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.

The Inter-Nicene Creed: On Warring Catholics UPDATED

I learned today from some commenter that I’m a member of the “Catholic middle.” I also learned from the same person that I’m a whore for the mammon of public approval, which is high-larious considering the poison that floods my comboxes on a daily basis.

It’s always fun to have complete strangers tell you who you are. When you have some kind of public voice, reader feedback like this is somewhat useful, because it tells you how some people are perceiving you. Most of the time, however, it’s people just working out their own issues and projecting them onto you. I don’t take it too personally. I’ve had at least one monthly opinion column (and sometimes 4) in national magazines for a long time, so I’m used to the heat and I don’t really pay too much attention to the vitriol. Most people are decent and try to assume the best about each other, and as for those who don’t? I honestly don’t care.

My first foray into the internecine warfare of online Catholics was not something I relished doing, which is probably why I chose satire rather than some kind of editorial format. I don’t know Mark Shea personally, but I’ve always enjoyed and respected his work. He’s funny, honest, and a great writer. We’ve exchanged maybe 3 emails and a dozen Facebook comments, and write for some of the same venues–Patheos, National Catholic Register–but it’s not like we all live in a big house and hang around Being Catholic at each other. I can’t pop down the hall and ask Jimmy Akin if I can borrow his beard trimmer, or go play badminton in the backyard with The Anchoress while we sip Sloe Gin Fizzes and fling all that Catholic writer cash into the air.

I only know Shea from his blog, which is the only way everyone voicing their contempt knows him. Sometimes I think he’s right, and sometimes I think he’s wrong. I didn’t agree at all with his posts on Paul Ryan, but he spoke hard truths about Lila Rose’s methods and the impermissibility of torture that people didn’t want to hear. He took the flak and kept on swinging. He’s utterly incapable of spouting the party line or reducing things to the rote left/right division that is choking the life out of this country. That makes him not just a good writer, it makes him–even when he is wrong–absolutely essential to the conversation.

We can become lazy in our thinking, manipulated by a corrupt ruling class and their lapdog media into buying into a dominant narrative of left/right, good/evil, friend/enemy. It’s very hard to escape the tape loop of the modern noise machine, but as Catholics it is vital that we escape it.

Shea is a cold splash of water: a bullshit detector there to make you question your truths. Is he right all the time? Hell no. Neither are you. Neither am I. Is he bombastic? Duh. Yes. That’s what writers do. It’s called exaggeration for effect. Sometimes that huge and passionate personality carries him over the line, but I’ve read him climb down humbly and apologize more times than I can count.

The whole thing seems to be dying down, and I have no desire to stoke that fire back into a blaze, but I think the vitriolic way in which l’affaire du Shea-West unfolded revealed deep problems with the way we’re going about our faith. It’s one thing to sneer at the cafeteria Catholics who pull into the parking lot at mass with their pro-choice and Obama bumper stickers, but there’s also a problem with a Catholicism that aligns itself too closely to the Republican party.

A dozen times a week–at least–I read of some new outrage by Obama and my first thought is: this is an awful man. And I stop myself, because I honestly don’t know what kind of man he is at all. I know only what the media projects, which may or may not tally with reality. We can’t make the mistake of demonizing our ideological opponents. It’s not just wrong and un-Christian: it leads to sloppy thinking.

One of my great awakenings was reading Ronald Reagan’s handwritten speeches and notes, and finding an extremely intelligent, warm, engaged, active mind. It was the exact opposite of the image created of him in the public sphere. All through my teen years I’d fed on a steady diet of elite media telling me this great man was a bumbling disengaged fool who was merely an actor playing the president. It was a stone cold lie, and I was angry at myself for being suckered into it, while simultaneously awed at the skill of the lie. I should have known better. As a McLuhanite, I should have been able to anticipate the power of media to warp our perception of reality, and although I understood that power, I hadn’t counted on the malice that went with it.

So, while I think Obama is a man who does awful things, I don’t think he’s an awful man. If that distinction seems meaningless to you, then you’ve failed basic philosophy, not to mention basic Christianity.

Catholics have no real home in the American political system. Allegiance to either party requires a compromise of key Catholic principles. Because the Democrats are wedded to failing fiscal policy and a culture of death, I usually find myself either voting Republican or third party, but that doesn’t mean I’m out there waving the flag for more insane military spending or corporate welfare. If it was the party of Rand Paul or even paleocons like Pat Buchanan, I might find myself more in line with them, but as it is now they are not worthy of my support.

Here’s the problem, though: this radically polarized political culture–driven by a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and epistemic closure–has created a hardening along purely political lines. We are letting our opinions ossify into the most simplistic tribal allegiances. You thought the sound bite was the death of discourse? Compared to the internet meme, a sound bite is friggin’ Cicero.

