Monday, August 3, 2015


The Mob and the Machine


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.


Anonymous 2 said...

Good article. Mobocracy is not pretty. So, now the questions is: What are_we_going to do about it?

rcg said...

I am not sure about this. I think Pope Benedict quitting was the blow to the morale of the Traditionalists and viewed as a defeat by the progressives. I also think that was the source of most of resistance to Pope Francis. People,seem to always resent a new boss if they really liked the old one. I have gotten bored with a lot of the blogs because they are just talk and are not often constructive.

Rood Screen said...

I think the Traditionalist hate-mongering only became wide-spread after the election of Pope Francis.

I also think the conservative Catholic blogs like WDTPRS, Rorate Caeli, NLM, etc. were very interesting and constructive in their early days, but have become boring since the beginning of this papacy.

Only Southern orders Shines on!

George said...

"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."

Anyone who runs a blog which claims to be Catholic should prevent these kind of comments from showing up or else be ready to quickly delete them. There are always those who either are not Catholic at all or only nominally so (and some with no religious affiliation at all) who are all to ready to post the worst kind of comments. Also, terms such as tribalism and conservative (other than discussing political matters) would be better exchanged for the terms truth and orthodoxy.

Anonymous said...

Shame, I think Damian Thompson has gone soft. No doubt he has had to as he is now writing for the Catholic Herald. I used to enjoy his commentaries because they seemed so often to cut to the heart of the problem.

Question: how can we subdue the eloquent opposition? Answer: get them on the payroll.

That then only leaves Michael Voris to take on the liberals.


Lefebvrian said...

"That then only leaves Michael Voris to take on the liberals."

Jan, have you ever heard of The Remnant, Catholic Family News, Harvesting the Fruit, or The Angelus?

Jusabellum said...

How true. Ortho-doxis is always important, but besides knowing the proper definition of things, we still must choose the good and reject the bad, via Ortho-praxis. Indeed, one might say that doing the right thing continually and with purity of intention despite the constant sniping and distractions of the world, flesh, and devil, require one to hold on to the orthodoxis as only that can help us navigate the shoals of life. But it's not the faith per se that 'saves us' but the love of God and neighbor that comes from this faith.

Ergo, unless we live our romantic adventure that is Catholic discipleship in the field, applying what we argue about here online, we're just clashing cymbals and booming gongs.

I think our Host ought to consider at least an annual Southern Orders Blog Prayer Breakfast where locals and others can attend. One need not identify oneself so as to keep anonymity but it would be nice to meet people face to face as fellow devotees of this site.

Not that we'll necessarily know each other. But it's in the doing, not just in the believing or opining that matters. Saints are not just people with their 'mind right'. They're people who do right.

Lefebvrian said...

Jus, I both agree and disagree with your post.

The dichotomous view of orthodoxy and orthopraxis is an issue. "Orthodoxy" means "right glory." Right glory necessarily entails both right belief and right worship. After all, one cannot worship correctly without believing correctly; and one cannot believe correctly without worshiping correctly. Part of the belief and the worship is the practical understanding that the love of God requires the love of neighbor. That practical understanding leads to an applied love made manifest in good works.

Jusadbellum said...

Lefebvrian, pardon the request but it's either a lack of caffeine or succumbing to age... could you spell out for me what you disagree about my post?

I honestly thought 'orthodoxy' was greek for 'right teaching' and ortho praxis for 'right doing'. Greek never being my strong suit if I'm wrong, then that would explain a lot! ;-)

And on the larger point besides the proper translation... I think we're in agreement though that one needs both faith and love, a 'both/and' rather than an either/or.

When 'dialoguing' with people whom we disagree with I've found the trick is to figure out on which level the disagreement primarily rests: is it a disagreement of doctrine? Is it the middle ground between doctrinal principle and pastoral applications (otherwise known as the theory and prudential decision criteria) or is it the concrete "pastoral" practice?

A heretic may agree with us on politics and pastoral practice but disagree on doctrine.
A schismatic may agree on doctrine and politics but part ways when it comes to personal allegiance and obedience 'in act'.
But what do you call someone who believes all that the Church proposes in doctrine and does what the Church explicitly commands in pastoral practice but holds opinions about what 'ought' to be and who ought to do it, politically that is at odds with some part of doctrine?

