The internet makes it possible for more people to make their ideas known by allowing them to publish blogs and offer comments on various sites. This opportunity allows Catholics to evangelize through the internet. Unfortunately, it also allows Catholics to savage each other and publish error. There’s no oversight (our bishops have no legal authority to tell a Catholic in error to stop publishing), so anyone who wishes can comment—regardless of their level of theological knowledge and orthodoxy. As a result, there’s a lot of error out there with people wrongly proclaiming their own views to be more faithful than others. The question is what to do about it.
Of course, we can’t accept a moral relativism. Since Catholic teaching involves what we must do to be saved, errors on what the Church teaches involves errors on how we must act and may make a difference between salvation and damnation. Since we’re called to bring the message of salvation to the whole world, we need to correct those in error. The question here, assuming we are correcting actual error and not merely feeling repulsed by an opinion, is the question of tactics.
God’s grace is always involved in a person turning away from evil and towards good. However, God often makes use of human agents to carry out His will. This means how we offer correction can either cooperate with God’s means of turning someone back to Him, or else a stumbling block that acts against God’s will. If we act as a stumbling block through condescending or insulting behavior, we might drive people away from the conversion God desires for them.
Of course free will means that a person might reject our outreach. It might mean they respond abusively. We might even have to walk away instead of continuing to respond. However, we have the obligation to be certain that reaction is not in response to bad behavior on our own part (1 Peter 3:16-17). That means we must be certain our own behavior is exemplary, even when those we try to correct behave rudely. So, we have to investigate our own bad habits and weaknesses to eliminate our own offensive behavior (Proverbs 15:1). Otherwise we guarantee an angry response that is our own fault.
Part of that is remembering who we are. We’re not St. Paul rebuking St. Peter or the foolish Galatians (Galatians 3:1). We’re not the Old Testament prophets rebuking a sinful Israel. For the most part we’re members of the laity with no authority over the people we correct. Yes, the Pope or a bishop can offer a strong rebuke if they think it best. They have that authority. But all we can do is demonstrate what the Church teaching really is and how it ought to be applied. In doing so, we can’t be so offensive that they will not hear us.
I think the difference is whether we view the erring person as a fellow servant who deserves needs salvation just as much as us, or whether we view him as our enemy who must be vanquished and humiliated, somehow hoping he will be shamed into changing. I think we need to recognize that the second option doesn’t work. If we insult the person we hope to correct, they will probably ignore the truth we might provide and assume we’re the ones in error. We should think about that. Do we really do God’s work when we treat the person we hope to correct as the Pharisees treated the Gentiles? Our Lord dined with tax collectors. We won’t even be civil with that Catholic on Facebook whose politics we find deplorable.
So, maybe we should start to consider what we hope to accomplish and whether our goals and behavior are compatible with what God calls us to be in our mission. What offends us in others, we must not do ourselves (Matthew 7:12). None of us wanted to be insulted or rashly accused. So we should not insult, and we should make certain we fully understand the position of the person in error—not merely assuming that all people who think differently from us, or do wrong, intend to openly defy the Church. Some do. But some are merely mistaken. Others simply do a poor job explaining their position. These people rightly resent being accused of supporting evil.
We should also remember the example of Pope Francis. His Year of Mercy, and continuous calls to remove stumbling blocks are aimed at getting people to think about their relationship with God, and removing the obstacles that discourage them from returning to Him. We should be emulating him. We should also consider the rebukes he issues. It’s easy to think of him just targeting the radical traditionalists, but resistance to the Church teaching comes from all sides. It’s dangerous to our soul to think that so long as we are not sinning like them, we’re doing fine. The deadliest mortal sin is the one that sends us to Hell—we might not be a murderer or a fornicator, but if we calumniate or bear false witness in a mortal way, we will be damned all the same.
We should keep this in mind. We should consider how we behave towards that one “jerk” who comments on Facebook or posts blot posts we don’t like. Do we show mercy and compassion to a fellow sinner? Or do we treat them like they are enemies who can be freely attacked or insulted? Since God has shown mercy to us, we must do the same for others.
21 Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. 23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. 25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. 26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ 27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. 28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. 32 His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. 33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ 34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. 35 q So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)