Aristotle opened Metaphysics with a simple statement: “All men by nature desire to know.” 2,500 years later, the question we face today–in a culture where we are continuously bombarded with information–is whether this desire can be tempered and directed toward wholesome ends. Our collective online behavior suggests the task might be monumental. We live in “a culture of zapping,” as Pope Francis wrote in Gaudete et Exsultate, between multiple screens and scenarios (167). We fail to clamp down on an idea and work it over in our minds, discerning what is good and true and what is of the evil one.
Even more so, the current state of online theology reveals that the task is not only difficult but perhaps even impossible. Not only are heresies and other deviations from the faith common on the internet, but social media incentivizes people to be provocative rather than true, to produce rather than reflect, and to be angry rather than charitable — perhaps even to the extent of funding the commission of a criminal act, recording it, and hawking the video for the clicks.
In fact, the very livelihoods of many of these “social media theologians” depends on the size of their audiences and requires a high level of engagement. This inevitably leads to bad theology. During Francis’ pontificate, even some professional theologians and clergy–who theoretically do not have such perverse incentives–have been peddling bad theology. The role of the professional theologian should include distilling the Church’s teaching for Catholics with less formal training, yet many have maneuvered and politicked to gain greater influence over the people of God and to direct us to follow an alternative magisterium.
It may be helpful here to define theology. I tend to accept St. Anselm’s broad view of theology as simply “faith seeking understanding.” By that standard, anyone who has faith and is seeking understanding is, in some fashion, a theologian. Theology is traditionally considered the “queen of sciences,” and every Christian benefits when he or she advances in the study of theology. It is one thing to say that one has an advantage in life if one understands Newton’s Laws of Motion; at the same time, there are few tangible benefits for most people if they learn the math behind the Dzhanibekov Effect. But in theology, the opposite is true: the further one advances, always rooted in that initial proclamation of God’s love, the more one’s life and understanding of the universe is transformed in increasingly practical ways.
Anselm’s definition is particularly applicable in this era of mass communication. Today, there are countless theological resources available to us for free. In theory, anyone with an internet connection has greater access to quality theological work than any typical medieval scholar had. Many of us wrestle with this content on a regular basis and are publicly striving to understand it better.
On the one hand, this is good. When we discuss theology with others, we can learn together (“iron sharpens iron”) and challenge mistaken notions and errors. An optimist might imagine the potential for a level of widespread theological understanding that would have been impossible prior to the existence of the internet. Quick and free access to the Catechism and the Summa Theologica offer hope, for example. On the other hand, the public striving toward greater understanding from people with a variety of formal theological training (or none at all) can give the impression that the state of Catholic theology and catechesis is very poor. That impression is not unfounded.
Of course, the work of good theology is ongoing, mostly hidden from the masses within the enclave of a handful of universities and institutions. Occasionally, quality theological work is published online by thoughtful writers. The problem is not that good theology doesn’t exist–it certainly does!–it is that it is completely and utterly drowned out by a deluge of hacks and amateur theologians (including myself), who believe we have a role to play in educating people about the faith, while protecting the Church against other hacks and amateur theologians. Admittedly, when I argue that my work should be allowed in the public square, it also applies to those with whom I disagree. This is certainly a Catch-22.
Unfortunately, good academic theology is also many levels removed from the day-to-day experience of the common social media “theologian.” I am at the top of my game when I share videos that feature fake Irish brogue and the mocking of bad analogies for the Trinity, while professional theologians are discussing the sensus fidelium, Christian anthropology, and the nature of the common good. There is a huge gap between what ordinary Catholics in the pews need from the Church in order to improve their understanding of their faith and what they are actually receiving. Those with the knowledge and vocational mandate to teach the faith, such as professional theologians and even bishops, are consistently failing to adequately pass on the faith at a level that meets the needs of the people. They have more or less ceded the responsibility of teaching the Gospel to whatever independent media apostolate has the most effective marketing strategy.
Admittedly, professional theologians usually have very little to gain and lots to lose by attempting to correct every falsehood online. They have careers to protect, careers that are often predicated on teaching well and contributing to their fields with well-researched papers and that give careful consideration to serious subjects. The chaos and division fostered by unqualified and poorly-formed public figures in Catholic media today suggests that trained theologians do not currently have the willingness or the influence to play the role of “theology police” on the internet and social media. Those who are willing to try inevitably waste their time arguing with trolls and prideful and stubborn novices, while reactionaries with larger audiences ridicule them from well-funded media outlets. And yet, the anger and falsehoods continue to spread.
In response to this sorry state of affairs, some have proposed a system of “yellow checks.” A yellow check, issued by a bishop, would signify that a person has at least some training in theology, indicating that his or her theological writing ought to be viewed with a greater degree of authority than the average person’s.
