Last month in our "Dragnet" column, we noted that The National Catholic Reporter carried an article by its editor, Tom C. Fox, encouraging its readers to sign up with certain Internet lists (online discussion groups). Seeing an avenue by which our readers might promote the faith, we invited them to join the same lists. If nothing else, we figured, they might be able to offer some ideological balance.
But the members of at least one list, Sister-L, were not amused. Their list is devoted to the discussion of the religious life (mainly from a feminist perspective), and they bombarded me with angry messages--to use online jargon, they "flamed" me.
Below I share with you some of the messages and my responses to them. Please keep in mind that my responses were written on the fly; they were not the products of leisure and therefore are not as well phrased or as temperate as they might have been had the clock not been running. I offer them for your inspection not as models for you to follow, but to show you a real-life, unedited commentary:
To: Kenneth [sic] Keating:
In the November 1994 issue of your magazine, you included a report on the NCR article on Internet lists. It said, among other things:
"The National Catholic Reporter, in its October 28 issue, ran an article about Catholics using the Internet. Thomas C. Fox recommended several e-mail lists to the liberal readership of NCR. We recommend those same lists, but for a different reason. By signing up you can counter the self-satisfaction of the heterodox for whom these lists are intended. This is a fine way to engage in long-distance apologetics. You need have no worry about receiving unwelcomed visitors at your door or strange missives in the regular mail. In each case, when you subscribe using your e-mail program, leave the 'subject' line blank. When writing your name, do not include the square brackets. . . .
"Sister-L: Fox describes this list as dealing with the 'history and contemporary concerns of women religious,' which means the usual concerns of radical feminists. To subscribe, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the message area write "subscribe Sister-L [your name] . . . If you engage in this cyberspace apostolate, please drop us a line and let us know how you fare [email@example.com] [sic]. Inquiring minds want to know."
As co-owner of Sister-L, I would like to know on what basis you make the allegation--in print--that the meaning of our official description 'means the usual concerns of radical feminists.' Any evidence you have for this potentially libelous charge would be greatly appreciated. For your information, I sent an announcement of the list, when it began, to the CMSWR [Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the leadership group for more conservative religious]. Surely I would not have done this if the purpose of the list was to push a 'radical feminist agenda' (whatever that is!). There are no litmus tests for subscriptions [memberships]. However, the list does have stated purposes, and ideologically-motivated politicizing is not one of them.
Should any of your readers decide to try to transform the list into a forum for your apologetical agenda, I can assure you that it will not be tolerated. The article from which I have quoted does not, it seems to me, represent responsible journalism.
Margaret Susan Thompson, Ph.D.
cc: Sr. Ritamary Bradley
Dear Prof. Thompson:
Thanks you for clearing up a confusion. I had been under the impression that Tom Fox would recommend a women's list only if it adhered to the feminist line. Perhaps I wrote rashly and Sister-L is intended to express the concerns primarily of, say, sisters associated with Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica.
I note with satisfaction that you consider it "potentially libelous" to be accused of founding a list that caters to "the concerns of radical feminists." As you know, one can claim that a phrase is "potentially libelous" if it falsely imputes to another something such as a loathsome disease. (Ah, there's my legal background peeking out!) It's encouraging to know that you consider feminism to be loathsome.
You say that "any evidence you have for this potentially libelous charge would be greatly appreciated." I suppose we both will see the evidence as we download exchanges from the list, won't we?
If it turns out that Sister-L is not a vehicle for feminism, we gladly will print a retraction. (We expecially look forward to the list's founders' explanation of why the Holy Father was correct in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.)
By the way, we did not suggest that there is a litmus test to subscribe to the list. Had that been our understanding, we would not have recommended that our readers subscribe. After all, most of them would fail the only kind of litmus test we could imagine such a list having.
Thank you for your message. May God continue to keep you in his mercy.
P.S. My name isn't Kenneth Keating. Perhaps you have me mixed up with the one-time U.S. Senator? Of course, he was around many years ago . . .
I have asked the postmaster at AOL [America Online] to discuss with you the inappropriateness of the following post: ". . . If you engage in this cyberspace apostolate, please drop us a line and let us know how you fare [firstname.lastname@example.org] [sic]. Inquiring minds want to know." I would urge you to print a retraction to those to whom it was sent.
