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The Bully Pulpit

August 22, 2011

Many people dismiss what is said on the Catholic blogosphere because of what happens on it. While there is good which is done on it, there is also a small number of Catholics making a lot of noise and causing all kinds of problems in the Church. They do not represent the best of the Catholic faith, but they represent what is often heeded on the internet. Indeed, we find among the most vocal of the blogosphere a rather unsavory collection of would-be inquisitors and toadies looking for conspiracies to denounce or authorities to dismiss. They assume their understanding of the faith and of the beliefs of others is sufficient in order to look around with a critical eye and proclaim why everyone, but themselves, are worthy of condemnation. The problem, of course, is that such an attitude leads them to become bullies. Like other bullies, they yell the loudest when they are pursued with similar critical attention, telling us how unfairly they are treated. Strangely enough, they are looking for their next victim while crying about how unfairly they are being treated.  Next to them, of course, we find their toadies, willing to mock and scorn others while their hero regroups from their apparent martyrdom.

He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

It should not be surprising that what we find on the internet is a lot of people projecting upon others their own problems. Conspiracy theories thrive off of paranoid frenzy because the one who believes them sees how willing they, themselves, are to lie, cheat and steal. They project their own sinful condition and foibles upon everyone else. Those looking for and proclaiming all kinds of theological conspiracy, “the liberals are taking over,” “the conservatives are trying to dismantle the church,” often end up with political conspiracy to explain away the opinions of those who differ from them. With such conspiracy, one’s opponents are looked at as sinister boogeymen and so, of course, it’s fine to beat them up. They are evil incarnate, so why do we have to consider their well-being? Again, the bully excuses themselves because they are on a mission from God and, we all know, God is on the side of bullies.

In all seriousness, the bully knows how they act and treat people, so the one thing they are most scared about, the one thing they do not want, is similar treatment. They know how unfair it is, which is why they scream the loudest when it happens to them. They know that the rhetoric which justifies abuse of others justifies abuse against themselves, so they hide and retreat all the while being passive-aggressive towards those who have caught on to their foibles.

Is that not the way of things, is that not what God wants?

Clearly not. God wants us to be as charitable to those we consider to be our “opponent” as possible. God wants us to love them and if they persecute us, to love them some more. God does not expect us to cry out saying how unfair we are being treated (though, of course, human nature will respond and God understands). God wants us to love, to look to the other, to see where they have valid points, to accept them and grow up. God does not want us to be negative but positive. The internet Catholic bully is all negative, without ability to proclaim something positive about the faith, to help people grow; they want to show what is wrong with the others and to feel smug about themselves. That is all they have.  But as Pseudo-Dionysius reminds us, just because we can prove what something is not, this does not mean we have proven what it is. The faith is not negative, it is something positive (yes, apophatic theology is important, but it is all for the promotion of some positive truth beyond the negation, while the bully does not have such positive content so all they have is the negative criticism which they give).

The internet, therefore, has become a bully pulpit. It is not the first bully pulpit nor will it be the last. During the Reformation, the Church ignored the bully pulpit of its day, the pamphleteers, allowing a voice to be had which was not met with a sufficient answer in return. When the Church recognized the problem it had before them, it was too late, the damage was done, and the hostile forces had carved out a significant portion of Christendom from the Church, using all that was negative and in need of reform to justify theological views which were and are unworthy of the Christian.

