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Sunday, 16 March 2014

The pitfalls of censoring Catholic bloggers

Pope Benedict's message for the 44th World Communications Day (2010) had the title "The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word." In it, he said
[...] priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different "voices" provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.
I quoted this in my post Holy Father encourages us to blog - with a priestly heart: Pope Benedict also gave the wise advice that priests should be "less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart." He concluded the message by offering an invitation:
To my dear brother priests, then, I renew the invitation to make astute use of the unique possibilities offered by modern communications. May the Lord make all of you enthusiastic heralds of the Gospel in the new "agorà" which the current media are opening up.
By way of contrast to Pope Benedict's frequent encouragement of the new media, Cardinal Müller recently gave a warning at the meeting of the leaders of the Ordinariates. The report on Zenit says:
The Prefect went on to issue a word of warning about the potential problems caused by the "new media", particularly through blogs. He said that some of the ordinariate clergy and faithful wrote blogs, which, while being a helpful tool of evangelisation, could also "express un-reflected speech lacking in charity". The image of the ordinariate was not helped by this, he said, and it fell to the ordinaries to exercise vigilance over these blogs and, if necessary, to intervene.
Over the past week, bloggers have been responding to the news that the Bishop of Lancaster has "requested Deacon Nick Donnelly to voluntarily pause from placing new posts on the Protect the Pope site." (See: Diocese of Lancaster’s statement about Deacon Nick Donnelly)

Fr Zuhlsdorf surmises that "a lot of pressure was exerted on the Bishop of Lancaster to have gone to such an extreme." I think that it is no great secret that Catholic blogs are indeed a frequent topic of conversation at the meetings of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

Rorate Caeli voices the concern of many that there is a double-standard when orthodox bloggers are silenced while defenders of heterodoxy and moral relativism are unbothered or even promoted. (See: The Sound of Silence) Linen on the Hedgerow makes a similar point (see: Protect the Pope on hold.) There are now hundreds of other posts about the silencing of Rev Nick Donnelly on blogs in England and throughout the world.

Reaction is not limited to blogs. There is much comment on Facebook and Twitter. It was on the latter that I saw a link to this item on the Lancaster Diocesan website:


The link goes to an article reporting that:
The Bishop of Middlesbrough, Terence Drainey, called for a “radical re-examination of human sexuality” that could lead to a development in church teaching in areas such as contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage and cohabitation and the role of women in the Church.
Tweeps wonder how this is OK when Deacon Nick Donnelly is prevented from offering any critical comment. Are Bishops to be immune from criticism when making controversial statements?

I do wonder about the practical wisdom of attempting to censor the blogosphere. Protect the Pope now carries posts by Mrs Donnelly, and she has offered an invitation to others to contribute material - which several writers have already taken up. Other censored bloggers can also simply start up a new blog under a pseudonym, or use alternative social media platforms - Facebook and Twitter are well-known but the possibilities are endless. As activists on the internet pointed out years ago, censorship is just another bug for which you find a hack or a workaround. The danger is that a previously censored commenter will be probably not be inclined to moderation in a new social media incarnation.

Bishops also have on their side the great respect of most Catholics for Bishops. Quite often a blog will criticise a Bishop severely, only to find that another blog tells a different side to the story, or the Bishop issues a statement clarifying things - and then receives a lot of support from Catholic bloggers. The discussion will continue, but the Bishop is not exactly powerless to defend himself.

Bloggers work in an environment which is open to everyone. One of the healthy things about such open communication is precisely that you cannot rely on personal standing to squash disagreement. As Fr Zuhlsdorf put it so well, the internet operates a "Reverse Gresham's Law" whereby good information drives out bad. You can say something inaccurate or unfair if you want, but you can be sure that you will be corrected - within minutes if you have any personal standing - and the more you ignore correction, the more you will be attacked, and the lower your reputation will sink.

The converse is also true. Bloggers who dare to speak honestly and truthfully even when it is risky to do so, especially when they are courteous, even when expressing strong opinions, gain great respect from others. In my opinion, Deacon Nick Donnelly is one such blogger and I was unhappy to hear that he had been silenced. Now that "pastoral solutions" and "imaginative ways forward" are so much in vogue in another context, I hope that this faithful Deacon can be "welcomed and included."
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