Despite the relative simplicity and potential effectiveness of this approach, it does not solve the basic problems of online theology. For one thing, it does not make the bad theology go away. Even the idea’s proponents acknowledge this. Additionally, it does not preclude the possibility that those without their bishop’s “yellow check” will continue to be vastly more influential in the public sphere. After all, the messages of many popular Catholic figures are rooted in resistance to the bishops. Such a plan also optimistically assumes that bishops would be able to provide effective oversight of this program. Can they be trusted to adequately supervise a yellow check program? Will they be diligent enough to review every applicant? After someone is granted a yellow check, how would it be visible on websites and social media? Would yellow check-holders be subject to sufficient quality review and be quickly stripped of their yellow check when required?
And then of course, there is another problem. Bishops themselves are not immune — by any stretch — from holding incorrect opinions about what theology is permissible or is not. Yellow checks, rather than being a vehicle to facilitate public discussion, would undoubtedly become (in some dioceses) a means of suppressing valid and orthodox theological views that simply are not in line with a bishop’s.
Social media has opened up a world where bad theology spreads faster than the Church’s antiquated system of censure can respond. Even Francis himself has taken a rather hands-off approach to his high-profile detractors and veritable schismatics. Many bishops are notoriously slow to respond to problematic figures in their own dioceses. This is why ordinary people, like ourselves, have attempted to fill in the vacuum as well as we can. Those of us who contribute to Where Peter Is are working within the limits of our own knowledge and ability to lead people to the heart of the faith and protect them from wolves in sheep’s clothing who are trying to lead them astray. We are acutely aware of everyday Catholics — friends and family — who have been harmed by bad theology, and we are trying to prevent even more suffering. If we do nothing, then who will?
Some of us might be tempted to think it would be better for everyone to get off social media. Aside from the naivety underlying this thought, clearly that is not the solution. The very presence of social media and self-publishing tools puts pressure on traditional media to anticipate controversy and steer the conversation in self-serving ways. Previously, Catholics could somewhat rely on publishing houses and media platforms to be clearinghouses for good and worthwhile content, but they are increasingly affected by present trends, diminishing their ability to be effective gatekeepers, if they haven’t been put out of business altogether.
Perhaps the solution is to flood social media with high-quality content. The more Bishop Barrons we have, the better! But alas, this is unrealistic. Consistently good work is expensive and the resources available to dedicate to formal online theology are finite. The nature of social media is that it demands content that will be instantly relevant to an almost limitless number of niche audiences. There is no practical way to reach everyone all the time, in the way they want to hear it, with good, quality content.
The best solution, I believe, is to democratize the work of theology. This wouldn’t be a new privilege granted to Catholics online but more a recognition of reality. In fact, one misunderstanding of Catholic theology is that it is necessarily driven from the top down, flowing through the writings of PhDs and the preaching of our pastors. I understand the argument — it’s preferable to have people who know what they’re talking about being the loudest voices in the room. This perception, however, in addition to being somewhat blind to reality, smacks of a gnostic Christianity, where a more perfect understanding of God is concentrated among a select few, while everyone else is obligated to simply listen to the people “in the know.” Democratizing theology could also combat clericalism while also highlighting the responsibility of each Christian to grow in understanding.
At the same time, if we democratize theology, it also means that we should hold all theologians — professional and amateur — to the rules of debate and discussion as outlined by the church in Donum Veritatis, first among which is charity and respect for the magisterium. Without necessitating a formal yellow check system implemented by bishops, there should be some basic level of training and certification available to Catholics who theologize online. In theory, we would hold each other to these standards as opposed to relying on bishops to do it for us.
Ultimately, good theology is done carefully and with humility, acknowledging that all worthwhile knowledge and understanding is a gift of God. We cannot expect people to refrain from taking sides or politicizing the work of theology — this is a problem as old as the Church itself — but through our personal virtue we can increase the likelihood that the quality of online content will be measured by its charity, rather than by its virality. This requires, at a minimum, that we are willing to admit when we are wrong and when an interlocutor is right.
Donum Veritatis described the progressive institutionalization of the work of theology over time, which became subject to “rigorous critical standards, and thus to a rational verification of each stage of his research” (9). Sadly, 30 years after this document was written, such rigorous critical standards seem to be mostly irrelevant to the typical Catholic. Social media has deinstitutionalized theology in dramatic fashion. Today, everyone with a mobile phone has a megaphone in their pocket, meaning that bad theology cannot be corrected through power and influence but only with a merciful approach that respects that God works over time. Our primary responsibility as evangelizers is not to “win” or persuade but to begin processes rooted in love that the Holy Spirit brings to fruition in time.
I have no authority in the Church; I only have a bachelor’s degree in theology. But more important than any academic credential is the fact that I can personally attest to the goodness of God and his boundless mercy. I may not study theology very rigorously anymore, but through prayer I can see God’s love present in my life, in my family, and in his creation. As Pope Francis taught on the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding, “This is what the Holy Spirit does with us: he opens our minds, he opens us to understand better, to understand better the things of God, human things, situations, all things.” To understand God is to think with the mind of God, to see things as they truly are and not just as they appear. Our goal is not to know many more things, but to know things more deeply, as God himself knows them. This begins not with a tweet or a Facebook post, but with God in the silence of our hearts.