Before you start denouncing people to the authorities, a la Joe McCarthy, please get your facts straight--which you could have done by e-mailing me first.
What you think was a post on the Internet was no such thing. It was part of an article in a print magazine. The article mentioned several Internet lists, and someone on one of those lists incorporated part of the text of the article in her own Internet post.
Neither the article nor any of the Internet lists has anything to do with AOL, and AOL was not even mentioned in the article, so I can't see why you think it necessary to bring AOL into the matter.
In your quotation you put in brackets my AOL address, as though I was soliciting an e-mail reply from the readers. But the material in brackets did not appear in the magazine, and the phrase "drop us a line," as everyone knows, means "send us a letter by U.S. mail."
I hope in the future you will give more consideration to people's free speech rights and will get your facts straight.
Do you think I should contact the people who run [your Internet provider] and complain that you have been spreading false information and request that they reprimand you? It seems that you are the one who should circulate a retraction.
To Mr. Keating:
How shocking to read your article in This Rock, deriding Sister-L and other lists suggested by The National Catholic Reporter. More shocking, further, is your invitation to disturb the dialogue among those for whom the lists were created. I know of nothing in the Gospels, in civilized morality, or in Church orthodoxy that would approve of such tactics. Of course, your proposed plan of action does closely resemble the pre-adolescent mischief of young boys who tramp down others' tomato patches just to cause grief. Perhaps your program is more closely akin to window breaking and laying banana skins in the path of the unwary walker.
"The usual concerns of radical feminists"? You have resorted to a smear word, without specified content, but designed to spread ill-will at the very least. What are "radical feminists," and what are their "usual concerns"?
Have you carefully read the "introductions" sent by many Sister-L subscribers and decided that all these people--scholars, nuns of many decades, wheel-chair bound religious, friends of women religious, inquirers, members of professional societies, etc.--deserve your pre-judgment, disdain, and disruption? How dare you imply that you and those you invite to your program are the "orthodox" and the subscribers to Sister-L are the "heterodox"? Would you please take your adolescent mischief elsewhere?
You have a strangely-twisted notion of "apostolate," as well as apparent ignorance of the norms that are to make cyberspace a realm of respectful dialogue and exchange. My dear friend, the age of the Crusades is long past, and the Church does not glory in the violence it occasioned.
Again: Please grow up!
St. Ambrose University
Dear Sr. Bradley:
As you will recall, it was Claude Rains, in Casablanca, who had that great line, which went something like this: "I am shocked--shocked I say--to discover there is gambling going on at Rick's." At which point the croupier handed Rains his winnings. It was an amusing scene, and so it is amusing to find that you think it "shocking" for This Rock to "deride" (your word) the lists recommended by The National Catholic Reporter. And you find it "more shocking" that we could suggest to our readers that they subscribe to the lists and participate in the exchanges.
It was our impression that when Mr. Fox wrote his invitation, he meant it to apply to all who came across his article. He is a sophisticated man and no doubt knows that not everyone who subscribes to his newspaper agrees with the opinions expressed in it.
You say that you "know of nothing in the Gospels, in civilized morality, or in Church orthodoxy that would approve of such tactics." Don't you sense that you've gone overboard here? Granted, there's nothing in the Gospels about responding to open invitations to subscribe to Internet lists, and perhaps, in the name of "civilized morality," this whole matter should be brought up to the U.N. General Assembly or at least to the World Health Organization.
But don't you think it's stretching matters a bit to wrap these lists in the mantle of "Church orthodoxy"? After all, they no doubt will be forums to promote such things as women's ordination, the use of contraception, abortion (at least in some circumstances), and idolatry ("goddess spirituality," as Mr. Fox put it). Not a single one of these falls under the rubric of "orthodox," unless one feels an irresistible political impulse to adopt even inapplicable terms.
You want to know how I "dare" to imply that people who support my apostolate are the "orthodox" while "the subscribers to Sister-L are the 'heterodox.'" Easy. I use litmus tests. When subscribers to Sister-L can write that they accept without reservation the teaching of Humanae Vitae, I happily will confer on them the title "orthodox."