It cuts both ways. Those in favor of capital punishment or "enhanced interrogation techniques" or those in favor of Obamacare and gaymarriage. Simply being "for" some policy (be it war or peace) is not itself to commit those acts or command others commit them. But it does point to possible error in judgment or behavior.

Thus the disagreement and need for 'dialogue'.

For example, Fr. K is a priest in good standing. I take his orthodoxy for granted. But he's also a Democrat. Now, he justifies this (prudential decision) on the theory that (as convoluted as it sounds to me) being 'for' the DNC party platform local, state, and national, he's actually helping reduce the numbers of abortion, crime, war, injustice because in his opinion only that party 'cares' and their policies alone will actually reduce/mitigate harm done to innocents.

Thus he means well (as though we don't?) and concludes that Party X is the best means to accomplish "noble goal Y".

Thus the disagreement is not doctrinal and it's not 'pastoral' as in what he does in his parish. It's the middle ground, the ground of opinion on what's prudent. None of the ideological positions he stakes out (or I have) are made manifest on the parish level. Whether I'm for war and he's for peace has zero bearing on what actually happens in Macon. Whether he's for $15 minimum wage and I'm against it, also has no bearing on what goes on and who is employed in Macon.

Lefebvrian said...

Jus, Greek is certainly "greek to me," but I have had occasion to become rather familiar with certain aspect of the language in liturgical settings. The Glory Be in Greek is: "Doxa Patri kai Yio ke Aghio Pnevmati . . . "

I disagree with your characterization of what we are doing in some of our debates here as "clashing cymbals and banging gongs." But, reading back through your post now and remember your general disposition in your posts here, I don't think I disagree with your sentiment in that context.

In other words, I think that having these discussions in a public forum is a form of discipleship in the field.

I hope to read the rest of your comment in more depth later.

Jusadbellum said...

I think I get it now.

Generally speaking I rise to defend doctrine vs. heterodoxy, give my best to explain why I opine what I do in politics, and make arguments as to why a given prudential decision in pastoral application is advisable over another choice. I like to think this is something we all hold in common and isn't unique to me.

Most of the heat on this blog seems to be over the political and pastoral application differences which we all declare to be rooted in the doctrine or our understanding of doctrine. And I guess this heat is unavoidable. But being face to face does help I think. I know in my case sometimes my mood or other impairments unduly affects my posts and I have often had occasion to confess being too harsh.

For me, the final proof is always the application in peoples' lives. The fruits of holiness or apathy. The results. I care less about 'winning' than about recruiting people to try to do something positive in their parish or community or living room.

I like the Latin Mass. But I like that people are going to Mass per se more than what particular Mass they happen to prefer. I like nice big well built and beautiful sanctuaries. But I like that people go to Mass even if it's in an open field and the altar is the hood of a jeep.

I like big parish communities. But I like even more that these communities practice subsidiarity and thus are full of active faithful Catholics living by a bouquet of spiritualities and charisms and devotions. That's the diversity I approve of because that seems to be the diversity Heaven is full of. Unity in doctrine and morals but diversity in race, ethnicity, nationalities, language, culture, spiritualities....

I'm a Catholic who happens to be American. I tend to see politics through the prism of how this or that tribe, party, policy, law or program will help or hinder the building up of the Church and the Kingdom. Ditto with economics and social policy: does this or that trend, fashion, pop cultural movement lead souls closer to Jesus or away from Him?

So I'm in favor of an expansive and originalist interpretation of the 2nd amendment. Individuals owned cannon (crew served weapons) in the 18th century before the civil war. Individuals could buy machine guns until the 1930s without a background check. Outside of the gangsters there weren't any mass shootings though. Now, I believe - based on history - that inasmuch as governments are by far the prime source of genocide and mass murder in history, a population armed with whatever the Police happen to have does provide the fail safe protection against Mass murder. Others disagree but I think in their case they invoke THEORY rather than historical precedent. Ditto with minimum wage laws, wealth transfer programs, socialized medicine, education and retirement.... the THEORY sounds great. But history shows the application always leads to dependence and corruption. Always.

