First off, I think the CNS article summarized the event well. I haven't read much else online due to lack of internet access. The organizers were very friendly and warm. The word “pastoral” was used often at the start, and an emphasis on talking with “people who blog” rather than “Catholic bloggers”. There was a real “let’s get people who blog together and see what happens” air to it, underlined by the fact that there was no agenda. I was okay with this; I’m not sure about everyone else. But it was very enjoyable, certainly.
Having said that, they (the Vatican officials) said over and over they wanted to listen to bloggers, and the set-up and timeframe didn’t really allow that. Humble suggestion: a response sheet at the end of the meeting would have been a useful way to gather information, questions, and ideas. But in any case: we’ve got blogs! This conversation isn’t over! And if you weren’t there, but have read the coverage, perhaps seen the SQPN feed…I would encourage you to chime in on your own blogs. I believe that was the idea.
One thing was crystal clear—what was talked about was just the tip of an iceberg. I have five reflections on what was said and not said, born of five years hanging around these digital parts.
1) First, this was an international gathering. I know people said “couldn’t we have done this online?” and I agree that makes sense in many ways, but having the translators there added something that cannot quickly be replicated online (yet). So this was wonderful and new and rather different from a CatholicCon (even though I felt like I was at Fan Fair--as a fan). But despite the international presence, we didn’t get to see how this common medium and erstwhile avocation plays out in different cultures very much. For example, a Mexican journalist and blogger (someone please give me the name!) spoke in a panel on the unique historical challenges of Church-State-Media relations in Mexico, of which I knew a bit but would have liked to have known more. In any case, different context from US Catholic blogging. Another blogger from France, Francois Jeanne-Beylot, made a full throated cry for “shouting the truth” from the rooftops of blogging, which makes sense in France, oui? One of the most rigorously secular plus anti-Catholic countries on earth? But does that “shouting” make as much sense in other countries? Did Peter and Paul shout? Did Therese de Lisieux? Did Fulton Sheen? So while those presentations were interesting--outside of those elements, there was very little sense that blogging as a form of writing is inculturated: it’s just not the same everywhere. Elizabeth Scalia, in my opinion, brought down the house with her presentation on the spiritual battlefield of the heart that bloggers must push through, and how the dark side of blogging is seen in using the medium to feed your ego and convince yourself that your self-selected friends speak for the whole world and are the '"true" Catholics. Excellent, challenging and potentially universal points: but is this an American (or English language) blogosphere problem or something more? I don't know and wish I did. I think American bloggers see their own gains and problems as everyone's, and that may be a bit provincial of us.
2) I would have liked discussion on how we (bloggers and Vatican officials) can help Catholics trying to write in countries hostile to religion in general or Catholicism in particular. Recent revolutions have witnessed the power of the medium (esp. via twitter); and places where the internet is regulated, like Ch*na, have a bit more freedom in micro-blogging platforms. Since blogging is a grass roots phenomenon, perhaps there needs be a “hands off” approach, but it would be good to know how to support those blogging in situations openly hostile to religion beyond clicking on “RT”. This seemed to me to be a glaring omission in the conversation.
3) There was talk of redesigning the Vatican.va website, and creating a news portal. Please pay attention to issues of disability access: sound if possible for the hearing impaired, and easy to read options for those with vision problems. My vision is correctable and even I have problems reading the Vatican.va website.
4) Getting it right. At one point, when I was having computer problems, the Vatican officials were addressed by a British blogger stating firmly that most bloggers are just people with their opinions writing and have no interest at all in being regulated. Someone near me said “But I didn’t hear that!” I wasn’t quite following the conversation enough to know what really happened there. But there was clear concern on the Vatican's officials part regarding getting accurate information to people, and making it all easy to access (hence a coming news portal out of the Vatican, which will be at news.va ). Look, I’ll say some hard words here, and I don't know how to sugar coat them: while I don't think regulation is practical for this platform of writing, and likely not desirable on a few different levels, I don’t know why bloggers think they should get a complete free pass on the information highway. I speak as an academic theologian, and we have a similar tension—living at the new edges of faith meeting the world, but wanting and needing to be faithful to revelation and tradition. WE get called out by bishops when we get out of line. And we try to self-regulate through extensive peer criticism and evidence-based research. What makes you think bloggers shouldn’t expect something of the same? Arguably, blogs have bigger readerships! I’m not advocating, I’m just asking you to think: we as Christians have a moral obligation to represent the faith as rightly as we can under our circumstances and given our ability. The bishops have a vocational obligation to protect the faith handed down by the apostles, as it is taught and disseminated. One reason I “get going” on this is that, frankly, I occasionally see bloggers get matters of the faith flat-out wrong. More often, partially wrong, confusing interpretation for dogma. Sometimes people do charitably confront the blogger, and that fraternal correction is rejected by the groupies (or the blogger!). I know—welcome to the human condition and the reality of sin, it’s not just in the blogosphere—but given the reality that we Christians are missionaries always, we need to remember that we are writing in service of edifying others, growing in faith, and presenting the faith to Google Search newcomers. Always. We’re not here to advocate our pious opinions (p.s. that’s a theological phrase, not a put-down) as dogma to our clique. You want to do that, at least use facebook rather than a blog—it’s a closed circuit.
