Some Catholic bloggers are seeing a growing trend in comments as on-line civility and Catholic values give way to a hostile arena. Why post such comments?
My blog, These Stone Walls, ended 2010 with “My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip.” It makes a good prelude to this post about the tone of our comments on Catholic blogs. Even before the on-line world existed, I learned a lesson about how the lure of anonymity can make me forget who I am.
About 25 years ago, a little old lady pulled in front of me in heavy traffic on one of New England’s infamous rotaries. She just pulled into the rotary’s speeding traffic seemingly oblivious to everyone else. Once she got in front of me she slowed to about 20 miles per hour, trapping me behind her as cars zoomed by on both sides. Round and round we went, blocked into the middle lane because she did not know how to drive on a rotary.
Contrary to what you may have read in newspapers or on Bishop-Accountability, the worst failures of my priesthood – and my manhood – have been when I allow impatience to dictate who I am. It was summer. My window was rolled down. I was many miles from home, and I thought I had some anonymity. It was so frustrating being trapped in traffic behind this old lady that I shouted something angry – though not quite obscene. As a break in the traffic finally allowed me to pass her, I heard a high-pitched voice shout back, “I’m so sorry, Father!”
So much for anonymity! I felt just awful. I went one more time around the rotary, then came up behind her as she exited to a nearby grocery store. Once there, I approached her car, took her trembling hand in mine, and told her I was very sorry for my inexcusable impatience. “That’s okay, Father,” she said. “Everyone yells at me when I’m driving.”
But I’m not supposed to be one of them. I felt about two feet tall, and vowed that such a thing would never happen again. I didn’t even know why I had been in such an awful hurry. So I helped her shop, carried her groceries, and let her exploit the event for all it was worth.
Last March, “My Incendiary Blog Post On Catholic Civil Discourse” sparked some discussion about taking a higher road in the midst of a troubling trend in the Catholic online world: the fact that blog comments, especially on topics like “accused Catholic priests” often degrade into name-calling monologues instead of meaningful dialogues. Since then, the case of Father John Corapi has given many readers an example of what I meant.
My other post on Catholic civil discourse was “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal.” It gave some examples about how the scandal in the Catholic Church is often used for agendas that have nothing to do with truth, or justice, or even the protection of young people. So-called Catholic “reformers” on both the left and the right have used the pain of Catholic scandal for agendas of their own. Some on the left have exploited it to promote an identifiably American Catholic Church that mirrors the Episcopal church, advocating for little more then symbolic authority from Rome. Some on the right use the scandal to promote suspicion that the Church has capitulated far too much to the modern World. Some demand a purging of the priesthood that would be far more Calvinist than Catholic.
Both sides of that ideological divide promote a conclusion that Rome has misplaced Holy Orders in unworthy men – bishops and priests alike – who have not lived up to their standards. As I alluded in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” I’ve been a priest for 29 years, most of them very rough years. But I’m still unclear about what makes me, or any man, worthy of priesthood. If you know men who are convinced they deserve to be priests, be wary of them. Such a belief is at the heart of clericalism, an attitude that has seriously harmed the Roman Catholic priesthood almost as much as the notion that priests are simply disposable employees “on the job,” one of the tragic consequences of zero tolerance and the U.S. bishops’ Dallas Charter.
WHO ARE YOU?
I believe the heart of the problem in our on-line exchanges is anonymity, and the reality that, online, I never have to look my opponent in the eye and see him or her as a fellow human being and Catholic. Since my two posts on Catholic civil discourse, I’ve waded deeper into the tidal pools of Catholic exchange online, though I do so as a blind man. I think most readers know by now that as a prisoner, I have no online access at all. I have never even seen These Stone Walls on a computer screen. Charlene Duline prints and mails my finished posts to me, so you see them many days before I do.
In part, at least, this is why writer, Ryan MacDonald referred to me as “A Voice in the Wilderness” in his review of These Stone Walls on Catholic Exchange. When I mail my typed posts to be scanned, it’s a little like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. I never know whether it will make a splash or drift off unnoticed.
