Idols Come in Many Forms; Facebook Feeds Them – UPDATED

My column at First Things this week takes yet another stab at discussing the idols some of us are (of have in the past) made of our ideologies, and how damaging it is becoming to our mental and social health, and more importantly to our spirits:

In 2012, there are still some puffs of Obama-fervor to be found amid the members and burning-out embers of the mainstream press; here and there you may find someone on the right launching a heavy breath toward the Romney/Ryan coals, but after decades of non-stop partisan sniping and four years of bursting bubbles, economic misery, and constitutional uncertainty, Americans are too worn, too weary, to expend the energy necessary to burnish any more golden calves.

This time around, President Obama’s halo has gone missing, and if his opponents still think he is the devil, he’s become a minor one they can finally laugh at. Candidates Romney and Ryan seem more like stable pedestals than the bronze thing upon which we gaze and so, no, we are not making idols of our candidates.

Instead some of us are simply nourishing our ideologies—holding them close to the heart and feeding them on our stores of distrust and bitterness—and allowing them to steal all of our instincts to charity, to squeeze out mercy. You can see it on social media, most especially on Facebook where respectable, even admirable, people are beginning to lose perspective and attack each other over news stories, and sometimes over simple questions, reasonably asked. Where angry banning won’t do, full-scale attacks are launched in the form of threads full of red-meat, wherein “friends” are invited to feed, so the hatred may grow.

And it is all done in service to a sad illusion that somehow, if we do not post every story that makes us angry or proves our point, if we do not constantly attempt to fix the erroneous thinking of others, this election will fall out of our control. We must be aggressive unto hysteria in our righteousness, or the other side will win.

So, our idols will not save us.

The column was inspired, frankly, by the odd combination of lunacy and sorrow I see filling up my timeline on Facebook, these past weeks; people I like and respect are beginning to lose perspective and lash out at other people I like and respect.

Facebook is an insidious place; most of us are not so grounded in humility that we can spend any time there without beginning to fall in love with ourselves, because Facebook is a profound vehicle for the feeding of our own narcissism (Look! I am liked! I am friended! I am shared! Everyone agrees with ME! Let me tell you what I’m eating, now!). And narcissism is the key to idol-making. We build them up and make them shiny, because then they better-reflect us back to ourselves.

And when the idols eventually tarnish or collapse in on themselves oh, the weeping and gnashing of teeth as we contemplate the emptiness upon which we have placed so much of our faith. Recall when John Corapi began his transition from priest to black sheep dog to whatever he is doing now; you can’t have forgotten the howling hate and hysteria flying around Catholic comboxes — particularly directed toward those daring to question what Corapi was doing. The spiritual oppression wafting up from the timelines made many of us feel physically ill, until we had to avoid them entirely. It was overwrought; it was ugly, and too, too few of us Catholics were content to say “pray for Corapi, pray for all of us” and just let it go, at that.

Those who tried to say it were often castigated, too — that’s how spiritually oppressed it was.

There are Catholics in this world who live their lives like Roman Candles always in search of a light, so they may spray little sparks of spite and malice all over the place, and they are never happier than when they can mix it up in comboxes and tell their co-religionists why they’re going to hell.

As I was heading out for Dallas, last week, I became aware of another Facebook dustup among the Catholics, this time involving Father Peter West and our own Mark Shea. West, taking issue with this piece (see followup) that Mark wrote back in May, decided — because Mark made a point of saying he did not make it his business to actually investigate the sex life of his subject — that Mark needed some correction, and then, rather than take it up in Mark’s comboxes, as would be appropriate and reasonable, decided on August 28 to announce to his “friends” that “something is deeply wrong with Mark Shea”.

Shea’s post, of course, was on his respect and reverence for a gay man whom he considered an fine example of Catholic faithfulness and he said — as many of us do, when speaking of people we admire (I say it all the time of my Mother-in-Law) “I consider him a saint!”

He clearly was not suggesting he had the canonical means to make this an official proclamation. Father West was not satisfied and seemed to feel that, Mark Shea should have made it his business to insure that his friend had been celibate, before any public praise be given. That Shea did not, West deemed a cause for public censure, and he wrote:

Shea said he didn’t care if the man was celibate or not. He said he didn’t care and that it is was none of his business, but he called the man a saint, thus implying that one could be actively engaged in homosexual acts and be holy. You can’t be holy if you’re not chaste…He seems to be working very hard now to convince pro-lifers not to vote for Romney. Some of his posts are filled with vitriol…

Well, yes, Mark often writes “while Irish” and is just as quick to apologize with real humility when he realizes he’s done that. Mark responded:

Father…can I ask, “Is there a problem with a chaste homosexual living according to the Church’s teaching, or for admiring a chaste homosexual who lived according to the Church’s teaching?”