Witnessing the degradations of the Democrats, those on the right fall back into identifying with Republicans, who suck about 10% less. But the Republicans aren’t conservatives any more: they’re hawkish corporatists. This is absolutely out of line with basic Catholic teaching. As long as the holocaust of abortion continues to be the central plank of liberal social policy, we’re stuck with them, but don’t act like the Republican party is some grand solution to our problems.

Faith comes first. I finally understand that the hatred of early America for Catholics was completely reasonable, because I have no problem at all saying that I am Catholic first, and American second. It is usually possible to fuse those two allegiances into a unified whole: an American Catholic. Most of the time, that works okay, but not always, and when caught in that uncomfortable space, I yield to the Church, not to the State or the Party.

The burning hostility that engulfed the anti-Shea comments on Facebook, other blogs, and front pages like Pewsitter, drew a small but vocal, loathsome fringe of hyper-rightwing Catholics into the sunlight, and it was not a pleasant experience. I read things that astonished me with their Satanic levels of hatred for other human beings. There was nothing at all Catholic about it: it was the rhetoric of American hellfire-and-brimstone Protestantism married to Republican talking points, and salted with semi-psychotic ramblings. Joanne McPortland received vile messages that no actual Christian could ever send. I had readers say they were never coming here again because of my defense of Shea, so hated is he.

I read in astonishment as my friend Steven Greydanus–intelligent, calm, charitable–attempted to draw reason out of people who seemed simply deranged. It was demonic, there’s no other word for it. Hatred of Shea and us “whores” in the “Catholic middle” poured out like pus from an infected wound. That wound is on the body of Christ, and it was put there by a divisive culture that can’t seem to distinguish people from their opinions, and political parties from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Perhaps something good came of it all. For an infected wound to heal, first it must drain. In the Shea-West dustup, a political priest attacked a controversial lay apologist at the height of the most contentious election cycle of my life, and everyone chose their side. It was a kind of perfect storm that drew all the combatants out into the open and gave them space to vent. And some of it was damn ugly.

Here’s the thing, though: we’re not combatants: we’re brothers in Christ. As I said in the beginning of this blog: “I am not a liberal Catholic, orthodox Catholic, conservative Catholic, cafeteria Catholic, or traditionalist Catholic: I am, simply, a Catholic (Latin Rite). That should be enough for you to know where I stand and what I believe about most issues. At least, it used to be.”

Our creed is the Nicene Creed. That is what defines us. We can’t be defined by these pointless little internecine struggles. In case you hadn’t noticed, the whole damn world is coming apart. It’s the “devil’s own time,” as McLuhan predicted. You know what the devil loves? Catholics attacking other Catholics. It’s basic military tactics: divide a force, and it can be more easily conquered. We can’t let that happen; we mustn’t let it happen.

UPDATE: Steven Greydanus is doing the work of the Holy Spirit. Message from Fr. Peter West:  “Mark Shea has revised his article on Perry Lorenzo and removed an offensive post about John Corapi. While Mark and I continue to have serious disagreements, they are on matters related to prudential judgments not the Catholic faith. I consider Mark to be a faithful Catholic. While I’m sure we will disagree in the future, I pledge to be more measured in my criticism. I thank Steven D. Greydanus for acting as an intermediary. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5, 9)”

Mark Shea: Worst. Person. Ever.

One thing about blogging at Patheos: you can’t choose your neighbors. It was a pretty quiet place around here when the Right Kind of Catholics made up most of the blogroll, but then they started letting anybody in.

I knew things were really going to hell when Mark Shea first showed up. As an author, blogger, and speaker, he’s used the Church to achieve worldwide fame and boundless wealth while leading the real faithful (ie, cradle Catholics) astray. It’s about time courageous people take a stand against laypeople with keyboards, and Fr. Peter West has bravely taken up the gauntlet in a relentless series of Facebook messages and comments aimed squarely at putting Shea in his place so no one will ever listen to him again.

It was good of Fr. West to perform this important task, since he already had a very full schedule that involved regular Facebook posts vigorously defending the Republican Party, as well as acting as Vice President of Human Life International.

Can anyone doubt that Fr. West first contacted Shea privately to counsel him as any good priest would do, and failing that, brought his concerns to Shea’s publishers and his bishop? After all, these were serious matters that needed to be addressed with a sense of pastoral care befitting a priest of the Holy Catholic Church.

Fr. West began his fraternal correction of Shea with an August 28th post declaring, “Something is deeply wrong with Mark Shea. I wouldn’t be looking to him for theological guidance.” This was in response to a serious and pressing issue, first raised in a May 1st post by Shea titled “A Gay Man I Consider a Saint.”  The post was little more than an apologia for rampant and unrestrained sodomy, masquerading as a charitable reminiscence of a chaste and pious homosexual who had recently passed away.

