A donnybrook recently broke out in Catholic cyberspace (otherwise known as St. Blog's Parish) when a prominent Catholic blogger made an off-the-cuff criticism on her personal Facebook page of a "news story" on Pope Francis. I put the words news story in quotation marks because although the host site presents itself as a news organization, in my opinion it is really a blog written and published by pro-life culture warriors.
The blogger's Facebook thread quickly gathered hundreds of comments, and other Catholic Facebook pages and blogs exploded with defenses of and criticisms of the thread. Before it was over, the blogger's head had been demanded on a pike; the writer whose article had been critiqued had been exalted as a paragon of virtue, unjustly persecuted by the unwashed masses; and another blogger had shuttered his blog out of horror at the spectacle of Catholic in-fighting.
What interests me for the purpose of this blog post is not the incident itself, and that is why I have not provided links to the blogger, writer, or sundry commentators (as is my usual custom), but have merely offered a bare sketch of what transpired. What interests me is the presumption that undergirded the firefight—that it is a violation of charity for good Catholics to critique each other's work.
This attitude is one that is familiar to me. On occasion, I too have been roundly criticized for critiquing other Catholics' work on my personal Facebook page. For instance, on a couple of occasions I shared on my page some apologetics concerns I had about articles appearing on a Catholic web site dedicated to the New Feminism (the New Feminism basically being a retooling of Old Feminism, intended for orthodox Catholics and inspired by St. John Paul II's critique of secular feminism). The site's webmistress was informed of my concerns and was upset. Rather than accept an invitation I extended to join in the conversation on my page—which, in and of itself, was fine—she sent me a personal letter of rebuke and she later complained on her site of Catholic women who laugh at other Catholic women "in ministry."
(Nota bene: Without delving too deeply into this second case, I will simply note that I did not laugh at her and that I do not consider either of us to be "in ministry." Ministry, in Catholic parlance, is for the ordained. Lay Catholics may have—or work for—apostolates, but they are not, ordinarily speaking, "ministers.")
The example of the early Christians
Let's begin by dispelling the myth that Christians should not criticize each other's work. All you have to do to demonstrate the fallacy of that assertion is to look at the apologetics work of the early Church Fathers—especially when tender souls complain that pagans knew the early Christians by their love and would be horrified at how Catholics criticize each other today.
Take, for example, the patron saint of crabby Catholics and my personal favorite among the Church Fathers, St. Jerome. In his classic defense of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, St. Jerome opened Against Helvidius thusly:
I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating.
St. Jerome did not believe in mincing words.
These days, Catholics rightly moderate their rhetoric so as to accommodate modern sensitivities. Rhetorical flourishes appropriate in St. Jerome's day would only create barriers to evangelism today, and Catholics need to remember St. Paul's advice about evangelism:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. . . . To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19–23).
Now, what does the Church have to say about charity?
The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction; it is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion: Love is itself the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest (emphasis added).
Charity demands fraternal correction. Why? Because charity must be at the service of truth, without which it is blind, as Benedict XVI once noted. And, of course, fraternal correction cannot be delivered with a hammer because "truth without love would be like a clanging cymbal."
Offering charitable criticism
How do we balance defending the truth while acting in love? Here are some suggestions:
Choose your venue carefully. If you are offering a personal opinion, publish it in a place where you can take full responsibility for your opinion. If you have a personal blog or social media page, that is preferable to posting your opinion on other people's pages or on sites that may not want to be roped into hosting your opinion. For example, for the most part I avoid "naming names" on the Catholic Answers Blog because I do not want readers to mistake my personal opinion for Catholic Answers' official opinion. If I have a personal opinion to offer, I usually do so on my personal Facebook page.
Avoid anonymity. Anonymous commenting is the bane of the Internet. It can be helpful in some circumstances if a commenter is judicious and uses prudence, but it is all too easy to speak harshly when your name is not associated with your opinions. Having to sign your name to your opinions, especially when they can then be archived in Internet search engines in perpetuity, will very likely act as a moderating influence on your rhetoric.