It is for this reason the internet must not be ignored, must not be marginalized. The bully pulpit with similar calls for reform, similar anti-authoritarian sentiments, and similar theological inadequacy has returned the dialogue to the level of the pamphleteer. There are serious issues which are brought forth in this pulpit. Without the theological education needed to deal with it, the most vocal members of the internet are once again causing theological confusion and error. Politics has become mixed up with theology; people will proclaim non-Catholics as “very Catholic” because they hold similar political views ignoring, of course, what it is which makes one Catholic is not politics. They want everything to be simple, to follow their own ideology, but they do not have the theological education to know the rich depth of possibilities contained in the Catholic faith. Yet, the proper response must not be pure rejection of their claims or interests; error is always based upon misappropriated truth, and so we must recognize the truths which lead them to their conclusions and accept them, and proclaim them as well. But we must do so with the proper Catholic nuance, pointing out what truths have been neglected; what we say cannot be a mere rejection, but rather, it must be a positive transformation, taking on what they say and showing forth the positive content which can come out of it. Just as grace perfects instead of annihilates, so we must take the situation and develop it, perfect it. The answer to the bully pulpit is acceptance of it and a transformation of it, an engagement of their principles instead of a mere condemnation of all they stand for. Such condemnation is how they act, not how Catholics act.  Of course, it is easy to fall down and follow their bad example; but why should we?

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22 Comments
  1. August 22, 2011 8:09 pm

    Henry—

    I wish I knew what you were talking about. An example or two of what you mean by “internet Catholic bullies” might help. Yes, there are rude, ignorant, apparently mean-spirited folk, Catholic & not, blogging their nonsense. Of course. And of course we should take care not to respond with vitriol etc. etc. But I wonder if you are not falling into the same errors you accuse these nameless bullies of committing, namely, making sweeping generalizations about “those people” & attributing to them motives & more that you can’t possibly know with certainty. “Projecting upon others their own problems”; “they want to show what is wrong with the others and to feel smug about themselves. That is all they have.” Yeesh. That’s all they have? I certainly disagree with much of what I have read online, but I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be characterizing the folks who write that stuff in the terms you use. Perhaps the pearls before swine advice is more to the point in some cases, & the wise course of action to realize that some people just can’t think or write well. So avoid them, & refuse to suffer fools at all. And maybe realize you can’t redeem the internet. I think you get that, & your general advice on “proper Catholic nuance” is to the point, if not obvious. But I wonder who’s going to deny that?

    • August 23, 2011 4:53 am

      I didn’t name names for several reasons, but here are two of them: One, as an act of charity. Two, it would begin a digression into fights about how unfair I am being to these people with their defenders either here or on their blogs making a big stink and (once again) making false accusations against myself (been there, done that many times).

      Now, you say I might be making the same kinds of errors here; perhaps I am, but if you don’t know who it is I am talking about, how would you know?

      • Pinky permalink
        August 23, 2011 10:22 am

        “Now, you say I might be making the same kinds of errors here; perhaps I am, but if you don’t know who it is I am talking about, how would you know?”

        A bully picks on someone who can’t fight back. By picking on unidentified targets, you’re putting someone in a position of not being able to respond. Anyone who disagrees with you may be the target, but can’t defend himself because there are no specific accusations.

        The old saying is that we tear people down in order to build ourselves up. I don’t think that’s your motivation for these comments. But that is the result of them. You’ve promoted yourself as better than others, better-educated than others, fairer than others.

        • August 23, 2011 10:25 am

          Without naming names, it is clear there is no person who has been “picked on.” Btw, I am sure if I did name such names, you would be saying how much of a bully I am being against them. Seriously, Pinky, I suggest you look to see the real point.

      • August 23, 2011 6:24 pm

        C’mon, really? Because you listed the errors in your post, that’s how. And there is no small irony in some of what you wrote, in the post & in your responses. Fairness &, yes, charity, suggest that when highlighting serious errors others are guilty of committing that we do more than make generalizations about what “some people out there” are doing. And perhaps, Henry, a discussion about whether or not you are being fair is called for. Anyone can make accusations & then, in order to shield oneself from claims of overgeneralization, inaccuracy, or worse, claim “I’d rather not get specific here,” either in the name of charity or self-protection. In so doing, however, you do encourage concerns about the credibility of what you’re saying.