Fr. West:

No. There is not, but you said you don’t know if the man was celibate, nor do you care. It’s not your business. Can you be holy and not be chaste? If not, why did you canonize the man?

The gay man in question was indeed celibate (and how’d you like your sexual proclivities to be investigated to make sure you’re doing it all perfectly, before you can be thought well of?) but that has been lost in the flurry of hysterical outrage. Actually, since Father West made his public declaration of the “problem” of Mark Shea before ever actually talking to the man several very distortive ideas have been whipped up amid the threads and are now being allowed to stand: that Shea — the fellow who had to be dissuaded from calling some homosexual activists “gay brownshirts” — is an supporter of gay sex; that he is a disobedient son of the church and a heretic; that he does not love babies or care enough about abortion; that (gasp!) he does not particularly like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan; that he does not fall in line with Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart.

Actually, those last two items are true enough. Shea is not a partisan in any way, shape or form. He cheerfully despises President Obama and doesn’t much cotton to anyone running for office, these days, and he is not a slave to either Beck or Breitbart. When their sites have worthy points, he says so. When he disagrees, he says so. This being America, you’d think that would be handily applauded, but Father West found it within the scope of his priestly duties to point out Shea’s crime against Political Orthodoxy and to thereby further foment dislike and distrust of a man who — like all of us — has his faults but does try to stay honest as he wrestles with them.

I started this by talking about idols and ideology. On August 31, Father West posted a “Mark Shea Alert” and informed his readers that Shea doesn’t think much of Mitt Romney. When, on September 1, Father West — still fixated on Shea — pointed out to his friends that Shea “takes on Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart and what he calls the “Right Wing Noise Machine” I finally visited his thread and asked him, as kindly as I knew how (I’m Irish, too) whether his job as a priest was to demand political conformity, and I earnestly pleaded with him to find some quiet and some prayertime in order to reconsider what he was doing.

While I was there, though, I couldn’t help but notice — and indeed it made me very sad — that Father West’s Facebook page, to which he updates many times a day, which suggests he spends way too much time there — has a great deal to say about politics and social issues; perhaps 99% of it is politics, abortion and homosexual issues, but his page has almost nothing to say about Jesus Christ or the life of faith. If there is anything about prayer (except to advance his causes), about Christ, about worship, about the interior life, I did not see it. But then I was only looking back to August 28.

I would not presume — as Father West has done to Shea — to tell West what he should or should not post on, or what pieces he should take down, or what he ought not write about — but having now seen the focus of his Facebook page, I am quite sincerely concerned for Father West. I fear he is falling into the insidious trap I discuss in my First Things piece — the trap so many of us at one time or another find ourselves struggling to get out of, where we are caught up in the whirlwind of politics (so much of which is illusory) and into thinking that we must, we must, we must, keep breathlessly posting on Facebook; that the nation’s fate depends upon us not stopping to consider (or to pray, or to even think) but simply remaining in the spin of the storm, until we lose sight of everything, including the humanity of others, or the damage we may be causing that was never our willful intent.

I like to give people the benefit of a doubt, and I am going to give one to Father Peter West — that he did not intend to impugn the reputation of an obedient Catholic who, like the rest of us, gets through a day imperfectly; that he was simply too caught up in the whirlwind to see his own better angels.

I really want to believe it, and I hope Father West can confirm it. Please pray for both men, and for all of us in our troubled, roiling church and nation. These are two men, ostensibly on the same side yet needlessly at odds. This fiasco was wholly unnecessary, but now demands a denouement.

And really…be careful on Facebook. It’s a head-messer. A month or so ago, I intentionally pulled back and have been trying to only-post-not-comment. I’ve learned that I can resist opining without depriving the world of anything.

Some of Shea’s Patheos co-workers have dared to opine in the face of all of this, and they’re all worth reading.

Joanne McPortland: got busy first, and she’s shown me some of the hatemail she’s received for her trouble. Vile stuff. Some days later she remains thoughtful.

Thomas McDonald: calls Mark Shea the Worst. Person. Ever., and includes a handy Shea Alert System.

Calah Alexander: is almost ready to deliver her baby and ought not be messed with.

Deacon Greg: rounds it all off by turning to some wisdom from Bishop Christopher Coyne.

Two pieces which do not specifically touch on the West/Shea imbroglio but are peripherally related and well-worth your time to read:

Julie Davis: “Are Catholics Online the 1st Corinthians?

Thoughts on priesthood and politics

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About Elizabeth Scalia