I cannot see any of the content of other blogs either, nor can I respond first hand to anything. Your comments are read to me, and Lavern West, a TSW reader in Cincinnati, prints and mails them to me each week. Snippets of comments on other Catholic blogs are sometimes mailed to me by other TSW readers, and some have even been about me. Most have been kind, reflecting open minds in the service of justice. A few have been bombs of judgment or ridicule dropped from the comfort zone of digital distance, a kind of anonymous cyber-bullying.
Elizabeth Scalia, who writes at The Anchoress blog, had a recent post about the Father John Corapi saga. It generated an enormous number of comments, but Ms. Scalia had to close the comments because of abuses. She explained that the comments descended into a nasty series of accusations and exchanges with some Catholics posting toxic remarks using multiple screen names, but all from the same IP addresses.
I found that to be interesting. Just days before, I had been told by someone who knows that people involved with one of the most vocal “victim-survivors” groups are using contrived on-line names to “seed” the internet with negative comments attacking priests who try to defend themselves. I was cautioned that a list of accused priests who vocally maintain their innocence has been compiled. These activists routinely Google the priests’ names, pick out Catholic blogs and writers who defend them, then target these blogs for a “comments campaign.”
Recently, the moderator of a grass-roots website formed to defend a falsely accused priest wrote that she was contacted by representatives of SNAP who demanded that she take the website down. When the priest’s supporters declined, SNAP leaders reportedly contacted the priest’s bishop demanding that he order the removal of this website. I urged the group not to cave into such bullying tactics. SNAP’s insistence on controlling information about falsely accused priests is more akin to tactics of the Third Reich than First Amendment rights.
I was the target of one of these campaigns when I published a post defending Father John Corapi’s right of defense. It wasn’t on These Stone Walls where we have a “Comments Policy” that is very clear. The comments were on another Catholic blog that re-printed my post. Most comments were fair and just, and many even tried to defend me, but two people – possibly even the same person – were determined to change the tone and have the last word. Every attempt at factual reason was countered with untrue and nasty comments. A friend who was defending me said it was like playing “Whack-a-Mole” at the local county fair. As soon as one untrue statement would get knocked down, another would quickly pop up in its place.
The experience was a lot like Elizabeth Scalia’s when she wrote about Father John Corapi. I learned later that some of the nastiest detractors had been writing from the same IP address. This all drew the attention of a feisty TSW reader, Dorothy Stein, who left this comment:
“As a non-Catholic, let me get something straight in my mind. Last summer, Father Cutie was videotaped on a beach carousing with a divorcee. When the tape became public, he walked out of the priesthood, abandoned the Church, became an Episcopalian, and will soon have his own talk show on FOX TV. None of you Catholics seem to have an unkind word for him. Meanwhile, this priest [meaning me] is struggling for his freedom and his priesthood while calling others to fidelity to the Church despite vague and money-driven accusations from 30 years ago, and some of you want him dragged again before the Sanhedrin for crucifixion. It seems to me that Catholics get the priests they deserve.”
In response, one of the Catholics – apparently not knowing the “Father Cutie” story – posted a comment declaring that Dorothy Stein is “just too dumb” to even be a part of this discussion.
I was embarrassed for that writer, but far more embarrassed for the Catholic blogger who posted that comment. Days later, I was told that this particular Catholic blogger had a new post trying to keep this nasty momentum going. He wrote of the difference between calumny and detraction, and invited the latter while mildly rebuking the former. His goal is clearly to generate as many comments as possible regardless of their content. He erroneously measures the value and popularity of his blog by the number of comments he receives.
My self-esteem would plunge if I did that. One of my better posts on TSW this year – “Cable News or Cable Nuisance?” – only got four comments on TSW, but iCatholic called it one of their best-read posts when they re-printed it. But that’s immaterial. I’m very proud of the comments we have on TSW. Many are superior to the posts they’ve commented on.
A couple of TSW readers recently posted comments stating that they are so distraught about the tone of comments on many other Catholic blogs that they just don’t visit them anymore. I think these writers are onto something. If we judge a Catholic blog not only by its posts, but also by the comments it allows to be posted, we might help demonstrate the value of discernment.