Substantiate your opinions. In this blog post, I have mostly avoided providing links for the very specific purpose of not reigniting controversy, especially when it would distract from the purpose of this post. But in most of my blogging, I am very careful to link to news articles, Church documents, and essays that substantiate the assertions I make. It is important to give your readers the opportunity to compare your assertions to the relevant evidence so that they can decide for themselves whether or not you are a credible witness. Likewise, if an online commentator does not document the claims he makes (or if he links only to other commentators who agree with him and not to independent sources), that is a sign that the commentator is not trustworthy.
Consider criticism. Anyone who has an opinion to offer on the Internet is going to experience blowback from those who disagree. You cannot allow every negative word spoken about you or written about you to dissuade you from stating what you believe to be right and necessary. But you can keep an eye out for common themes in the criticism you receive. If multiple individuals, unknown to each other but united in their opinion of you, tell you that your rhetoric is harsh, or condescending, or unkind, or judgmental, you should think about that and consider how you might adjust your style.
Protect tender souls. As St. Paul noted, we have a duty to protect the vulnerable. That may mean deleting blog posts or social media posts that instigate widespread or sustained controversy. Keep in mind that your posts will not be entirely eliminated from Internet search engines, but you can at least do what you can to make them harder to find. And, in some cases, protecting tender souls may mean making it impossible for them to be harmed by what you say, even if that means blocking individuals from a personal page. Such blocks should not be construed as uncharitable but as a protection offered those unable to bear reasonable critique.
Accepting criticism in charity
Offering criticism is easy compared to accepting criticism of one's own work. But those who choose to enter the arena as public figures have a duty to allow people to have and to offer negative critiques of their work. If you cannot bear to hear any dissent from your views, then I can only recommend that you save your nuggets of wisdom for memoirs to be published after your death. Otherwise, dodging rotten tomatoes is one of the occupational hazards of becoming a public figure.
Here are some suggestions for growing a thick skin:
Consider the source. In the course of my apologetics career, I have been called crude names which I cannot repeat here and told that I am leading people to hell. Since these opinions have been offered on web sites where the Pope is disparaged on a daily basis, the ordinary form of the Mass is mocked, and the authors of these comments are generally unpleasant to anyone who crosses their radar, I do not take such criticisms personally. I merely laugh and move on with my day. If crudities and viciousness are slung your way, dodge and ignore. There is no better revenge than to allow your enemies to believe they have not been noticed.
Respond proportionately. If you decide that a response is necessary—and sometimes a response is necessary—take care not to escalate the battle. If the provocation is made out of the public eye, do not insert the matter into the public eye unless there is grave reason to do so. If it is in the public eye, then respond within the venue in which the issue arose and in a manner proportionate to the offense given. For example, if someone makes a brief, off-the-cuff remark on her personal Facebook page, it is not necessary to write blog posts thousands of words in length to respond.
Defend yourself; discourage defenses. If you are the subject of a critique, it is your responsibility to defend your own self if you choose. Anyone else who steps up to swing their bats in your defense should be discouraged, kindly but firmly. Of course, people are going to publish what they choose and you can only do so much to discourage them from doing so, but you would look far more mature and gracious if you are seen to be doing what you can to put out fires set in the name of defending you. Going back to the example of the off-the-cuff remark, a like remark on your own page acknowledging that you are not offended or in need of defense, however well-meant, makes you appear admirable.
(Nota bene: Keep in mind that this applies also, and perhaps more so, to your personal friends and relatives—more so because you have more direct influence over them. Your inner circle may feel righteously indignant on your behalf, but they will make you appear weak and pitiable if you allow them to swipe at critics in your defense. Thank them for their indignation, and the love for you that their indignation demonstrates, but gently inform them that it is your responsibility to defend your own work.)
Rise above. Finally, what if you have done all that you can to present your best work in defense of your position; have carefully substantiated your assertions and moderated your rhetoric; and are confident you have spoken the truth in love? Let your work speak for itself. Either your work will disappear into the mists of time, never to trouble anyone again (as happened to Helvidius's pamphlet), or it will stand on its own as a testament to the truth (like St. Jerome's response).
The critical choices
Ultimately, when it comes to giving and accepting criticism, you have a decision to make. Two pagan philosophers lay out the choices. The Greek philosopher Aristotle offered one option: "To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing." Cicero, a Roman philosopher, offered another:
I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.