A group of devout evangelicals in Brazil has formed their own version of Facebook, which will ban any unsuitable material. You can read a report of this here. So far, the initiative is meeting with some success.
This might seem like a rather small development, but in fact it represents a recurrent theme in Christian history. You may remember, some years ago, seeing the excellent film Witness, which starred Harrison Ford, and which was set in the Amish community of Pennsylvania. The Amish believe in complete separation, in so far as that is possible, from the folk they term “Saxons”. One of the characters in the film quotes Saint Paul to this effect: Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, which is from 2 Corinthians 6:17.
There are quite a few drawbacks with this desire to live in what is often termed a “moral exclave”. The single biggest drawback is that it does not work. The history of Christianity is littered with failed movements that espoused complete separation from the world. Some of these developed into dangerous and self-destructive cults. These have been particularly common in the Protestant world, but have also occurred in the Catholic world too. The most famous were the Dolcinians, dramatised by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, along with the Cathars.
The second big drawback is that really the idea of separation from the world is not in the least bit Christian. The Cathars and Dolcinians rapidly lost all semblance of Catholicism. The true model to follow is that of witness and dialogue, a path that is clearly laid out for us in The City of God by Saint Augustine, back in the fifth century.
However, it is true that even before the time of Saint Augustine, the idea of withdrawal from the world was a standard Christian practice: let us remember the famous example of Saint Simon Stylites, who was of course only the most famous among many stylites, people who say atop pillars, in order, quite literally, to rise above the hubbub of the world. The word, monk, as we all know, comes from monos, single or solitary. But the truth of the matter is that monasteries exist to serve the world in which they live: they are not of the world, but they are certainly in it.
Some time ago I wrote a whimsical article for this paper on whether Twitter was Protestant and Facebook Catholic. I naturally stick by every word of that article, but I now ask myself, could we, or should we, form our own Catholic Facebook from which anything offensive is expunged, on the model of the evangelicals in Brazil?
Some, I think, might like this. Recently there was a move by many on Facebook (including some very dear friends of mine) to “rainbowise” their profile pictures, presumably to show their sympathy for the gay pride celebrations. And some devout Catholics announced that they would unfriend anyone who did this. No doubt there was ideological friend culling on both sides.
I don’t think this is the way to go. We must attempt to stay friends with people we do not agree with, and people who do not hold our beliefs, and even with Catholics who dissent from Church teaching. We should do this, I think, because we hold to the values of civility and because we are committed to dialogue. After all, dialogue is the only way we have of promoting the work of the Holy Spirit in converting people. So, if we were all to go off and corral ourselves into a Catholic Facebook ghetto, this would be our loss and a loss for the world too.
At the same time I am sympathetic to attempts to get offensive material banned from Facebook. I say this as someone who believes in free speech, but does not believe in the right to libel the innocent. I certainly am against the proliferation of pornography, which harms those who see it, and certainly harms those who make it. In fact, I think there is wide agreement on the simple desire to see such material banned, but we lack the will and the means to do so, and also we lack the necessary mental rigour that is able to judge between what ought to be banned and what not.
Meanwhile, let us continue talking to everyone, not just talking amongst ourselves. Above all, let us keep on talking. There are plenty of secularists who might like us to go off into a holy huddle on our own. Let’s not give them that pleasure. We have our place in the great marketplace of humanity. Let’s keep it.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.