|Should Catholics Blog?|
R. J. Stove
Blogging. By now every Catholic, even if he leads as hermetic an existence as did Saint Bruno, must know about it. Blogs (short, of course, for “weblogs”) have now become the preferred method for communication among Catholics in the English-speaking world, more especially in America. It seems every second Catholic one meets has a blog, from the staunchest traditionalist to the most oafish lesbian eucharistic minister.
Amy Welborn’s blog (the work of a mildly conservative Novus Ordo wife, mother and debunker of The Da Vinci Code) is these days probably the most famous blog by any Catholic in the world. Some traditionalist blogs are Radtrad.blogspot.com, Distributism.blogspot.com, Inillotempore.com/blog, and Confiteminidomino.blogspot.com. This last is unusual in two respects: its founder is (a) Australian and (b) a priest, the Dominican Father Ephraem Chifley. Lay Americans run the overwhelming majority of Catholic blogs.
Allied to the blogging phenomenon is the Internet discussion group phenomenon, which is not quite the same thing, but which overlaps sufficiently with blogging per se to be discussed alongside it. (A great many members of Catholic discussion groups submit commentary to blogs.) Perhaps the most prominent of traditionalist Internet discussion groups is Angelqueen.org. Another, less acerbic in general spirit, is the Laudate Dominum forum. Distributism.blogspot.com exists specifically to uphold – and apply to modern political crises – the Chesterbelloc tradition.
Amid all this activity, much of it by Catholics who are personally estimable, the question arises. Should Catholics be blogging at all?
This essay argues that, for the most part, they should not; that lay blogs (and I include here Internet discussion groups as well as blogs proper) actually represent a graver objective peril to the Catholic soul than does the television set, which at least seldom presents even the façade of interactivity; and above all, that however noble specific bloggers’ intentions are, far too much blogging is incompatible with a sensus Catholicus. The reasons for such apparently bizarre conclusions are explained below.
At the risk of obscene self-indulgence, perhaps an autobiographical note is in order. I used to be among blogs’ most enthusiastic defenders, for the same general reasons that I refused to weep, wail, and rend the raiment at the Internet’s arrival. The mainstream print media’s intellectual and moral sleaze would in itself have inclined me towards defenses of blogging, even if so many good Catholics had not become part- or full-time bloggers themselves. I rejoiced at the speed with which blogs could transmit Vatican media releases and official traditionalist pronouncements halfway around the world before the conventional Fourth Estate’s secular-humanist ignoramuses even got their boots on.
Furthermore, unlike many of my fellow right-wing Catholics, I lack in my temperament even the smallest particle of the Luddite. To be a Luddite, I soon realized, is to be a Manichean. Not on the agenda. We are called upon to be Catholics; we are not called upon to be the Amish. For these reasons I would occasionally submit a comment upon others’ blogs (primarily but not always Catholic), though I had not the faintest desire to be a blogger myself.
These days I consider my former lenience regarding lay Catholic blogs to be spiritually and ethically unconscionable. Why has my attitude changed? Because lay Catholic blogs have become as prone as any other post-lapsarian human endeavor to laws of unintended consequences. I shall continue to consult a very few even-tempered Catholic blogs, notably Distributism.blogspot.com, for international news information which I cannot get elsewhere (but which I need). Concerning the rest, I can only pray that most of them – including blogs by traditionalists – will close down, and that those responsible for them will direct their energies to more sensible fields.
Barring a miracle, there would seem to be five factors now at work to corrupt any hopes that the average lay Catholic can be a good Catholic and a diligent blogger. One could argue that these factors are mere undesirable accretions to blogging, rather than intrinsic to the blog genre; but in practice most bloggers can no more avoid them than most Communists can avoid mass murder. The factors are:
i. Addiction, with all its dangers;
ii. Pseudonymity, with all its dangers;
iii. Encouraging smart-aleck soundbites rather than hard, detailed, historically scrupulous reasoning;
iv.Related to (iii), a general degrading of language, and of the writer’s role as language’s custodian (not to say as breadwinner);
v. De facto anticlericalism.
Let us take (i) first.
The Internet’s capacity for creating addicts is something that even the stupidest Panglossian social worker no longer attempts to deny. Every conscientious priest is aware of it; many a priest worries about it; some priests actually issue warnings to their flock about it. More priests should do so. Without the smallest effort, and even when one leads a life otherwise reasonably replete with interesting activities, one can spend ten or twelve hours on the Net per day. What honest Catholic would tolerate similar appeasement of the Great God Television? No honest Catholic on the face of this earth, we must devoutly hope.
Nevertheless, and very unfortunately, those traditionalists who understand with bitter precision TV’s menaces, usually appear entirely oblivious to the menaces of cyberspace, unless those menaces take such blatant forms as downloading porn. (That is a problem beyond this article’s scope.) We who have known what it is like to be an Internet addict – waiting with cold sweats, and with something like frenzy, for new developments on our preferred blog – wish to beg others: “Don’t go down that path. We’ve wasted months of our lives. We’ve committed the sin of sloth, which, as Evelyn Waugh once pointed out, is perfectly compatible with authorial profusion. Don’t you make the same error.”
