Spread a little happiness

(Perhaps this is what the Archbishop has in mind?)

Archbishop Vincent Nichols must be feeling quite justified. He gives a homily in which he appears to denounce blogs, saying that people are attracted to them because we love to hear complaints and are attracted to gossip, followed by a sentence saying that they should have no place in the Church, and surprise surprise, the Catholic blogosphere goes apoplectic and complains about it, thereby proving his point quite nicely.

The problem is twofold. Firstly the sentence “They should have no place in the Church” is placed (perhaps deliberately) after the sentence which explains why we are attracted to newspapers and blogs. It therefore creates an ambiguity. Is Archbishop Nichols talking about newspapers and blogs having no place in the Church, or rather gossip and complaints? Or both?

He (Pope Francis) knows that we live in a society in which complaining and gossip is a standard fare. They sell newspapers and attract us to blogs because we love hear complaints and to read gossip.

But Pope Francis is clear: they should have no place in the Church

But actually the excellent homilies from Pope Francis to which the Archbishop refers, makes no mention of newspapers and blogs, he talks about how complaining dashes hope, as well as the evils of gossip.

But is Archbishop Nichols really saying that newspapers and blogs have no place in the Church? I don’t think this can be the case, not least because the Vatican has its own newspaper and blog. It might have been more helpful had he been a little more precise, i.e. newspapers and blogs that are solely devoted to gossip and complaining have no place in the Church, although this too would have aroused ire. The Archbishop in a bit of a no-win situation whatever he says regarding blogs and the internet.

The other problem is in the assertion that people are attracted to newspapers because they are attracted to gossip and like to hear complaints. This assumes ill-will or bad intention on behalf of the reader which is not always present. I don’t read the Catholic Herald, for example, because I want to hear gossip, (not that the Herald publishes any) if I wanted ecclesial or clerical gossip there are much juicier sources, but because I like to read about what’s going on in the Catholic world as a whole and read some informed, educated and orthodox commentary from those whose opinions I might respect. The same goes for the blogs, my favourites being the priest bloggers (Valle Adurne is a particular treat, I love Fr Sean’s gentle perspectives) and the blogs I regularly read which are written by the laity, again are the opinions of those people who I respect and might well be able to add a different perspective or dimension to an issue which I have not thought about, the most recent that comes to mind is Counter-Cultural father’s outstanding posts on abortion. Likewise I don’t think one can accuse Mark Lambert‘s weekly scriptural reflections as being full of complaints or gossip. Many blogs are genuinely a place of spiritual nourishment.

So, I can well see that backs have been put up by this homily, not least because it assumes bad intent on behalf of bloggers and their readership. Frs Ray and Henry both do a good job in explaining the importance of blogs in democratising the Church as well as explaining the difference between good and bad gossip. Gossip tinged with calumny is the food of Satan.

With all that in mind, I am going to say a few words in defence of Archbishop Nichols and it is very telling that I slightly nervous and mindful of doing this. What kind of situation are we in when an orthodox Catholic is concerned by the reaction that she might receive from the blogosphere, when it comes to defending the most senior Catholic in England and trying to act in good faith?

I understand where ++Vincent is coming from, even though I don’t agree with him. Most members of the CBCEW still don’t quite ‘get’ the internet, although it’s heartening to see Bishop Egan tweeting and blogging. I suspect this is partly a generational issue as well as a not inconsiderable workload. The priest bloggers don’t blog every day, they have their flock to attend to and I’ve been watching the pattern of blogging and noticed (yes priest bloggers, I’m stalking you all) that almost all of them tend to blog in the evening, when they can finally snatch a bit of down time. I suspect that many bishops just ‘don’t get it’ and therefore all they hear about the internet is the bad stuff, i.e. the complaints, the grumbling, the ‘somebody must do something’ and it has perhaps unsurprisingly, coloured their judgement, they don’t get the positive benefits.

Plus, whilst the internet does enable voices to be heard and important concerns to be aired, as we’ve seen with the Gosnell case this week, it does also enable keyboard warriers and online zealots. The internet is a big place which has its fair share of ‘characters.’ Whereas twenty years ago folk would write letters in green ink, now we have the internet which needs discernment and filtration. Here’s a helpful piece that illustrates the usefulness (or otherwise) of Twitter for a mainstream journalist, referring to the aftermath of this week’s tragedy in Boston. Most parishes have at least one, really dedicated and loyal parishioner, who has a particular bugbear who regularly gives anyone who will listen a good earbashing about it. The problem is, that by permanently complaining and finding fault, no matter how legitimate the grievance, over time, repeated grumbling loses its impact.

