The Creature Named Catholic Internet

I have expressed my concerns about Catholic Internet culture many times before. Mostly it appears to be a problem with some bloggers, who seem to transform into a fiend returned from the dead as soon as they sit down in front of a computer. But I am of the opinion that the problem runs much deeper than just some mutant bloggers.

Now, I don’t want to generalize. I am probably just from the wrong side of the blogosphere, and aware of my own shortcomings, but where I come from this is a widespread problem. So if this does not gel with your experience just forget everything I am about to say and don’t bother to finish reading. But if, on the other hand, any of this makes any sense to you, then read to the end and assess.

In the Clutches of Interwebs

Recently in one of my classes we were commenting on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Gaudium, where Francis criticizes the way in which the new media is sometimes used in a manipulative fashion. One of the students, a priest, commented on how some of his former parishioners caused tremendous damage to others by posting on Facebook information harmful to others under their own names. The whole parish was adversely affected.

I have denounced many times before the use of anonymity and pseudonymity on blogs, when it is used to avoid accountability for having posted information that is harmful to others. But this priest’s story indicates that even when peoples’ names are known they somehow feel empowered to do and say things behind the protection of a computer screen that they would never dare do or say otherwise.  So I now revise my opinion and suggest that the problem with the Catholic Internet is not in the first place “the blogger” or anonymity and pseudonymity.

The problem is something more general and nefarious.

In reality everything on the Internet is a blog or some derivative of it nowadays: social media, Twitter and most news outlets are all interactive. They have blurred the distinction between hard news and opinion. Peoples’ comments on Twitter become part of the news. And many hard news articles allow comments.   News feeds themselves have blogs. And generally there has been a shift from emphasis, even in the most popular news outlets, from hard news to interactive commentary, all of which are easily posted to social media.

It is precisely the interactive quality of everything on the Internet that makes it not just a medium or a means of communication but a virtual world, which can become for some an alternate reality or a second life. In such virtual reality, peoples’ deeds tend toward the “fantastic” or “alternate” and easily slip to the darker side of that spectrum.

A Clarification

I am not denouncing the Internet. I am not saying you should shoot your computer or disconnect entirely. I remember that years ago certain clients of a condemned private revelation were “inspired” to go from home to home and offer to shoot the family television. There was also a time when good moral people thought that Satan himself had created the telephone. I am not a subscriber to such practices and ideas.

Abusus non tollit usus. Abuse does not vitiate the use.

Still, I believe the Internet is a new kind of horse to tame. It is entirely different than television or the radio. We may have had some crummy Catholic programming, and some that was not orthodox, but I do not recall that Catholic television or radio ever descended into the barbarism that we witness now on the Catholic Internet. Which leads me to suggest, only half-jokingly, that perhaps the Internet, as a pseudo-seat of consciousness, might be diabolically obsessed.

No, I am not really suggesting such a thing. It is only rhetorical. But you get my drift. There is something seriously wrong out there (or in there), and I think it is related to the relative unreality of the new media.

Fair Play

So the Internet is a virtual world in which ordinary rules do not seem to apply. The remarkable feature of it all is that the Catholic Internet is just as bad as the secular—perhaps minus (usually) the foul language and impurity. Of course, as I have already said, this problem is not universal—kudos to all those who act like human beings—but in my experience it seems to be very widespread.

What we have on our hands is an internecine holy war, justified on the grounds of all that is godly and truly worth dying for—except that no one is dying. It is just people’s reputations and that of the Church that are taken to the wall and shot. Talk about dirty laundry. We have put it all in a fish bowl for all our enemies to gawk at.

I personally think that the disease within Catholic Internet culture is fundamentally a problem of fair play. As I said, the ordinary rules of human decency do not appear to apply for the simple reason that poking at a computer keyboard and looking at words on a screen is something like reciting a tirade in one’s imagination. It just does not seem to be as real as doing it like a man to someone’s face. Everyone is just a little more “courageous” behind the screen, and thinks himself to be Blackbeard on the high seas.

