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Faithful Blogging

"The Truth Will Set Us Free"

By Stu Nolan

Patricia Bainbridge raises an excellent point in her SoapBox post entitled "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". There is indeed a wealth of information available online to support apologetics, catechesis, and evangelism, but it is also a place where the otherwise faithful are challenged by subtle yet powerful temptations.

One might go so far as to say that the Internet has its own propensity to serve as a near occasion of sin, and not only in the obvious and well-documented provision of easy access to gambling and pornography. I find striking that the Catholic blogosphere can be prone to the airings of such tremendous angst and speculation regarding the alleged failings of the institutional Church, or of its leaders, or of public persons who profess to be Catholic, such that participants can so easily be drawn into narcism, bearing false witness, and gossip -- all of which are clearly contrary to the teachings of our faith.

Let me turn to each of these briefly before making a few general observations about the tension between modern and traditional approaches to the sharing of "news" regarding our faith, institutions, and leaders.

First, much has been written about the social media craze and the tendency for the user to tell everyone precisely what he or she is doing, thinking, feeling, at any given moment in the day. The focus is entirely too "Look at me!" to be at ease with the service, external orientation that our faith demands of us.

Second, once one starts down this road of generating content, an otherwise right-minded blogger can become prone to the same errors that plague the modern mass media due to the nature of a 24 hour news cycle. At some point, the temptation to assume one knows more about a situation than one does, just so commenting on it may commence, becomes very powerful. Rarely, it seems, is the blogger who is rightly passionate about the topic in question content merely to say, "Well, we really do not know the truth of what has happened." Instead, assumptions are made, and judgments are rendered or induced in others, and suddenly a "story" has developed in which much is assumed even if it is not demonstrably true.

It strikes me that one does not have to know something is false in order to bear false witness; one merely has to spread as if true something that one does not know to be true.

Third, let's consider the somewhat rare circumstances when someone knows something to be true. Is it consistent with our faith to spread the information far and wide merely because it is part of history; that is, must we, or even may we, shout from the mountaintops the sins of others just because the sins did in fact occur?

I suggest our faith requires just the opposite unless and until we have compelling reason to believe that disclosure of a sin is the only means available to protect another person from some danger to which that person is clearly vulnerable.

Church teaching is not always consistent with American concepts of journalism and citizenship that emphasize the"right of the public to know" anything and everything, or with the legal concept that "truth is a defense" to defamation. Rather, Church teaching prohibits gossip even if some portion of the gossip may be true, unless there is a compelling need for people to know additional facts so they can defend themselves against some danger that is otherwise imminent. In other words, the good caused by the disclosure must manifestly be greater than the harm caused by the scandal to the faithful.

So let us consider these points in the context of the so-called priest abuse scandals, just to cite an obvious example that has pushed people toward demanding full disclosure of priests' sins lest accusations of a dreaded "cover-up" be justified. That is, when a priest has been accused of engaging in homosexual relations, does the mere allegation of misconduct produce a right of the public to know that a charge was made, and a commensurate duty by a Bishop to spread this news, as well as a duty by a lay blogger to express his or her outrage over the incident (which may or may not actually have occurred). And if the allegation is not mere allegation but is proven, does the evaluation of the public's right to know, and the Bishop's duty to disclose, as well as the blogger's responsibility to exercise discretion, change?

It seems counter-intuitive to many Americans that the public may not, in fact, have a right to know, or that the Bishop may, in fact, be obliged to stay silent. Are we all not universally outraged that pedophiles were secretly removed from one location, only to re-surface at another, free to prey on the unsuspecting and vulnerable youth of the new locale? Of course we are rightly outraged. And yet, I suggest that it was not the secrecy alone that was so offensive, for publication alone of the scandal might just as well have been wrong. Rather, it was the secrecy, coupled with the returning of the priest to a place where the misconduct could be reinitiated with the unsuspecting, that was so dreadfully wrong. It is in this context that the faithful were so rightly filled with angst and disappointed with the shepherds of the flock.

The too-easy justification of many a Catholic blogger is that the "truth shall set us free." Our faith indeed teaches that the TRUTH, the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, has set us free. Yet, I suggest this is not to say that "truth", i.e., factually accurate allegations, will set us free. Rather, indulging in scandalous facts, whether factually true or unwarranted speculation, can in fact be enslaving, as all sin is enslaving. The sins of pride, gossip, and bearing false witness surely are no exceptions to this rule.

I do not suggest that the blogosphere should be censored. But the way forward for the faithful, it seems to me, is to exercise discretion. Catholics need to witness to their faith by ensuring that the dialogue in which we engage via the Internet is responsible and edifying in some way. Is the "news" being discussed conducive to apologetics, or evangelism, or catechesis? Is it critical to informed participation by the faithful in politics? Is it otherwise uplifting, or does it illuminate a path to holiness?

If it does none of these things but rather tends to bring scandal, is it absolutely necessary that the "news" be shared in order to protect others, assuming the "news" is demonstrably true? If so, can we verify that the "news" is factually true and not just one version of the facts?

If the "truth" cannot pass these tests, then as Shakespeare might put it, discretion is truly the better part of valor. I submit that only by engaging in a higher standard of responsible dialogue will Catholic blogosphere participants avoid certain enslaving sins and be receptive to the TRUTH that sets us free.

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