The saying “two Jews, three opinions” could equally apply to Christians. Early Church history suggests it always has – and we suspect it always will. But there was a time when English Catholics were forced to set aside their differences and present a firmly united front: their very survival was at stake. That instinct has endured long after penal times. It often serves the Church well: in times of crisis Catholics are able to regroup and rally when other religious groups would splinter into a thousand factions. But in less critical times the desire to seek total unanimity can be problematic. Passionate debates are frowned upon, even when they might resolve genuinely open issues. Honest concerns are too easily dismissed as troublemaking and the bearers of bad news turned away without a hearing.
That is perhaps why it is hard to find a bishop in England and Wales with a good word to say about Catholic blogs. Their suspicion is not entirely unfounded. It’s not difficult to find evidence of our fallen nature online – the querulous, the obsessive, the paranoid and the uncharitable nestle alongside the illuminating, inspiring, persuasive and heartwarming. Perhaps some bishops have also come across blogs that were unjustly critical of them and therefore rejected the blogging enterprise out of hand.
But we believe that the emergence of the Catholic blogosphere is one of the most significant developments in the 21st-century Church. Blogs not only provide a new space for the free exchange of Catholic opinion but also take the Church deep into the online world in which increasing numbers of people spend most of their waking lives. Catholic blogs, at their very best, have a kind of prophetic dimension. Of course it’s unpleasant to be denounced by the Jeremiahs of the internet, but if they help us reflect critically on the way we use whatever authority we have in the Church they are performing an important service.
Blogging has proven to be more than a noughties fad. Throughout this century people’s views of the Church are likely to be shaped by what they read in the Catholic blogosphere. This presents a challenge both to bloggers and bishops. Bloggers need to up their game, striving to uphold the basic media standards of truth, fairness and accuracy, and reflecting constantly on whether they are presenting the faith appealingly to non-Catholics. The bishops, meanwhile, should consider embracing the Catholic blogosphere. The best way to do this would be through face-to-face meetings with bloggers in their dioceses. Misunderstandings could be resolved and bloggers encouraged to bring bishops’ messages to a vast new audience.
No doubt this is a risky, potentially bruising path. But in a pluralistic, internet-saturated century we have to use every means available to bring the message of salvation to a largely agnostic public.
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