Digital Field of the Lord: Hoeing the Rows, for the Seeds

In my my first reaction to Benedict’s announcement yesterday, I wrote:

Listening to some of the inanities coming out of the mouths of cable news anchors, and noting the way they are quickly, predictably, focusing on the “negative narratives” — one voice on cable anchor is making it sound like the church has just endured 32 years of misery and she imagines “great joy” among “progressive” Catholics and “confusion” among “conservative” ones — how grateful I am that, thanks to Benedict’s awareness, there is a hardy and energetic internet presence, well-established and looked upon with encouragement by Rome (and increasingly entered into and brilliantly utilized by smart bishops, priests, religious and layfolk). Thanks to that, we’ll explore this very new ground, together, with our diverse points of view laid out and hashed out, all while trusting that the Holy Spirit is guiding what occurs, as has been true since Pentecost.

There are lots of great comments in that thread, but this one really resonated with me:

What is disheartening is the almost total absence of Catholic commentators in the comboxes of yahoo, google, huffpo, etc. While the sheer amount of absolutely evil comments are intimidating, I see no attempt to correct or educate or evangelize there.

We have a serious problem in that we have allowed ourselves to become digitally ghettoized. We do not venture outside of the Catholic blogs/websites and that is a shame.

The Digital Catholic ghetto is something I’ve written and spoken about at length. It is a true concern. We marginalize ourselves when we limit our reading and conversion only to those we mostly agree with. It’s a danger for everyone, on the ‘net, not just Catholics. But that said, it is important for Catholics to attempt to insert Catholic thinking, Catholic reason into the roiling debates of our time — it must be done without emotion, without venom and with a willingness to be humbled before others.

This is a difficult thing to do; it is evangelizing rather the way the pope would do it — and yes, no wonder he is tired. The pope is quite literally the most universally “hated” man in the world. While many love him, of course, one need only look at the comboxes my commenter noted (or read @Pontifex’s insanely hateful twitter feed) to get a taste of the sort of bottomless, often evil hate that is directed toward the pontiff. It is a hate that will be directed toward any pontiff that does not endorse the morals and temperaments of the age, no matter what they are — enthrallment to ages and trends has always drawn us away from God and rendered humans barking mad at those who would counsel against it.

So, note the hate the pope sees, note the negativity and bile that is directed toward him, and expect to encounter some (smaller) measure of that, whenever you exit the Catholic ghetto and engage the world — particularly the most determinedly secular parts of it.**

But if we’re going to do it — if we’re going to sow seeds in the Virtual Field of the Lord, we need to know the rows are hoed on the ground, that the local churches and diocese are ready to receive the seeds and nurture them into growth. And these days, a good amount of that will happen online, from the first moment someone uses a search engine to find their local churches.

It seems perfectly fitting, a day after the announced resignation of our first Tweeting Pope — a pope who early on understood the need for Catholics to embrace New Media — that I interview a young man who, with two friends, has decided to do the geeky, unglamorous work of teaching bishops and “front office” parish workers how to make themselves digitally read, and appealing, to Catholics and others seeking them out:

[Brandon] Vogt—an engineer by trade—has partnered with Flocknote founder Matt Warner and eCatholic’s founder Josh Simmons to take on what might be called the geek’s task: They have designed a one-day conference to instill a confident sense of Internet craft and courage to pastors and parish coordinators who know they need to be online, but are not quite sure what that entails. I asked Vogt some questions about his ministry.

Elizabeth Scalia: What exactly is a Digital Church Conference?

Brandon Vogt: The Digital Church Conference is a one-day guide to mastering new media. Through several talks, interactive demos, and panel discussions, we teach people everything they need to know, from perfecting their website, to building social networks, to evangelizing online. We arrange the entire event and provide basically everything. All we need from them is the venue, a video projector and screen, and a hand dispensing the marketing media, which includes a custom video.

What inspired this whole concept?