5) Since I’m all in Jiminy Cricket (or better, Alphonsus Ligouri) mode, the other thing that was raised, but once again not fully addressed, was how to blog morally. Those bloggers who are straddling the blogger/journalist/opinion lines could, for example, self-consciously and openly follow the code of ethics set out by journalism guilds (I'm not saying they don't, just saying it isn't expressed on those blogs often, if at all). Perhaps religiously-based bloggers should create a higher code (and yes, I know that no one is exempt from the 10 commandments and Church law. Still, thinking through specific applications to your craft is useful. Witness the debate on whether LiveAction’s undercover Planned Parenthood stings constitute lying or not).
But beyond the news blogging crowd—I think all Catholic bloggers need their own code of conduct, and we need to hold each other accountable (charitably!). I am most disturbed when people who blog engage in ad hominem attacks. Detraction online is still detraction. Mean is still mean. And the Body of Christ is the Body of Christ. And there is so much guilt by association—"people who write for this journal must be right, or that one must be wrong". Any of the theologians we ALL respect, from Augustine to Aquinas to Anselm to Newman, would SKEWER us for lack of charity and lack of attention to argument. A recommended code of moral conduct, created by ourselves, would be outstanding. And I would be happy to accept one from the Vatican Office of Social Communication. Hint, hint.
A lot of good is done through blogging, and the potential is enormous. It is a medium with limits (brevity, speed of output, misreadings of written intentions), but with incredible strength as well (brevity!, outreach, worldwide engagement, access to information). I think we need to remember that hope and humility attract, and pride and hypocrisy drive people away—and away from more than your blog, away from the Church. Ultimately away from God.
It’s the human project, written on a computer screen. We need all the help and support we can get, and as always, I encourage you all to call me out if I get out of line on this blog.
St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists and writers, great lover of God, pray for us.
Other random observations and thoughts, serious and not:
- If there is a next time, could the tags be color coded by language, so we know who we can talk with easily? In fact, could we have met the same language people formally beforehand (in small groups, for example).
- Rocco Palmo mentioned that there used to be a time when he could sit on a story for 10-12 hrs. My amused thought was “Really? Don’t you post these items as they are formulated in your subject’s brain?” :) BTW, Rocco seems like such a thoughtful and easy-going man, a great representative for us all. Nicely done, Rocco.
- I asked on fb what on earth one wears to the Vatican if you don’t own a habit. I went for the white shirt/black sweater/closest I could get to being a nun look, paired with a bright striped skirt. My 9 year old daughter told me I looked like an Italian peasant girl. Oh well, back to the family’s roots.
- I was so glad to meet Kat of the Crescat (who is fun and charming), Erik from Holland, Kathy Schiffer, Susan Vigilante (got a picture of the two of us, Ray: Minnesota bloggers at the Vatican!), Elizabeth Scalia, Narda (story below), Brandon Vogt at OSV, Carol Glatz at CNS, Kris McGregor at Spiritradio. Wish I could have met others.
- I’m just about done with the word "authentic". It has gone down the way of words that are used to attack others rather than affirm love and truth (along with words "conservative" and "liberal" in the USA). It’s really too bad; it used to be such a great little word....
- Kat was drinking double fisted as we went into the second session. She said I could print that. (small cups of vino, really)
- What’s the difference between an action and a smear campaign on the internet? Can we answer that?
- Fr. Roderick V. seems to be such a genial and genuine man. I liked what he had to say a lot: a calling “to be a shepherd to those who don’t know they need a shepherd.”
- Thomas Peters asked the best question of the day on the feasibility of releasing sensitive information (embargoed news stories) to bloggers as well as news outlets.
- Narda of the "From the pews" blog gave a small shriek when I identified my blog as the Ironic Catholic. I reacted by jumping and accidentally spitting an appetizer in her face. We're best buds now.
- We looked pretty spiffy for folks who typically blog in our PJs.