Keeping Secrets

I am diverting slightly—just slightly—from my “mysticism” series in the interests of swatting away some unhelpful mist (the kind that ends in schism). I am moving from the bench of speculative reflection to my soapbox, just for this one post.

Disciplina Arcani

The early Church protected the sacred mystery of the Eucharist from the misunderstanding and profanation of pagans by the disciplina arcani, “discipline of the secret.” This meant that the newly baptized were not introduced the mystery of the Real Presence in the Eucharist until just before they received Holy Communion for the first time. In the context of the Church’s persecution, the pagan misunderstanding of Holy Communion as an act of cannibalism could have dire consequences for both believing Christians and those who needed to be evangelized.

So the motives for this discipline were that of reverence and humility. The practice was eventually abandoned. Even so, since the time of Our Lord’s discourse on the Bread of Life in John 6, there has been this tension between the frank and unapologetic proclamation of the full truth about the Eucharist and the need not to throw our pearls to the swine.

We certainly could use more reverence and humility today, especially as it concerns the Eucharist. However, keeping people in the dark about the true meaning of the Eucharist no longer serves this purpose.

Disciplina Esoterica

That being said, the “discipline of the secret,” was not the same thing as the disciplina esoterica, the “esoteric discipline” of the gnostics, who always veiled their beliefs and practices behind myths and arcane symbols and ciphers. They thought that their “sacred mysteries” were inherently too good for the mass of men, and that only those who were truly worthy would be able to penetrate the veil. This belief justified their elitism and was a pretext for them to deal with the uninitiated in a manner that was, shall we say, less than frank.

The esoteric discipline really has nothing to do with humility and reverence, but with pride and covetousness. And of course this is one of the most fundamental differences between true and false mysticism. Where does the mystery lead? To the light or to the darkness? But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Jn 3:21).

Disciplina Alinski

In both cases there are doctrinal and pastoral motives. One might say speculative and political motives. There is a concern to preserve the doctrine. But to do this one must deal prudentially with various persons.

With the “discipline of the secret” and the more general disposition of “reverence,” which must be retained, there is a good faith concern about being honest with the catechumen, even if the revelation of the mystery is gradual. Indeed, the neophyte must know and believe the full revelation concerning the Eucharist in order to be in full communion with the Church and receive Jesus in Holy Communion. And it is the will of the Church that all men come to know, believe and fully participate in this mystery.

On the other hand with the “esoteric discipline,” the effort to protect the doctrine is posited on the belief that some men simply do not deserve it, nor do they deserve the good faith of honesty about what is really going on. It is not about gradually introducing someone to a mystery. It is about keeping it for “us” and hidden from “them.”

In secular politics and social relations, secret keeping has no sacred function, unless one concedes that politics is the religion of the godless. Fine by me. In that case, lying politicians are gods in the secular pantheon.

But the current argument about lying in the service of the gospel (cf. Alinski disciple, James O’Keefe) indicates a problem that hits closer to home. It certainly is not the discipline of the secret, nor is it exactly the esoteric discipline, though it is a very odd attempt to synthesize the godless-secular and sacred-Catholic models.

Is this the “discipline of Alinksi?” It is really pretty much bald-faced Machiavellianism parading around in altar boy robes. The alinskian tactic of appearing to take the high moral ground, all the while demonizing the enemy in order to be successful, requires several other anlinskian ingredients: constant agitation and deception. In fact, rule number one in Rules for Radicals is

Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

Deception, or the sacred euphemism, “discretion,” or the ever-popular “mental reservation” is the rule.

Agitate. Agitate. Agitate, all the while hiding in the shadows. And then when one is called on it, “who me? I am just the messenger,” or “my cause is just.”

Disciplina Catacombarum

And this brings me to the labyrinthine dungeons of the Catholic Internet, where the idea of anonymity and pseudonymity are euphemisms for aberrations ranging from adolescent irresponsibility to malicious character assassination.

