Catfishing, the Synthetic Self & Confession

Catfishing, the Synthetic Self & Confession September 20, 2016

Source:, Creative Commons

Readers of the Catholic blogosphere would by now be acquainted with Chase Padusniak (of Jappers and Janglers and Catholic Vote) and his experience of ThisCatholicGirl, an online personality that quite quickly became the object of adulation of Catholic millenials, both in America and overseas. As the account by Padusniak revealed, ThisCatholicGirl also did not exist. More accurately, she proved to be anything but what her online persona indicated. Padusniak was the victim of “Catfishing”.

The gravity of this episode was evident within the blogosphere. Padusniak’s post received a tsunami of feedback in social media and is now the subject of an article by Catholic News Agency.

The mood of the responses are a mix of justified sympathy for Padusniak, as well as disbelief that the deception perpetrated by ThisCatholicGirl – it is important to note that the heart of this episode of “Catfishing” is the deception via a sustained presentation of an artificial self – could find its way into the lifeworld of Catholic millenials.

This episode coincided with a class in political philosophy at Campion College Australia, in which the reading for that week was a chapter of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. In one chapter, Nietzsche spoke about the constant drive for the human person to constantly “enhance” him- or herself in order to establish one’s place in the world, dominating and winning the adulation, if not envy of others.

The word “enhance” is such a precarious word. It is a word that sounds so natural to a culture that celebrates celebrity and revels in success. It is also a word that, upon reflection, is indicative of a constant erasure of self, since the enhancement that Nietzsche spoke of is also coupled with the presumption that the self is always subject to change and transformation, with one version of the self always superseding what came before it.

In a way, what ThisCatholicGirl personifies is not just the Nietzschean enhancement of the self. Because of the presumption of constant anthropological change built into Nietzsche’s thought, this episode and the damage that it has unleashed is demonstrative of the coupling between Nietzsche’s self-enhancement and Augustine’s idea of self-negation (in which what he called the “lust to dominate” ended up as a form of slavery of the self, which resulted in the slow destruction of the self).

The shock and anger of Catholic millenials at this story is understandable, but it is also hinting at an attitude that “we” in the Catholic blogosphere, or even in the Catholic biosphere, will never do what “she” – ThisCatholicGirl – did. “We” will never present synthetic selves to others. In the midst of this reaction, Marina Olsen of Eating Peaches has provided a very eloquent and powerful counterpoint: we are all in varying ways ThisCatholicGirl, for we are all in varying ways always trying to enhance ourselves, making ourselves to be more than we really are. We are all indulging in Nietzsche’s urge to enhance ourselves, and in doing so, we are all on the surefire path to negating ourselves. While the form of enhancement embodied (if the term is right) by this episode involves the augmentation of social media, we do well to remember that this augmentation is building upon an urge that is already there in the fleshly world of human relations.

It is precisely in this maelstrom of enhancement and erasure that the Church steps in … with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Sacrament stands not only as the place to say sorry for bad things done. Augustine reminds us that the bad things done are borne out of the lust to dominate, borne out of the resultant urge to enhance ourselves and present a false self not only to others, but to God and ourselves too. The Sacrament allows us to encounter not only the abstract forgiveness of God, but also the God who forgives. In making God present to us we not only have sins forgiven. To paraphrase Maximus the Confessor, the encounter with God in this sacrament reveals us to ourselves. The real self, unenhanced. In constradistinction to a culture of celebrity, the Sacrament of Reconciliation does away with synthetic enhancements, and presents the real self to the confessing sinner. This is the self that God wants, this is the self that gets saved.

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