Groping for God: Why and Where Catholics Blog

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols. So he debated in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17)

Yesterday the online religion site Patheos debuted a new look. It’s streamlined, consistent, and accessible, and what’s more important, making the transition didn’t appear to overly fry the brains or exhaust the tech skills of anyone involved. Last night on Facebook, Patheos Catholic Channel Editor Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress, posted a clip of The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” as a sigh of relief when announcing the new look. Her post drew mostly favorable comments, but one reader questioned the wisdom of Catholics’ being present on a site that provides equal exposure to all religious and philosophical traditions, including atheism. Doesn’t this smack of collaboration with relativism? And isn’t it irresponsible to participate in forums where Catholics whose hold on the faith is tenuous might be led astray into other, sexier spiritual paths? Shouldn’t there be an official Catholics-only site to which folks could reliably turn for respite from the way the world portrays and assaults us?

These are good, important questions, and I don’t want my paraphrasing of the commenter to misrepresent his sincerity and respect in asking. Elizabeth responded that she continues to pray over these considerations, and will address them at greater length once she’s slept off the past several weeks’ work of steering the Patheos Catholic Channel transition around icebergs and bringing it into port with all hands still on deck. But she was clear that it’s a deck we Catholics need to be on:

There is going to be this website bringing all of these POVs and beliefs together. Then, as a Catholic, don’t I want to step up to the plate and have a say in how she is represented? Our own pope has said that there are pieces of the truth in every religion, but that we have the fullness of truth. Our previous pope said we have to live in the world as it is, and that means with all of these varieties. My hope, then is to make sure my church is fairly, accurately, optimistically and enthusiastically represented and that we will be inviting enough to assist the Holy Spirit. It’s all I can do.

I seconded that, citing the example of Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus in Athens.

But as a neophyte in the Catholic blogosphere, I realized that there are questions behind the commenter’s questions that I’ve not really answered–or even asked–for myself. With the US Bishops’ recent request that Catholic media professionals use their voices to engage readers in the struggle to define, claim, and defend religious freedom in this country–which Fr Z took a step further by encouraging the bishops to enlist bloggers specifically–and with the initiatives of the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith calling for more involvement by Catholics in the global marketplace of faith and values, there’s growing interest in the role of the Catholic blogger. Following the inspiration of the Vatican, which hosted an international bloggers’ summit last year, this summer’s Catholic New Media Conference will feature a day-long opportunity for bloggers to confer, converse, and otherwise hobnob with their brother and sister wizards. The Patheos upgrade seems as good an occasion as any to note that the Catholic blogosphere has come of sufficient age to engage in meta-analysis. Four key questions we might ask (or continue to ask and discuss, where we are already asking them) are:

Why do Catholics blog?
There are as many answers, I would imagine, as there are Catholic bloggers. Some, like Rocco Palmo at Whispers in the Loggia or Deacon Greg Kandra at The Deacon’s Bench, come from a journalistic perspective, sharing news stories of interest to Catholics and observations triggered by those stories. (Deacon Greg, like many other members of the diaconate, also blogs on topics of interest to fellow deacons.) Some blog to inform, as Ed Peters does on canon law or Fr Z started out doing with the Latin roots of liturgical texts. Some bloggers are diarists, chronicling their lives as Catholic priests, hermits, religious, spouses, parents, singles, converts, reverts. Some share political commentary; others write on topics of interest as varied as religious art, film, history, the lives of the saints, even recipes. A good percentage of Catholic bloggers do all of these things at one time or another. Few of us are as candid as Mark Shea, who freely admits that his prolific Catholic and Enjoying It blog exists “so that no thought of mine, no matter how stupid, should ever go unpublished again”–although when you get down to it, there’s some of that in everyone.

Where do Catholic bloggers blog?
Again, we’re all over the place. Some blog for established Catholic publications, like America and First Things and both NCRs. Bishops and diocesan staff blog for their own diocesan websites or Catholic newspapers. Some are part of larger aggregator sites, whether Catholic-only as Elizabeth’s commenter thinks we should stick to, or denominationally diverse, like Patheos. A good many Catholic bloggers are independent. Where and for whom we blog sometimes depends on our job or our politics, but increasingly it’s also about being compensated for blogging. Are there places we shouldn’t be blogging? Are there places we should be blogging and aren’t?

Why do people read Catholic blogs?
Here’s the intriguing question for me. Again, I’m certain there’s a limitless range of reasons, not all of them apparent from reading the comboxes (which mostly make me believe the only reason Catholics read Catholic blogs is to disagree with them), by any means. The concerns raised by Elizabeth’s commenter would, I think, only apply in a few cases out of many–but other reasons might raise other concerns.

How does the Catholic blogosphere enhance–or impede–the New Evangelization?
How can we maximize the enhancement and minimize the impediments? That’s the big question for our day.

Four key questions. Or so I was thinking when I began this post this morning, but that was before I read the text of Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, the statement released today by the USCCB’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. It’s a good, solid, unsurprising take on the things dioceses and–in particular–parishes need to be doing to invite Catholics home, but I have to say I’m slightly underwhelmed. Philosophically, there are some nice bits, especially about the need to develop a culture of witness, but methodologically I think it falls short. It’s largely a rehash of the National Directory for Catechesis stuff that’s been out there for decades, and it’s hard to see how the same tactics that were used to form all the Catholics who drifted away over the years are now going to be any more effective in bringing them back. Yes, discipleship and leadership and hospitality and sacramental catechesis and strengthened family life and good preaching are all important and necessary, but how are we going to do these things differently or better than we have been doing them? The document is short on practical strategies.

Disciples Called to Witness, despite paying lip service to the need to employ new media in evangelization and catechesis, also seems to be missing the boat with regard to the role these new media are already playing in attracting converts and reverts, sharing Catholic teaching and apologetics, countering misinformation in the secular media, and witnessing to the power and authenticity of the Gospel. In fact, the culture of witness that the Bishops are so intent on cultivating already exists, in actuality, in the Catholic blogosphere and in other forms of new media. The difference is, the blogosphere is neither institutionalized nor official nor parochial, and the vision of evangelization Disciples Called to Witness promotes is very definitely all three.

So now, in addition to the questions the Catholic blogosphere needs to ask itself, there are questions it needs to ask of the institutional Church. These might include:

If, as Disciples Called to Witness says, “evangelization must remain rooted in the parish” (p 12), how can non-institutional Catholic bloggers be of assistance to institutional efforts to evangelize and catechize?

If, as Disciples Called to Witness seems to indicate, the involvement of new media in evangelization and catechesis is limited to “creditable” online sources (p 18), what makes for credibility and who defines it?

How might the energy and effectiveness of the culture of witness already present in the Catholic blogosphere serve to ignite and support efforts on the institutional level?

There’s one question, though, that I don’t think we even need to go looking to answer anymore, and that’s whether Catholics should blog. The answer–like the answer to whether Paul should have preached to the Athenians–is a resounding Yes. Paul’s message and purpose, and the needs of his hearers, have not changed, even though the means of sharing the mission and answering the needs have evolved:

” . . . so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27)

I am excited about being a Catholic blogger at this point in the Church’s history, and I look forward to participating in the free and open discussion of these and many other questions. I hope my readers (small but stalwart band that you are) will help me out by answering some of these questions and raising new ones in comments. What say you?

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