But for those who reject authoritative teachings of the Church, whether on this or any other matter, they settle upon themselves the apt title "heterodox," which, as you know, comes from Greek words meaning "contrary opinion"--in this case, contrary to the Church.
I must say, as I said in my reply to Prof. Thompson's message, that I am pleased to learn that you think it is a smear to accuse someone of being a feminist. This, at least, is encouraging.
Dear Mr. Keating,
First, my apologies for attributing the wrong first name to you; I hope you will forgive that.
On Sister-L, we do not limit discussion of religious life to any one vision of what that vocation is all about. Some of our subscribers are feminist (though, again, what "radical feminist" is, in your view, is not clear from either the magazine excerpt or your message to me). Some are not feminist. We try not to judge individuals or to attach labels to them. For the record (apparently you are an attorney?), I do think of myself as a feminist.
But, since we have no questionnaire or other litmus test for subscribers, except that they be respectful of the religious vocation and of honest dialogue about it, I have no idea how many others on the list (now about 350) would think of themselves that way. And--it doesn't matter! So, no, I do not find feminism "loathsome." What is more, since both the Holy Father and the U.S. Bishops have called for recognition of the full equality of women and men, I don't suppose they do, either. The most fundamental meaning of feminism is, of course, recognition of that equality and of the full human potential of women. While I do not have my copy of John Paul's writings in front of me, I do know that he has stated his conviction on this matter clearly and repeatedly.
I'm sure there are many matters on which you and I would differ. For that matter, I know there are many matters on which the various subscribers of Sister-L differ! Still, those who have been on the list have remarked on its supportiveness, its spirit of charity, and its joy. I think we can agree that these are Christian values worth praising wherever they are to be found.
Margaret Susan Thompson
Dear Prof. Thompson:
Thank you for your reply. I'm pleased to learn that Sister-L is a list that encourages "honest dialogue" among people whose opinions may differ and that it "doesn't matter" whether subscribers are feminists or not.
That will be encouraging news to non-feminists who may wish to participate on a equal basis with feminists. After all, if we agree that there is an equality between men and women, certainly there must be an equality between feminist women and non-feminist women (and between feminist men and non-feminist men).
Yes, you are correct in stating that the Holy Father has given his view repeatedly, though I think you will agree that not many people would describe his view as pro-feminist; a better phrase might be "pro-feminine." However that may be, I hope your list will encourage so much diversity of opinion that even Catholics who disagree with feminism will be welcome.
I would request that you make a public correction to your stance. The Internet is not a place for this such behavior. One of the major rules of Netiquette [Internet etiquette] is not to get on a list simply to disagree with or "convert" the people on the list.
Also, from America Online's Terms of Service guidelines, "Participating successfully in newsgroups is a matter of common sense and common courtesy. Most AOL members are able to use their own sense of what is appropriate to guide their behavior. There will, however, always be innocent, inadvertent postings and there will also always be malicious, intentional postings. While it is not always clear which case is which, certain activities will result in an America Online member receiving a Terms of Service warning or more severe action. Postings that will result in Terms of Service actions include the following:
"Inappropriate Posts. Each newsgroup focuses on a particular set of topics. Posts not related to these topics are not appreciated by the participants. It is important that America Online members become familiar with the culture and guidelines of a particular newsgroup before posting. Doing so will make your experience with newsgroups much more pleasant."
The "culture and guidelines" of most newsgroups/mailing lists involve topics in which all members agree (or, at least, agree to disagree). Getting on a list simply to disagree with these topics is not appropriate. People on AOL have been known to loose their accounts over such matters.
But, in a more minor sense, AOL members have received a horrible reputation on the Net due to people like yourself promoting others not to follow Netiquette. As I suggested at the start, please consider making a correction to your suggestion in the same publication in which this was printed.
May we dispense with idle threats, please? As Queen Victoria put it, "We are not amused."
Nowhere is there an Internet provision that states that it is inappropriate to get on a list if one happens to disagree with much that is said on the list. If it turns out that a disagreeing person becomes disagreeable, the moderator of the list has power to unsubscribe him [drop him from membership].
Please note that the passage you quoted says that "inappropriate posts" are those that are not related to the topic of a list. In This Rock have we suggested that people subscribe to Sister-L and then start posting dinner recipes or train schedules? No, we think they should talk about the subject of the list, which happens to be the religious life.