As I pointed out in “My Incendiary Blog Post on Catholic Civil Discourse,” it’s nice to let people have their say. The First Amendment protects their right to say it. But the very same First Amendment also protects your right not to give them a platform on the blog that bears your name and your identity as a Catholic. A grass roots development is taking shape among some of the better Catholic blogs. Their hosts are being a lot more discerning about the tone of comments they will permit on the sites that bear their names and reputations. It is not discrimination. It’s a sign that Catholic bloggers are taking the “Catholic” part of their blogging responsibility seriously. It is not to control information. It’s to invite a higher standard for expressing it.
This is a promising development. Too many Catholic bloggers erroneously interpret the volume of comments to be evidence of the popularity of their blogs. It belies a need for volume and quantity at the expense of tone and quality – not to mention Catholic truths and values. As anonymous as I might think I am – either on-line or in rotary traffic – God knows every keystroke and every utterance issued from behind the wheel. This is why TSW has a clear and responsible “Comments Policy,” and why I do not weigh the success of any blog post by the number of comments posted.
To get a sense of just how far Catholic discourse in the on-line world has slouched toward Gomorrah, consider a recent event In New Hampshire. Several months ago, when deep budget cuts were being hotly contested, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester – Bishop John McCormack – appeared at a rally near the State House organized by state employees and human service organizations affected by the proposed cuts. The bishop spoke about the Gospel mandate to care for the poor and needy, and asked that cuts curtailing human services be reconsidered.
The next day on his Facebook page, the New Hampshire House Majority Leader, who also professes to be Catholic, called Bishop McCormack a “Pedophile Pimp,” and suggested that he should clean out his own house before commenting at the State House. Two other legislators threw gasoline on the fire by declaring their intent to file legislation revoking the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status because the bishop addressed a crowd near the State House. The spectacle was heightened by the fact that the nation’s eyes are on New Hampshire politics as the 2012 Presidential Primary season unfolds. The exchange threatened to trigger anti-Catholic sentiment on a national scale.
I do not use These Stone Walls to air grievances with my bishop. But if you have read “Case History Part IV: Status of the Case” then you know of tensions between us. However, he is still my bishop, and I could not sit back passively and watch such an anti-Catholic spectacle simply because my bishop was doing what he’s supposed to do. I contacted the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and asked them to defend my bishop. The Catholic League quickly took up the story and issued several press releases to its members who rose to the occasion admirably. The anti-Catholic tax bill was never filed, and within days the NH House Majority Leader announced that he had met with the bishop and apologized profusely, maybe even sincerely.
In my recent post about “Why the Sordid Case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn Matters to Catholics,” I commended Bret Stephens – a writer for The Wall Street Journal – for courageously critiquing his own industry, the news media, by holding journalists accountable. Mr. Stephens pointed out that too many reporters find the story they want just by exploiting certain facts and ignoring others. He exposed the fact that writers have the power to steer a news story, and not just report it.
Bloggers have that same power, and with it – for Catholic bloggers, at least – comes great responsibility to represent the truth and the values of what we profess to be and to believe. This includes the content of comments we publish.
If you’re old enough to remember TV’s “Batman” show (1966), starring Adam West and Burt Ward, what likely stands out in your minds are the comic book explosions of “BAM!” “BANG!” “BONK!” that appeared over the characters’ heads whenever Batman or Robin landed or took a punch. “Holy Hard-Head, Batman!” Robin would declare. “That Joker has no respect for anyone!” “There was a sad negligence in his depraved upbringing,” Batman calmly explained during a pause in the battle.
I thought of Batman recently when I received a snail mail letter from TSW reader Dorothy Stein after her on-line exchange described above. I was struck by her message and I think you will be, too. I asked her permission to use it, so here it is:
“From watching some of the debate on Catholic blogs, I have come to the conclusion that there are factions in your Church whose prevailing agendas are to destroy the Church. Knowing that any sane person would realize as I have that there exists no evidence for your supposed guilt, I can only conclude that attacks on you are not motivated by that at all, but by your witness, your fidelity, your support of the priesthood, your asking your readers to remain faithful to their Church.
If you were willing to abandon all that, as some others have done, it seems things would go so much easier for you.
But don’t do it, Father. Take the Bangs and the Bonks! It’s for a good cause. Just learn when to duck.”
Father Gordon J. MacRae writes frequently for Spero News. The above article was modified from one published previously at his blog, www.TheseStoneWalls.com.