The Scourge of Toxic Online Catholicism

Recently I ran into an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. Although we live in the same city, we originally “met” 20 years ago in a formerly-prominent Catholic blogger’s combox. Seeing him reminded me how long I’ve been active in the online Catholic world, and it also reminded me how toxic this world can be.

Now, it’s not my friend who inspired me to recall the potential for toxicity in online Catholicism; it was that “formerly-prominent Catholic blogger” I mentioned: Mark Shea. A former Crisis writer, Shea has in recent years become perhaps the King of toxic online Catholics. It seems his mission is to attack viciously anyone who doesn’t subscribe to his exact vision of Catholicism, often with a series of mostly-childish invectives.

But sadly Shea isn’t an aberration. Any Catholic who’s been online for even a small amount of time quickly encounters the darker side of the Catholic internet. The Catholic subgroup with the biggest reputation for toxicity is the “trads” (traditional Catholics), and while that reputation isn’t wholly undeserved, it’s not any more unique to them than it is to Shea and his ilk. Unfortunately, every subgroup within Catholicism has its toxic supporters, ready to attack anyone who doesn’t pass the chosen purity test.

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Before I continue I should note that while I do believe toxicity exists in online Catholic circles, I also believe many people today are too thin-skinned. Even a reasoned, balanced criticism is labeled an “attack” these days. It’s a textbook liberal move to play the victim whenever someone dares to disagree, and sadly conservatives have embraced this move as well in recent years. A healthy Church includes vigorous debate; charitable, yes, but not wimpish. Disagreeing is not toxic.

But even granting that people can be too thin-skinned, it’s still true that too often online Catholic debate crosses the line. Why is it that Catholics love to attack Catholics online? Original Sin is of course the easy and yet true answer. But it’s not like Catholics are haranguing and accosting each other outside of Mass each Sunday, which is often exactly what happens when you log onto #CatholicTwitter. I would argue that there are two main factors at play.

First is the lack of strong ecclesial leadership in the Church. It’s the duty of our bishops to proclaim, defend, and teach the Catholic Faith. We all know how rare it is to see that in practice today, however. A wolf like Fr. James Martin can prey on Catholics with his sweet sounding heresies, and not only does he not get disciplined by his bishop; he gets appointed to a Vatican position! 

In response to this void of faithful leadership, many Catholics take it on themselves to promote, defend, and teach the Catholic Faith. And, frankly, this isn’t a bad thing, as the rise of lay Catholics such as Scott Hahn and Janet Smith have helped countless people live their faith more fully (and hopefully the writers of Crisis fall into that category as well). But it also means that everyone with an internet connection can use his or her virtual soapbox to proclaim what they believe is true…and anathematize anyone who dares to disagree. It can be a recipe for unnecessary—and toxic—conflict.

Speaking of the internet, that’s reason number two for the toxicity crisis. The very medium of the internet can foster toxicity by its nature, and Catholics are not immune to its effects. By encouraging a constant stream of mostly mindless commentary, the internet—and particularly social media—makes it easier to shoot off a quick insult than to spend time crafting a well-thought-out detailed rebuttal. That’s why at Crisis we try to focus on articles that make you think, not just react.

Further, the internet is fundamentally a pseudonymous medium. Even someone like me who uses his real name and photo on social media is still somewhat pseudonymous to others online. After all, what do you really know about someone who you’ve only encountered on the internet? And of course the most vicious commentary usually originates with those who make themselves truly unknown by using a fake name and avatar. That sense of anonymity breeds toxicity.

Suffice it to say, it’s a lot easier to call a stranger a heretic while using a pseudonymous account from the comfort of your basement than saying it to the person’s face after Mass.

So what can be done about this? Sadly, I don’t think there’s a quick fix. Our bishops don’t seem willing to pick up the mantle Our Lord has given them, and the internet isn’t going anywhere. But all is not hopeless for Catholics. We can foster better interactions by both encouraging those who do not engage in the toxicity, and ignoring those who do. The most toxic online trolls, whether Catholic or not, live off attention. It’s the reason they keep coming back. Ignoring them completely gives them little incentive to continue. 

This brings me to an announcement. Crisis Magazine is shutting down our own website comment section, effective immediately. This decision is driven by a number of factors, including some related to combatting the problems I noted above. While our comment section has many valuable and charitable contributors, it’s also true that at times Crisis commenters do not reflect the better parts of human nature, and we spend an inordinate amount of our resources moderating the combox.

Practically speaking, only about 1% of our readers comment on our articles, yet far more than 1% of our resources are spent moderating those comments. Although software like Disqus helps with moderation, it’s ultimately still a largely manual process to check each comment. 

Inevitably some toxic comments are missed, which reflects poorly on the magazine. For we’ve also found that even though our comment policy made it clear that “Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers,” many people do associate the most toxic comments on our website with the magazine itself—an association that does not happen with comments on Crisis posts on third-party platforms like Facebook or Telegram. 

Further, website comment sections are a relic of another age. Most online interactions now occur on platforms dedicated to such discussions, like Facebook, Twitter, MeWe, Gab, and Telegram. Crisis has an active presence on all these platforms (follow the links for those platforms to find us), and we ask our readers to engage with our content and each other there. We particularly encourage readers to join our new Telegram chat

I’d like to thank all those who have contributed wonderful insights on our website comment section over the years, and, again, I encourage you to engage with us on other platforms, which will be linked at the bottom of each article moving forward.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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