Thus while we may agree on the principle (doctrine) 'ends' (pastoral goals) I dispute the means (policy, law, bureaucracy, implementation).

Far from being 'conservative' if even half my ideas were put into practice it would result in a radical makeover of society. But then by classic criteria 'conservatives' are actually classic liberals and today's liberals are actually socialist/fascists.

Lefebvrian said...

Jus, your recent post is excellent. I definitely see myself in much of what you have written. I have also had to confess certain of my faults occurring as a result of the discussions here and elsewhere.

It seems to me that the discussions on this blog expose the real problem in the Church, which might go beyond your distinction between the doctrine and practice. Surely, pastoral sensitivity is important and has its place. That place has generally been understood as being with the individual. The saying goes that priests should be lions in the pulpit and lambs in the confessional. Currently, most clerics are never lions -- favoring pastoral sensitivity to doctrine in nearly all circumstances. This has happened to such an extent that the doctrine has been destabilized.

And that brings me to the point. I think that the destabilization of doctrine has led to a situation where people have to debate what the doctrine even is. I've noticed that many discussions here, for example, are not about whether one believes this or that doctrine and then applies it in such and such a way. On the contrary, many here act as if the doctrine is unknowable: that is, they seem to believe that the doctrines are hiding from us, waiting to be discovered through dialogue.

This is why an understanding of doctrine as merely a description of an independently existing reality is of such great importance. Once reality is described, then one moves on to a decision about what that reality demands from us pastorally and practically.

In some cases, there are pastoral alternatives that are simply not appropriate because they are at variance with reality and, thereby, undermine reality in people's minds.

The same applies to politics, which I have little interest in. Right now, in America, we are debating whether a person is a person. This is a ridiculous debate that is not in accord with reality. The lack of acceptance of reality leads to lots of problems in applying the practice that is appropriate.

But I agree with your sentiments about politics. I think some of the anonymous posters here are mischaracterizing certain Catholics as being conservative according to American political labels. This is certainly not the case for Catholics who understanding Catholic social teaching -- such a person will appear conservative at times and liberal at others. As you say, we are Catholic first.

George said...


"what do you call someone who believes all that the Church proposes in doctrine and does what the Church explicitly commands in pastoral practice but holds opinions about what 'ought' to be and who ought to do it, politically that is at odds with some part of doctrine?"

If someone holds opinions about something that is at odds with doctrine, then that person does not believe "all that the Church proposes in doctrine". Either that, or the person holds an incorrect grasp or belief of said doctrine. If someone has an opinion or position that conflicts with Church doctrine but holds it within him or herself, then that person could use spiritual counseling but such opinion remaining interiorly in that person, it does not influence others to the error. If a person holding an erroneous belief or position on Church doctrine attempts to influence or persuade others to accept that same error then there exists public scandal and seriously sinful behavior, the degree of personal sinfulness being contingent on the presence or absence of mitigating circumstances. Objectively the scandal would exist and damage would be done to the extent others would or could be persuaded to that view.

" None of the ideological positions he stakes out (or I have) are made manifest on the parish level. Whether I'm for war and he's for peace has zero bearing on what actually happens in Macon. Whether he's for $15 minimum wage and I'm against it, also has no bearing on what goes on and who is employed in Macon."

When one puts one's convictions into action by the act of say, voting, it does have ramifications at the local level, even when one votes for a state-wide or national candidate.

I agree with what you sat below:
"I like the Latin Mass. But I like that people are going to Mass per se more than what particular Mass they happen to prefer. I like nice big well built and beautiful sanctuaries. But I like that people go to Mass even if it's in an open field and the altar is the hood of a jeep."

Mass should be celebrated properly with due reverence. I would like to see the liturgical ethos of the Vetus Ordo in the Novus Ordo. For many people the Novus Ordo is all that they will ever experience. May it come to pass that since that is the case, and unless it is supplanted, that everywhere and always it will be celebrated with due reverence.