Matt Warner, Josh Simmons, and I are all tech-savvy; we realized that amidst this swirling world of Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and text-messaging most Catholics are both excited and terrified. They know this new media is powerful, and they know they should be using it. But they’re simply afraid to dive in. They’re wary of the dangers, they don’t know where to start, and even if they do, they’re unsure how to move forward.

So, “be not afraid?”

Over and over, Pope Benedict has called on the laity to master these new media tools. That requires education and help, so the three of us created this conference with the goal of making it as easy and cheap as possible for dioceses to help their parishes and ministries harness this technology. We want to bring it to every diocese in the country.

Read the whole thing and take a look at your parish and diocesan websites. If they’re not dynamite fields, plowed and ready for the seeds…pass this information on to your pastor, and your bishop! Show them the video!

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**Look for another post on this, shortly.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Victor

    Hey Victor, “I” just got this spiritual tell…. in from “ONE” of Johnny Cash spiritual cells and we’re wondering what to make of this Ring! Could “IT” be a message from Saint Peter NOW?

    Enough is Enough sinner vic! What are ya trying to do drive me crazy?

    Go Figure! :)

    God Bless Johnny Cash soul


  • Epicus Montaigne

    I try to go to those sites, whether its the Washington Post, NY Times, or HuffPo, and I try to post compassionately yet definitively, trying to engage in an actual discussion. The vast majority of the time no one is concerned with what you’re actually saying, they simply cast a label on you and continue ranting. But every now and then (very rarely) you can get one person to listen and engage, and it can be fruitful! As Catholics we need to stop thinking of the internet as our “Away Field” and go out into the deep, Duc in Altum, because while on the surface is vitriol and hate, underneath there are souls longing for Truth and Beauty and Love.

  • Manny

    I’ve seen that issue myself. I belong to an opinion/discussion site called Sodahead (opinions on just about anything, not just political or issues in the news) and the same type of mean spirited comments are there. If I’m in the fighting mood, i’ll engage someone. But it wears you down and you ultimately fall into sin, at least I do with my Italian temper. And frankly no matter what reasons you bring out it hardly ever changes anyone’s mind. The only hope is to catch a reader who isn’t locked in stone to a perception and hope he at leasts listens to you. Most internet discussion is either preaching to the choir or locked into perpetual fisticuffs.

  • Lawrence

    As one of your eclectic readers, by that I mean Confessional/Evangelical Lutheran, we may not always. But in reading your posts I am assured of the integrity of your messages. Helps me stay in tune with important current events.

    Having said that for context, I agree with your perspective regarding the reactions of the Secular/MSM journalists to this news concerning the Pope. The secular word relishes any chance to poke fun at religious leadership, with relative abandonment of the facts or perspectives of those they mock.

    This is a significant event in world history when a leader with as much influence as a Roman Catholic Pope comes to the point where he feels he has served his Calling as Pope and is now called to step aside for a new leader. There is nothing wrong with this on the face of it, yet people will strive heartily to find one.

    It contrast here, tragically funny, is that the Secular/MSM reporting on these issues and digging for fault, do not represent the majority of the Secular populace. A populace who don’t care about the status of the Pope, nor care about the implications. This isn’t something they will waste energy thinking about or worrying about.

    So, who then is the audience of the mockery from the media? The target is, of course, the faithful believers of that respective denomination. To cause stress and questioning in the minds of those who might follow that particular leader. The modern main-stream secular pundit has come to relish causing chaos and discontent among the faithful followers of any given Christian denomination. Yet they fail to see, or simply chose not to see, their Hypocrisy. And they really hate it when you point it out.

  • Lawrence

    Argh, I hit the Post Comments button while editing my post. Sorry for all the bad English.

  • Mandy P.

    You’re right that when it comes to Catholicism on the internet I tend to stay in our little ghetto. Maybe that is awful. I dunno. I just don’t know how many people we’re really reaching by speaking out on the WaPo or NYT comboxes.