My Frankenstein

This is a monster of our own making and some of its features are, indeed, horrible to look at. But we are too clever to make all of it repulsive. When we don’t descend into name-calling and character assassination, we hide behind glib rhetoric, amateur theology and do-it-yourself journalism. There are a thousand good reasons to engage in it and only one not to do so. The one reason is that we are destroying ourselves.

We have convinced ourselves that all this information is good for us, though it I believe we have come to value the quantity of information over its quality. We have become masters of information but we have failed to open the door to truth.  Information and our control over it is now more important than truth.

Information has never been more instantaneous. We have come to expect to have the right to know everything that can be known immediately, and to interact with the sources of information and then to apply our own filters to everything that pours in only to shoot it back out onto the net with our own spin on it. It does not matter where it happens, or how remotely it happens, or really how significant the matter is. It is globally and instantaneous broadcast, and almost always through someone’s filter.

Pope Francis writes: “We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment” (Evangelii Gaudium 64). Amen.

And not only do we fail to discern between the relative value of the data we receive, we stockpile all the dubious content like dirty-bombs at the ready.

A case in point is the recent controversial synod here in Rome. Even now the accounts of what actually went on inside vary from source to source. But the sides were entrenched before it began, and the “reporters” were poised over their “publish” buttons, ready to “inform” us the moment some café dweller overheard a Cardinal’s offhand comment while eating his lunch. Just the other day the Holy Father said the impression left by the new providers of information that the synod was a “parliament” arose from the fact that, not only were the contents of interventions made public, but so were the names of the authors. We just cannot believe that there is such a thing as too much information.

We call it “information democracy,” and that may be exactly the right word because it is as partisan, factious and self-serving as American politics.

As one blogger rightly points out, both the blogger and the reader of blogs belong to a hyper-educated minority. But the trend I describe above indicates that this is the way information will continue to be exchanged at every intellectual level in the future with many its the characteristics only being augmented exponentially by growth in technology. Every criticism leveled against blogs can be brought to bear on social media and its hypo-educated teenage users. Whatever it is we are talking about, it is bigger than the blogosphere and it will be an even greater concern in the future.

But we don’t have to be Victor Frankenstein, who, once he sees the creature that he has given life, realizes what he has done and hates himself for it, and then destroys himself in the attempt to unmake his creature. The real creature that we have to worry about is not the Internet, but ourselves. There is no second life, and really there is nowhere for us to hide—no place real, that is.

The New Regime

It might sound like I am against the new information democracy. I am not. I am just not sure which side it is on. It seems to me that it just creates more politics as usual. Choosing between old media and new media is like choosing between the criminals in Big Business and those in Big Government. The cabal that formerly ran the monopoly of network news was not ostensibly less virtuous than the pajamas media. Now we just have much more tainted information to sort through. A better situation generally, I admit, but not utopia.

It is not just bloggers that are warlords of the market of information. Everyone electively filters, processes, suppresses and broadcasts information with new intensity simply because of the sheer volume, immediacy and transmitability of it. We all have our virtual fiefdoms, even if it is only inboxes and our forward buttons. I have seen the damage email forwarding has done to people barely or not at all known by those at the origin. We are all new masters of the information age who electively participate in the new mega-information wars.

The blogosphere is a honeycomb of echo chambers, each isolated from the other in spite of the interconnectivity of modern technology. It is a moral problem, for sure, precisely because our control over information is elective and especially because the choices are literally at our fingertips. The irony is that even when we rule the information with an iron fist, if we do that badly, we end up ruled by the information. It is pinging back and forth around the globe until final conflagration. And there is literally nothing we can do about it.

Extracurricular Activity

As I would guess, the vast majority of man-hours spent connected are purely elective and strictly speaking unnecessary. We really don’t even have a God-given right to all the information we have access to.   Certainly, it is very rare animal indeed, that creature who quite literally must blog for his livelihood or wellbeing. No one’s blog, vlog, website, YouTube channel, Facebook page or Twitter feed is necessary for the perpetuation of life in our galaxy.  And I seriously doubt that there are many, if any, Catholic bloggers whose work is necessary for the Church, or his diocese, parish or community.  We have confused our pastimes with our duties, just as people have confused televised narcissism with reality. We have all become paparazzi.

