How to respond to Catholic internet trolls
The recent uproar over Theological College’s decision to disinvite our colleague, Father James Martin, in response to organized pressure via social media offers several important lessons. The pattern of bullies and trolls being incited to strong-arm an organization or institution into cancelling a speaker whom they find objectionable is an increasingly common tactic among an array of ideological factions, as President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America has observed. Leaders in the church should think carefully about how to respond.
First, it is neither possible nor prudent to expect to be able to surrender to the internet troll and get to the other side of the bridge unscathed, with controversy avoided and no one the wiser. Recognizing this requires only attention to the current media environment, not theological analysis: Either the threatened disruptions or the cancellation of the speech will become the story, but once the trolls have a target in their sights, the story will not pass without notice.
These attacks do violence to the truth.
Second, since the bullies and trolls are preying on weakness as much as or more than hunting for supposed transgressions against orthodoxy, succumbing to such pressure only invites more of it in the future, from the same sources and others who conclude that heckling and harassment get results.
Third, and most important, these attacks do violence to the truth. They are almost always rooted in prejudice and characterized by uncharity and personal insults. They almost never bother with a careful reading of the material they summarily dismiss and denigrate. Even if they do, in their carelessness, touch on important doctrinal questions, the attractiveness, coherence and clarity of Catholic truth suffer from the suggestion that it needs or encourages such vitriolic “defense.” Put more simply: The truth that the Gospel is a message of salvation and freedom is undermined when those who claim to be serving it act without love. The work of evangelization seeks not the defeat of those in error but their conversion, and it ends not in victory but in communion.
The work of evangelization seeks not the defeat of those in error but their conversion, and it ends not in victory but in communion.
It is likewise a mistake to ignore or dismiss those whose so-called evangelization takes the form of online attacks, and whose goal seems to be a purge of Catholic voices who do not meet their standards of purity. Those who lead such efforts are claiming a kind of parallel magisterium, substituting their own outrage for the judgement of those who occupy the church’s legitimate teaching office.
They must be confronted, and church leaders—especially those whose viewpoints may differ from those of the persons under attack—should speak up strongly and clearly against these attacks and attempts at intimidation. The communion of the church needs to be defended—not from the peril of theological discussion but rather from that of being monitored and policed by the loudest and least loving voices among us.