Being Catholic Online

Internet Catholicism has been a true boon for me. As someone who works at home, it plugs me into a network of people who share my faith and help me figure it out and build it up. It will take years to understand its true impact as an evangelization tool, but I think it’s an important one, if only because it allows people to witness to their faith in a public way.pope-francis

And that’s also the problem. When we project ourselves into this online space we are, for some, the only witness to Catholicism people will have. That doesn’t mean we have to be sunshine and puppydogs, but it does mean that what we say and how we say it matters.

Even good people get drawn into the anger, anxiety, and factionalism that occurs whenever two or three are gathered in just about anybody’s name. Factionalism dominates the Catholic news sites, blogs, and social media, and it’s an ugly and unproductive thing.

I’ve been trying to figure out my place here as a blogging Catholic, and it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I just put up something I find interesting or amusing, and those posts usually find their audience.

I can tell you from experience that poring time and work into good, noncontroversial pieces about things you love will usually yield far fewer clicks than rancor, controversy, and attacks. For all we may complain about negativity in the media, we are draw to it like moths to flame. Or, more accurately, like flies to crap.

The reason isn’t that hard to figure out. Controversy provides a jolt of emotion and allows us to situate ourselves on a moral spectrum. It draws the circle around “us” and lets us recognize “them.” That’s simple tribalism, and we’re hard-wired for it.

The latest controversy to blow up the Cathonet is the appointment of Bishop Cupich to Chicago, which comes right on the heels of Cardinal Dolan’s Big Gay Parade controversy.

Cupich is being hailed as the second coming of Bernardin, and for those outside of the Commonweal/America/National “Catholic” Reporter tribe, that’s a bad thing.

Choose one, but remember: the Holy Spirit did not descend as a hawk.

Choose a side, but remember: the Holy Spirit did not descend as a hawk.

Bernardin was the prototype squishop, and the only appropriate thing about his elevation was that his hat could finally match his politics. He is the saint of the Catholic left, which never gets tired of being wrong about almost everything.

The appointment of a bishop to a major see is not a small thing. Squishops steered the American church into a ditch after Vatican II. Whether or not Cupich is one of them remains to be seen. His past behavior is certainly troubling. His bizarre and strident opposition to the pro-life movement* don’t leave me feeling very hopeful for Chicago.

But even if we assume that Cupich is a nightmare, and that by extension this indicates that Francis is shaping the church in ways that may reverse progress made under St. John Paul and Benedict (and let’s not forget that Mahony and Bernardin were both elevated by John Paul), what exactly do the most vocal and hostile critics think they can do about it?

When you do something, you should have some achievable result in mind. Sometimes, being human, our “result” is mere venting of emotion. I get that. I do it too. Sometimes it’s extremely therapeutic.

Bitching about inside baseball in the church or, worse, in the very tiny world of online Catholics, is pretty small beer. No matter how much people bloviate about the important issues at hand, there’s no escaping this sense of an internet populated mostly by 8th grade girls gossiping around their lockers.

When we’re Being Catholic in this space, we need to check ourselves and ask hard questions. How exactly does it all contribute to our spiritual welfare and growth? How does it build up ourselves, our families, our community, and our church? Am I preaching truth in charity, or just blowing a gasket? Am I spreading hope, or fear?

As I never get tired of saying, the internet is an amplifier. It doesn’t just distribute information: it amplifies it, often making small things seem more important than they really are.

Does that mean we don’t speak hard truths, even if they involve criticism of our leaders right up to the pope himself?

Of course not. It’s our duty to speak clearly about our faith, particularly when our leadership seems to be drifting off course. I’ve made my reservations about Pope Francis’s leadership pretty clear, but I don’t think any of those issues come even close to the serious, schism-provoking levels we’re hearing from his more hysterical critics.

You know what does provoke schism, however? Constantly talking about it!

As someone steeped in church history, I’m aware that we’ve already been through the worst of times. Despite this, we still have a tendency to dramatize our own times as somehow uniquely filled with dangers to the church.

Understand this: every age is full of dangers to the church–both from inside and out–and always as been, every single year, for 2000 years. Among the first bishops, one out of twelve was a traitor, and eleven out of twelve were cowards.

When we survey this whole vast history and ask ourselves “Are our times/leaders uniquely bad/dangerous?” the answer is obviously no. Even the horrible persecutions in the middle east are of a type we’ve seen before and will see again. All is as it was foretold: “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is doing the work of God.”

We were promised a couple things:

First: the gates of hell will not prevail against our Mother, the Church.

Second: a cross.

These people who sneer about “The Church of Nice” always make me wonder, “You’d prefer a Church of Total Bastards?” They haven’t understood Benedict at all. The idea of affirmative orthodoxy has flown right over their heads.

Yes, we have to criticize, and some people won’t like that at all.

Yes, we have to stand up and make our voices heard when leaders attempt to distort or weaken the unchangeable teachings of the church, or fail to lead as they did in the abuse scandals.

But we have to do more than that. We have to be a witness to the true happiness and fullness of life that is only found in Christ and the One True Church.

And lately, all I’m seeing when I log into Facebook or check some of my blogs is a Litany of Despair offered not by people attempting to speak a hard truth, but by people who are afraid, and fear breeds fear.

All this inside baseball is, as practical matter, of no interest whatsoever to 99% of Catholics, and all of this doomsaying does nothing–not a damn thing–to help the church. It is, in fact, poison. No one in leadership is paying attention to a bunch of internet denizens kvetching on Facebook. There is no Blogosterium. There are only everyday ordinary people, and those people are in need of solid faith formation and guidance in their lives.

The only thing we can do online to change the church is to teach and be.

Teach the truth, hard as it is, always and everywhere, even when our leaders don’t, and even when they need to be corrected in charity.

Be people of hope and joy, as much as we can, always and everywhere.

Everything else is just sound and fury.

Related: Catholics Coming Unglued

Update: Abbey Roads has similar thoughts.

*After posting this, I cut a reference to some personal knowledge I have which, on further thought, I don’t feel I have the right to share.

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