It is a problem of both exhibitionism and voyeurism, but mostly the latter. And we are so eager to be the first to publish the photos.

That is actually a good analogy because our data streams are often a series of snapshots that we cannot really determine as to whether they form an objective continuity or merely a contiguous arrangement that we have arbitrarily formed according to our own biases and agendas. As I have said many times before, we do not know what we do not know. The massive amount of information we receive leaves us with false confidence that we have a better picture of what is real, when in fact the very volume, immediacy and transmitability place a greater burden of discernment on our shoulders. We never know all the facts. Technology will never be able to overcome this, though it presents us with the illusion that it can.

Thus we are tempted to tinker with information. Blogs are sometimes the video games of adults that think video games are puerile. And we take them nearly as seriously as teenagers take their video games. Political, cultural and religious junkies have their virtual world to play in too. But its not just a game. This alternate universe is full of people, many we have never seen or had a real relationship with—or ever will for that matter—full of faceless names which do not correspond to the real persons. But it is all so full of the most urgent reality that we cannot live without our alternate universe.

A friend of mine, quite disgusted with it all, has substituted the frustrated “blah, blah, blah,” with “blog, blog, blog” (annunciated with the appropriate boredom and disgust). In a way, that sums up a good deal more of the Internet than just blogs.

Radical Rules

This is why I have always asserted that a code of warfare is appropriate to the Internet. IMHO, there is no point is signing off on polemics altogether. It is simply part of life, very much part of Catholic life, and always has been.

Perhaps this is one of the lesser-appreciated reasons why the cause for the canonization of G.K. Chesterton is so important. He was a polemicist with standards, and those standards were chivalry. His opus magnum, The Everlasting Man, was in a large part written as a measured way to quell the feud between two friends, who were in the middle of a bitter polemic, one a devout Catholic, Hillare Belloc, and the other a militant atheist, H.G. Wells. The book is a polite takedown of Wells’ The Outline of History, but by writing his book Chesterton also delivered Belloc from having to say anything else he might regret.

So for me, the jury is still out on the relative value of this new information democracy, which, like it or not, is here to stay, and as they say, moving toward singularity. (But that is another matter.)

Call chivalry idealistic if you like, but without it the whole virtual world is the Frankenstein of our making that will be our undoing.

There are various Catholic bloggers out there who have suggested their own set of rules to follow on the Internet in order to make one’s virtual pastimes more real and humane, and thus less monstrous. I recommend consideration of such lists. I will not add to them except to repeat my mantra: If you won’t put your name to it, don’t post it, and (in newfound light) if you won’t say it to someone’s face, don’t post it.

Take your hand away from the mouse, or your finger of the track pad. Perhaps you should just delete the whole creature before it escapes from your laboratory and wrecks everything.

But for me the far more important point is to remember that chivalry is a code of honor that transcends any list of rules. When it descended into the complexities and refined manners, it ceased to be itself.   It became a joke that soldiers like Cervantes told to make us laugh. Remember, some men who practice impeccable manners are cads: we call them conmen and womanizers. There are plenty of those on the Internet too.

But what if Catholic Internet culture was to cease holding itself hostage to its own tribalism and distinguished itself by Christian chivalry? Perhaps we could call it “the new evangelization.”


22 thoughts on “The Creature Named Catholic Internet

  1. This topic came up last evening….family members were discussing how the use of communication devices, and the information highway, have done anything but make people social. Good etiquette has been thrown out the window.
    There is an article or two on the Internet that speaks of our present day culture as being more ‘narcistic’, because we do have access to so many devices now, and the free reign to write whatever we choose without regard to the outcome, or feelings of our neighbor.

    May God bless us all with His peace, and prudence to know what to say, and when to say it.

