But we believe that the emergence of the Catholic blogosphere is one of the most significant developments in the 21st-century Church. Blogs not only provide a new space for the free exchange of Catholic opinion but also take the Church deep into the online world in which increasing numbers of people spend most of their waking lives. Catholic blogs, at their very best, have a kind of prophetic dimension. Of course it’s unpleasant to be denounced by the Jeremiahs of the internet, but if they help us reflect critically on the way we use whatever authority we have in the Church they are performing an important service.
Blogging has proven to be more than a noughties fad. Throughout this century people’s views of the Church are likely to be shaped by what they read in the Catholic blogosphere. This presents a challenge both to bloggers and bishops. Bloggers need to up their game, striving to uphold the basic media standards of truth, fairness and accuracy, and reflecting constantly on whether they are presenting the faith appealingly to non-Catholics. The bishops, meanwhile, should consider embracing the Catholic blogosphere. The best way to do this would be through face-to-face meetings with bloggers in their dioceses. Misunderstandings could be resolved and bloggers encouraged to bring bishops’ messages to a vast new audience.
We in Ordinariate circles have some comments by Cardinal Mueller to consider. These from his visit to Houston last year (via Ordinariate Expats):
- The Archbishop particularly took blogs to task, stating that they are a way of promoting what he called “unbridled, unreflected” comment and dissent. He stated that love must be the foundation of our work as bloggers.
The Prefect went on to issue a word of warning about the potential problems caused by the “new media”, particularly through blogs. He said that some of the ordinariate clergy and faithful wrote blogs, which, while being a helpful tool of evangelisation, could also “express un-reflected speech lacking in charity”. The image of the ordinariate was not helped by this, he said, and it fell to the ordinaries to exercise vigilance over these blogs and, if necessary, to intervene.
I do wonder about the practical wisdom of attempting to censor the blogosphere. Protect the Pope now carries posts by Mrs Donnelly, and she has offered an invitation to others to contribute material – which several writers have already taken up. Other censored bloggers can also simply start up a new blog under a pseudonym, or use alternative social media platforms – Facebook and Twitter are well-known but the possibilities are endless. As activists on the internet pointed out years ago, censorship is just another bug for which you find a hack or a workaround. The danger is that a previously censored commenter will be probably not be inclined to moderation in a new social media incarnation.
Bishops also have on their side the great respect of most Catholics for Bishops. Quite often a blog will criticise a Bishop severely, only to find that another blog tells a different side to the story, or the Bishop issues a statement clarifying things – and then receives a lot of support from Catholic bloggers. The discussion will continue, but the Bishop is not exactly powerless to defend himself.
Bloggers work in an environment which is open to everyone. One of the healthy things about such open communication is precisely that you cannot rely on personal standing to squash disagreement. As Fr Zuhlsdorf put it so well, the internet operates a “Reverse Gresham’s Law” whereby good information drives out bad. You can say something inaccurate or unfair if you want, but you can be sure that you will be corrected – within minutes if you have any personal standing – and the more you ignore correction, the more you will be attacked, and the lower your reputation will sink.
The converse is also true. Bloggers who dare to speak honestly and truthfully even when it is risky to do so, especially when they are courteous, even when expressing strong opinions, gain great respect from others. In my opinion, Deacon Nick Donnelly is one such blogger and I was unhappy to hear that he had been silenced. Now that “pastoral solutions” and “imaginative ways forward” are so much in vogue in another context, I hope that this faithful Deacon can be “welcomed and included.”
Clerical bloggers do a vast amount of self-censorship, largely so as to protect the reputation of the Church, and not least of the Bishops, in this country. They even refrain from writing about matters in which they have been painfully and personally involved, so as not to damage further the Church’s image. They suppress information which is sent to them. And they find themselves trying to calm people down and to reassure the troubled.
To be presented, as a result of these efforts, with the news that one is a Problem; that one is to be treated like a Naughty Little Boy who needs to be Carefully Watched and Strictly Disciplined, leaves a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth.
I personally am for a free-ranging blogosphere and attempts to exercise a top-down hierarchical control are doomed to failure and betray a lack of understanding of social media.
Yes, it is rough and tumble. Yes, one must develop a thick skin. Yes, controversy and conflict drive reader stats—which is why my readership is so small since this blog is not controversial.
Anyway, lots of food for thought.