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James Martin, S.J.October 19, 2016

Why are some Catholics so hateful on social media?

The most common reactions to this question are these: First, “I know what you’re talking about. I see that all the time on Facebook!” Second, “I’m not on social media that much. What are you talking about?” And third, “Don’t be so sensitive. Criticizing doesn’t make someone mean.”

For those who don’t frequent social media, here’s a primer. Certain Catholics consider it their bounden duty to correct, admonish and attack others when they perceive something that offends their own religious sensibilities or deviates from the faith, as they see it. The journalist David Gibson recently highlighted “liturgy shaming,” in which evidence of supposed liturgical abuses are posted online, which prompts outraged Catholics to pen furious missives to offending priests or bishops. Eavesdrop on any gathering of Catholic journalists, and you’ll hear the same lament: I’m sick of all the hatred.

Whence so much hatred from supposedly religious people?

Recently I had a Facebook Live chat with Michael O’Loughlin, America’s national correspondent, who suggested a few reasons. The first two relate to everyone on social media; the third to Catholics. First, he noted, there is a lack of “nonverbal cues” on social media. If I say something in your presence that offends you, you’ll recoil. I’ll notice your reaction and presumably moderate my comments. Online, however, there are no “live” repercussions for saying hurtful things. Second, the anonymous nature of the web allows people to create social media accounts simply to spew venom. Third, Catholics have a “deep passion” for religion, so if you read or see something you disagree with, you are likely to defend your viewpoint vigorously—and may even be tempted to label someone “heretical.”

That last reason disturbs me the most. Once some Catholics decide that they alone have the correct interpretation of the faith, they seem to act as if God on their side, when, in fact, the topic may admit legitimate theological disagreement or even mystery.

Why are Catholics so mean on Facebook? Join us for a discussion with Fr. James Martin, S.J., and Michael O'Loughlin

Posted by America Magazine on Friday, September 30, 2016

A few weeks ago, for example, I tweeted out a brief reflection on the daily Gospel reading, the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman who asks for healing for her daughter (Mk 7:25-30; Mt 15:21-18). Initially Jesus turns her down, but then when she persists, he performs the healing.

It is a mysterious story. Why does Jesus refuse? Why does he finally agree to her request? I tweeted that Jesus seemed to learn something from the persistence of a wise woman. In an instant dozens of tweets were lobbed at me, many of them calling me a heretic. Jesus couldn’t learn anything! He knew everything, always! Other tweeters egged people on, and the hate-tweeting dragged on for days.

So I sent out a few tweets reminding people that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and that we will never fully comprehend how his divinity interacted with his humanity. There are signs in the Gospels that he did not know everything, as when he says that not even the Son knows when the end times would come (Mk 13:32). On the other hand, he shows foreknowledge of his death and resurrection (Jn 2:19). The theological conundrum is this: Since Jesus was divine, he had a divine consciousness and knew everything. But since he’s human he had a human consciousness and needed to be taught something before he knew it. In the end, it’s a mystery.

Still not good enough. “Heretic!” Eventually, I saw that explanations were largely useless. And that those who were denying his humanity were, ironically, themselves thinking like heretics—Docetists, to be precise. A few had only a tenuous grasp on theology. But I wondered if they had a problem not with my theology, but with mystery itself.

I have no problem with theological discussions; but, like most people, I have a problem with hatred, name-calling and invective. Sometimes people online seem so “Catholic” that they’re barely Christian.

So why are some Catholics so mean on social media? For all of Michael O’Loughlin’s reasons. As well, some may be mean to begin with. Catholicism just gives them another forum in which to exercise their emotions. Over time, though, I’ve grown less bothered by the hatred. A few years ago I would have responded to every comment and tried to convince everyone that I was a faithful Catholic. But not now. Why don’t they listen? Why don’t they give people the benefit of the doubt? Why do they label someone a heretic at the drop of a hat?

In the end, I suppose, like so much of human behavior, it’s a mystery.

