Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Behaving Virtuously in the Online Wild West


The Daughters of Saint Paul—or “media nuns” as we’re informally called—have been tasked by our founder Blessed James Alberione to use the “the fastest, most modern, most efficacious means” to preach the Gospel. In keeping with our mission in the Church, many of us have been ministering online for years. As a result of this ministry, I have had a variety of interactions with both Catholics and non-Catholics, both good and bad. As a former atheist, what most troubles me, though, is when I see Catholics behaving badly online. Because I know from experience that this active “anti-preaching” of the Gospel drives people from the Church.

However, while it can be easy to wag our fingers at Catholics’ unvirtuous behavior on the internet, the issue is complex and the “wild west” of online information can be difficult to navigate. For instance, many websites that claim to be “Catholic” often don’t reflect a fully Catholic worldview. Similarly, Catholic news sites vary in quality, with some strictly following journalistic standards while others editorialize facts with conjecture and thinly veiled ad hominem attacks.

To make it all even more complicated, online financial success is often less linked to sharing reliable information than to fomenting rage and shock. In the midst of this confusion, many Catholics lack the media literacy, not to mention the strong catechesis, needed to navigate this complex reality. Combine all this with the abuse crisis and decreased trust in hierarchal and official Catholic sources of information and it’s the perfect recipe for online confusion and toxicity.

In the face of this complex reality, each Catholic is called to examine his or her online behavior in order to both avoid serious sin and the spread of misinformation. We must beware of the temptation to consider our online life devoid of moral implications. The internet is not a playground parallel to the universe of actions by which we’ll be judged by God upon our death and at the end of time; digital sin can be just as damning as those we commit in person.

One serious sin prevalent online is calumny: injuring another’s good name by lying. However, it’s important to recognize that—rather unbelievably given the extreme accusations—many Catholics lobbing calumnious insults actually think they’re speaking the truth. Particularly relevant, therefore, is St. Thomas Aquinas’ warning that we “ought not to proceed to accuse except of what [we are] quite certain.” Unfortunately, far more common online than the careful and prudential thinking that leads to this certainty is the rash judgment that leads to calumny. In this respect, online Catholic media has a serious responsibility to avoid encouraging uncritical thinking that leads to inaccurate judgments.

Sadly, in this area we cannot always rely on Catholic media and public figures to be responsible and to act with integrity.

Therefore, we must take personal responsibility to educate ourselves to avoid rash judgments online. Too many Catholics think they justly can spread invective and accusations against other people after watching a few YouTube videos. But far more is required to be certain one speaks the truth. Two questions we must constantly ask ourselves are: “Do I understand this topic fully enough to make accurate judgments?” and “Do I know for certain that my accusation about this person is correct?” Very often, if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot answer both questions affirmatively.

When we are uncertain whether we are speaking the truth, some rules of thumb can help us act more virtuously online. These rules help us to identify media bias and potentially false information that can lead to rash judgments.

1: Avoid Catholic media and online figures that regularly attack people rather than ideas. This bad habit can be identified in the regular use of adjectives and nouns to attack a person or group in place of logical arguments against ideas. Lazy ad hominem argumentation is so ubiquitous online that Catholics must constantly be wary of falling for this manipulative form of communication. It’s far easier to attack people than to attack false ideas, but the latter is what helps us to think more critically and to grow intellectually, while the former just leads to sin.

2: Learn to identify guesswork that claims knowledge of another person’s motivations or causes of behavior. While we can judge an action to be immoral, we can never know another person’s motivations or thoughts. Despite this reality, countless people “psychologize” their ideological enemies online and pretend to know what’s in their hearts. Avoid potentially false conclusions about a situation or person by learning to identify this tactic that merely inflames passion rather helping us reason with clarity.

3: Recognize that factual truth in itself is not enough. People often excuse unvirtuous behavior online by declaring, “But it’s true!” The first problem with this response is that these people rarely have applied the first two rules of thumb, so they shouldn’t be so certain of truth. But, also, the fact that something is true in itself does not excuse unvirtuous behavior. Too many of us think this limited sense of truth excuses throwing around accusations and angry invective online. Indeed, this hearkening to the beauty of truth to excuse unvirtuous behavior is perhaps one of the most wily and twisted excuses for sin in use.

To be beacons of truth online, we must always ask ourselves an essential question: “Am I called to say this? Is it edifying?” Factual truth in itself is not the fullness of truth in the Christian sense. As Christians, we are one in the Body of Christ, and truth is always and only at the service of this unity. This is not to say that we can never challenge other people, but we are called to do so in a particular way.

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul gives us guidance: “Let us then pursue what leads to peace and to building up one another” (14:19). While accurate reasoning is admirable, we are not called as Christians to merely make logical arguments online. Nonbelievers can do that. Rather, as Catholics, we are called to embody the truth. Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth, and the life (see John 14:6). Therefore, we are called to always strive to speak and act in and through the unity of Christ. Only then are we living in authentic service to the Truth.