Yes, yes. I know. There is a long-standing and venerable tradition both within and outside the Church that holds pseudonymous writing in high esteem. Granted. You can read about that tradition here and here. Rorate Caeli was kind enough to point this out.

Perhaps the best euphemism for the abuse of this practice is the “discipline of the catacombs.” That is the “high” moral ground of the pious Catholic blogger, posited under the pretext of humility.

Certainly, there are decent reasons for an author to conceal his true identity. These are pointed out in the articles linked to above, such as the desire to rely on the strength of an argument rather than the credentials of the author, the desire not to be tempted by vainglory, detachment from any other motive than serving the truth—all very praiseworthy motives with which I have no argument.

But in the second article linked to above, the author argues that unless one is getting paid for blogging, then the identity of the blogger is not even relevant to what he has to say. Nevertheless, the same person admits that for some—I would say for many—the reason they write anonymously or pseudonymously is because they feel compelled to say something “that needs to be said but they fear the repercussions of saying it publicly.” Not surprisingly the blanket excuse of combatting the political correctness of the age is used. And I admit, it is a pretty convincing pretext as it is very easy to get crucified for being out of step with the current zeitgeist. So it is said that good, militant Catholics need to blog from the safety of the catacombs.

There are several problems with these defenses. First, they simply ignore or make excuses for not being accountable when one has an obligation to be so. This would be the case, for example, when a third person’s reputation is at stake. Everyone has a right to his good name, even a guilty man. Everyone has a right to know his accuser and hold that person accountable. It does not matter whether one’s cause is just or not. No matter what a blogger’s cause is, he has an obligation to all the demands of justice.

So it is one thing when one wishes to blog about purely doctrinal or disciplinary matters, but another when they drag persons and their reputations into polemical articles. One cannot use the “I will not be muzzled by the secularists and modernists” argument here.

Even if one is convinced that the whole world has conspired against all that is true an holy, no one has to blog. This is a purely elective activity and if one is not prepared to be accountable for it, one should engage in less demanding exercises. If you want to enter in the great cosmic conflict, prepare for battle or stay out of the comboxes.

The second problem with these defenses of anonymity and pseudonymity is that they ignore the obvious particular circumstances of the Internet, chiefly of blogging and social media. Anonymity and pseudonymity are manifestly and habitually the means used to remain hidden while one does all kinds of things one would never do out in the open because it would be a cause for shame. Only someone living without the Internet—meaning no one reading this—could fail to understand the problem and how endemic it is.

And the Catholic blogosphere, twitterverse and comboxes are not immune, by any means. The traditional/progressive divide has nothing to do with this. People habitually use the catacomb argument and other pseudo-pieties to excuse their unwillingness to be accountable for their anti-social, scandalous, dishonest and calumnious behavior. And it does not matter who the target is. There are things said on a regular basis about bishops and even the pope that I could not in conscience say to my worst enemy. And I wager most of the people who do it, do so without revealing their true identity, and would not do so if their real name was at risk of being revealed.

And then there are the more cultured inciters, usually the ones who will be the first to use the legitimate pretexts for pseudonymity. From their high positions of illumination they stir up the surly mob below and then, from hiding, pretend they had nothing to do with it.


There is a new mobile app called Yik Yak that purposes to be an anonymous bulletin board especially useful on college campuses by which persons within the local area can post anything they want up to 200 characters. Needless to say, it is all the rage, not only on college campuses, but high schools as well. Parents and mental health professionals have already raised concerns. I hardly need to add any details. What you imagine is probably not as bad as the reality.

This is the cold-hard context of Internet anonymity and pseudonymity, just as applicable to the Catholic world as to the non-Catholic. How is it that we have come to see delayed adolescence and Machiavellianism as tools to be used in the service of the Church? Face it, the Internet is an occasion of sin for some of us, not just because of its more lascivious aspects, but also because it allows us to be unaccountable for our real choices, especially when those choices do harm to others.

