain, not to win. Catholic converts and apologists like Jennifer Fulwieler noted in one of her recent speeches that she moved from atheism to Catholicism in part because of the pithy arguments for God, Christ and the Church that she saw in the comment boxes on the internet from Catholics. The arguments, meaning the logical constructs that explained and defended the belief system, managed to bring her into the fold. Not the prolific use of personal attacks, name-calling, profanity or summary and unlawful excommunication pronouncements.
St. John Cantus’ quote from the beginning of this column has ever-more significance in a world where one’s stray comments can reach a greater audience than any in human history. I am not claiming to be perfect in this regard. But I do recognize unacceptable behavior in myself as well as others. I also recognize that one can be aggressive in the defense of the Faith without being abusive. It is a fine line to walk, and some people make it difficult to maintain. But this doesn’t give anyone the excuse to willfully use language that will upset and scandalize others.
The information age gives Catholics a golden opportunity to evangelize and bring the message of Christ and His Church to all people, from our separated Protestant brethren to those who disdain all faiths as superstition. Those of us involved in Catholic media, be it blogging, book writing, or arguing on Facebook, have a responsibility to use methods effective at bringing others into the fold, rather than driving them from it. We may refuse to put up with abuse, but must take care that we do not become abusive ourselves. We may refuse to compromise with points the Church has spoken definitively on, but as the face of the Church to others we must portray her as the strong and beautiful Bride of Christ, not a wicked stepmother who beats her children for minor infractions.