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All too often, it seems as though Catholic media is the embodiment of the biblical Tower of Babel. Everybody is talking, but not many are really listening.
Take, for example, my article from last week, in which I reported on how justifications for adultery, cohabitation and contraception are appearing at Patheos Catholic Channel under a blog titled "Catholic Authenticity" by Melinda Selmys, who has left the Catholic Church.
Despite my clearly stated sympathy and concern for Selmys and her family in the abusive situations she describes in her writing, since that story appeared, I've been viciously and relentlessly attacked by several other Patheos Catholic bloggers and all across their social media platforms.
Why? Because, I'm told, Selmys' personal life is none of my business, I'm just "smearing an abuse victim," and I put her at risk of further harm from her estranged husband by repeating information regarding the kind of intimacy involved in the cohabitation arrangement Selmys currently has with another man.
All manner of vitriolic personal attack erupted against me despite the clear and provable fact that everything I reported last week had been first reported and openly stated publicly by Selmys herself. Regardless, Selmys and so many others were content to spin a narrative in which I had intentionally sought to harm Selmys in a manner that might even be legally actionable.
Meanwhile, this shift into the personal meant that these people never had to address the real point of my piece — why was a non-Catholic writing against Catholic teaching at a Catholic blog site under the title of "Catholic Authenticity"?
It's a classic example of what the wild, wild west of online Catholic media faces all the time — a profound incapacity to remain Christ-centered. Instead, the gloves come off and folks scramble for whatever rhetorical high ground they can find, and they go on the attack rather than seek real communication and understanding, even in conflict.
It's saddening and, honestly, a bit maddening, too. It doesn't have to be this way. I think that one of the most devastating drawbacks of the evolution of social media is that it has truly blurred important lines of distinction between and among different elements of communication. Once upon a time, there was a fairly definable "thing" we knew as public discourse. Along with public discourse, we knew what it meant to communicate about things which were "personal," or in the religious sphere, we knew what it meant to approach a subject from a "pastoral" angle.
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The real point is that, in all three of these dimensions of communication, if we were doing them right and well, we knew where Christ Himself was in all of it. But today, in the swirl of the immediacy of social media and its overlap with other Catholic media like news sources, commentary and opinion outlets, etc., there is virtually zero respect for the inherent integrity of these distinctive modes of communication.
Instead, if a public discourse piece makes us "feel" a certain way, we'll just pivot away from the proper rules of engagement — namely, maintaining civility and staying on topic — and instead, we'll hammer away at how much we can't stand the author. Or we'll avoid the real topic by saying how "unpastoral" the approach was, even when utter civility was maintained — raising certain questions about certain topics is just "mean" and reflects a lack of "pastoral" sensitivity.
At least in the arena in which I find myself writing, these are the three key areas I see that are consistently losing their integrity and are pivot points from which truths emerging properly from public discourse are then assailed. And it just has to stop, somehow.
So I now challenge those most offended by my own writing — particularly my coverage of the scandal currently corroding any real claim of Catholic identity at the Patheos Catholic Channel — to abandon the personal attacks and destructive rhetoric currently fueling the vain bonfire that sheds only blasts of heat and so little light.
Bring real civility back to public discourse in Catholic media. Christ is in our midst in Catholic media, or should be. And the civility required in Catholic media must be rooted in Him. Public discourse is ultimately about truth, and in Catholic media, Christ Himself is our truth. Civility is ultimately the virtue of Christian charity. Let's learn to practice it once again.
Where public discourse does get touched by both the personal and the pastoral, Christ needs to be present, too. Whatever we do on the personal level in public discourse — especially given how interwoven it now is via social media — we need to "see Christ" in the other person — period. And it's then and only then, once we can "see Christ" in the other, that we can engage in anything truly pastoral and "be Christ" to the other.
When we embrace and respect truth enough in public discourse, when we truly see Christ in those engaged in public discourse, when we can be Christ to those engaged in it, then we can stop being like Babel of old.
We have to once again learn to accept public discourse — and the civility it requires — for what it really is, and for what it's not. Speaking truth plainly is still speaking truth in love. Indeed, our service to the truth is sometimes at its best when truth is unvarnished because it is truth itself that allows us to know how we can best "see Christ" and "be Christ" to others.
In this light, the recent Patheos scandal can be better understood, I hope. I have no ill will at all toward Melinda Selmys and her wounded family situation. I, too, know what it's like to be abused, bullied, threatened, manipulated. When I say I'm praying for her, it's not mere lip service.
But everything true about that — the personal and the pastoral — simply cannot excuse or eliminate the need to know the even more fundamental truth and to cling to it — our fullest freedom is found in doing so. Our liberation from abuse, our healing from the deepest wounds and our claims to authentically personal and pastoral charity all come directly from being able to see and understand the truths of our Catholic faith.
To all my fellow Catholic writers and readers: Work to find Christ in our public discourse — He's been here the whole time. And we're the ones who suffer when we stop seeing Him with us, in us, and in those around us.
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