The Internet is a place where adults must act the part. There are no baby-sitters in the blogosphere. If you choose to be anonymous or pseudonymous, when you ought to be truly accountable, no one is going to stop you. If you calumniate your sphere’s whipping boy, you’ll get plenty pseudonymous pats on the back and you can delete any comment you don’t like with impunity. If you comment on your own post under a different name so you can say things you would otherwise blush to say, no one will know the difference. But in so doing you act the part of a coward. And to cover it over in the pious language of humility, self-effacement and the service of the Church is not only self-deception, it boarders on the blasphemous.

As it turns out this post seems to me more in-line with my mysticism series than at first was evident to me. False mysticism finds an uncountable number of pretexts to say that God is speaking through us, and that we are speaking for him. The pretended mystic always has the high moral ground. That is the one thing that cannot be questioned and that justifies everything else. And now we have the school of pseudonymous prophets who speak for Christ against the bishops, the pope, the Church and anyone who has the audacity of not going along with it.

It is a blessing that information has been democratized. I am most thankful. That false prophecy has been democratized, not so much. But that it has now also been made anonymous—that is a real bummer. It’s the Tower of Babble, behind the curtain and on steroids. Yakety-yackety-yak.

The image of the anemic adolescent, dwelling in his mother’s basement like a nocturnal animal, scouring the nether regions of the Internet and uploading viruses is not entirely a caricature of the issue at hand. Granted, it is not the same thing, but neither is it wholly different and that ought to tell us something. These are not the kind of secrets we ought to be keeping. Such behavior has nothing to do with the mysterious character of the Eucharist and it has no parallel with the legitimate defense of our sanctuaries and sacred rites.

The Internet hiding places that have become the new normal of Catholic cultural life are not like the enclosed space of the Upper Room, or the catacombs of the persecuted Christians. They certainly are nothing like the sanctuaries of our churches, or the austere caves of the prophets of God. No, these hiding places are merely the cyber-dungeons of a few punks who continue to resist the accountability of adulthood, and who do more harm to the Church than their teenage-like brains are capable of processing.

The whole thing is a scourge upon the Church, which we probably deserve. That the Church Militant bares the torch for Saul Alinski is, to say the least, ironic. But at least Alinski was a grown up enough to put his name on his own lies. Let’s at least stop pretending that this is the high moral ground of the spiritually enlightened. It is definitely not.

Father Angelo Mary Geiger
Via Boccea, Rome

11 thoughts on “Keeping Secrets

  1. Fr. Angelo,

    I have not yet followed your links.

    You say, “Anonymity and pseudonymity are manifestly and habitually the means used to remain hidden while one does all kinds of things one would never do out in the open because it would be a cause for shame.” Is your intention only to attack abuses, here (in the sentence I quote)? Or are you in danger of forgetting “abusus usum non tollit” where legitimate uses of pseudonymity and anonymity are at issue? I ask this having from time to time seen what Roger Pearse, as far as I can see, sensibly says (in his own name on his own blog) in defense of online pseudonymity and anonymity as such, as well as in criticism of their abuse.

  2. David,

    No, I am not in danger of condemning legitimate uses because of limited abuses. I mention legitimate reasons for the use of anonymity and pseudonymity, but point out that they should not become pretexts to justify behavior for which one ought to be held personally accountable, especially, when one deliberately uses this kind of concealment to get away with lying and otherwise harming people.

    • Fr. Angelo,

      Thank you for the explicit clarification!

      Please feel free not to pursue the following question, if you think it too tangential to your current subject,

      In mentioning legitimate or decent reasons for an author to conceal his true identity, you include the desire to rely on the strength of an argument rather than the credentials of the author. How far do you think a consistent pseudonymity goes toward accepting personal accountability, as distinguished from a simpler anonymity, where the reader cannot distinguish one ‘Anonymous’ from another? Or does that not seem a very weighty distinction?

