In The State of Catholic Discourse on the Web, Part I, I discussed the all-too-common problem of commenters assuming the worst of the Catholic authors of articles on the web. Instead of assuming the best intentions and truly trying to grapple with what the author has written, some commenters immediately jump down to the comment box and start attacking. The immediate nature of the web, as opposed to print, makes this more likely; but as I suggested at the end of Part I, those of us who write the articles bear some responsibility, too, and not just because we may sometimes allow ourselves to engage in some of the same behavior in response to commenters. A bigger problem is that the very immediacy of the web allows us to go off half-cocked, to publish something that would never have made it into print, and, in the process, muddy the Catholic message that we are trying to put forth.
In a recent speech at a seminar for Catholics employed in communications, Raymond Cardinal Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and current prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (next to the pope himself, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church), outlined the problem. As reported (and paraphrased) by the Catholic News Service, Cardinal Burke said:
Church communicators have an important and serious duty to obey church teaching and defend the church's mission of saving souls and safeguarding truth . . .
Caution as well as control over content and where it's distributed are needed because while the field of communications "has great potential for good," it "also can be turned to the harm of the faithful" . . .
While Cardinal Burke's remarks were directed primarily at Catholics who work for "dioceses, religious institutions and other church organizations," much of his advice also applies to Catholic blogs and lay apologists. For instance,
Communicators should be guided and directed by pastors to make sure their content is free from doctrinal and theological error, and Catholics should avoid outlets that openly attack Christian morality . . .
It is all too easy for Catholic bloggers and lay apologists to think that we know the Faith well enough to speak with authority. But the fact is that, unless we are ordained, we have no greater authority than any other layman. We may have greater knowledge than some, but we need to know our limitations. And offering pastoral advice—especially concerning things that touch on Church discipline, the sacraments, and canon law—is something that needs to be approached with caution. (I not only routinely consult with my pastor and with other priests, but I always urge readers to contact their own parish priests.)
The problem of avoiding inappropriate outlets for communicating the Catholic message is greater in the world of the web than it was in the print world. It's easy enough not to publish in Playboy; and, to take a less ridiculous example, it's fairly simple to browse through several back issues of a print publication to get a sense of how that publication treats matters of Christian teaching.
But by its very nature, the web is a different matter, and Catholic communicators may not know that their work will only be a link or two away from material that is offense to Christian morality. And then, of course, there is the problem of web advertising, which I have discussed before. (See Why Do You Run Non-Catholic Ads?)
Yet Catholic communicators need to be on the web, because, as Cardinal Burke noted, the Church "has a solemn obligation to use whatever instruments of communication are most fitting and effective." We may debate whether the web, with its ephemeral nature, is the "most fitting" forum in which to express the eternal truths of the Faith, but it is certainly among the most effective, especially with younger generations who do most of their reading online.
That is not to say that all forms of digital communication are fitting, effective, or appropriate; as Cardinal Burke noted, "some instruments may 'actually do harm to the mission through their inappropriate or misguided use,'" especially
those that "foster the fragmentation of thought and language," permit anonymity, lack any ethical standards and lead to "highly inappropriate or even offensive language" . . .
To put it in concrete terms, it's appropriate to use Twitter to spread links to well-thought out articles, but not to try to explain the intricacies of the Faith in 140 characters or less. A blog may be a useful tool of evangelization when the author of the blog can be held accountable for what he writes; but if he is allowed to remain anonymous, he may end up doing more harm than good.
For those who, through their love of the Faith, wish to use the web to spread that Faith to others, the best advice Cardinal Burke had to offer was to remember that they are "taking part in the 'priestly office of teaching'" and that, therefore, "they, like priests, [must] ground themselves in an ever greater obedience to the truth of Christ." That truth is to be found, not in our own opinions or feelings, but "in the church's official teaching."