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Fr. Paul Fagan
7 years 7 months ago
Thanks, Fr. James! I struggle with the hate too and most of the time I let it go. However, personally I struggle with it. Perhaps looking at it as mystery might help!
Lisa Weber
7 years 7 months ago
It is a mystery why people can be so mean on social media. I think religion touches people so deeply that any comments on religious matters are likely to be seen as important. And too, being in church is related to vulnerability - we have to be open to liturgy and to the process of faith in order in order for it to change us. Church unfortunately also contains people who are looking for the vulnerable. It takes a long time to forgive the predators who pounce at a time of vulnerability.
Robert Killoren
7 years 7 months ago
Father, you are so, so right. But I'm not sure Catholics are any different than anyone else. The comments on many news stories have the same kind of reactions. So many people just feel angry all the time. And they want to hurt someone because it hurts them so much. All the better that they can lob their grenade and escape without being reproached. If you want a real firestorm say something about gun control and hashtag it.
MJ Painter
7 years 7 months ago
"But I'm not sure Catholics are any different than anyone else." ------- Isn't that sad ...?
Richard Booth
7 years 7 months ago
True. And if we have the Truth, why are so many so angry?
7 years 6 months ago
I think angry people are fearful. Having the truth is about living the truth, which involves making difficult decisions. As each individual tries to be the best he/she can be, there is anxiety and insecurity. The Church/hierarchy articulates the official response, while individuals struggle with personal conscience. Further, parents may be very anxious about the choices being made by their teen and young adult children and are torn between understanding/supporting their child and objective Church teaching. This is very emotional territory and anger may be a short cut to evade pain in certain situations. The clarity of anger may be preferable to the discomfort of patient discernment.
Kathy Glaser
7 years 7 months ago
I definitely agree with your assessment. A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about gestures some Catholics use during Mass. It prompted me to say that if I were in RCIA and read those comments, I'd run the other way.
Richard Booth
7 years 7 months ago
We know quite a lot now about human behavior, and we realize that much of it is shaped. I don't suppose it would be popular to suggest that, from childhood, the Church herself has told us over and over that we should defend the Faith. If she has (and this has been my experience), then her preachers should have been clearer about appropriate techniques and parameters of the defense. Most people have to figure it out for themselves and, online, "primitive man" seems to emerge. Name-calling is the easiest kind of humiliation and says, "You are an idiot and I am not like you." Not very helpful.
Meaghan Dumphey
7 years 7 months ago
Dear Father Martin, I read everything you write, I think, and I also consider myself a very faithful Catholic young woman. I too have asked myself the question about why people are so mean on Facebook. In fact, I asked myself this very question when I was watching you talking to someone on a Facebook streaming event a few weeks ago. In the Facebook video you took a position that perhaps the pope just hadn't figured out everything he needs to about gender identify and that's why he takes the position he does that gender ideology is ruining God's plan. Well, Father Martin, I thought that was a mean and condescending position for you to take so publicly. Basically you were trying to shame the pope and infer that he is, somehow, less informed or less Christlike, than you are. I don't think it's mean at all to point out to you that I this was incredibly mean of you and mean to a pope who I think is right about this issue and about many other issues that you may see in a different, more liberal (progressive) way. I will no longer be following your feeds so this is the last you will hear of me but I thought it was important that you know that while you appear to be pointing the finger at those people on the internet, that some of them are pointing the same finger back at you. Sincerely, Meg Dumphey Boston MA
Henry George
7 years 7 months ago
If, and it does seem to be a mystery, how Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of Mary, the implications are beyond human understanding, does it not behoove you, Fr. Martin, not to make conclusions of what Jesus may or may not have known when Jesus says nothing about His knowledge in that particular situation ?
William Rydberg
7 years 7 months ago
To begin, that serious instances of hatred, and even downright "trolling" does occur on the Internet is not in doubt. Which makes prudent judgement around choosing websites to post so important in our day. And one would tend to agree with the point and cite. Agreement with the sentiment as a general observation. However, the author has launched in to usage of some specifically Catholic ecclesiastical terms (I speak with a hermeneutical perspective that is Catholic and Apostolic definition only). Which is why I want to define my terms: Firstly, the word "Heretic" or "Heretical" taken from the Greek means "to choose" or "choose from among". Accordingly, many Churchmen over the millennias have understood it as such. One of my favorite Apologetical quotes is "..the reason why heresies continue is because of the truths that they retain..." (the contemporary term "cafeteria Catholic" arguably might come near to the original meaning, but I am no scholar!)