  3. David,

    That is a great question. I think the key to answering it in the concrete is by determining whether or not pseudonymity provides shelter for an accuser or otherwise provides him with an advantage in harming the reputation of someone else. I am quite sure that much of what is damaging and written under the cover of pseudonymity would never be posted under a real name. Real identity means real, immediate and personal accountability.

    In regard to the case of the FFI, Rorate Caeli, The Eponymous Flower, Libertà e Persona all have blood on their hands. There are others as well, like completely anonymous Pray 4 the Friars.

    • Fr. Angelo,

      Thank you! Perhaps one could say that any proper ‘liberties’ that a consistent pseudonymity, and even moreso an indistinct anonymity might lend, should conduce to greater caution as to propriety of content of what is said and how it is said.

      Most of your examples are unknown to me, leaving my perspective more general. Once again, it may be too tangential or too trivial to mention, but I am currently part of the way through reading a historical detective novel, which is partly concerned with deliberate journalistic anonymity in the past, and various of its distinctive (possible) dangers – Jill Patton Walsh’s The Late Scholar (in which she imagines the further lives of characters created by Dorothy L. Sayers).

  4. Father, you said:

    “There are things said on a regular basis about bishops and even the pope that I could not in conscience say to my worst enemy.”

    Yet, you accuse some anonymous bloggers of being punks, cowards, having teenage-age brains, having blood on their hands, doing actions boarding on blasphemy etc. That seems like strong language, I get around on the internet as well and I would say that while your negative descriptions are eloquent than many others in this article, I can’t say that I have seen too much that exceeds it in strength.

    • Noah,

      Thanks for the comment.

      If my statement was directed toward people with real identities whose personal reputations might be harmed by my comments, then I would phrase myself differently. But this is precisely the point of my post. I can be held accountable for what I say, they cannot. Likewise, with my name attached, I allow myself to be criticized and have never deleted comments simply because others hold me accountable. On the other hand, some of the anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers feel themselves free to delete whatever comments they do not like, precisely because they cannot be held accountable for it. Their personal reputations never suffer. All the while they pretend to hold the high ground.

      That was the point of my remarks and I leave them as they stand.

  5. Also, some other thoughts for your considerations. Most internet accounts have held (almost a tradition) of using a different name while using the internet, people did not sign up for ebay, email, or other service accounts using there full name. In fact displaying the full name is (in terms of software development) a somewhat recent development. Many Catholic blogs have been around now for years, and their names like Boniface over at Unam Sanctam Catholicam, at this point if the author was to go around posting under their full name people would not connect his real name with the majority of his past work. I comment on a fair number of things, sometimes using nmoerbeek, domNoah, or my email address, I am not seeking to hide my name, but I suppose it becomes a bit obscured.

    My wife most of the time comments completely under member names, often times they are descriptive of a viewpoint that she wants others to know about her, like daugtheroftradition, latinmasslover, or they might just be generic like Catholic Christian. But more academic work she publishes her whole name. I don’t think there is any complex motive in her not using her full name when commenting on articles, either out of avoiding shame or some type of public retribution. She is just doing what is normal for the internet.

    • Noah, I don’t know what to say. The answer to your objection should be clear enough in the post, and if not there are my remarks in my reply to David Llewellyn Dodds above. The bottom line is that if one wishes to take someone to task in a way that may harm that person’s reputation, the ordinary justifications for anonymity and pseudonymity do not apply. One could easily attach his real identity directly to the post or comment, regardless of the details of their account or user name.

      You miss the point.

  6. Fr. Angelo,
    I don’t know anything about the issues that have prompted this post. I guess I’m glad I don’t, because I can tell they must be fraught. I just want to say that that I found your discussion about what underwrites the different motives for secrecy really illuminating. Thank you.

    I’m praying for your peace.

  7. Pingback: I Believe in Ghosts, or Even More on Crypto-Lefebvrism | Mary Victrix

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s