Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Vocation of the Catholic Blogger

On this Feast of Christ the King, which concerns the relation of Christ to the society of men and His lordship over it, I want to write about an issue of tremendous importance: the vocation of Catholic bloggers and the role  they play in manifesting Christ's teachings to the world through the media of the Internet. I consider this one of the most important posts I have ever done. It is long, but I think very relevant.


One of the most welcome innovations of the ongoing information revolution is the advent of blogging, which has exploded throughout the Catholic world in the past five years. Everybody who is anybody, from authors to apologists to priests and reporters, all communicate to their respective followers via blogs. But furthermore, the blog has enabled Catholics who aren't anybody special, just average lay persons, to publicly share their thoughts on topics as varied as homeschooling, liturgy, pro-life events, apologetics and everything in between. Free access to blogging websites and the ease with which even novices can master the art of blogging has led to a democratization of information, in which the great and the lowly alike can gain the ear of the public and where quality of content alone determines which blogs "succeed" and which "fail", which are relative terms, given that bloggers blog for different reasons and few are paid for what they do, at least in the Catholic sphere.

Among Catholics, this explosion of blogging has been most pronounced among faithful, orthodox Catholics and especially traditionalists. Indeed, one could even speak of "Traditionalist Bloggers" as a substantial niche within the Catholic blogosphere. Faithful Catholics, many of whom suffered for years through sub-standard liturgies, limp-wristed homilies and other such nonsense, and are used to being ignored or shrugged off for years by an apathetic episcopacy, have suddenly found in blogging a medium for their grievances, comparable in function to the old Committees of Correspondence of the Revolutionary War. In blogging about their struggles and aspirations, faithful Catholics and those who would call themselves Traditionalists have been empowered to network with other like-minded individuals and have found that, though they often felt alone, they are indeed not alone.

Many in the hierarchy have embraced this development. There are deacons who blog as well as priests, and while I am not aware of any bishops who have their own blogs, (though the pope has a Facebook app), I do know that the USCCB has formally endorsed blogging as a valuable way to communicate the truth to the world and has encouraged lay Catholics to be involved in blogging (see here). Bishop Ronald Herzog, Bishop of Alexandria, Louisiana, stated the easy accessibility of blogging, and the manner in which blogs bring everybody's opinions to the fore, as the reason why blogs can be so beneficial. He said:
"Anyone can create a blog. Everyone's opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives (bloggers) expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the church's credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture" (source).
This official recognition and endorsement of the vocation of Catholic bloggers to contribute to the public forum is one of the most welcome things to come out of the USCCB in a long time.

Yet not everyone has accepted blogging as a positive addition to the culture of the Church. Some have reacted against it with hostility, including pastors and members of the hierarchy. The critique offered against Catholic blogging is precisely the same element that Bishop Herzog sees as its strength: the fact that it is open to anyone and any person can publish their views with just as much ease as anyone else. The critique here is that most bloggers are not "professionals." To be sure, famous apologists like Patrick Madrid and well-known priests like Father Zuhlsdorf are counted among the ranks of Catholic bloggers, but most Catholic bloggers do not have doctorates in theology, are not trained members of the hierarchy, and have no background in what they are writing about other than their own experience and private study. And yet, this mass of inexperienced, unprofessional lay-persons can start up a blog and publish their opinions with just as much ease as somebody like Patrick Madrid or Father Z. Is there a danger that, because of this ease of accessibility in creating and reading blogs, these amateur bloggers could do more damage than good by blogging recklessly about stuff they really don't know anything about?

Sure. This is always a danger, but it is no more danger than it was with books before. Sometimes we act like the danger of misinformation only came with the advent of the Internet, as if there were no shoddy books, biased magazine articles or asinine newspaper columns written in the days of print! Misinformation (and disinformation) have always been dangers since the days when news traveled only by means of rumor and will always be with us. But the fact that bloggers, in general, are capable of being misinformed does not mean that any particular blogger is misleading or that blogging as a whole tends towards misinformation. If anything, the universality of the Internet and the great number of blogs and articles available online make it easier to sort out true information from false. In the old days, if the one newspaper in town reported a falsehood, who would be able to prove it or disprove it? Nowadays, if a blogger reports something suspicious, it is tremendously easy to go to other blogs, websites, etc. to crosscheck the information and sort out the truth from the lies. If anything, deception is less easier to get away with now in the days of the Net, and bloggers who are known to constantly speak irresponsibly or with false information will lose their audiences.

