Critical blogging – some thoughts

Knowledgeable laity

In the process of becoming an active Catholic blogger, I have been introduced to a fair number of colleagues, so to speak: people who are Catholic and blog about their faith and the Church. Sometimes they are diarists writing about their personal experiences, sometimes professional theologians or priests and sometimes knowledgeable lay people. Any combination of the above is also possible of course, but I want to focus specifically on the latter group: the knowledgeable laity.

These are often devoted Catholics who know their way around theology and liturgy, the world Church and their local parish. As such they can, and often will, connect what happens on the local level to the greater theological trends and events in Rome, as well as Church history and dogma. And that is good. The individual parishes and dioceses aren’t separate but, to paraphrase yesterday’s second reading, members of one body, and the body as a whole is the deciding factor of the actions of the members, even if sometimes unconsciously.

These knowledgeable lay bloggers have an acute awareness of the connection between members and body, and vice versa. And that is perhaps especially so when something disturbs that connection, when a member does not fit in well, or does something that is harmful to other members or the body as a whole. In the Netherlands there are many instances, past and present, of such a disruption, and these pop up in the media every now and then. Parishes coming up with homemade liturgies, priests or pastoral workers spouting non-Catholic theology, and they often do it without knowing it.

Bishops

In a diocese the bishop is ultimately responsible for making sure the members – faithful, priests, parishes – under his jurisdiction are healthy and function well. The bishops of a Church province are gathered in a bishops’ conference and this conference is called to Rome regularly – theoretically every five years – in a so-called ad limina visit. In Rome, they meet with curia officials and the pope to discuss the specific events, positive and negative, in their Church province. Often, the conclusions of an ad limina visit are collected in a document, and the bishops return home with, literally, a mission. It is but one of the means through which the body of the Church makes sure its members are healthy and function properly. It may sound horribly clinical, but in a gathering as large as the Catholic Church, clear regulations are a boon.

The Dutch bishops last visited Rome in 2004, so the next visit should have taken place last year. However, the five-year minimum is somewhat flexible due to time constraints of pope, curia and local bishops. The next ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops will, however, not be far off.

Detecting problems

There are also other ways for members and body to function properly. The members themselves may detect a disturbance and alert other members and the body. They are often closer to the action, after all. But what is the best way to follow this route?

There are members of the group of knowledgeable lay bloggers who take it upon themselves to alert other members, specifically other faithful, the bishops and the rest of the magisterium. They do so through blogging about illegal developments in parishes and dioceses, collecting reports of individual infractions or dubious developments, and sometimes hinting at plans to send it to Rome on the occasion of a future ad limina visit.

The question is: does this work?

On one level it does. It makes people aware of what goes on, and why certain developments are not good. Awareness of the problem is essential when you want to find a solution.

On another level it does not work; the bloggers’ tone and emphasis on the negative will put people off from either the blog, its author or, worse, the bishops responsible and the Church. Then you end up with members operating outside the body. Too often, the blogs in question paint pictures of faithful, priests, pastoral workers and bishops that are not favourable, to put it mildly. They say the responsible parties do nothing, keep their eyes closed. Sometimes such criticism is justified, but not when the goal is finding a remedy to the problem.

In the Church we have bishops and priests to act as shepherds of their flock, to lead them and do what is necessary to keep the flock together and on track. The flock does not decide what, when and how a shepherd will act, although a good shepherd looks at his flock’s signs and bases his actions on that. The approach I outlined above is basically a case of sheep trying to taking over from the shepherd. An oft-heard complaint is that a bishop does not act, or not soon enough. I would say that not all actions of a shepherd are, or should be, public knowledge. Deducing that something goes wrong in a parish does not mean that the bishop sits back and condones it. Maybe he is working on finding a solution, or perhaps he is waiting for an official report which takes time. Outside the diocesan offices there will be little indication of that. But the fact that we can’t see through walls does not mean that nothing happens behind those walls. We will see and hear once a door or window opens.

The approach of documenting the abuses and disturbances online and suggesting a lack of action from the parties responsible is ultimately incomplete  and wrong. It creates a certain measure of critical questioning, to be sure, but also frustration, antagonism, polarisation and a misguided sense of influence (a few hundred page views per day and a hundred followers of Twitter do not mean you have the ear of Rome), but does not lead to concrete solutions.