Those bishops who look upon the internet with scepticism, probably equate it with a troublesome parishioner who never stops grumbling and who never has anything good to say, at least to him, only seeing the difficult or troublesome aspect. If any of them look at the comments boxes on some of the major blogs, their suspicions are confirmed, even the Catholic Herald has its share of ranters. Some coms boxes put me in mind of the bar in Mos Eisley from Star Wars. As Obi-Wan says to Luke Skywalker, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” It’s fair to say that charity is sometimes lacking.

So look at it from Archbishop Nichol’s point of view. Bloggers seem to be forever telling him how awful he is, what a terrible job he’s doing and speculating over whether or not he will get, or deserves a red hat. No matter how deserved bloggers might think their criticism, the Archbishop is human, as well as our father in God, that kind of thing would seriously cheese me off too, particularly when they are always threatening to complain to Rome or the Nuncio. We all need not to get carried away by a sense of power.

It’s also fair to say that there are certain blogs and bloggers who do seem to revel in gossip, naming no names. This does have the potential to be dangerous and lead people into error. We have to remember that if we are going to publish a rumour, that there are always two sides to every story, there have been occasions when I’ve read stuff and realised it to be utter bunkum, but I’m not in a position to disabuse it, because to do so would entail breaking confidences and be just as bad as the original piece. It is nevertheless frustrating to see rumour, which like all good gossip has a grain of truth in it, propagated like it is Gospel.

Should anyone be in any doubt about the attraction or power of blogs, Robin, like many Anglo-Catholics, both present and former, used to absolutely devour the blogs, especially Damian Thompson’s, at around the time Anglicanorum Coetibus was issued. It drove me absolutely potty, but is a habit which he has long since eschewed. The reason being, was like many in his position, he had no idea what was going on, didn’t actually know that many real-life Catholics or Catholic clergy and wanted some idea of what was happening and what kind of a welcome or reception he might expect from the Catholic Church should he convert, and also just to get a sense of it. Which is why again, bloggers need to be careful, many of us have crossover readers, internecine squabbling (of which I have been guilty) doesn’t create the best of impressions of UK Catholicism or do much to further the Kingdom. What frustrated me about the blog-checking habit was that to me, what bloggers were saying was utterly irrelevant as to where the Lord might be calling, but I can well see that at a time one feels out of control and uncertain about events, sinful nature leads us to try and be masters and controllers of our own destiny.

Ultimately, if we want to be taken seriously as a force (and I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else here) we need to exercise discernment and ensure that our output is always balanced, reasonable, charitable as well as orthodox and not merely a place for discontented rants or to air personal grievances, again something that I’ve learnt over time. Accusations of clericalism go both ways, neither the hierarchy, nor bloggers and the blogging community should consider themselves beyond reproach or untouchable.

We have to ensure that whatever we do on the internet lives out and advances Gospel values. Otherwise, as Pope Francis says, we run the risk of not recognising Christ walking alongside us.

2 thoughts on “Spread a little happiness

  1. Thank you. It’s so nice to read something about this without all the histrionics that’s going round the other blogs! Was anyone making all the snarky comments even there at the time the sermon was delivered? Reading it doesn’t provide the pauses a speaker makes, and +Nichols could have been making the point that we get attracted to blogs that deal mainly with gossip (I won’t name any) and like perpetuates like, and a situation develops where it’s impossible for charity to surface. Like the election of Pope Francis, too many are too quick to point too many fingers.

  2. Well I was there. I remember it as a warm and down to earth homily, which included advice not to indulge in gossip and to be wary of stewing in the juices of complaining! I certainly shuffled in my seat a little, as I don’t mind a little listening in on the ‘dark joy’ of gossip and I also know how easy it is to get caught up in a spirit of anger and dissatisfaction. Are these things part of the Kingdon of Heaven? Do these things play a part in some blogs, some of the time? It’s not rocket science really, if we are honest with ourselves!

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