You say the "culture and guidelines" of lists "involve topics in which all members agree (or, at least, agree to disagree)." Well, it seems your last phrase fits the situation perfectly. If people follow our suggestion, they will find themselves probably disagreeing with posts on Sister-L, but there's every reason to suspect they will be quite agreeable in doing so.
(Remember, these are people who think that uncharitableness not only is unsocial, but is, in the plainest terms, sinful, and they believe they need to confess their sins with some regularity--an act no one enjoys, and the prospect of it militates against committing sins.)
I find your implications unsettling. I have subscribed to several lists that have been denominated as "orthodox" Catholic, yet these lists freely welcome both "heterodox" Catholics and non-Catholics, even anti-Catholics. Why? Because the orthodox actually believe that open discussion is a good thing. How is it, then, that those at the other end of the theological spectrum, despite words to the contrary, so often act as though the only speech they welcome is speech that agrees with them?
To: Karl Keating
Interesting citation [to Casablanca], but I do not see the relationship to my statements. Perhaps we differ on what the "stakes" are in respecting the dialogue fostered by Sister-L. We will let Mr. Fox speak for himself. However, I find it hard to imagine that he was "inviting" those who do not agree with his opinions to launch a campaign to disrupt the lists he mentions.
Again, I do not see the relevance of your comments [about the U.N. and W.H.O.] to Sister-L. I prefer not to speak by innuendo but openly and in plain terms, so that honest misunderstandings can be cleared up. The Gospels and civilized morality have principles which apply to our respect for one another and to our equality as human beings. The U.N. General Assembly and the World Health Organization do not have anything to do with my point: Let Sister-L alone unless you have something to offer within its statement of purpose.
Here is where we differ: Sister-L does not apply litmus tests. If you re-read my message, you will note that I object to your pre-judgment that Sister-L is heterodox. I doubt if there is enough data in Sister-L's archives to give you even a random sample of opinions as a sufficient base for a scientific application of your "litmus tests." Note that we are not discussing actual or possible "forums." We are discussing one list that does exist and has a real history of a few months. It has one negative prescription: "Bashing of sisters is unwelcome." If anyone finds your list of "heresies" relevant to the purposes of Sister-L discussion, they [sic] are free to speak of the matters. Many of us are scholars and discuss all kinds of "heresies" in other contexts.
Discussion does not imply adherence to the positions discussed. For example, the "sin of sexism" condemned recently by the American bishops might come up for discussion. I believe this sin is related to the "heresy" that the unknowable God is male. This might conceivably be discussed on Sister-L in relation to the history and present concerns of women religious.
I do not find it in conformity with the basic teachings of the Gospel and of the Church to take on oneself the prerogative of labeling others as "heretics," nor do I grant to other self-appointed interpreters of orthodoxy that right. Heresy is a serious matter. The first requirement for such a judgment is for the authorities to read the writings of the accused. Remember, we are discussing Sister-L, not some mythical forum of your imagination. You are not invited to serve as the grand inquisitor for Sister-L.
[You wrote,] "I must say, as I said in my reply to Prof. Thompson's message, that I am pleased to learn that you think it is a smear to accuse someone of being a feminist. This, at least, is encouraging." Neither Professor Thompson or [sic] myself [sic] have [sic] said that, and you know it. I have called myself a feminist for some twenty or more years.
Do we have nothing in common, such as the Gospel imperative to love? I do, as a feminist, believe in male-female mutuality. Perhaps we part company on this theme.
In summary, Sister-L has its own agenda and will pursue that agenda. If you do not approve of it (presuming you know anything about it), turn to other matters. But do not make Sister-L into a phantom enemy which you imagine to be a threat to all your cherished belief.
You have confirmed my intuition. You admit Sister-L has an "agenda." This is not surprising, of course.
If you suspect that Mr. Fox was not inviting those who disagree with him or with the thrust of Sister-L, you accuse him of not encouraging an open and free dialogue. Now you may be right about his thinking--I can't speak to that, not knowing him or having asked him--but I am disappointed that you evince no dismay at such an attitude.
Have I labeled any subscriber to Sister-L a "heretic"? No. How can I, since I don't even know who subscribes, aside from the people who have written to me?