Bloggers do sail between a Scylla and Charybdis regarding credibility. On the one hand, if I were to throw up a lot of shoddy posts that were poorly written, unresearched, unedited and with lots of factual errors, one could say, "Look at how irresponsible you are! You don't even know what you are talking about. Do your research and edit your writing before you post it online." Fair enough. But suppose I were to spend a lot of time editing all of my writing, making sure it was factually accurate, citing sources and polishing it up to a very high standard. Then the argument would be, "Look at you trying to set yourself up as an authority, speaking in an authoritative manner as if you are some expert!" Or, if there is no other critiques left, the old, "You are too busy to be wasting your time blogging." Whether blog posts are done extremely well or very sloppy, there is always a critique that can be leveled against the blogger who is not a "professional."

But, beyond this issue, I would back up and ask this question: Are only professionals entitled to their opinion? Can only those with doctorates in theology discuss theology? Can only liturgists and pastors speak about liturgy or ministry? To be sure, the Church requires certain qualifications for those in her employ or who are teaching at her institutions, and these persons can be censured if they formally deviate from the Church's teaching (such as Charles Curran and Hans Kung), but when we are speaking of simple lay persons who blog for no other reason than as their hobby, who ever said that such persons need any sort of "qualifications" or "credentials" to speak their mind of whatever they please? Sometimes I fear that those who demean bloggers because they don't have the right "credentials" to speak on certain issues are implicitly in favor of some kind of gnostic aristocracy of information, where the Truth is too complicated for everyone to understand except for those who have been initiated through years of schooling and have been credentialed with the proper degrees. It reminds me of the recent comment of a member of the Virginia Federal Reserve branch who said that "Writers who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department, and passed their PhD qualifying exams, cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy" (source). In other words, if you are not a doctor of economics you have no right to contribute meaningfully to discussions about economics. Should we adopt a similarly aristocratic approach to the problems and challenges in the Catholic Church today, such that only those with the right "qualifications" can speak on them publicly?

Fortunately, the Code of Canon Law takes a different view. Canon 212§2-3 says:
"Christ's faithful are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes to the Pastors of the Church. They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals."
Of course, it is always possible that in manifesting their views, the blogger may become uncharitable or downright nasty. To the degree this happens, it should be condemned. But we have to make sure we don't fall into the trap of letting people call us uncharitable simply when we disagree or call something into question. More on this in a moment.

But, back to the fundamental right of the Catholic lay-person to engage in blogging, I think I would say that the real beauty of blogging is that it democratizes knowledge; democratizes in the good old Chestertonian sense of the word, meaning that every man gets his say and everyone's opinion is considered. Is this a danger to knowledge to allow for this kind of democratization? I don't think so, because with the openness that comes with democratization comes also the possibility to correction by others. No sooner do I exercise the right to post something stupid than ten other bloggers exercise the right to correct me of my stupidity. Thus, in the end, are we not a little better off now than in the old days, when you had nothing in front of you but some book or journal, something that some peer-reviewed panel of editors decided was worthy of your attention, with no way to question it or protest it other than by writing a letter to the editor? No, knowledge is much better off now that it is no longer in the hands of a cabal of editors and authors.

One accusation brought against blogging is that, because of this democratization of the publication of knowledge, it enables bloggers to publish their work anonymously, which always leads to excess and irresponsibility. I would argue that publishing anonymously is nothing new and that it is seldom done because an author wishes to be irresponsible. Many print authors print under pseudonyms for reasons other than a desire to write irresponsibly; privacy reasons, for example. Of course, it may be objected, many good Catholic authors publish blogs and do not do so anonymously. But many of these authors are either paid for the contributions to blogs and websites or else already have a large "fan base" of people who follow their writings. But, I may ask, what do average people who are not Catholic Answers apologists, Ignatius Press authors or EWTN hosts gain by revealing their identity? Nothing whatsoever. If one receives no money, is under no obligation to any company or publishing house and has no book contracts or any other sort of contract with any Catholic institution, I ask what motivation is there for a blogger to write "out in the open?" Why should a blogger reveal his or her identity to the world in exchange for nothing? So, when someone asks me why so many bloggers post anonymously, I turn and ask, "Why shouldn't they? What do most receive in exchange for the revelation of their identities?"

