Why We Cannot Be Anonymous Catholics.
“The future is now! Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!” These infamous movie lines were spoken way back in the 1996 dark comedy The Cable Guy. They are lines I always think back on and wonder did the screenwriter have any idea just how quickly it would all come to pass? In fact we have far surpassed that which was to be achieved. The speed in which technology is advancing is astounding and one of the biggest products of this advancing is that of social media. The idea behind social media is relatively simple: we are all connected. But just how connected are we? Just how much can we be connected via Facebook or Twitter? How effective can we be online and does our faith have any relevance in the virtual world?
Somebody once gave me sound advice regarding faith and the virtual world: don’t engage in debates with somebody online. Admittedly there was a time not that long ago when I was quite the keyboard warrior who would engage with just about every debate I saw going online. What was lacking? I can only surmise that it was the human experience.
If we engage in contentious dialogue with somebody in person, even if it is a heated discussion we do not lose the human experience because we are truly present to that person. We can make eye contact with them, we can tell if they are lying to us and they can do likewise. And perhaps most importantly, we can or at least should be able to know when to stop, when we have gone too far. If we have respect for the person we are debating with we will care enough for them to know that there are things which quite frankly we should not say. Word spoken aloud cannot be rescinded. It is here that I recall most particularly the words of Saint Paul in his second letter to Timothy:
“Turn away from the passions of youth, concentrate on uprightness, faith, love and peace, in union with all those who call on the Lord with a pure heart. Avoid these foolish and undisciplined speculations, understanding that they only give rise to quarrels; and a servant of the Lord must not engage in quarrels, but must be kind to everyone, a good teacher, and patient. He must be gentle when he corrects people who oppose him, in the hope that God may give them a change of mind so that they recognise the truth and come to their senses, escaping the trap of the devil who made them his captives and subjected them to his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22 – 26)
Saint Paul certainly cannot be accused of being soft with his words; he who openly persecuted Christians and famously converted. Truly there is no such thing as a quiet convert. But we also see this need for tolerance in the example given to us by Jesus himself while being questioned by Pontius Pilate:
“Jesus replied, ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. As it is, my kingdom does not belong here.’” (John 18:36)
He endures his questioning without complaint or resistance and does so with compassion. This is how we must engage with others and this is not the example I see when I see religious debate online. Social media now allows us to engage with each other online in a very immediate way.
But there are three words that send shivers up my spine when I see them online: Posted by Anonymous. Anonymous discussion is the strangest thing and incredibly dangerous. If online discussion is lacking in the human experience then it at the very least has a name attached to it. There is at least some knowledge of who we are engaging with. This is not the case with Anonymous discussion. We could be saying anything to absolutely anyone and absolutely none of us are called to be Anonymous. As the prophet Isaiah spoke:
“And now, thus says Yahweh, he who created you, Jacob, who formed you, Israel: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.” (Is 43:1)
If God has called us by name why then would we deny it? Particularly those who are called to serve Him in priestly ministry? So often now I read on one incredibly questionable blog in particular comments made by those who post anonymously but use a signature “PP D+C”. These posters end up fighting with each other. And I ask myself: is this really a priest of my diocese and if so why are they not using their name? Why discuss such matters as their own Bishop or their own priestly celibacy in such an open but equally secretive way? It seems to fly in the face of what priesthood actually involves. If this is not a priest of the diocese then it is someone who has a rather sinister agenda. For these reasons I will not engage in discussion with such Anonymous posters. If we care so deeply about a particular issue then we should not be afraid of speaking our minds openly, honestly and with compassion for those we engage with.
None of us are Anonymous to God; whether we be lay, religious or Bishop. Therefore if we are going to engage in the whole myriad of debates about matters such as abortion, the sale of church lands or criticism of diocesan Bishops etc then we need to ask ourselves three questions;
1: Whose side am I on?
2: Am I willing to be open, honest and compassionate about this?
3: Am I willing to entertain the possibility that I could be wrong?
These are questions which our priests perhaps need to be most honest in examining as they have a particular responsibility for the faithful and to their Bishop and we the lay faithful need to know just who is a priest and who is not. And their Bishop needs to know what priests are posting online. We need to know each other by name. The Church is a serious business and if we are to truly be an effective church, a caring Church and a Christ-centred Church then we need to be willing to stand up and be counted. And if it takes courage to be open about who we are then likewise those who cover their faces with scarves and slander anonymously is an act of sheer cowardice. Jesus calls each of us to be fully in the world, just as He was. Just like Jesus we may have to suffer for this. But as He tells us in Saint John’s Gospel in his great priestly prayer:
“Listen; the time will come – indeed it has come already – when you are going to be scattered, each going his own way and leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have hardship, but be brave: I have already conquered the world.” (John 16:32 – 33)