In a small corner of the cyber space galaxy, on cyber ship America Online, under keyword "Catholic," lies the Catholic Chat Room. Clicking my mouse to the station, I find myself in a cyber room populated by anywhere from twenty to forty minds. I ask myself: Is this room a triumph of Cartesianism? My first impression is that it is tailor-made for disembodied minds to deliver clear and distinct theological bonbons. But it does not take long on Catholic Chat before the screen names reveal flesh-and-blood persons. Identities emerge in both lighthearted, random chatter and serious, relentless discussions.

Catholic Chat is the brainchild of Father Roy (last name not divulged) of the diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles lends it his authority. (Under screen name Cardrmm he pops in occasionally to offer a prayer or give a blessing.) At times, anyone online can propose a topic. But more often the mostly clerical staff (as identified in online profiles) selects the topics and guides as well as guards the discussion.

The doctrinal positions of the staff and of many of the regular participants reflect, in my opinion, an institutional model of the church as a pyramid with a strong judicial slant. Still, debates constantly surface, and the pluralism of the American Catholic church breaks through. Online anonymity emboldens people to express dissenting views. One night I witnessed a debate between the staff and two members of CORPUS, Core of Reserve Priests United for Service, the largest organization of married resigned priests. The debate was provoked by a staffer’s reference to an inactive priest as an "ex-priest"; it began at 10 p.m. and went on into the wee hours of the morning. Among other topics, papal infallibility recurs endlessly, evoking arguments drawn from centuries of Christian history: Boniface VIII’s bull Unam sanctam is defended as if it came off the press only yesterday. The topic of Purgatory also arises so often that a non-Catholic might conclude it is a sine qua non of Catholic faith. Whenever I am online for such a discussion, I suggest that Purgatory is a place just east of Buffalo, and other participants chime in with alternative locations. But the staff is seldom amused, and often someone will burst into the room mentally flushed with the discovery of a new saint: "Has anyone heard of Saint Lydia?"

To participate in the chatter, fast typing is key. Thoughts zoom by in little cyber bits, one sentence at a time. What’s more, there are usually four or five different conversations happening at once, and it can be difficult to pick up all the threads. It is possible, though, to have an extended conversation with one other participant: By the Instant Message function, two persons can type directly to each other off the main screen. A lot of bonding goes on in that area-but sometimes even this solidarity is not enough.

On what may have been my final night on Catholic Chat-I haven’t decided yet whether to go back-the topic was Christian unity, specifically what can be done both to promote it and to avoid further damage to it. As my contribution, I remarked that Rome has a long history of suppressing and arbitrarily altering the Eastern churches’ traditions. I observed, as an example, that until recently Rome would not allow the Eastern churches to ordain married men to the priesthood in the United States. (But recently a Melkite bishop, determining that the Vatican’s 1990 code on the Eastern churches superseded its 1929 prohibition, ordained a married man in the diocese of Newton, Massachusetts. See, New York Times, February 16, 1997.) Immediately a staffer advised me that we were not discussing married priests, and that I was in violation of chat rules. "What are we going to do," he also commented, "change our most ancient disciplines for small groups of people?"

Exasperated, I averted to personal experience. I am a Maronite Catholic, a church of the Syriac branch in communion with Rome throughout its history. In 1968, my seminary journey was involuntarily and abruptly ended when I pushed too hard for restoration of the Maronite tradition of married priests in the United States. I also threw in the fact that a great uncle of mine, the father of nine children, was a married priest in Lebanon. But to no avail: Again I was scolded and threatened with ejection from the room. Am I destined to become the first Catholic ever brought to trial for cyber heresy? I imagined the evidence of my recalcitrance being sent to a secret office of the America Online Inquisition. Will I be banned from America Online forever?

For the first time in my life, I had an inkling of what Martin Luther must have gone through. I signed off wondering: Is it better to hang in there and fight Catholic Chat to the bitter end, or should I start my own room? Luther only had the printing press; I have the internet. I imagine the future; and it looks a little too much like the past....

Paul Ferris lives in Annapolis, Maryland, and volunteers for the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C.

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Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: View Contents
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