The other day Damian Thompson published a candid history of the Catholic blogosphere, which covers its heyday during the reign of Benedict XVI to its subsequent decline in recent years. Thompson knows a lot about this since he was on the ground floor of the Catholic digital information explosion, having been the writer for the very popular and hard-hitting blog, Holy Smoke.
As noted here before, the information democracy of the Internet has largely served the interests of the more conservative minded, both within the Church and in the secular world, because the mainstream media (secular and Catholic) has long been dominated by the left. Thompson acknowledges this, and accurately situates the new informational freedom in the context of Benedict XVI’s reform of the reform. With papal power behind doctrinal and liturgical reform as well as unrestricted access to the public through the blogosphere, a large sector of the Church, formerly marginalized, now had an opportunity to further what they saw as the true Church’s agenda.
Thompson is honest enough to say that there was also a spirit of payback working among the voices in the conservative Catholic blogosphere. He says the bitterness of some of the exposition was a way of venting, and he even confesses to having even created obviously false narratives about a bishop—basically for the sake of ridicule. He it admits it was both obsessive and fun. But it seemed to him to be justified because it was done in the service of the true faith and liturgical sanity.
After all, Pope Benedict ransomed the traditional Mass through Summorum Pontificum, and brought back from exile those who had long been treated as lepers. But since Pope Benedict’s reform agenda was met by so much episcopal opposition, Thompson conceived of himself as a man on a mission, whose job was
to record every attempt to suppress the Extraordinary Form and to make sure Rome knew about it.
Thompson never quite expresses regret for his excesses, but goes further in admitting that the antics of his commenters was far worse than his own behavior. He also admits that the “far right Catholics raging against the Jews and ‘faggots,’” were more reprehensible than the “sneering atheists” commenting on his blog.
But if this was the worst of it, it did not exclude dabbling of Catholic bloggers in conspiracy theories. In this regard Thompson only specifically mentions the accusations of the Vatican homosexual mafia whose existence was verified by the Vatileaks scandal. However, this instance is not really representative of conspiracy theory as such, since the accusations turned out to have some basis in fact. Conspiracy theory by definition deals in innuendo and plausible but unproven (and often uprovable) narratives that fit a certain selection and arrangement of facts or allegations, usually by people who have something to gain by convincing others that the man is out to get them.
The reality is that the Catholic blogosphere is a clearinghouse for conspiracy theory. The nature of the blogosphere itself contributes to this fact. What passes for a standard of evidence and an ethics of accountability on the Internet has always been woefully lacking. And those whose causes have benefitted from the destruction of the reputation of others have not been eager to be held accountable or to make a distinction between allegation and proof.
In fact, the tribes that have formed in the blogosphere do more to provide protection for their tribesmen, than hold them accountable for the honor the tribal name. The largest Catholic tribe on the Internet, and arguably the most vicious and vindictive, has been the conservative, which because of its previous marginalization has felt itself justified in claiming the status of victim.
While we can all admit that there is truth to the complaints that led to this behavior, it would be to ignore reality to define it as anything other than juvenile. But that is also part of the nature of the Internet. Perfectly responsible adults have a tendency to revert to immaturity when they sit down in front of a computer.
Thompson suggests Pope Francis has taken the wind out of the sails of the Catholic blogosphere. But is that really the case, or was the heyday of the conservative faction just too good to be true? Tribalism never succeeds in establishing the reign of light, justice and peace, and the dominance of one tribe never lasts for long. The liquidation of one faction hell bent on cleansing the world of evil is always followed by the rise and fall of a new (or old) zealotry, unless tribalism itself is repudiated.
But tribalism has not been repudiated, so in the wake of the Franciscan opposition to ideology, especially that of the right, the lefty tribesmen are back to the same old iconoclasm of the sixties and seventies. One good turn deserves another.
In this much, at least, there is little difference in the Benedictine and Franciscan papacies. Benedict had enough of the internecine wars in Rome. Francis, it seems would rather get it all out in the open. But neither pope seem to have had much stomach for the Catholic jihad or for the logic of one dominant force sticking to a weaker.
But whether or not the heyday of the conservative blogosphere is over, there remains the larger issue of the methods of modern communication, whose exponential growth will only assure greater connectivity, interaction and virtualization. The trends Thompson identifies as part of a fading conservative blogsophere will certainly continue, even if conservatives do not especially benefit from them.
I have heard some saying for years that it is only a matter of time until the government gets total control over the Internet and silences the voices of opposition, but it is not the control of big brother or some darkly imagined conspiracy of a secret society that concerns me most. It seems to me that the more frightening consequence of the information “democracy” is that the many will continue to rule in the interests of a few—that more information really means more disinformation, and more self-serving manipulation—all for a good cause, of course. What concerns me is the rise of a machine inhabited by the soul of a mob.
Let us see what happens on both sides of the spectrum at the upcoming synod. Thompson writes of the ascendance of the Facebook and Twitter monitors of ecclesiastical affairs who provide “instant scrutiny” of what goes on behind closed doors. This does not inspire me with confidence. He also notes that it is not only a question of bloggers pretending to be journalists, but now the journalists rely on the bloggers, as do the episcopal crafters of favorable narrative.
The dominant tribe must now claim, not control over the means of communication, like big brother, but control of the narrative, which is not at all the same thing because the dominant narrative is that of the loudest and cleverest mob. It is the art of cutting and pasting, of provoking some comments and suppressing others, of linking and not linking, of keeping the chamber in a constant state of echo.
In fairness to Thompson, whose honesty is to be commended, I must note that the context of his remarks is a post about Father, soon-to-be, Bishop Robert Barron. Thompson has great hope for the future of modern communication because of the selection of this orthodox theologian/communications expert/popular preacher and evangelizer. I think his hope is well placed, because Fr. Barron does not seem to be a tribal loyalist.
As every conservative Catholic knows, it is holiness of life that changes both individuals and society. In the end our present crisis is really about a lack of sanctity—a problem for which we are all in some measure personally responsible. It seems to me that Fr. Barron has a sense that communication and virtue are integrally connected. (What a novel idea.)
I pray that by the grace of his episcopacy and the sanctification of his person and ministry Bishop Barron will help to raise up new saints, because in the end only saints will be able to save the Church from the rest of us.