        And who exactly are you speaking to? Perhaps the people you are writing about need your wisdom & help. If you think they will be unwilling to listen without firing back with self-righteous anger, then are you writing for the general reader, like me, who likely agrees with much of what you say, but remains puzzled about the generalizations? You’re either then preaching to the choir or begging too many questions to be helpful.

        • August 23, 2011 6:34 pm

          Anthony

          Note what many people, like Liam, have pointed out. Enough.

  2. August 23, 2011 7:58 am

    Dear Henry,

    Thanks for this post. Can I ask four questions?

    1. You write that these “Internet bullies” look at their opponents as “sinister boogeymen.” Is this very different from the larger Catholic culture – even “official” Catholic culture? Consider how easy it would be to deliver a sermon, even a lecture, in which you explain all of the problems facing the church as the result of the damaging influence of negative abstractions – “secularism,” “modernism,” “the dictatorship of relativism,” the “culture of death,” “dissent,” “anti-Catholicism,” and so on. And, of course, one doesn’t have to care about the “well-being” of abstractions.

    2. You claim that the Internet bullies are unable to “proclaim something positive about the faith.” But this begs the question. What is “positive about the faith” to them? Based on my observations, these positive aspects are the antidotes to what is seen as a corrosive modernity. As opposed to individualism, the faith presents a uniform community. As opposed to rootlessness, the faith is immediately connected with both past and future. As opposed to hyperreality, the faith presents a real supernatural. As opposed to skepticism, the faith can give doctrinal certainty. Do you see problems with these sorts of positive aspects? (It is possible to do so – this can even sound like nihilism in the “Dude, at least it’s an ethos” sort of way.)

    3. Do you see the problem with Internet bullies as being the classic problem with the half-educated (as described by Simon Tugwell, OP, etc.) – they are erudite enough to grasp one way of being Christian (inevitably a white, American, middle-class way), but not erudite enough to grasp that this is not the only way to be Christian?

    4. Is there a coherent Catholic blogosphere? Several years ago, I think, everyone used to read certain blogs out of necessity and because they self-consciously functioned as hubs. Do these exist any longer?

    Thanks.

    Neil

    • August 23, 2011 8:34 am

      Neil

      Some of your questions could take considerable time to answer to answer properly. So, I hope you don’t mind this quick reply, which won’t give the questions their proper due.

      1) I think there is much more to Catholic culture than sermons and the way some (including important) figures in the Church look at non-Catholic traditions. On the one hand, it is worthwhile to note differences and problems as one finds them, but even then, there are two ways to do so, some which are merely condemnations while others are willing to look at and examine the other and find some good within it and try to understand how it developed.

      2) I don’t see many of these people actually proposing authentic antidotes; at best, they are making simplified adaptations of the past assuming that will answer everything. Of course, if one understood that we came to where we are today because of the past, that would show why this is not a positive antidote, and indeed, because it fails to address and develop what is good in what they criticize, again, they end up purely negative without understanding the real underlying issues and needs. I still think Pseudo-Dionysius is a key here.

      3) I think for some of the “toadies” this is the case. But I don’t think this explains everything. A lot of it is egotism and a desire to turn the world into the image of the self, whatever place one has in the world. Even educated people can fall into this error, and cause problems as a result.

      4) While there are many voices on the blogosphere, there are some which do get the greatest adherence and if they are mentioned and criticized, you suddenly see an overwhelming response unlike you see in conversations such as on Vox Nova. Look, for example (naming one name) what happened around Corapi.

      I would also like to add one thing I find often on the net: critical, combative writings talking about what is wrong in others is more often read and appreciated than true, serious theological or spiritual writing. It bothers me, because I feel this shows what is lacking in the general discussions we see — how can one engage critical problems if appreciation for theological reflections which should serve as the foundation for such discussions are ignored? I keep writing and posting pieces knowing only a few people will look at them, but I still wish more would read them, engage them, reflect upon them before looking for fights. Yes, I might be a poor writer so it might explain why my longer pieces are ignored, but it is not just my works where I find this happening..

