As a librarian and information specialist, I have a professional interest in the social aspects of the Internet, particularly its use by activists (of several political stripes) and those who lack access to conventional forums of public debate. (Anyone who doubts the efficacy of the Internet as a means of “people power” should talk to China’s Internet censors.) The segment of the Internet that fosters this kind of dynamic grassroots effort is powered by e-mail and includes listservs, bulletin-board discussion groups, and weblogs (better known as blogs.) NetLingo: The Internet Dictionary defines a blog as “a frequent, chronological publication of personal thoughts and Web links...a mixture of what is happening in a person’s life and what is happening on the Web, a kind of hybrid diary/guide site.” Most blogs allow readers to comment on postings, so dialogue and debate become a part of the reader’s experience.
My Web surfing is usually guided by serendipity and, six months ago, I was delighted to discover Peter Nixon’s excellent blog, Sursum Corda (an insightful Catholic blog that eschews extremism in any direction). Intrigued by the genre, I set out to explore the most visible precincts of what is known as St. Blog’s Parish—the moniker applied to the loose collection of Catholic blogs. I began reading with the expectation that all sites would exhibit the thoughtfulness and charity of Peter Nixon’s. This naiveté was quickly dispelled when I realized the diversity—and varying quality—of Catholic blogs. This diversity is not, unfortunately, a mirror of the wider church. St. Blog’s, with some exceptions, tilts decidedly to the conservative side of the Catholic culture wars. The tenor of a site can frequently be ascertained from its title or tag line—The Fifth Column (“Orthodox Catholic commentary on current events”), Magisterial Fidelity, Against the Grain (authored by the man who maintains the Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club). One gets a quick sense of a blog’s politics from the organizations its author provides links to. This is not unlike checking out the publication rack in the back of a church; regrettably, in this electronic parish rack, Commonweal is less visible than Crisis and First Things.
Blogs range from offering recipes to requests for prayers, to moving spiritual reflections and writings about saints to polemics about political correctness in the pulpit. Some are irenic, some vituperative; some are filled with gratitude and others are narcissistic. The clearest way to understand much of the Catholic blog phenomenon is to perceive it as a form of personal apologetics. Bloggers take advantage of the Internet’s characteristic strengths—openness, low cost, and autonomy (read: no editors)—to engage in what in this case was previously a specialized ministry. Blogging is analogous to the street preaching of the Catholic Evidence Guild. Not all bloggers have the erudition, prudence, and intelligence of a Frank Sheed or a Maisie Ward.
St. Blog’s has an official proofreader, Nihil Obstat (“Don’t ask for the facts unless you want the truth”) who corrects both grammar and improperly formed Web addresses. There’s a resident humorist, the Curt Jester, whose parody of Amazon.com sells the Patriot Anti-Missalette Battery, “Guaranteed to not allow modern missalettes such as those published by Oregon Catholic Press within a thousand feet of your church...the ultimate in GIRM warfare protection”—General Instruction on the Roman Missal, get it? Not all the Jester’s lines hit their target.
Some blogs are geographically rooted: “an opinionated conservative Catholic chica living in San Diego” offers Molly’s Musings, and Mere Catholics is the work of “real live Catholics in the backwoods of Canada.” Gen-X Revert brings “random stuff from a Catholic Long Islander” and a Catholic in Minnesota offers his take on “the current state of Catholicism in the world, the United States, and the Archdiocese of Minneapolis–St. Paul.” (All religion, like all politics, is local.) Given that their generation has little fear of technology, numerous college students maintain blogs; of note is the Shrine of the Holy Whapping by “Catholic nerds” at Notre Dame.
Some bloggers identify by their professions: in my admittedly small sample of one hundred Catholic blogs there were numerous lawyers, a few software engineers, one midwife (Fructus Ventris), homeschooling parents (and students), and some who write from the heart of distinct vocations, such as Karen Marie Knapp in From the Anchor Hold (“living simple, single, and submitted, in a real city, in a real world”). Catholic blogdom is a predominantly lay phenomenon, and many, if not most, bloggers are married people and parents. Not surprisingly, there are several blogs by converts. The best of these are reverent with gratitude; most explain (sometimes with an unfortunate didacticism) what led the author to Catholicism.
A number of priests and seminarians also write blogs. Some are pastoral, such as The New Gasparian by Jeffrey Keyes, CPPS (“dedicated to the life and mission of St. Gaspar del Bufalo and the Spirituality of the Precious Blood”). Blogs allow for anonymity, which cloak a Benedictine’s sermons (Sir Monk’s Sermons) and a seminarian’s “frequent musings...as he learns to be another Christ” in Alter Christus. Dominican student Dismas offers reflections at Stealing Heaven and still another anonymous Dominican orates in Effectus Geminus—Double Effect. Curiously, women religious are absent from St. Blog’s. An absence explained by the conservative bent of many blogs, or just a function of statistics?
The sociologist Peter Berger has observed that Christianity makes three “certainty offers”: one through the institutional church, another in an absolute understanding of Scripture, and finally one based on personal religious experience. Broadly speaking, the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches make the first offer, Protestant Christianity (“especially in its evangelical variants,” says Berger) the second, and the third “runs through almost all Christian communities, from the great mystics to the most recent flowering of Pentecostalism.” Berger notes, however: “All three forms of alleged certainty have been considerably weakened by the modern human sciences” (“Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty,” Christian Century, August 26–September 2, 1998).
The traditionalist blogs are one response to the weakening of Christian certainty—in this case, a negative response—one that often displays a judgmental attitude and a corrosive cynicism about the “secular” world. There are other ways to respond to the erosion of certainty. It could be an invitation for growth in faith, a need to rely on the fruits of the Holy Spirit (especially charity and patience), and a relaxed awareness that it’s not our responsibility to separate the wheat from the tares.
I’ll let Flannery O’Connor have the last word: “To have the church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature....We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life. Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does.” If only she’d had a blog.
Commonweal does have a blog—click here to visit dotCommonweal.