    Ave Maria!

  2. Many thanks for this, Fr. Angelo. For once, it seems to me the real beginning of a serious look into internet ethics and practical application. We need that now.

    I’ve just linked it into my Facebook account with this preamble:

    ‘Several years back, I tried to publish a short piece on the dubious ethics of anonymous internet blogging. It failed to find a sympathetic editor–the publishers I dealt with at the time were more concerned with increasingly vehement polemics and culture warring. So far as I can tell, not much has changed since I was actively submitting and publishing…I’ve felt for some time now that Seamus Heaney’s observation was central to our cultural situation : “The voice of reason is getting hoarse.”

    ‘But sometimes, just when we’re ready to give up, that voice rings out as clearly and youthfully as ever. Perhaps Reason is not so bound by weariness as we, its begrudging practitioners. Anyhow, my good friend (not on Facebook, but in real life) Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, has posted some of his reflections on the problems of the Catholic Internet. For Catholics involved, the reading will no doubt be very helpful, but I think the application goes beyond Catholic polemical battles, and suggests a better reflection on internet ethics in general. This seems to me a opening statement by Father Angelo…certainly a deepening of the discussion–and I’m grateful it’s more thoughtful and enlightening than my own unpublished thoughts were a decade ago.

    ‘Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

    ‘”The massive amount of information we receive leaves us with false confidence that we have a better picture of what is real, when in fact the very volume, immediacy and transmitability place a greater burden of discernment on our shoulders. We never know all the facts. Technology will never be able to overcome this, though it presents us with the illusion that it can.”‘

  3. Thanks for the blurb Padre.

    I mostly agree with you, except on the Synod. I don’t find it lamentable that men like Forte, Baldiserri and Kasper had to put their names next to what they believed. There also has to be context.

    This would never have been an issue had several of the organizers of the Synod deliberately tried to stack the deck towards their own ideology, and then used that stack deck to feed to the media pool as what was really happening. Had the Synod organizers been honest and on the up and up, none of this would have ever happened. So in this case, that extra data was necessary to protect the integrity of the episcopal synod, so it wasn’t just a rubber stamp for a higher-ups ideology.

    This kind of attitude also bucks against current Church trends. When St. John Paul II promulgated the Catechism, it was radically different than most Catechisms. It was an exhaustive sentence by sentence outline of every doctrine of the Christian faith. Whatever the intent (and I don’t think this was by accident), the Catechism became a powerful tool in holding heterodox bishops and priests accountable. Outside of this one case (and being honest, we have to state it involved the Pope’s trusted advisers), the Pope’s agenda has been one of greater transparency.

    Look at what Cardinal Pell is doing. He’s modernizing the way the Vatican handles finance, and it’s being done according to modern accounting standards. As one who used to have to print off the reports from the systems (before most were digitized) that were given to our accountants, modern accounting takes up a lot of paper. It’s filled with data and transparency and information.

    If it’s good enough to do for Vatican finance, isn’t it good enough for whether or not our bishops are faithfully presenting Catholic doctrine? On this one point, I look at it as the Holy Spirit doing His work, providing some much needed accountability. The entire purpose of various aspects of the body of Christ is the different vocations are supposed to complement each other. The laity have a role in helping Bishops be faithful stewards of the deposit of faith. Sometimes, that requires knowing who the bad apples are.

    I don’t want that to take away from an otherwise spot on article.

    • Kevin, you are welcome and thank you.

      I believe you are right about consistency and transparency, and I believe the efforts of any side to control the outflow of information to that which favored their position was wrong. But in the context of a synod when in session, transparency and fair play pertains to the members, and not by definition to the press, or more (worse) to the blogosphere. In my view the coverage on both sides has been manipulative and self-serving, no less than what was committed by parties within the synod hall. None of it was all good or all bad, but I for one do not thank God for the Internet in these instances as though it were a pure blessing.