      • August 23, 2011 1:15 pm

        Dear Henry,

        First, sorry about my four questions – you’re right, they are too much for a single comment. Thank you for your generous answers. I agree with you that serious theological reflection should be the basis for Internet discussions. I also agree that there is a problem with Internet bullies.

        But I think that things might be a bit more complicated. Let me make two claims. Please tell me if you think that I’m misguided here.

        1. There is a long Catholic tradition of detecting “theological conspiracy” and expelling “sinister boogeymen.” One example would be the sheer extent of and motivation behind the opposition to modernism. As Erik Borgman writes,

        “Especially theologians and other intellectuals were labeled and condemned as ‘modernists,’ people representing Modernity within the anti-modern fort the hierarchy wanted the Church to be. With their exclusion, Modernity and the conflicts it brought with it were symbolically driven out, and the Church was symbolically restored as a harmonious community. Thus it could claim to represent Gods glorious reign, the redemption from all ambiguity of which the threats were so clearly present in Modernity and its social and ideological expressions like liberalism and socialism.”

        Thus, scapegoating is part of a longer, perhaps deeply rooted, Catholic tradition.

        2. If the Internet bullies do not write serious theological reflections, but seem only concerned with the power and influence and uniformity of the Church, this is also part of a longer, deeply rooted Catholic tradition. After all, wouldn’t they see themselves as agents of what John Henry Newman called the regal office of the Church, which has expedience as its guiding principle, and tends towards tyranny?

        I write this not to excuse Internet bullies, but, perhaps, to say that they are symptomatic of even larger problems.

    • August 23, 2011 3:45 pm

      Neil, pardon me for interrupting this conversation, which seems to have moved on from your original comment, and from your latest one I’m wondering if I misread your meaning (incidentally, I share your suspicion that internet bullying may be symptomatic of larger problems).

      That said, I still feel compelled to take some issue with the dichotomies you put forth in your second question – and please do correct me if I’m misinterpreting you. I believe our Catholic faith does have some valuable antidotes to “a corrosive modernity” – and to the worst in any other zeitgeist, for that matter – but for different reasons from the ones you name. I believe the beauty of our faith is that it presents neither individualism nor uniformity, but unified diversity (i.e. catholicity); neither merely physical nor merely spiritual things, but the intersection of the two, God meeting us in matter (which is what the sacraments are all about); neither cynicism nor certainty, but a faith that is all the more deepened by making room for doubt. I heartily agree, though, on being connected with both past and future.

      • August 23, 2011 10:18 pm

        Dear Julia,

        Thanks for writing. I think that I agree with you. I don’t agree with the dichotomies. But I think that for a certain sort of “conservative” Catholic, the appeal of Catholicism lies in its opposition to a corrosive modernity. Thus, for that sort of “conservative” Catholic, the positive aspects of Catholicism are determined by the horror of modernity.

        Obviously, there are other sorts of “conservative” Catholics …

        Best,
        Neil

  3. August 23, 2011 3:17 pm

    Amen and amen. This is just what we need more of in the Catholic blogosphere!

    This may be a bit tangential, but I did bristle slightly at the sentence, “God does not want us to be negative but positive.” My gut reaction was to think that God does not intend for us to just be Pollyannas or ignore problems, but that’s clearly not what you’re saying, so in context I agree with you. I would just want to underscore the distinction you implicitly make between thoughtful critique and unthinking, uncharitable dogmatism.

    Anyway, I have encountered all too many examples of what you’re talking about from the left and right wings of the Catholic world, which tend to be the voices that yell the loudest. It often feels like a vain effort (perhaps in both senses of the word) to inject some civility into the discussion, or bring it back to some sort of center, or whatever it is that I think I’m trying to do. But voices like yours give me some hope.