Have I labeled some opinions as "heterodox"? Yes. Please keep in mind that in the Catholic Church we profess a common faith when we recite the creed, and this faith is explicated in the decrees of ecumenical councils, in the statements of popes, and most recently in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
To the extent one disagrees with the beliefs taught by the Church, one is heterodox. This heterodoxy might be quite innocent, in which case it can't be termed heresy. If the disagreement is on a matter of doctrine, is made with full knowledge that it does not conform to official Church teaching, is public, and is pertinacious, then it qualifies as heresy--or "heresy" has no meaning at all.
But again: I have called no one a heretic, not just with respect to Sister-L, but in the pages of This Rock, in public lectures, or in any other forum, so please do not insinuate that I have. I am careful to distinguish between the status of a belief (whether or not it accords with Church teaching) and the status of an individual.
You ask, "Do we have nothing in common, such as the Gospel imperative to love?" Of course we do, and we are obliged to follow that imperative, and it includes the obligation to love not only one another, but to love the truth, which ultimately means to love Jesus Christ, who is "the way, the truth, and the life."
I am one of the charter members and a member of the advisory board of Sister-L. I invite you to read the list for a time; I think you would find conversation of quality, intelligence, and real concern for the church. The subscribers, religious women, men, and people without public vows engage in wide-ranging discussions on a variety of topics. We refrain from the kind of mean-spirited, ill-informed remarks you made in your publication.
Regina Siegfried, ASC
Aquinas Institute of Theology
St. Louis, Missouri
I would be delighted to have my initial suspicion proved false. I am thinking of subscribing under the nom de plume (not nom de guerre!) of HildegardB.
I don't know what you read as threats because none of my message was intended to be a threat. But I do hope none of the people who read your message are on commercial services where they can loose their accounts. The people of the Internet are not very friendly toward AOLers to begin with and really can't stand ones who don't abide by the rules of Netiquette.
People threatened to complain about my post on a newsgroup about dogs because I dared to mention that I wanted to breed my dog. I found out later that the newsgroup I was on was against breeding. I should have read the information about the list first, so that was my mistake.
I also inadvertently posted an offer for a free catalog on a list where I saw advertisements. I didn't realize I was posting in the wrong place. Again, I should have read before posting to determine the "culture and guidelines" of the list. For this, I received a strict warning from the AOL staff.
I've learned much since I first started posting on the Internet. I have learned the hard way, and my message to you was simply warning you of the possibilities the lie ahead if you post messages as you describe in your message. If you are going into these mailing lists to read and learn, I am all for it. But if you are going in to "convert" or to try and prove that people are wrong, it is a complete misuse of the Net. and I hope you don't loose your AOL account over it.
If people on that dog list threatened to complain about you for posting a single message about breeding your dog, you were the victim of illiberal minds. It's one thing to keep commercial messages in fixed locations--we can agree that such restrictions might be needed--but it's something else to come down heavily on someone for innocently posting a message.
You advise joining a list if one wishes to "read and learn." But that presupposes that on the list there are other people who "teach," right? I hope you will concur that we all can be teachers and learners at once, and this is why I encourage people to subscribe to lists (of whatever sort). Yes, they can be readers and learners, but they also can be writers and teachers so that others may be readers and learners. Call it reciprocity, if you will.
But the problem, Karl, is that your idea of teaching, from what I gather from your message in The Rock, (please correct me if I am wrong) is not teaching, but converting. You are asking people who disagree completely with the intentions of a list to sign on and use it as a means of "witnessing." No matter how much you disagree with me or with Netiquette, that is an inappropriate use of the Net.
I seem to be receiving mixed signals from founders and members of Sister-L. By some I'm told that there is no party line on the list, but you advise that people who "disagree completely with the intentions of a list" shouldn't participate in it. But if the "intention" of Sister-L is to discuss the religious life, then it seems that anyone willing to discuss that topic, no matter from what angle, should be welcome.
On the other hand, if the discussion is expected to proceed along only one point of view, namely the feminist, then it appears that some members of the list are trying to mislead me or have been guilty of false advertising. I think you and I both know what the real story is, and I will not ask you to place yourself in an awkward position by continuing this exchange. Please know that you have my best regards and my thanks for your civility.