    When I’m neat reading on Catholic sites I like to hang out on political blogs (right-leaning) but usually bug out when Catholicism comes up. I have personally encountered the more vile, hateful comments come from the left side of the political aisle, but will freely admit that there is a ton of negativity towards Catholicism on the political right as well. You may not be shouted down by folks screaming about the “Nazi pedo-pope” (and yes, unfortunately I’ve seen idiotic comments like that), but you’re just as likely to be shouted down by people claiming we’re idol worshipers who have forsaken the Bible and that the Church is the Whore of Babylon and the tool of the Anti- Christ. I am sure that most of that is due to theological misunderstandings but it is still there and it’s impossible to have a rational discussion with that kind of invective.

    Surprisingly, one of the best secular, politically bent blogs out there for genuinely calm and rational discussion of religion when the topic comes up is Ace of Spades. I read that blog because I find them all hysterically funny, and some of the regular commenters are even funnier. And even though they can be rough in language, I’ve found that they are some of the kindest people I’ve met on the net and I’ve read some of the most fascinating and charitable religious discussions, including on Catholicism, on that site.

    My point, after rambling a bit, is that I am not really sure how much good we do on the net outside of our area. Not that we should run and hide, but honestly outside of the blog I mentioned, I have yet to encounter a place on the web where interjecting in a conversation about Catholicism does anything but stir up the “haters” and once that happens it’s basically over. I personally feel like I do more good by living as a witness (hopefully not as poorly as I think I do) to people out in meatspace instead of wasting my time arguing with people who have their Internet bravery on in the box.

  • Epicus Montaigne

    Mandy, I agree to an extent, but if even one person can be reached, that’s worth it, right? Instead of issuing blanket statements and rebuttals, the best way to do it is to focus on one individual (preferably the one making the most sense) and talk to them. It won’t work probably 9 times out of 10, or maybe 99 times our of 100, but just one soul touched is priceless. I don’t think we should leave our Catholic sites alone because “there’s no evangelization there!” I just think we need to not be afraid to leave the ghetto, and there is a call for missionary voices on HuffPo et al.

  • Fiestamom

    During the 2012 campaign, I noticed the reverse of what you are describing. I read The Corner on National Review’s web page. In the last 12-18 months I noticed a huge increase in liberal commenters. I stopped reading the comboxes because of the obnoxious tone. I wonder if Obama’s Organizing For America with their huge data mining and research outfit has research indicating this is a turn off to conservatives?

    Another good website to make contributions to would be the Gawker family. It’s a huge liberal snark fest there, but the commenters there seem particularly insular, maybe well reasoned comments there could change hearts?

    What a timely post!

  • Renee

    limit yourself to three comments in a discussion. it is not about getting the last word in. i try not to get myself involved unless there will be some discussion in good faith. have neutral base links to cite.

  • Amy

    It is to me digital noise. Some of you may enjoy being online, engaging the enemy…I look to quiet my soul, to turn off the noise and to just pray, read, to be silent. And that will continue throughout lent to another level where I will not be attached to the internet, even the Catholic sites. I pray that we all have a Holy Lent; and for those who do as Elizabeth suggests, I will pray especially for you, for wisdom and prudence. Blessings!

  • Mandy P.

    @Epicus Montaigne,

    I’ve kind of found that I do more good by getting to know other comboxers on topics outside of religion and then once I’m established as a “friend” then I feel freer to discuss my faith.

    For example, I’m Internet friendly with a group of ladies I met in a mommy blog several years back. We chat all the time via Facebook and we talk pretty openly about our faiths. But I’m the only Catholic and even a few years ago when I “met” them online a few of them would vehemently argue against Catholics as not even being Christians. I pretty much avoided specifics on my faith and they were very surprised to find out that I was Catholic because they assumed our beliefs would be drastically different and have no Scriptural basis whatsoever (and, of course, that’s demonstrably false). So they were shocked when they realized that I, who they considered “good people,” was one of those “heathen” Catholics. Since then they’ve asked all kinds of questions and have been a lot more open to discussing Catholicism. I dunno if any will ever convert but I can say for sure that all of their attitudes about Catholicism have been drastically changed by our interactions and I think that’s good progress.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that I personally find it more productive to reach out to people who I’ve developed friendships or good rapport with instead of trying to wade into the combox wars. For folks who are comfortable doing so, combox evangelization may work, and that’s wonderful! But for people like me who aren’t really interested in getting into the mess that can go on in comboxes it’s probably better to stick to the oline ghetto and try other avenues of evangelization.