    • August 23, 2011 6:39 pm

      Julia

      i try. As you can tell, I don’t claim perfection; I’m struggling every day, as we all are, to live the Christian life. And you are right, it is one thing to ignore problems, which you also properly understand is not my point. Critical analysis, of course, is important, but the spirit of it is quite different from the bully tactics we see all over the place (even if one can try to make claims of similarity).

  4. Liam permalink
    August 23, 2011 3:21 pm

    Um, there’s another very important reason not to single out particular bloggers: Because doing so will only feed their agonistic approach and dramatic sense of self. I am from time to time astonished at what people now consider to be “persecution” and “white martyrdom”; standards have been lowered, and significantly so.

    • August 23, 2011 4:02 pm

      Agreed, Liam. Your comment reminds me of something I read recently about the difference between being persecuted and being criticized. Christians in our society sometimes fail to make that distinction, as if we think we deserve some sort of immunity from critique.

    • August 23, 2011 8:58 pm

      Henry—

      No, I’m sorry, it’s not enough. It sounds like you’re simply being evasive, & taking cover behind the remarks of others. That strikes me as a bit condescending. I can understand if you choose not to respond with specifics to my remarks, but please don’t act as if you had. No doubt there are over-the-top dramatics available online, along with a silly understanding of persecution & many other inanities. But this hardly addresses the issues of generalizations & accuracy, which are important when offering criticisms, especially when your targets are not named. I only responded to your post because you said some things that seemed to call for further explanation, & I was hoping for some. I’ll admit that I don’t spend that much time online looking at blogs etc., & when I do encounter the shrill crowd, Catholic or otherwise, I move on, wanting neither to waste my time nor get my blood boiling. But you have spent more time in this world, as apparently has Liam, for you both seem to have it figured out better than I. My last real encounter with it was when reading the converts of Richard Dawkins squawk about the idiocy of David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions; it seemed to me that they didn’t much understand anything Hart said, & chose to hurl vague generalities around as if they were piercing insights, all the while congratulating themselves on how much smarter they were than Hart, who is as brilliant as they are dim. I wonder how they would have responded if I commented, asking for more detail. Would they have ignored the question & said, “See what the other guy said. Enough”? I would expect that from someone with little to say. But I also think it unwise &, yes, uncharitable, to make assumptions about their motives & persecution complex. Better to deal with the content of what they say & leave it there, if you choose not to ignore it altogether, than to engage in pop psychology. That’s just another form of the very thing you say you’re arguing against.

  5. August 25, 2011 9:38 am

    Very good examen – I am struggling with these issues myself – I appreciate what you have to say and very much agree. Thanks for the excellent insights. God bless you.

    • August 25, 2011 10:15 am

      Terry,

      Thanks, and as always, I recognize this is something I have to deal with (at times), and as much as I would have loved to use names in this post, I felt if I did, I would have contradicted my point. There is a natural desire, I think, to promote oneself through the denigration of others. We all do it, but, the question is whether or not we fight against it or excuse it.

  6. August 25, 2011 11:55 am

    I am very glad Terry provided a link over here. This is the best think I’ve read in the Catholic blogosphere in a long time, simply because I am convicted of much you write about and am also touched by your gentle treatment of it. I like this:
    “There is a natural desire, I think, to promote oneself through the denigration of others. We all do it, but, the question is whether or not we fight against it or excuse it.”
    I’ve spent a long time doing the latter, and have been more mindful of late of wanting to do the former.

    • August 25, 2011 1:31 pm

      I’m glad, too. Even one person seeing this will help, though of course, the more, the better for all of us!

  7. August 26, 2011 2:06 pm

    I was just in a conversation with someone who said that the center needs to be more assertive, and that struck a chord with me. Naturally, it tends to be the left and right wings that yell the loudest, and we would of course be ill-advised to adopt that modus operandi, but I do think we need people who can prophesy from the center, in a way that can get people to think rather than just react.

    • Brian Martin permalink
      August 26, 2011 10:08 pm

      AMEN!

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