Some might say, "If you blogged publicly, you would have more credibility." Perhaps, perhaps not. In this day and age, it is good to keep your actual name off of the Internet as much as possible. But beyond this, I would challenge this point about having more credibility, at least if we go with the old dictum of Thomas a Kempis, "Pay no attention to whom is speaking, only to what is said." I'm not out to try to be somebody, nor do I know any Catholic bloggers who are. The only reason to blog publicly is if you already are somebody with a reputation or a following and your comments are enhanced by your reputation. But, as we are pointed out, since most bloggers are not professionals, I don't see their identity as being at all relevant to what they say on their blogs.

Usually, in the history of print, publications are done anonymously not when people want to be reckless, but when they want to say something that needs to be said but they fear the repercussions of saying it publicly. It usually happens in a culture in which there is some kind of muzzle on what is or is not acceptable speech, either legal or just by means of public opinion. To those who object to the large degree of anonymous blogging, I would ask, what is it about the contemporary Catholic Church that makes bloggers feel like they must blog anonymously?

This same principle can be applied to the ever-frequent charge that blogging, especially if it is anonymous,  leads to an attitude of divisiveness and cynicism among bloggers, who feel at liberty to lay the whole world and Church bare before their skepticism and critiques. Of course, it can and has been argued that bloggers, especially traditionalist ones, can be too cynical about the world, too nit-picky and too divisive. I grant that this is true; it can happen. I also grant that sometimes it is due to plain meanness. Sometimes, however, I think there is a double-standard at work here. A Catholic who uses history and logic to challenge Protestantism is an apologetical hero; a Catholic who uses history and logic to challenge certain problems that have surfaced in the post-Conciliar Church is a quasi-schismatic and a "mean-spirited" Trad. I have posted about this double-standard before and won't belabor the point here save to say that it exists. More importantly is to ask this question - if a good number of Catholic bloggers do seem cynical or upset, why is this the case? If a substantial niche within the Catholic blogosphere does seem to have an axe to grind, I think we ought to ask why?

I think that Catholic bloggers, especially traditional ones, fill in an important gap. In blogs we see issues discussed which obviously the faithful find important but which, for some reason, are not getting discussed in the pulpit or in the mainstream Catholic media. The same concept is at play in the explosion of right wing political blogging - these political bloggers are filling up a gap that exists in mainstream media outlets due to media's well-known liberal bias. If Catholics felt that all of their needs and concerns were being addressed , there would not be such an explosion of Catholic blogging, especially Traditionalist blogs.  It is actually quite mathematical; I would venture to say that the degree to which bloggers are cynical and agitated is inversely proportional to the degree that pastors and members of the hierarchy are not standing up for the truth. To the colloquial accusation that bloggers "bitch too much," I would respond, "How about not giving us so much to bitch about?"

Nobody wants to give people offense just for the sake of offense. Nobody wants to cause scandal. But we must remember that Jesus Christ is called a Rock of Offense and a Stone of Stumbling (1 Pet. 2:8). There are always elements of the Gospel that are inherently going to be offensive to some. While we don't set out intentionally to upset people, I think all Catholics need to recall this to mind - the Gospel is offensive, and not just to non-Christians (remember how offended the nuns were who lived with St. Bernadette?). It is tremendously easy to cheer on an apologist or blogger who is critiquing an argument or position you already disagree with; it is just as easy to get offended if the same critiques were turned against something you support and to start charging people with being uncivil or uncharitable. But we cannot get offended just because somebody disagrees. As Bishop Herzog said, "If a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives (bloggers) expect a response and something resembling a conversation."

