It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… (A Tale of Two Cities)
Nowadays, the Church is of interest to the media. Unfortunately, they are generally uninformed about our Catholic Faith, and as a result when the Church fathers meet to discuss how the Church should approach an issue, the standard approach is to break it down into “good guys” who support what they approve and “bad guys” who oppose it. (The Rhine Flows into the Tiber shows how that sort of thing happened). Because they generally are religiously illiterate, and approach a council or synod as if it was a political debate, their attempts at research tends towards looking up what individual Catholics are writing or saying and use them as representatives of the whole Catholic thinking.
The problem with communications as they advance is it becomes easier and easier for anybody to spread their opinions wide and influence people. In 2007, I began a blog which has reached more people during the past seven years than I could have hoped to reach by writing, say, twenty years before. I hope that was a good thing, not a bad thing. But the point is, the individual Catholic can write about the faith as they see it and influence others for better or worse.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
I would say this is for good when Catholics use this medium to help people understand the faith and live better in accord with it, to be aware of what is going on in the world and how the Church understands it. During my years I have seen many praiseworthy blogs, dedicated to apologetics or family life—helping people seek to live their lives closer to what God has called them (for example, blogs about Catholic parenting) or is calling them to be (such as blogs promoting the religious life or the married vocation). Such blogs can let us know of things to pray about or work for/against in order to spread the faith. They can help us respond to challenges to our faith, and even convince us to abandon views incompatible with our faith.
But (and you knew there was going to be a “but” here), Catholic blogging can be a very bad thing when it turns the Catholic faith or a teaching of the Catholic faith into a platform for a rant, or into a partisan dispute where people who disagree with one’s preferences become villains, and there is no sign of Christian charity for the person who disagrees. Even the priest, bishop or Pope is not safe from their judgment, if they do not handle things in the way that the partisan blogger would like. Under such a viewpoint, the Church is broken into heroes and knaves based entirely on how they see the Church in relation to what they think should be done. There’s no room for considering whether there is another way of handling things that is still in keeping with the Catholic faith.
A Little Knowledge is Dangerous
What makes this kind of behavior worse is that so much of it is uninformed. The reaction is not merely uncharitable, but sometimes it relies on a personal interpretation of Church documents from a past age, with no consideration as to how the Church teaching has developed between the time of the document referred to and the Papal statement they object to. So, for example, they contrast St. Cyprian’s “no salvation outside of the Church” with the Vatican II statements on non-Catholics or non-Christians, alleging that this is proof of heresy—but ignore Pope Pius IX or Pope Pius XII explicitly rejecting the concept that a person not a formal member of the Catholic Church is going to hell.
Another aspect of this is the assumption that because the reaction by the Magisterium is not public, the magisterium is doing nothing. In logic, that’s the argument from silence fallacy. If a Pope or Bishop or Pastor chooses to deal privately with a Catholic behaving badly, rather than publicly denounce them, that is a pastoral issue. Sure, it is a legitimate problem when an issue is ignored. But often the Church spends time dialoguing with people in error, with the aim of bringing them back into the Church, rather than have them harden their hearts in dissent.
For example, when it comes to concern that “the bishops aren’t doing anything,” how many people know that Canon Law actually stipulates when public action can take place:
can. 1341† An ordinary is to take care to initiate a judicial or administrative process to impose or declare penalties only after he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.
Now I have no doubt that a bishop can be too lenient, just as he can be too harsh. But when you see this, it becomes clear that we cannot assume from a lack of visible action that a bishop has no intention to act at all.
Love and Respect is Required
Even if someone in authority is wrong, that does not give a blogger to just tear into him. Charity is required and charity is all too often lacking. St. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica (II-II Q33. A4) about how one may correct a superior. He utterly rejects the idea of public challenges and rudeness in doing so. I offer this for consideration:
I answer that, A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.
Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:1): An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father. Wherefore Dionysius finds fault with the monk Demophilus (Ep. viii.), for rebuking a priest with insolence, by striking and turning him out of the church.