I mean, really! What else could Fr. West have done? Shea’s compassion and charity was grotesquely misplaced when we all know that sexual perverts are damned without exception. Shea even went so far as to officially canonize this unrepentant homosexual! As if he had the authority! By far the worst thing he did was to say he didn’t even care if the homosexual was chaste. That it wasn’t any of his “business”! As though the sins of each person, living or dead, are not the pressing concern of each and every Catholic. We are called, by virtue of our baptism, to render judgment on the sins of others. Obviously, Shea’s “conversion” is sorely lacking if he doesn’t understand such basics of the faith.

Shea pretended to be puzzled by Fr. West’s misrepresentation of his opinion fraternal correction, and attempted to “reason” with the good and holy priest.

Father: I have said nothing opposed to the Catholic faith. I said I knew a chaste gay man who lived and died with great love for the faith. I didn’t know (and still don’t) whether he managed to live with perfect chastity, but then I don’t know if you have lived with perfect chastity either, Father. However, I *presume* you have as I presumed Perry had, given what I saw of the obvious intensity of his faith and commitment to the gospel. I still have no reason to think he committed any sins in that department. And I did not and do not see it as my job to act as Inquisitor into either his sex life or yours, Father. I see nothing in any of that that which opposes the Faith, and you defame me to claim there is. What is more, you teach your followers to join you in that defamation. I implore you to stop.

I ask you, did you ever hear such utter rot? It was a good thing that Fr. West ignored Shea’s pleas for prayer and calm and continued to encourage his followers in their relentless (but, of course, always charitable and fraternal) corrections of Shea, until the conversation finally slowed down after about 800 replies. Sure, it was vicious and personal, with crass insults and messages from mentally ill people who had slipped their meds and started randomly lapsing into odd vaudeville routines, but passions were high, and Shea’s wickedness certainly warranted such harsh treatment at the hands of a shepherd of souls.

Yet this was surely not enough medicine for a reprobate like Shea, so Fr. West stepped up his attacks fraternal correction. He added a “Mark Shea Alert” to his Facebook page, castigating Mark for agreeing with something written by Zac Alstin for Mercatornet.  This was a long overdue antidote to one of the curses of the Catholic church: people agreeing with other people. At last, Fr. West was on the right track with the idea of a Mark Shea alert, which should become a permanent feature of all truly faithful catholic blogs, complete with a color-coded warning, such as this:

It was getting serious, however: Shea and his minions weren’t accepting the harassment fraternal correction–hard and personal, but obviously necessary–in the proper spirit, and Fr. West soon announced that he was under threat from diabolical Shea supporters. I have no doubt about this at all. They will stop at nothing, so Fr. West had no choice but to increase his character assassination fraternal correction, with further posts on Shea’s criticisms of Lila Rose’s use of deception in her anti-abortion efforts; Shea’s failure to love conservative patriots like Glenn Beck and Andrew Breibart; Shea’s criticism of John “Formerly Father” Corapi for defying and slandering his bishop, his employees, and the leaders of his order; and criticisms of Shea for criticising his criticism.

All in all, it was a very thorough effort at slander fraternal correction, which Shea neglected to accept in the proper attitude of groveling gratitude. All the while, Shea continued to deny he believed the things Fr. West claimed he believed, which is just silly. Who knows better what Shea believes? Shea himself, or a priest who, though he has never met him, has read a few of his blog posts?

I ask you, in the spirit of clericalism, to be honest with yourself here.

The ugly truth is this: Shea is a convert, and all good and faithful Catholics know converts may be nice to have around now and then to fill out the choir, but they can’t really be trusted. They’re not really part of the body of Christ, to be treated with love and respect like real Catholics.

It’s also clear that there is no room in the Catholic Church for people who express doubt about Republican political candidates and fail to hate Obama quite thoroughly enough. Fr. West’s proud and constant public support of the Romney-Ryan ticket is, in fact, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict himself has endorsed them for their unwavering commitment to talking about abortion once or twice a year, maybe.

I actually find Fr. West’s relentless pursuit of a layperson with a blog rather comforting, since it means the Church is not entering the period of persecution we all believed was ahead, and that we have in fact solved all our serious problems. This gives us the opportunity to gather in the circular firing squad and attack other Catholics. It’s even more encouraging that the leader of a pro-life organization can take the time to insult fraternally correct another tireless advocate for the pro-life cause, since it means that the scourge of abortion has vanished from the land. Bravo, Fr. West!

UPDATE: Follow-up post.