St. Paul was no shrinking violet when it came to arguing his position. Yet in the Letter to the Ephesians, he urges his readers to “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
These days, “bearing with one another through love” is not our strong suit. We Catholics have a tendency to disagree in a disagreeable way. I suppose it is a mark of progress that we are no longer burning people alive in Campo de’ Fiori, but for folks who have been torched on social media, the heat may be quite similar.
A pastor recently recounted to me his shock when a “sweet older lady” in his parish asked him after Mass if Pope Francis was an idol worshipper. That used to be the kind of silly libel one heard only from Jack Chick and other purveyors of anti-Catholic bigotry. Now it is the kind of absurdity more commonly found in the fetid corners of the Catholic internet.
The snark and the belittling are bad enough, but social media are aflame with all manner of allegations of great deceits and greater conspiracies among one’s opponents. And the cancel culture mentality that demands not just an apology but a head on a pike thrives on both sides of our polarized divide. From the halls of academe to the Facebook account of a self-appointed scourge, our church seems to be rending itself into angry factions.
Some people feel that all this Sturm und Drang is just a tempest in a Twitter post, but there are two reasons to be concerned. The first is a growing worry that our anger and our divisions are becoming disincentives to evangelization.
One doesn’t sign up to sail on a leaky barque of Peter, especially when its own crew is punching holes in it. More worrisome still is when the conversion may not be to the message of the Gospel, but to a faction upon whose interpretation of that message one’s faith rests.
The second reason is that recent events are sending more and more Catholics to social media, with unforeseen ramifications. As traditional Catholic media slowly disappear, particularly at the diocesan level, Catholics who care are being driven to social media and the internet to find information and get answers.
Yet studies suggest users of social media are less likely to be well-informed about current events. A recent Pew study also suggested that social media users were more likely to be aware of unproven claims and conspiracy theories involving the coronavirus pandemic.
Should we be concerned that the same may hold true for the Catholic audience as well? Exhibit A: The sweet older lady who thinks the pope worships idols. While many good Catholic resources do exist on the internet, driving Catholics to find their information there may mean the church is no longer telling its own story in this Wild West of information and misinformation. And lots of charlatans are profiting from this confusion.
Perhaps, “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,” what we need are models of Christian debate that are both civil and serious. Whether between church leaders or between amateur canonists and theologians, we need examples of earnest disagreement while “bearing with one another through love.”
Dialing down the Twittersphere’s rage is probably a fool’s errand, but it would be nice if we who profess the “unity of love through the bond of peace” acted as if we believed it.
Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at email@example.com.