Reply Obj. 1. It would seem that a subject touches his prelate inordinately when he upbraids him with insolence, as also when he speaks ill of him: and this is signified by God’s condemnation of those who touched the mount and the ark.
Reply Obj. 2. To withstand anyone in public exceeds the mode of fraternal correction, and so Paul would not have withstood Peter then, unless he were in some way his equal as regards the defence of the faith. But one who is not an equal can reprove privately and respectfully. Hence the Apostle in writing to the Colossians (4:17) tells them to admonish their prelate: Say to Archippus: Fulfil thy ministry. It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Gal. 2:11, Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.
Reply Obj. 3. To presume oneself to be simply better than one’s prelate, would seem to savour of presumptuous pride; but there is no presumption in thinking oneself better in some respect, because, in this life, no man is without some fault. We must also remember that when a man reproves his prelate charitably, it does not follow that he thinks himself any better, but merely that he offers his help to one who, being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger, as Augustine observes in his Rule quoted above.
Indeed, in Article 7 of the same question, he also writes “Therefore it is evident that the precept requires a secret admonition to precede public denunciation.” How often does this happen? Not often—and I fear that the Catholic blogosphere can be one of the biggest transgressors here. Moreover, when we assume our superiority to the bishop being “corrected,” and act like we have the right to criticize him, we are usurpers. We don’t have that right to behave with public rudeness—even if he should turn out to do wrong.
Presumption of Superiority and Lack of Love
St. Paul wrote about love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and it is a good thing to consider:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, 5 it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, 6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I believe that when we start from a position of believing we are superior to the priest, bishop or Pope in our knowledge and holiness, we are starting from a position of arrogance and have no love for the person we believe should be corrected. We simply look at such a case as if we were vanquishing an infidel or as if we thought we were the only ones defended by the Holy Spirit from error.
The other side of the coin to the presumption of our own superiority is the presumption of the other person’s inferiority. When we assume we know more than the bishop or the Pope, we are assuming that they are inferior to us in holiness about the knowledge of the faith. Such behavior can reach the level of rash judgment where a person refuses to consider good intentions on the part of the person judged.
We can only avoid this sin by remembering that we are to love those tasked with shepherding us, even if they sometimes act in a way that doesn’t make them particularly likable.
I think this can only be done if we remember to pray for the person we are concerned with—not pray for in the sense of “Oh Lord, please make this bishop stop being an idiot,” but in the sense of “Lord, bless him and guide him that he may shepherd his diocese well and lead us as he is called to do.” Asking for his good, not for his deposition, will transform us as well as him.
Conclusion: Without Love Our Blogs Are A Clashing Cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1)
I think this is why I am so ultimately troubled by the Catholic blogosphere—the lack of love for those we disagree with or those we believe to be behaving wrongly. People are going to look at our blogs, and they are probably going to judge the Church by their antics. If they don’t see the love in our actions, if they instead see us tearing each other to pieces, they’ll look at us as yet one more conservative or liberal group (depending on their outlook) to be written off. I think the problem we have to face is that we have sometimes gotten so focussed on looking on those who act differently as an enemy instead of someone to be reached out to in love that we think of our mission as “vanquishing the foe,” instead of “winning over our brother” (Matthew 18:15).
Every person who reads this must consider for themselves whether they need to change and, if so, to what extent. That includes me of course. There needs to be a constant evaluation of conscience by each blogger, eliminating what we perceive to be against what God calls us to be.
Ultimately, I think this is a matter of learning to let go, love those we fear are doing wrong, and trust that God is looking after His Church and will not allow it to fall it in ruin. As Pope emeritus Benedict XVI said in The Ratzinger Report, we need to remember that it is God’s Church, not ours. If we can have faith in God, we can learn to trust that what happens to the Church will not lead to her ruin and it may make us more open to hear what God calls us to do.
I would like to conclude by asking us to reflect on St. Francis of Assisi. He was called by God in a time when the Church was in need of reform. St. Francis answered that call—but he did so with love for the Church, and obedience to the Pope and the Bishop. Let us seek to emulate him—especially if one believes the Church is falling into ruin.