I first took an interest in Internet discussion forums eight years ago while on a website looking for the local weather report. I noticed the website had a section of its forums devoted to Christianity, so I decided to read through it and see what people were talking about.
I was amazed at the number of posts containing either anti-Catholic sentiment or outright false information about the Catholic Church and its beliefs. As a recent “revert” to Catholicism, my zeal compelled me to join the discussion forums and defend the Faith.
There was something missing from this experience, though. A desire to defend the Church from every objection became my primary goal, and winning souls for Jesus Christ took a back seat. The result was a lack of charity on my part. Although not on purpose, I managed to establish a combative reputation for myself.
There was a non-Catholic woman using the screen name “Betty” who was good at calling me out when I was being unkind. She would let me know that she appreciated how I stood up for what I believe but that I might be more effective at evangelizing if I were able to temper my responses. Given what I considered my dismal level of success reaching others, I couldn’t help but agree with her.
Betty and I disagreed on many things, but her kindness and charity always impressed me. On her advice, I decided to take a long break from posting regularly on those discussion forums. I needed to work on my own spiritual life before I could be effective at evangelizing others. While I was away from the forums, I learned a number of helpful lessons.
You’ve got to have thick skin
Many of us have a tendency to perceive objections to our faith as personal attacks. Faith is deeply personal, so this tendency is understandable. When it comes to evangelization, though, we need to remain detached. A rational and charitable response is more fruitful than an emotional outburst.
Evangelizing on the Internet is different than evangelizing face to face. It’s not often that I have random people approach me in person and bash my Catholic faith. I don’t mean to imply that this never happens; it just happens much more often online.
There is a level of anonymity and a feeling of being protected online that people don’t have when the person with whom they are conversing is right in front of them. Many fall into this trap and use it as an excuse to be more brazen with their comments. As Christians, we need to be aware of this lack of charity and not allow ourselves to be victim to it. For as Proverbs 15:4 says, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
Keep it real
Here’s a hypothetical situation for you: Chester starts with one screen name on a discussion forum. He argues his position abrasively, and when he feels like he’s come to a point where no one will listen to him anymore, he creates another screen name. Hoping to turn over a new leaf, he starts posting under this new identity, only to fall back into his old ways. Switching identities temporarily treats the symptoms, but the underlying cause behind his lack of charity is never addressed. Chester then creates a third screen name, and the pattern continues.
In his message for the 45th World Communications Day in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI explained: “Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for ‘friends,’ there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”
It is this “artificial public profile” that leads many into the problem of anonymity on the Internet. If you create an online persona that reflects something other than what you strive to be as a Christian in your everyday life, you have fallen into this trap. For some the trap means treating others badly, and for others it means watering down their Catholic beliefs to avoid confrontation. Neither of these approaches is fruitful in evangelizing.
Use challenges as learning opportunities
I remember one individual on a discussion forum whom I found to be particularly frustrating. His screen name was “Jolnir.” He was a smart guy with a quick mind who was good at using obscure historical details to argue against Christianity. Many times he would claim that some aspect of Christian belief was in fact “ripped off” from ancient paganism. I would spend hours researching his claims so that I could respond. Not only did I learn a lot about ancient pagan religions, I can now counter these types of arguments in my sleep. In hindsight, Jolnir did me a huge favor.
There’s no doubt that anti-Catholicism is alive and well in cyberspace. It’s everywhere, and it can be frustrating to read all the negative comments. But these experiences are learning opportunities. In order to answer objections, you must first know the arguments, and I suggest there is no better place to find the arguments than on the Internet.
In a way, we are forced to research things we would not have otherwise. My own interaction with people hostile to the Catholic faith has made me much more secure in my own beliefs. Some people are shaken by objections, but many times it’s because they are not sure where to find the answers. I have an advantage these days because I work at Catholic Answers, and just down the hall are some of the finest Catholic apologists in the world. But even if that were not the case, much of their work and the work of many others can be accessed online.
