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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...

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About the Author

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