In my opinion any lasting solutions can only be achieved through and by the body of the Church as a whole, so through the hierarchy as it exists. Bishops and other responsible persons must be made aware of abuses, but can’t be left out of any debate or discussion. It is the duty of the reporting party to ask directly for answers from the responsible party. Simply throwing it online and expecting a bishop to read it and come running with a solution does not cut it. Neither does ignoring said bishop and hurry to tell his superiors, or paint a  picture of him.

I often get the impression that people see priests and bishops as mere appointed officials in the bureaucratic system, and not as the ordained members of the Church of Christ. Through their ordination they have the obligation and ability to teach and shepherded, but also the right to our obedience.

I’ll end with some words from Father Martin Kromann Knudsen, FSSP, found here:

The pope, the bishops and the priests have the power to lead and manage us in the name of Christ. Through them we received the merciful life through baptism, they give us the bread of heaven and raise us to be children of God. In Christ’s place they are our spiritual fathers. We must honour them, love them and obey them. If we do not agree with them we must keep that to ourselves. It is not honourable for a Catholic to openly protest the authority of the Church. An obedient child of the Church ideally offers his displeasure in prayer, and returns to his religious duties, which is to sanctify his soul.

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A look back at the conference

The conference I attended yesterday afternoon was certainly interesting. All in all, a dozen or so student societies and other groups were represented, all of them Christian in some way, shape or form.  The introductions included some words from Prof. Zwarts (pictured), Rector Magnificus of the university, about what he thinks the role of the Christian societies in the larger framework of the university should be. He sees them as anchor points in the expanding student population in the city, that can help people keep their bearings in the large anonymous and often new world of university life. He said he counts on them to maintain the human side of things, while the university obviously works on the academic and official business. It was quite surprising to see how much value Prof. Zwarts attaches to having specifically Christian groups involved with a secular university.

The first major item of the conference were the so-called ‘talks by representatives of the various groups’. I was one of those, teamed up with a fellow representing a Reformed (Liberated) group. It turned out to be more of an interview times five. In five ten-minute rounds we were asked questions about who we were and what we did, with a new audience every time. So a lot was repeated, but it was quite informative. For one, I found that the Reformed (Liberated) group is not too dissimilar from our student parish in the way it works, so perhaps some cooperation may be possible with them in the future.

After a break and a short talk by a professor in early church and New Testament studies on open communication (he postulated that the two seemingly separate bodies of church and society, while legitimately so, should not be isolated from each other), we teamed up in smaller groups, not by affiliation of denomination, but toally random, to throw ideas for future cooperation about. What could we do and what not, what kind of ideas already exist, what can we learn from each other, that sort of stuff. These ideas were then dicussed by the chairman for the day, who picked a few good ones and suggested we realise them.

All in all, the conference was fruitful. Form our perspective there is certainly is a wide gap between the various Protestant denominations on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other, but there was a lot of interest in us and enthusiasm for our presence. In the past, Bishop Eijk pulled us out of the general Christian platform to maintain our identity (and rigthly so, because a short while later that platform went from generally Christian to generally spiritual), but many people apparently were sorry to see us go.

In the next couple of days, the suggested ideas will be committed to paper and hopefully we’ll be able to work some of them out and maintain the contacts we have tentatively established. I think that the Reformed (Liberated) group and their miniter, as well as the Navigators, whose motto is as simple as knowing and witnessing Christ, can be good partners for us. We will be working towards a first event on Shrove Tuesday; we invited representatives of the groups at the conference to come and visit us then for drinks, a tour of the cathedral and a chance to get to know us a bit more.

Tomorrow: conference with Christian student clubs

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a ‘conference meeting’ of the various Christian student and study organisations here in Groningen, organised by the GSP. I’ll do so representing the student parish, together with Father Wagenaar, Guido, Inge and Maurits. Initially I tagged along out of interest: this conference sounds like a great opportunity to do some networking and establish some contacts, which would hopefully lead to us reaching more people. But yesterday I found I also have to hold a short introductory speech…

Well, I volunteered, to be honest, since there was no time for lengthy discussions about who would do it and what would be said. Reading the program, though, makes me wonder if this was smart: they’re talking about sharp questions and ‘pushing people hard’… Uh-oh.

But the conference sounds interesting. There’ll be a speech from the rector magnificus of the university, a lecture on ‘open communication’ and an opportunity to discuss things with other groups.

I’m curious to see what it’s all like and hopeful that we can further the ‘fame’ of the student parish.

Some extra information, in Dutch, here.