"Virtue and Vice on the Blogosphere"
The Oxford University Newman Society hosted a 'Bloggers' Colloquium' in the Catholic Chaplaincy on 15 February 2008 to discuss the phenomenon of blogging and its impact on the Church and the world. Br Lawrence Lew OP was invited to give one of the talks; an abridged version follows:
That blogs can be a force for good but also for that which is less than good should not surprise us. For social communications through the media is just an expression of our flawed humanity, and indeed the anonymity which the internet affords sometimes exacerbates our flaws. Like everything we do, blogging does not always achieve the good it ought to although I believe that it is essentially ordered towards it. As such, we should treat it like the rest of life – as something with a potential for good, but which can be abused, and where that happens, it should be healed and redeemed. There is no place that the Gospel may not touch, and as a preaching friar, I passionately believe that it is essential that we bring the light of Christ’s truth and the teachings of his holy Church to the blogosphere. It is with this in mind that I have tentatively entitled my reflection: Virtue and Vice in the Blogosphere.
Those Catholics who blog and those who read such blogs are a select few, but they are united by love. At its best, I hope that we are united as Catholic and Christian bloggers in a love for Christ and his Gospel. As this is not a dis-interested love, so the passions and heated exchanges that are elicted online are in many ways understandable and, indeed, to be expected.
However, it is in the area of the passions, that is, the emotions, that we have to be most careful, for sometimes these can get out of control. St Thomas Aquinas, rightly saw that emotions were good and proper for us to possess because they are part of what it means to be a rational animal, to be human. However, they fall within our animal capabilities and so have to be integrated with our rational powers. Thus Aquinas says that passions are “good when they are controlled by reason; and evil when they are not controlled by reason”; the passions have to be moderated by reason. However, this does not mean that one can circumnavigate the emotions or employ the force of sheer ‘will-power’ to control one’s emotions. As the French Dominican Chenu said, one ought to resort to neither “dualistic Manichaeism nor Christian Stoicism”. Aquinas’ answer is that “both acts of the will and the emotions must be given direction, order and guidance; they do not automatically unfold in morally mature directions.” This guidance comes from the acquisition of virtues and the elimination of vices. Developing good habits and virtues will help a person to mature emotionally and grow morally so as to make the right choices in response to one’s feelings and desires; we grow from spoilt brats to mature right-thinking adults. I’m afraid that quite often one sees a lot of the former on display on the blogosphere’s comments boxes! Aquinas taught that “in affirming or rejecting opinions, we shouldn’t be influenced by our liking or dislike of those who propose the ideas, but rather by the certitude of truth”. Thus, we act rationally, guided by prudence and not by our passions. Aquinas’ position is that the passions can be regulated by reason such that “the passions of the wise man are an integral part of his moral life” and indeed, it is a person who delights (and so has an emotive attraction) in doing good who does more good. So, what I want to suggest is that the blogosphere can be a training ground for virtue, but also a temptation to vice.
There is little doubt that prudence is the chief virtue that we must develop in blogging and using the internet. Aquinas says that prudence “is reason itself rendered perfect in its judgments and in its choices.” Often it seems that when one decides what to blog or what to comment, one can take refuge in the truth. That is, something blogged or commented about is justified simply because it is true, or deemed to be quite simply what the Church teaches, and we have to say it no matter what the consequences. I would suggest that prudence, temperance and wisdom require us to judge how and when to act, not just that we are to act. Children may be expected to act without prudent judgment, but mature adults are expected to show some discernment. Otherwise, we can become like the secular press who report whatever they will on the basis that it is fair comment or truth that is in the public interest.
