On January 24, the National Catholic Register published an article titled “Catholics Reflect on 10 Years of the Good, Bad, and Ugly of Social Media.” Within the article were a number of quotes from Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary of Los Angeles. Bishop Barron, who interacts with online ministry and social media extensively through the Word on Fire apostolate, decried the “vitriol, character assassination and just plain hatred that one comes across every day on the social media” and said “there are, to be blunt, a disconcerting number of such people on social media who are trading in hateful, divisive speech, often deeply at odds with the theology of the Church and who are, sadly, having a powerful impact on the people of God.” To remedy this, he suggests that it may be proper for the bishops to “introduce something like a mandatum for those who claim to teach the Catholic faith online, whereby a bishop affirms that the person is teaching within the full communion of the Church.”
On February 3, writing for First Things, Gladden Pappin and Gregory Caridi argued for the introduction of “yellow checks” (presumably a play on Twitter’s “blue checks”). These checks would be conferred on a Catholic writer and media figure upon request by his local ordinary, if the ordinary feels that the producer is sound and agrees to follow certain rules. As the authors explain, “[m]uch like the system of imprimaturs, a system of ecclesiastical verification would impart ‘yellow checks’ to Catholic writers and media figures who agree to abide by a basic set of norms. Participants in online discourse could simply contact local ordinaries to request this verification, as they already do when seeking imprimaturs or mandata.”
While I admit that as a writer for an online Catholic publication, I have a stake in this and am therefore not strictly objective, I can think of a number of problems with these propositions. Not only would such measures not resolve the problems identified in both articles, but they would likely make things worse.
The first problem with the articles is that, while related, there’s a difference between social media and media publishing online. While many Catholic writers have Twitter accounts and engage in debate, plenty of the ardent denizens of Catholic Twitter have not written and published with any publication, and these may contribute more to the vitriol described by Bishop Barron than most of the published authors, especially the prominent ones.
The second problem is that many of the most divisive and controversial issues correspond with no clear, official doctrinal position. Has Vatican II been a success after 50 years? What is causing the lack of belief in the Real Presence among Catholics? Why do so many Mass-attending Catholics use contraception? These are among the most divisive, hotly debated topics in the Catholic commentary world, and there isn’t an official Church position as to why the Church is in crisis. Having a nihil obstat on media types who explore these questions is not going to solve the problem of these being divisive arguments, because there is no official doctrinal position on who is right.
Even among the prelates whom media figures would be going to for approval, there is much disagreement and difference of opinion. Indeed, local ordinaries can be as ideologically oppositional as the population of Catholic media personalities they’d be policing. Perhaps one of the more notable examples of this would be the difference of opinion between Dr. Taylor Marshall and Bishop Barron himself regarding Hell. Bishop Barron holds to the opinion, famously professed by the Jesuit theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, that we may have a reasonable hope that Hell is empty. This has proven to be a pretty controversial position, and much digital ink has been spilled, many podcasts aired, and many Twitter comments authored discussing it. Dr. Marshall disputes the idea, and his position is supported by, among other things, proclamations by the Council of Florence and the vision of Hell granted by Our Lady of Fatima to the children. While Bishop Barron is not Taylor Marshall’s local ordinary, one could see the hypothetical problem arising where a Catholic media personality, like Marshall, making sound critiques backed by Catholic theology, may be faced with going to a Bishop Barron, who subscribes to an opposing theological position, for approval or endorsement. While Bishop Barron may very well be willing to give approval to those who espouse an opposing view, is it likely that all of the ordinaries would?
The forward to Dr. Marshall’s book Infiltration was written by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, which would imply that the bishop would likely have given Marshall approval of the type mentioned by Bishop Barron and the authors of the First Things. Might a more liberal prelate have done the same? It’s likely that if such an endorsement or approval system were to be implemented, Catholic media would merely publish from the jurisdictions of and with approval from prelates friendly to their point of view. Conservatives and traditionalists would get approval from more conservative and traditionalist prelates. The liberal ones would go to more liberal prelates. It seems unlikely that Cardinal Marx of Germany and Cardinal Burke of the United States will be at all similar in giving or withholding approval to Catholic media figures. If a Catholic media writer wanted to write about the topic of whether it is right to deny Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians (as, for full disclosure, I have), we see Cardinal Cupich and Bishop Thomas Paprocki on opposing sides of this issue. Would their own position on the matter play a part in that endorsement decision? It is likely that at the end of this, all that would be achieved is that the opposing side’s various media figures would be stamped with the approval of friendly members of the Church hierarchy, but nothing would have changed regarding the tone of the actual debate.
Perhaps the most concerning thing regarding the proposal is the potential that the lack of a stamp of approval may be used to discredit legitimate criticisms. Many in the Catholic media world have dug deep into the Church’s response to the abuse crisis. Digging by lay Catholics (including a local investigative reporter) into the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y. and the handling of the issue there is likely to have played a significant role in the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone. Having this approval system in place might allow for the defense that the critics, whistleblowers, and investigative journalists who found themselves at the forefront of the media inquiry were “vitriolic agitators” who lacked even the approval from the local ordinary to write about Church matters.
Whether or not an approval system for Catholic authors is implemented, it is unlikely to change the landscape of Catholic online media. The debates will continue, as they have for decades, even before the internet became ubiquitous. If Catholic writers were asked to seek endorsement for their work, it is unlikely that it would have much of a change on what was being published, given that the divide among those who would be granting the endorsement can mirror that of the writers. While Bishop Barron’s desire for a less vitriolic tone on social media is admirable, it is unlikely that his proposal will bring that about.