Wait before clicking “send”
Early in my journey to Catholicism, I received an email from an acquaintance regarding some hot-button political issue. I was one of about 35 recipients. One gentleman responded to the entire group with a long-winded rebuttal to the original email. Out of irritation, I quickly typed my own response and sent it. Upon re-reading it, I was embarrassed at my own lack of charity. On top of that, I committed several factual errors. Nevertheless, my response made its way to everyone copied on the e-mail and possibly beyond.
I would imagine that most of us have made the mistake of clicking on the “send” button too soon, only to regret a poorly worded, incorrect, or uncharitable response. But there is no need to respond immediately to every question or objection, no matter how tempting it may be to do so. This is especially true of conversations taking place through e-mail but can also be applied to other forms of social media.
Many of us may feel compelled to respond in haste, but it is much wiser to write out your response and read it to yourself a few times before sending it. Use this opportunity to filter out anything that might seem sarcastic or insulting. This also leaves you with some time to double-check your response and correct any errors or to make sure you have not worded it in a way that can be easily misunderstood.
Know when to leave an argument
Not long ago I received a three-word text message through the Catholic Answers YouTube channel: “Catholicism is bogus.” Without much to go on, I replied by letting this person know that I disagreed.
Not more than five minutes later I received a second message from the same person saying, “Catholicism is more bogus than a two-dollar bill!” At this point I let my irritation get the better of me, and I explained without much charity to this person that a two-dollar bill, while somewhat rare, is a valid form of United States currency.
About an hour later I received yet a third message that said, “Explain this!” followed by a link to a list of supposed quotes from popes who claimed to be God on earth. Having seen these quotes before, I responded with a link to an article that exposed them as fakes.
Some time had passed before I received a response. This time it read, “I don’t care if those quotes are bogus. I believe Catholicism is a false religion and you’re not going to change my mind.” I ended the conversation at this point by asking this person to pray for me and saying that I would do the same for him.
On the surface it may seem like an encounter of this sort is a waste of time. And it may have been if the conversation had ended with my uncharitable response. Fortunately, I was given another opportunity to interact with this person, correct a false belief about the papacy, and hopefully leave a positive impression of Catholics by offering my prayers. The principle to remember here is that it’s important to develop a sense of when you’ve said enough and then remove yourself from the conversation.
Never forget charity
When we see our faith challenged in places like discussion forums or the comment sections of news articles, we feel tempted to strike back, thinking of what we are faced with as nothing more than words on a screen. It’s important to remember that there are real people on the other end of the connection. Therefore, we must make it a point to apply to the digital realm the same principles of Christian charity that guide us in our everyday lives.
St. Paul says, “If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). My experience on discussion forums has proved this to be true. Triumphalism—the attitude or feeling of victory or superiority—has sometimes kept me from reaching people with the truth.
St. Peter gives us similar advice: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:15-16). If you are the one doing the abusing, you’re going to have a hard time being a successful ambassador for Christ.
My return to the forums
After largely staying away from the discussion forums on the website where my experience began, I decided to check in and see if anything interesting was going on there. A discussion was taking place concerning Catholic teaching on birth control, and I chimed in with a comment. In the middle of this, Betty posted a message to me with her email address asking me to contact her.
I had always enjoyed conversations with Betty on the forums, and it had been at least a year since I had heard from her, so I sent an email right away. When I got her reply, she informed me that she was very ill and that it was not something she was going to recover from. Her email ended saying, “God knows better than we do what’s right for us and when the time is right. I couldn’t think of a better person to share this with. Your online friend, Betty.”
The email had several attachments. When I opened them up I saw photos of her receiving baptism, First Communion, and the anointing of the sick from a Catholic priest.
I never met Betty in person, but I learned so much from her about the importance of charity. I’m not sure how much my arguments for the faith had to do with her conversion, but I was honored that she wanted to share it with me.
Whether we are evangelizing through email, discussion forums, microblogs, or any other form of social media, Christian charity is the common thread that should run through them all. When we engage others with the same level of invective as the world around us, we cease being effective at evangelizing. Friendship and humility are our greatest assets, and I have learned that this is just as true on the Internet as it is in person.