Fr. James Martin, S.J., is a funny man. That's one of the reasons why so many readers nominated him for three awards in the 2011 About Catholicism Readers' Choice Awards: Best Catholic Book of 2010, Best Catholic to Follow on Twitter, and Best Catholic Facebook Page. Sadly, his latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (compare prices), didn't make it to the voting round of the 2012 About Catholicism Readers' Choice Awards, even though it is a spiritually insightful—and very funny—volume.
So, knowing Father Martin's fondness for humor, you might think that his recent blog post "What's THAT supposed to mean?" over at In All Things, the group blog of the Jesuit weekly America, is just a lighthearted piece. Far from it.
Don't get me wrong: It's a very funny post, especially for those of us who have found ourselves all too often in the midst of the situation Father Martin describes. But it's also a very serious piece, because the state of Catholic discourse on the web—especially in the comments on blogs and Facebook posts, but many times in the blogs and posts themselves—is, to put it mildly, all too often lacking in charity (and even reading comprehension).
As Father Martin writes:
I wonder if you can say anything about the Catholic faith without people taking offense. No matter how benign, no comment on the web about Catholicism goes unchallenged. . . . No matter what you write, there are Catholics ready to take immediate offense, to explode in righteous anger, to threaten to report you to the proper authorities or, most of all, to correct. The most common responses are these five: 1.) Your soul is in mortal danger. 2.) You’re uneducated and need to be schooled. 3.) I hate the church and so I hate you. 4.) You’re an unthinking tool of the Vatican. 5.) You’re disobedient and must be reported.
Father Martin then provides examples of all five responses through "a not-so-farfetched exchange, based on some very, very real experiences." It's a must-read, and you should do so now. (Don't worry; I'll wait for you to return.) His experiences ring true, because they are very similar to mine. On Good Friday 2012, I marked five years as the About.com Catholicism Guide, and in that time, I've been attacked from every direction and called every name in the book.
When I talk about Catholic participation in politics, I've been attacked as a shill for the Republican Party and a shill for the Democratic Party—often in the same comment thread. When I tried to shed some light on the sins of calumny and detraction using the case of Fr. John Corapi, I was accused of being an apologist for Father Corapi and of attacking him. When I've discussed the very real historical problem of clerical sexual abuse, I've been called a tool of the New York Times (the New York Times Co., the parent company of the New York Times, is also the parent company of About.com); when I have criticized the biased reporting of the New York Times on clerical sexual abuse, I've been accused of complicity in child rape.
I could go on, pointing to the comments on blog posts on abortion, Natural Family Planning, the Latin Mass and the Society of Saint Pius X, and many, many other topics, but I think you get the point. All too many readers are very quick to jump down into the comments box and offer their two cents, without (in Father Martin's words) "trying to understand a person by reading carefully what they're actually saying, or giving them the benefit of the doubt."
And the criticism runs both ways. I look back at certain comment threads on this site and cringe in shame, because my own behavior, when provoked, has not always been the best. There is something about the medium—about the immediacy of the web—that can bring out the worst even in those who are trying to do better. (Stayed tuned for more on that in Part II of this post.)
I've bookmarked Father Martin's post, and I expect to return to it quite often. In fact, whenever I'm tempted to hit "Reply" and dash off a quick and pointed response to a commenter, I think I'll try to stop and read at least a bit of Father Martin's post again. That may keep me from responding at all; at the very least, it will give me a moment to step back, calm down, and—I hope—respond with the charity appropriate to a discussion among fellow Christians.