An end-of-Lent resolution
Since Fr Jim's excellent post earlier on the problem of incivility in the Catholic blogosphere, John Allen has written intriguingly at NCR about the need to overcome what he calls "tribal Catholicism" - the fragmentation of the Church which, he says, means increasingly "we're becoming strangers to one another".
He kindly mentions Catholic Voices, the group that with others I set up last year in preparation for the papal visit, as an example of "zones of friendship" he says are needed to restore fraternity. (His other examples were the specialists at building communio, the Focolare movement, and the Canadian media outlet Faith & Light.)
But even as I was reading John's post, I was being tackled on Twitter on my uncharitable use of the word 'Taliban Catholics' - a term I borrowed, in fact, from John - to once or twice describe in the past those who act as a self-appointed magisterium, labelling others 'dissenters'.
The term is in many ways useful: what marks off the Taliban -- or more accurately, the Wahabi tradition of which they are a sect -- is their mindset. Not only do they regard almost everyone but themselves as impure and fallen, they arrogate to themselves the obligation (they would call it duty) to "purify" the body by calling down punishment on those who they think are defiling the faith.
But like all analogies, it is far from perfect. If it works in the limited sense above, it doesn't in so many other obvious ways, and it is, of course, insulting. I was challenged on Twitter to accept that it was an example of what Fr Jim rightly objects to -- the labelling of others, which is demeaning and well-poisoning. And I did.
A better term, closer to Catholic home, would be "Jansenist", meaning the eighteenth-century French movement which provoked a major theological crisis in the late seventeenth century. One bishop referred to the Jansenists as "pure as angels and proud as devils" -- an apt description of certain defenders of Catholic orthodoxy who believe it's their job to "determine who's in and who's out", as Allen puts it.
This can reach extremes. I recently learned that one British Catholic blogger, who has regularly described me and my Catholic Voices colleagues as "dissenters", told someone I met recently in Spain that we were "lapsed Catholics". If he were to print that, it would be libel; but clearly he believes it -- which explains the astonishing acidity of his posts. He and others of his mindset describe themselves as "traditional Roman Catholics" who, as one put it recently without any apparent recognition of the irony, believe in being "loyally obedient to the Pope's authority when that authority is exercised in conformity with the Faith."
But to call such a man a Jansenist, as a tweet pointed out, was tantamount to calling him a heretic - -which is what I object to in him. So even though I've hardly ever publicly used the Taliban word, and can only think of a handful to whom it would apply (in the UK, at least) I've realised my inconsistency and agreed not to use it again -- and to try to avoid labels of all sorts, which have the effect of reducing others. It's never too late for an end-of-Lent resolution.
The ecclesiological question, however, needs to be faced. The object of the Magisterium, exercised by the Pope and his bishops (with guidance from Vatican dicasteries such as the CDF), is to settle arguments over doctrine that might otherwise plunge a billion Catholics into endless energy-sapping disputes and parties. It's the task of the teaching authorities, and theirs alone, to determine who is in and who is out. Once they have declared someone to be dissenting from church teaching, then to call that person is a dissenter is a statement of fact; but if they haven't, no Catholic can assume the right to do so.
My twitter interlocutor raised the question of how, then, people should refer to others whose positions go against church teaching. My answer was: vigorously but with humility and civility, pointing out where what they are saying appears to be in contradiction. After all, many intense and lively discussions go on between theologians over what the Church teaches without labelling each other "dissenters".
But the objection is obvious. The medium - -fast, snappy, prone to monikers and labels -- seems at times allergic to that kind of exchange.
Today's brief discussion curtain-raises some of the issues that could be tackled at the blog conference at the Vatican on 2 May hosted by the Councils for Culture and Social Communications. If Rome makes clear to bloggers that they need to be loyal to the Magisterium and to leave its exercise to those who are qualified, that would be a solid outcome.
But perhaps what's also needed is a "covenant of civility" between public Catholics that lays down some of the ways we can vigorously disagree with each other. In this area, I've realised, we've all got something to learn.