    • Good point, Kevin. As painful as some of this is, perhaps the transparency will clean things up in some way. We needed, for instance, to hear about all of the priest abuses before the Church finally realized that She had no choice but to clean up properly! I’m sure there were some priests, sadly, who were unjustly accused — the sad fallout. But hopefully there were far more future innocent victims rescued than innocent priests condemned. Similar clean-up needs to happen with our bishops. I would like to believe that the proper way of doing this should never be through media bashing, Voris bishop-bashing and synod misrepresentations. But, sadly it might just be the only fire under people’s bottoms that truly makes them get up off their frannies and be accountable. sigh.

    • Since I didn’t see a reply option below your name…

      “But in the context of a synod when in session, transparency and fair play pertains to the members, and not by definition to the press, or more (worse) to the blogosphere.”

      I have no doubt many believe this to be true. But I’m not so sure it SHOULD be true. It’s clear they were presenting this Synod to be a big deal people should be paying attention to. Funny thing about big deals: people seriously pay attention to them. While I don’t agree with live cameras for everything, I don’t see the live coverage of it as a bad thing.

      While a Bishop is a successor to the Apostles in his own right, he is also a representative of his flock. Not in the sense of being democratically elected, but in that he brings the cares of his people to that Synod. That was the position of the Major Archbishop (aww cmon, he’s a Patriarch!) of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. He went to Rome, in his own words “to send a message to the Pope and to the Church” that for his flock, the indissolubility of marriage is paramount, and Kasper’s proposal was a dead letter in his Church. He wasn’t being disrespectful to the Pope, but he was bringing the concerns of his flock (and in that region, divorce is kind of a thing, with the Orthodox allowing it, but in secular russia it being rampant) there.

      If he brings with him the cares of his flock, it shouldn’t be a big breach of trust for his flock to be able to see if he’s actually doing that, or bringing forth his own care and agenda.

      When you meet in public, speaking about an issue of importance to the global church, the global church is going to take interest. While there always has to be a delicate balance, I tend to advocate siding with as much disclosure as possible. In this case, the situation you worry about I believe served the Church well.

      • Kevin,

        The nesting should be fixed now.

        I am not sure a synod by nature is a public act. Heads of state, corporate officials, religious superiors, and for a much longer time bishops, have met in private and discussed issues and only publicized them after a decision was made. I see nothing about this that involves issues of trust.

        Furthermore, I am not at all confident that all the reporting has given us an accurate idea about facts, or more importantly, their real meaning.

        See the comments of Cardinal Scola. His perspective is much different than other conservatives we have heard.

        • Which remarks of Cardinal Scola’s did you have in mind? His disagreement with Ruini? Were there ones that you had in mind specifically in light of our discussion?

          A lot of the events are always open to interpretation. Were the Bishops opposing the Pope in rebelling against the top brass at the synod? Were they just rebelling against the permissiveness of the other pastoral situations? Should we stop saying “The Bishops” for such a diverse group all with their own motivations and agendas, some holy, some probably not?

          What we do have is the documents where they aired out their views and their criticism with the approach that was favored by the Pope, and the document authored by Archbishop Forte which few if any seemed to like in that room outside of Bruno Forte. I try to stick to those, and their revealing had much value into the thought process behind various bishops and why there was such a ruckus.

          As far as your other point, I think we are dealing with apples and oranges:

          “I am not sure a synod by nature is a public act. Heads of state, corporate officials, religious superiors, and for a much longer time bishops, have met in private and discussed issues and only publicized them after a decision was made.”

          I think there’s a pretty big difference between a private session of the Council of Cardinals, people called to meet in private to advise the pope, and an Extraordinary Synod, where the Pope calls hundreds of people from all around the world to advise him, including lay presentations, and reporters who are allowed to report on the events but not on which people said what. In that kind of situation, the more transparency the better I say.

          • Kevin,

            I will have more to say about this in my next post. My central contention is not that the synod should have been handled this way or that necessarily, but that the handling, processing and interpreting of information leaves something to be desired. And I still contend that the synod is still a good example of what is wrong with the Internet. I am not here to either condemn or canonize anyone’s behavior at the synod, but simply to point out that instantaneous reportage, hyperventilating analysis and alarmist predictions all proposed as proceeding from a comprehension of the meaning of the facts is for me a highly problematic contention.