But if only addiction’s problems were the sole, or even the worst, blogging hazards! Alas, they are among the least: which brings us to (ii). Every reader conversant with blogs’ comment sections – let alone with non-blog discussion fora – soon detects one fact above all that fills him, or that certainly should fill him, with dread. It is this: for every comment which comes from someone with the courage to sign his name, there are 100 which have been submitted under pseudonyms. If such deification of pseudonymity is not a coward’s charter, it is hard to think of what else it might be.
Screwtape himself could scarcely hope to devise a more effective method of instilling mutual hate than what blogs and discussion fora provide: an orgy of ad hominem invective where each participant is fighting in the dark against fellow guerrillas. Absent a full-time blog or forum moderator who will rigorously exclude such invective, and you can almost smell the witless malice oozing forth from your computer screen. When, moreover, flame wars break out online between those participants who simply want to be better Catholics, and those (they are invariably male) who want to turn every last discussion group into the Protocols of the Elders of Zion Fan Club, or the League For Calumniating Women Who Were Seen To Wear Trousers For One Day In 1959, the overwhelming temptation is to burst out “Enough already”.
From (ii), and to a lesser extent from (i), it will be clear that most blogging, by its very nature, sins against the intellect. Regrettably, an additional sin (or, if we want to be super-generous, potential sin) arises from the typical Internet text itself. As anyone knows who has striven to write it, Internet-specific prose does two things, and only two things, very well. It simplifies, thanks to hyperlinks, the sourcing of allegations; and it encourages the aphoristic. Even on the best screens, such prose is physically tiring to read. Long paragraphs are incomparably harder to understand onscreen than they are on the printed page. The constant temptation, then – as mentioned in point (iii) – is to dumb-down everything. Away with the subordinate clause. Hurl nuances into the rubbish-dump. Delete everything which requires reflection. Cultivate, at any price, the wisecrack. Sustained arguments are just too hard. Hit-and-run attacks are much more satisfying to arrange. As for correct spelling and grammar, well, who needs those? Write what you feel, baby. The egalitarian, democratic, and (therefore) deeply anti-Catholic implications of all this are, or at any rate they should be, obvious. Which makes it all the more shameful that one needs to spell them out; but even the better Catholic blogs and online fora tend to abound in orthography (to say nothing of syntax) which thirty years ago would have disgraced a ten-year-old.
And where, in all this, does the unlucky Catholic author – alluded to in (iv) – happen to fit? An author, that is, who does his best to proclaim orthodox dogma; who writes as well as he can; who has a track record of publication in sane periodicals; and who hopes (however optimistically) to earn enough by magazine-writing to prevent the telephone and the hot water from being cut off? It is plain that for any such author, the lay blogosphere means unmitigated calamity. Who will pay for his output, when the output of every self-educated pseudo-Catholic freak can be read online for nothing? Or was Rerum Novarum never meant to apply to the scribbling set? No-one is suggesting that the Catholic author, or any author, should be cosseted; we know from the Soviet Writers’ Union and similar rackets the hazards of such totalitarian seclusion. But does the concept of a living wage for honest work mean anything at all, or was Leo XIII on a magic-mushroom trip when he said that it did?
Leo XIII. Ah yes, popes. Always a sticky subject when two or three bloggers are gathered together (One Angelqueen.org participant has memorably described the present Holy Father as “that S.O.B.”). There are a few conspicuous and welcome exceptions, but the blogosphere’s overall level of anticlericalism must be experienced to be believed. If some sadistic prelate wanted to make a case for the laity never being allowed to do anything, he need merely refer to many a traditionalist – to say nothing of many a conservative Novus Ordo – blog. (See the recent Oprah-like blog whining of one columnist, who is so upset by America’s Catholic sacerdotal scandals that he thinks he’ll join the Eastern Orthodox Church, so there.)
Any Martian reading such blogs would assume that tarring and feathering the entire clergy for sexual abuse was not only the most important task facing a Catholic in 2006, but also the most important task that has ever faced a Catholic anywhere at any time. Those who attempt to point out the sheer self-destructive fatuity of such antics – and their repulsive resemblance to Ku Klux Klan guttersniping, circa 1924, about satyriatic priests and nuns – will merely have their comments deleted without explanation. Some of us know whereof we speak. Blogs’ Americocentric nature merely exacerbates the problem. It is impossible to imagine a more effective, or pernicious, method than these blogs of spreading, among foreigners, the false but understandable belief that American Catholics are merely American Calvinists who get drunk.
There might, of course, be a virtue in the blogosphere which, unmentioned in the foregoing, counteracts the above list of palpable evils.
I know of no such virtue.
R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, and is a Contributing Editor of The American Conservative.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the quarterly magazine, based in Canberra, Australia. It is printed here with permission from the author as well as the Editor of ORIENS.