At the very beginning of his famous Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola includes the following “Presupposition”. Though brief, its message is radical:

“Any good Christian has to be more ready to justify than to condemn a neighbor’s statement. If no justification can be found, one should ask the neighbor in what sense it is to be taken, and if that sense is wrong he or she should be corrected lovingly. Should this not be sufficient, one should seek all suitable means to justify it by understanding it in a good sense.” 1

Consider these words well. They state a principle that, though perfectly reasonable, is too easily forgotten. Before condemning, we should seek to understand. Rather than tearing others down, we should seek to build them up. Instead of being dismissive, we should be open to dialogue.

The first time I read this passage, my first thought was of the internet. The internet, dear readers, is a strange and wonderful place. Here we each have our own personal soapbox, from which we may spout off to our heart’s content. We can blog and reblog, tweet and retweet, rave and trash-talk with anonymity and impunity. We can shout our thoughts and feelings to all our friends and followers. No article, post, or video is safe from our comments, and no comment is safe from our replies.

As much as I love the intellectual Wild West that is the internet, it poses some serious dangers to us Catholics. The Catholic side of the internet is subject to the same anonymity and anarchy as anywhere else online. While this opens the floor to a lot of fruitful and open discussion, it also lets in temptations to anger, pride, and all sorts of viciously un-Christian behavior. Just check out the comment box of any mildly controversial Catholic article, and you’ll see what I mean. Often, rather than a constructive discussion, you’ll find a gruesome bloodbath of hate and vitriol.

Here, more than anywhere else, St. Ignatius’s words should be heeded. It’s so much easier to jump to conclusions, to trash-talk, to openly revile someone when they’re nameless, faceless, and who-knows-how-far away. As such, it’s all the more necessary to set some ground rules as to what it really means to treat people online with Christian charity. From St. Ignatius’s Presupposition, I think we can derive a few such rules.

1. Don’t assume people are stupid.

Obvious, right? However, it’s too easy to neglect it in practice. When we’re around people in everyday life, it’s tough to ignore their humanity and the fact that they’re not all that different from us. However, the individual isolation of being online makes it tempting to believe that we’re the only sane voice in a world full of wackos. We feel safe raging against whatever public or private figure is the object of our hatred, in a way that would be totally out of place in a face-to-face situation.

Comic courtesy of xkcd.
Comic courtesy of xkcd.

However, St. Ignatius tells us to be charitable in both our interpretations and our responses. Let’s say you’re on the Catholicism subreddit and mosestheblack573 posts something that you think is utterly bonkers. You could fly into a rage and unleash your intellectual superpowers on them, but instead, you calm down and ask yourself, is there any reasonable way to interpret what mosestheblack573 said? If you can’t think of one, you ask them for clarification. They try to clarify, and the two of you proceed to have a polite discussion of the matter, perhaps even messaging each other one-on-one to resolve it.

2. Don’t assume people are heretics.

This one, of course, is a very Catholic-specific problem, and I see it all the time. Part of the issue is that many Catholics online don’t seem to know what heresy actually means. They tend to use it as a shorthand for “being wrong about theology.” Actually, that’s totally false. Sure, heresy involves being wrong. But more than that, it’s canonically defined as “obstinate denial … of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” 2 In other words, it’s not heresy unless it’s (1) explicitly denying Catholic doctrine, and (2) it’s held obstinately, with full knowledge that it contradicts Church teaching, and not merely from a misunderstanding.

As such, the word ‘heresy’ gets thrown around altogether too lightly among Catholics on the internet. Heresy is a serious act of disobedience, and trivially using it to denounce one’s opponents online is the equivalent of making Nazi comparisons in secular circles: it’s a dirty cheap shot. Before making accusations, we should ask for clarification. Unless we’re absolutely, unquestionably certain that we know what our opponent means, we shouldn’t use the word ‘heresy’. Actually, we probably shouldn’t use it even then, as we’ll see in the next rule.

3. Whatever you say, say lovingly.

Now we get to the most important bit. Inevitably, even after we get rid of the name-calling, the jumping to conclusions, and the misunderstandings, there will still be disagreement. The question is, how should we deal with it? Without exception, all our interactions with our neighbors should be done out of love. Love desires the neighbor’s good; it speaks to help people understand, not to gratify its own pride. And so, if we choose to write anything online, we should ask ourselves whether it will work to our neighbors’ good or to their harm. Unleashing all our rage and hatred? Harm. Belittling people and treating them like morons? Harm. Calling someone a heretic, even if they really are one? Almost certainly harm.

Correcting someone lovingly means convincing them, not merely winning the argument. Being a jerk doesn’t correct anyone; it just makes us feel good. Blogging lovingly means writing to turn hearts and minds to God, and not simply to gloat with those who agree with us and to tick off those who disagree. And so on for everything else. As Christians, we have no right to post anything online until we’ve considered the effect it will have on our neighbors. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). 3

Yes, the internet is a strange and wonderful place. And just like in the real world, how we treat our neighbors online reflects either positively or negatively on the Church. Often, when browsing around for Catholic articles online, I can’t help but cringe at how things must appear to non-Catholics. I see Catholics willing to tear each other’s heads off over minor liturgical controversies, or foaming at the mouth over the latest news story. Who would be attracted to that? It’s our job to break the mold. We have to show them what kind of love our faith impels us to, so that once again the world will be able to look to us and say, “See how they love each other!” 4

Notes:

  1. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Personal Writings p.289 (Penguin Classics 2004)
  2. Code of Canon Law (Can. 751)
  3. RSV Catholic Edition
  4. Tertullian, Apologeticum 39.7