I am certainly no authority. I am not a theologian. I have never pretended to be a theologian. And, let me say this plainly, anyone who gets their beliefs and opinions solely from my blog is missing it. I want to say that again: if your opinions on the Church and your approach to God is determined by what you read on this blog, you are wrong. People should not take their beliefs from blogs but from the Church, and one of the huge problems in our day is that Catholics get their ideas from everywhere but the Church's official teaching (see this post). The vocation of the Catholic blogger is not to be a source of teaching but to serve as a catalyst for conversation and dialogue, true dialogue, where propositions and ideas are put forward and debated on their merits or demerits. Bloggers keep the conversation going in a popular format that stimulates discussion and debate and are invaluable for the Church to present the Gospel in a modern way. After all, wasn't that what the whole vision behind Vatican II was about, proposing the timeless Gospel in a way accessible to modern man? Nothing fulfills John XXIII's vision better than blogging.

So, I am sure that those who are predisposed against blogging will not be convinced by this manifesto. But I write this not so much for their sake as much as for other Catholic bloggers who might have seen the value of what they do questioned. If you agree with anything I have written here, please link it to your own blogs, post it on Facebook, copy and paste it into your own blog, or do anything you can to get it around.


paula said...

As I was reading, I was thinking that I would like to post a bit in my blog (This Burning Fire). As I reached the end and saw you were encouraging us to do so, I did it. Thank you.

Seán said...

Some random thoughts.

- Democratization of information. Yes. Exactly. The stranglehold on knowledge is gone. Sure there were forums before, but the blog and other similar social media have blast the gates open. Think about all the hush-hush topics which are being discussed these days, which should not be put under the rug.

- Danger. I would say the danger of not having presense in this medium is far greater than the danger of misbehavior. You can't put the horse back at this point in the battle. And really the horse has been out since the early 16th century. Think of all the pamphlets and what-not that the Protestants used? As Maximilian Kolbe, said (paraphrase), you got to use all the media available to us in promotion of God and His kingdom.

- Professionals. That's the control freaks dream. You'v got to corral this force, and make it "approved". The nature of the blog itself is unprofessional, in the sense that it is open to anybody. Your credibility is built on something other than letters beside your name. The professionals have their forums -- the same boring dusty papers and what-not with the same stale party line that everybody is turning away from.

- Discussion. The biggest caveat is that debate in small groups or small forums is a different beast than large groups like the internet. The truly responsible blogger most take this into account and be prudent with teachings, opinions, critiques, etc.

- Anonymous. You're spot on when you say that people post anonymousy "not when people want to be reckless, but when they want to say something that needs to be said but they fear the repercussions of saying it publicly". Ding. Ding. We have a winner. I post with only my first name because I fear negative repercussions. Hard fact in our modern culture in which bad is good and good is bad. As a Catholic I don't spam sites or talk off topic. There's a responsbility when being anonymous too.

As a side note, Wikipedia has many critics of it -- the cult of the amateur, etc.. While there are criticisms of it, I think it has come a long way, and I find it to be a good source of information many times. How many places are there encyclopedia entries on the changes in the Mass in 1954-1955, and other topics. Please people, use the freedom to your advantage! Pretty soon they'll take that away as they corral the rise of truth!

Michelle Therese said...

I'll have to cut and paste this elsewhere... i can't read the white on black eeek!

Boniface said...

So sorry Michelle...I've been meaning to change the color scheme for months but haven't had the time!

Noah Moerbeek said...

I enjoyed this post for the most point. I would dispute the necessity of being anonymous or of some attacking ones qualifications on the topic of religion as immediately discrediting the critic. The apostles where workers, the saints have been humble. Christ said that my sheep hear my voice and the martyrs sought to give witness to those who were hostile.

With that being said I do not think it dishonest to stay anonymous but just less perfect (that is unless one was doing it for vanity).

Boniface said...

Noah- I agree. Being anonymous isn't some intrinsic good, but it certainly doesn't disqualify one from being credible, as some would have.

Mary said...

Seán Cardinal O'Malley has a blog:

Also, Bp. Vann of Fort Worth, Texas has just begun one:

Anonymous said...

Good post, Boniface. The Catholic blogosphere played an indispensable role in helping me understand the truths of the Catholic faith, eventually leading to my conversion. I completely agree with what you wrote (which makes me an idiot, I guess :)