Pope Benedict has said: “The call for today's media to be responsible - to be the protagonist of truth and promoter of the peace that ensues - carries with it a number of challenges. While the various instruments of social communication facilitate the exchange of information, ideas, and mutual understanding among groups, they are also tainted by ambiguity. Alongside the provision of a ‘great round table’ for dialogue, certain tendencies within the media engender a kind of monoculture that dims creative genius, deflates the subtlety of complex thought and undervalues the specificity of cultural practices and the particularity of religious belief. These are distortions that occur when the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit-driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good.” I would suggest that the Holy Father’s warning applies not just to the secular media but also to us. For it is easy for us to become embroiled in our cause, our vision of the Church, our idolisation of those things an Aristotelian might call ‘accidents’. As such, I believe that we should hearken to Pope Benedict’s words. Moreover as he also said, albeit in a different context, “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows”, and so, not just what we would desire in an ideal world. To be sure, one might argue that we are doing this for the good of the Church and for Christ’s sake, but I also think that a certain humility requires us to ask if we are so sure that God has mandated us to do this work for him: for one of the dangers of the blogging phenomenon is that every person becomes his own editor and publisher, every blog becomes a pulpit and there is no accountability. One of the benefits of a group blog like Godzdogz and of writing as a religious friar is that I am accountable to my community, and this, I think, is no bad thing if we want to learn prudence and humility.
A particular vice that aggrieves me and that is not infrequently seen on the blogosphere is detraction, which in Aquinas' great Summa falls under the area of justice. Detraction “strictly speaking is taking away a person’s character by drawing attention to anything that detracts from that character”. Although the intention of admonition does take away the sinfulness of the act, Aquinas notes that “all the same, a man should pick his words carefully, since uttered incautiously they might take away a person’s character, and a fatal wrong might be done without even intending it.” I think this is even more serious if it is directed at our pastors and especially a bishop who is, by consecration, a successor of the apostles. I think the blogs have helped in some areas to fuel such discussions and they have certainly been a tempting place for people to comment and say such things. We may complain – as the flock has always done – about decisions made by our superiors, but to impugn their character, or to judge them guilty of heresy, or to speculate maliciously about their motivations is clearly not good for the Church or for us. The fact is that the blogosphere can be a forum for vicious activity and we should seek not to defend that but to guard our tongues and typing fingers. While our modern world defends free speech, and freedom of opinion, let us be on guard for these can lead to great vice. As the Scriptures say in many places, but here, I am quoting from the Wisdom of Ben Sira: “As you hedge round your vineyard with thorns, set barred doors over your mouth; as you seal up your silver and gold, so balance and weigh your words. Take care not to slip by your tongue and fall victim to your foe waiting in ambush.” Moreover, freedom is a gift that we have to exercise responsibly and this requires the exercise of virtues like courage and temperance, that is, not only the strength to say the truth but to do so wisely and in the right way and time.
So, what can we say in our blogs? St Paul says: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel”. And so, I believe that the blogosphere, and indeed, other instruments of the internet, can help us in the mission given to all the baptised. This is not surprising, for if we are preachers of the gospel, we will naturally use everything in our lives and in our world to give glory to him who has saved us and to preach his Word to all nations. Joseph Ratzinger once said: “The Church will have to develop a great deal of imagination to help the gospel remain a force in public life, so that it may shape the people and pervade their life and work among them like yeast.” The internet is just one such area of public life, and it will work for good if we write about the Gospel, seek to disseminate truth and balanced opinion, and help shape our readers in virtue. Perhaps we can take other pointers from Ratzinger. He noted that “nowadays, particularly among the most modern representatives of Catholicism, there is a tendency toward uniformity… I believe that a great deal of tolerance is required within the Church, that the diversity of paths is something in accordance with the breadth of Catholicity – and that one ought not simply to reject it, even when it is something contrary to one’s own taste.” So, there are blogs for every taste, and it is good that these flourish in the Church and work together for the common good and serve the mission of the Church.
In an aphorism commonly attributed to St Augustine, he is believed to have said, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” This should be the creed of all our social communications. It is with care, study and prudence that we are able to distinguish between essentials and doubtful matters, and if we should fear anything in blogging, let us fear a failure in charity.