            I have a hard time discerning the virtue of prudence in all of it—and to prudence all practical matters (as to what do we do about this situation) must, by the nature of Roman Catholic faith, be subordinated. But what is really needed in matters like these are the gift of counsel and perhaps the charism of discernment. That these were what was operative in all this, I find even more unlikely. But that the Holy Father might be operating at this level, I have less trouble doubting, regardless of what I may otherwise be inclined to doubt about his judgment.

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  5. “So the Internet is a virtual world in which ordinary rules do not seem to apply” – where does one begin? In the past, when a person had something to say to another individual, it was in writing (a personal letter) or spoken to the person’s face. Face-to-face dialogue allows for the other person to CUT YOU OFF or walk away from you if you are rude. In other words, a person who is attacked or challenged in these ‘primitive’ modes is done so privately (with a personal letter) or allowed the opportunity to FIGHT BACK and stop another’s rampage if attacked verbally in a group setting. The internet blogosphere first off makes nothing personal or private. Plus, it allows for someone to have the floor COMPLETELY without allowing the person being attacked to chime in until, perhaps, days later in some COMM box. Plus, in the past, the written word took much time in re-writes — constant editing before finally typing or handwriting the final, legible copy. This allowed the person to rethink how he/she initially said something. The computer with its ease in editing has allowed for less thought to go into the final copy. (I have this battle with my kids all the time. Gone are the days when a person writing a term paper starts with an OUTLINE on PAPER, truly organizing his/her thoughts and research. No … we cut and paste and start right at the computer from moment 1. True editing has been seriously compromised.)

  6. The name of the game is SPEED. Who can get the information out to the public first. (Never mind how inaccurate or hurtful it might be … all of that is just small-fries compared to getting the information out there before the next guy!) I think back on the tragedy in Newtown — how much inaccurate reporting was done for the sake of getting the info out there FIRST and keeping people glued to their channel/webpage for the latest info.

  7. Insightful and truthful as always Father. Thanks for reminding us that if we follow a Chivalric Code, we can never go wrong. For all those that have felt the pain and bite of the masked blogger…don’t worry…God sees all….

  8. Excellent post, Father. I have been giving this issue a lot of thought lately and have come to the conclusion that the Catholic Internet is spiritual poison for the most part, with some wonderful exceptions, of which I include your writing. You are so right about how the anonymity of the Internet has “empowered [us] to do and say things behind the protection of a computer screen that they would never dare do or say otherwise.” I have certainly experienced this on my own blog when people I personally know have viciously attacked me in ways they would never do face to face.

    I am now at a point where I read very few blogs and websites on the Internet. It is mostly people’s opinions with very little reference to actual Church teaching. Our Lord warned us that we would be judged by our every idle word. Judging by what I read on the Internet, there are a lot of us who are in real trouble.

    • One of the reasons I love the Franciscans of the Immaculate is that they introduced me to a spirituality that was quick to embrace: loving God’s Mother.
      The FI brought my superficial love of the Virgìn to a whole new level….they teach everyone to imitate Her in every way, and to trust in Her!

      We could all learn something about her many virtues, especially of Holy Silence.

      The Mother of God watched her Son suffer in every way; woode crib for a bed in a cold cave, betrayal of friends, misunderstandings, calumny, distrust of his goodness, ridicule, the Passion as a whole (scourging, spit, physical abuse, foul language….humiliation, abandonment by friends, the Crucifixion!!!)

      Did she complain? Did she lash out verbally to anyone? Or did the Mother of Mercy keep all things within her heart, trusting in and praying to God for His Will to be done?

      We are not Marian if we do not imitate the Mother, who imitates her Son.

      Mary G.,
      Thanks for bring something scriptural into the comments….it helps to keep a supernatural perspective!! God Bless!

      Ave Maria!

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