  • archangel

    Those who seek the answer will find it. Its way past time to cease throwing “pearls before swine”. The truly searching soul knows where to look at this point. Regarding the MSM and anything papal… leave the sewer to the rats.

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  • Bertha

    I am very conflicted about this post. I have tried branching out into secular comboxes and I have always regretted my attempts. The vast ignorance and disinterest in reasonable discussion by the commentors seems almost impossible to take on in a sane way. There’s an old phrase (which I re-learned in Al Anon): “never argue with a drunk or a fool.” It is not possible to have a discussion with an unreasonable person. To try to engage with them in a rational and meaningful way is simply to step into the abyss of craziness and I don’t want to go there. God bless those who have the skills to take on this challenge.

  • Patrick

    I agree that trying to debate people who are obviously totally anti-Catholic is unlikely to yield any fruit. (Mt. 10:14) Such people exist, yet there are people who are willing to listen. I have had many online debates about religion, some which I think did eventually lead people to see certain aspects of the Catholic faith more clearly.

    Here are a few thoughts…

    I have not found the combox format of blogs and most “news” articles to be conducive to extended debate. Most of them use a flat structure that makes it difficult to follow a thread. In these cases I find it is usually better to make a single, clear, and demonstrably true observation than it is to try to engage other commenters directly.

    For example, if an article makes some misleading assertion about the Church, zero in on one point and show clearly how it is wrong. Perhaps include a link to resources that discuss the topic at a greater length. Or if the article is generally positive, be positive too.

    Often I see people who give in to fighting fire with fire. This doesn’t work. Comments in the vein of “secularists are ruining the world,” while perhaps true, are only going to increase animosity. Even “nice” comments like “I will pray for you” usually just come off as condescending. However, if you stay focused on facts and level-headed reasoning, people will respect that, and the contrast with the sensationalism of the legacy media will become apparent.

    And also, I came across this theological concept recently which I hadn’t heard of but seems to be relevant here:

  • dianna

    I have had two fairly “successful” forays into combox evangelization, which obviously was the work of the Holy Spirit, which might be encouraging to some of you to consider or reconsider engaging in this “mission work.”
    The first time was when I read an article online in an Illinois newspaper about the sending of the documentation to Rome of the material relating to the cause for Venerable Fulton J. Sheen. There were some vile comments, and there were also, though, a few from non-Catholics wondering why Catholics pray to saints. I answered one of those and engaged in some polite back and forth, and lo and behold, after that somewhat extended, respectful give and take, the next day one of the originally vile posters (who had not joined in the give and take) flat-out apologized for his or her prior meanness, acknowledged that that was inappropriate behavior, and asked for prayers! This person had not been addressed at all in the “reason for prayers to saints” exchange. I was amazed!
    The second time I engaged what turned out to be a young woman back and forth in commenting on an article about Planned Parenthood on a political site, and I ignored the other posters who were shrill, and by the end of the exchange the young lady said she needed a book to read anyway and would go out and buy Abby Johnson’s book “Unplanned.”
    So, the Holy Spirit can use combox comments as a way to evangelize, too. I know most commenters are merely interested in hearing their own voice, but sometimes apparently the good news does get through. So, if you feel a nudge by the Spirit to post on non-Catholic sites, it is possible that He may be sowing seed in the lives of others. I would agree those times may be rare, but as was stated above, reaching even one soul is great gain for the kingdom.

  • wild bill

    NPR did have a prominent Catholic on the comment about the Pope resigning. That would be Sister Simoe Campbell? She had some very interesting things to say. I am certain from lots of her past positions she will be dismissed by lots of people right away. Never the less check out the NPR website and see what turns up on her?