The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit August 22, 2011

Many people dismiss what is said on the Catholic blogosphere because of what happens on it. While there is good which is done on it, there is also a small number of Catholics making a lot of noise and causing all kinds of problems in the Church. They do not represent the best of the Catholic faith, but they represent what is often heeded on the internet. Indeed, we find among the most vocal of the blogosphere a rather unsavory collection of would-be inquisitors and toadies looking for conspiracies to denounce or authorities to dismiss. They assume their understanding of the faith and of the beliefs of others is sufficient in order to look around with a critical eye and proclaim why everyone, but themselves, are worthy of condemnation. The problem, of course, is that such an attitude leads them to become bullies. Like other bullies, they yell the loudest when they are pursued with similar critical attention, telling us how unfairly they are treated. Strangely enough, they are looking for their next victim while crying about how unfairly they are being treated.  Next to them, of course, we find their toadies, willing to mock and scorn others while their hero regroups from their apparent martyrdom.

He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

It should not be surprising that what we find on the internet is a lot of people projecting upon others their own problems. Conspiracy theories thrive off of paranoid frenzy because the one who believes them sees how willing they, themselves, are to lie, cheat and steal. They project their own sinful condition and foibles upon everyone else. Those looking for and proclaiming all kinds of theological conspiracy, “the liberals are taking over,” “the conservatives are trying to dismantle the church,” often end up with political conspiracy to explain away the opinions of those who differ from them. With such conspiracy, one’s opponents are looked at as sinister boogeymen and so, of course, it’s fine to beat them up. They are evil incarnate, so why do we have to consider their well-being? Again, the bully excuses themselves because they are on a mission from God and, we all know, God is on the side of bullies.

In all seriousness, the bully knows how they act and treat people, so the one thing they are most scared about, the one thing they do not want, is similar treatment. They know how unfair it is, which is why they scream the loudest when it happens to them. They know that the rhetoric which justifies abuse of others justifies abuse against themselves, so they hide and retreat all the while being passive-aggressive towards those who have caught on to their foibles.

Is that not the way of things, is that not what God wants?

Clearly not. God wants us to be as charitable to those we consider to be our “opponent” as possible. God wants us to love them and if they persecute us, to love them some more. God does not expect us to cry out saying how unfair we are being treated (though, of course, human nature will respond and God understands). God wants us to love, to look to the other, to see where they have valid points, to accept them and grow up. God does not want us to be negative but positive. The internet Catholic bully is all negative, without ability to proclaim something positive about the faith, to help people grow; they want to show what is wrong with the others and to feel smug about themselves. That is all they have.  But as Pseudo-Dionysius reminds us, just because we can prove what something is not, this does not mean we have proven what it is. The faith is not negative, it is something positive (yes, apophatic theology is important, but it is all for the promotion of some positive truth beyond the negation, while the bully does not have such positive content so all they have is the negative criticism which they give).

The internet, therefore, has become a bully pulpit. It is not the first bully pulpit nor will it be the last. During the Reformation, the Church ignored the bully pulpit of its day, the pamphleteers, allowing a voice to be had which was not met with a sufficient answer in return. When the Church recognized the problem it had before them, it was too late, the damage was done, and the hostile forces had carved out a significant portion of Christendom from the Church, using all that was negative and in need of reform to justify theological views which were and are unworthy of the Christian.

It is for this reason the internet must not be ignored, must not be marginalized. The bully pulpit with similar calls for reform, similar anti-authoritarian sentiments, and similar theological inadequacy has returned the dialogue to the level of the pamphleteer. There are serious issues which are brought forth in this pulpit. Without the theological education needed to deal with it, the most vocal members of the internet are once again causing theological confusion and error. Politics has become mixed up with theology; people will proclaim non-Catholics as “very Catholic” because they hold similar political views ignoring, of course, what it is which makes one Catholic is not politics. They want everything to be simple, to follow their own ideology, but they do not have the theological education to know the rich depth of possibilities contained in the Catholic faith. Yet, the proper response must not be pure rejection of their claims or interests; error is always based upon misappropriated truth, and so we must recognize the truths which lead them to their conclusions and accept them, and proclaim them as well. But we must do so with the proper Catholic nuance, pointing out what truths have been neglected; what we say cannot be a mere rejection, but rather, it must be a positive transformation, taking on what they say and showing forth the positive content which can come out of it. Just as grace perfects instead of annihilates, so we must take the situation and develop it, perfect it. The answer to the bully pulpit is acceptance of it and a transformation of it, an engagement of their principles instead of a mere condemnation of all they stand for. Such condemnation is how they act, not how Catholics act.  Of course, it is easy to fall down and follow their bad example; but why should we?

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