... But... The Reformation happened. A dumbing down of Religious education in the popular mind and in Media occurred and words like "Heretic" and even "Anathema" (a word basically meaning "you're on your own, no Church support") became to be understood in the popular imagination as "nasty", likely because their usage was not appropriate (from a Catholic Apologetical understanding). One could go on, but one hopes the reader gets the "gist". To summarize, usage of a word like Heretic ("you are a chooser among one body of doctrines") or Anathema ("Hey bud, your on your own") became strongly emotion evoking words. But in Catholic religious context like these pages, the words should not be banished from the pages of Catholic America Magazine. Finally, it ought to be understood that for many persons, talking about Divine Revelation in the Christian context is to speak of a someone who for Christians is Trinity, the personal God. someone closer to us than our own immediate family, so that's understandable that persons take issue when conjecture bumps up against aspects of Revelation that are Mysterious and unknown. An fatuous example assertion being "Jesus didn't know he was God" which runs contrary to Dogmatics and a long pedigree of Magisterial, Scriptural and Tradition teaching. Yet the discussion perdures. One could go on. But any competent Catholic scholar will tell you that discussion and controversies from the Gospel days is what prompted St Paul's letters, St James letters, the Church Canon (including deuterocanonical books). As well as the body of the writings of the Fathers of the Church, ecumenical Councils (save one - Vatican II). If one sets aside the emotion of it all, there is a long tradition in the human experience. Why it continues - Mystery... Given current Formation methodologies in the Society of Jesus, with is emphasis upon a combination of Rogerian Method and the late Father General Arrupe's, some would describe as emotionalism, there is a high value placed upon subjective emotional states in my opinion. Therefore a word like "heretical" or "anathema" may be interpreted as emotionally "hot" words? But that's an internal discussion for the asociety of Jesus, not me. As I have always favoured St Robert Bellarmine s.j.... :) In my opinion... In Christ,
Bruce Snowden
7 years 6 months ago
Hi, Father Martin - Great one liner from “Hate.Net,” “Sometimes people on line seem ‘so Catholic’ that they’re barely Christian!” I know nothing about Facebook have never used it, and social media if that includes email et al, I know a little about that and realize postings online can become unkind. Reading “Hate .Net” was appalling to discover the extent of nastiness contributors spew at the legitimate presenters like you, messing-up what ought to be a reasonable exchange of ideas and opinions, Catholics included! You’re right, their vitriol makes them “barely Christian.” In an automobile one may call it “Road Rage” really Anger, a Capital Sin, fully in line with our present euphemistic age where moral cover-ups abound, abusing the moral spectrum with more “acceptable” twisted terminologies. About the Divine and Human Natures of Jesus, a mystery indeed, a mindboggling, yet an enrapturing one. You know the St. Augustine story of the boy at the beach trying to empty the ocean into a small bottle, being told the impossibility to so do by Augustine. Then having the boy respond, “Just as impossible for you to understand the Mystery of the Trinity, Three persons in One God, which you have been thinking about.” The same holds true trying to understand the Mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus being both fully Divine and fully Human at the same time. Because humans have imagination God did not leave us bereft of delving into the unknown, trying to come up with examples explaining the Mysteries of God, including the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. We all know the example of the Clover Leaf, one stem, three connected leaves, used St Patrick according to legend to explain the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, not exactly accurate but useful image. There must also be images taken from our world trying to explain the Mystery of the Incarnation, but I cannot think of one. So here’s where I get into trouble with my love to imaginatively speculate! Take a flower, any flower, I choose a rose. Therein I sense Divinity in its Fragrance which cannot be seen, like God, and I find in the flowers’ color which can be see, Humanity, Divinity and Humanity, one cannot be seen but clearly exists, the other tangibly present like Jesus. By no means an exact image, but an “idea” like the Divine Idea of God which produced from all eternity, the Mystery of the Incarnation, God become Man. What a fantastic Mystery of our Faith! Thanks Father Martin. Keep the fire of love burning!
Nicholas Clifford
7 years 6 months ago
Apart from email, I don't use so-called "social" media (I'm too old, and have better things to do with what time I have left). But the implication here is that Catholics are more hateful than others on such sites. Is that really true? Every now and then I read comments on articles from newspapers, broadcasts, journals, etc., and it doesn't take long for hatefulness to rear its head, from right and left, from secular and sacred. Think of "Godwin's law" and the rapidity with which I (or you) begin to compare each other to Hitler. Are there still people innocent enough to believe that the internet, by providing information more widely to more people will make us better informed, better educated voters, and so forth? (Better behaved?) Remember a few years ago all those hailing the Arab Spring and crediting the role of social media in opening up and modernizing Middle Eastern countries? Or a few more years ago, all those pointing to the spread of the internet into hitherto closed societies (China, for instance) and arguing that it would open those societies up? As China has shown us, properly controlled, the internet can strengthen rather than weaken dictatorships, and as we in the US have have shown ourselves, you don't need a dictatorship to dumb people down. Catholics have many faults, no doubt, and can certainly be blamed for things like, say, the Spanish Inquisition, the murder of those considered heretical, a distrust of the human intellect and so forth. and so forth. But I doubt that you can blame them in particular for the coarsening of every day discourse and thought that the electronic media seem to encourage. There is surely a connection between the rise of social media and the ugliness of the present exercise in "democracy" that this wretched political campaign has shown us, with its rapid race to the bottom. And yes, of course Christians, Catholic and other, should be better than others, and not simply "no worse." Why aren't we? Could it be our fault?

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