The Rise of WebMD Catholicism
Catholicism is everywhere. Sources on the faith, official and unofficial, abound.
But the notion of WebMD Catholicism helps frame a second concern: Faced with this multiplying number of sources, one might ask: Does the availability of information seduce us too quickly to believe that we can accurately understand and diagnose the theological and liturgical questions we face? Put another way, what has become of, or how do we make sense of, the notion of expertise among those who profess an interest in what the Church teaches? Do too many of us rush to encyclicals and other papal statements, or the writings of a famous saint or Catholic intellectual, with the same confidence with which we rush to WebMD to understand and diagnose sickness in our physical health—and with the same erring result?
I consider these questions against the backdrop of Bishop Olmsted's decision to restrict the availability of communion wine. The Diocese of Phoenix published the announcement in conjunction with a set of answers to anticipated questions. The Diocese, in other words, made their reasoning available to the public - a public that includes highly educated Catholics like Commonweal's Lisa Fullam and Rita Ferrone, to whom Olmsted's decision makes little to no sense.
And yet Bishop Olmsted has been a priest for over thirty years and a bishop for around twelve. He has served in multiple parishes and in the Vatican Secretariat of State. He has significant experience not only reading about norms and procedures but also implementing them. He is, so to speak, trained in the Mass, and has had years of experience training others. Based on this long and varied service, isn't Olmsted precisely the kind of expert who is equipped to make a decision about communion?
Perhaps so, but then another concern quickly follows: how does the average Catholic weigh instances of what we might call "clerical malpractice"? Expertise breaks down in medicine; does it not also in the Church, especially in light of the failure of priests and Bishops to protect children? Or in light of the fact that, like in medicine, the Church has changed and in some cases repudiated positions it once held fervently?
The rise of WebMD Catholicism may lead too many Catholics, both conservatives and liberals, to make conclusions beyond their expertise. But it may also help purify the Church and ensure that its members have a more informed relationship with it, a situation that may, from time to time, lead Catholics to a second opinion.
Matt Emerson writes from California, where he teaches at Xavier Prep.