by Russell Pollitt SJ

Last week I was perturbed by an exchange on Facebook. The argument took place on the page of a third party. The argument got personal. The facts or the subject at hand were soon forgotten. The altercation ended when the owner of the page deleted the post. Just before it was removed one called the other a “moffie” (a derogatory and offensive word suggesting that a man is effeminate).

Fast forward. Another nasty incident on social media at the beginning of this week. American Jesuit and bestselling author, Fr James Martin, had an invitation withdrawn from Theological College, associated with the Catholic University of America, to speak to their alumni. The invitation was revoked after a vicious attack was launched on social media by alt-right Catholics. The College gave in to pressure from the trolls that spewed uncharitable and unchristian attacks on Fr Martin. Their objection to his visit was his latest book which looks at the relationship between the LGBT Community and the Church.

Everyone is free to disagree with Fr Martin’s book. Several people have raised questions about it. He has been interviewed and has debated the book in front of public audiences. He has been open to critique about its contents. The book was given official recognition by Jesuit authorities, and various bishops – including Cardinal Kevin Farrell who is Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

The real issue is the vitriolic way that the alt-right Catholics have chosen to address issues, in particular those that they do not agree with. Slander, name-calling, exaggerating and lying to publicly discredit someone you disagree with is damaging – and sinful!

In an excellent column in La Croix International Prof Massimo Faggioli unpacks why such behaviour on social media is creating a growing problem for the Church. He refers to this trend as “Catholic Cyber-Militias”

Faggioli points to several things. He says that these kinds of reactions are a “radicalization of the conservative backlash – not just on LGBT issue, but also on other matters such as the liturgy.” (The first incident I refer to above was about liturgy!) He says that it raises an ecclesiological concern too. In an era when the Pope has emphasised mercy, the language of hatred has been ramped up. This, he says, is the story of a church that is trying to change and the “virulent reaction against it”.

He does, however, raise a much bigger issue which those in authority in the Church need to take cognisance of. Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy now have more power than the hierarchy. Institutional leaders are powerless in the face of social media pressure and by giving into these militia they give them even more power. So-called “warriors” on social media today call the shots. “There is now an ecclesiology of Catholic social media that has completely bypassed, not only the way the Catholic Church has worked for centuries but also the way it is supposed to work today,” Faggioli says. He concludes: “With the emergence of Catholic cyber-militias, everyone’s membership is at stake.”

Next time you do an examination of conscience, consider whether your engagement on social media is covered. What you share, like, perpetuate and say there might be damaging to others and seriously sinful.