Sunday, July 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Rise of Abusive Internet Polemics

29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


 The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), Ephesians 4:29–32.

I’ve seen several posts recently about Catholics lamenting the harsher tone on social media. Many of them have theories on why this is—such as it being an election year or a reaction to Pope Francis. I think that’s confusing symptoms with cause.  After all, it is possible to be civil in a debate about these things.

My own thoughts on the subjects that some replaced apologetics with polemics, moving from defending the faith to attacking those who have different views. Apologetics are “reasoned arguments in justification of a theory or doctrine.” Polemics are “an attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another.” We could say that apologetics are defensive and polemics are offensive. Unfortunately, on the internet today, we can say many times polemics are offensive in both senses of the word—they attack and they can cause feelings of repugnance.

Polemics are not bad in themselves. Some of the Patristic authors made use of them to debunk heresies, and sometimes spoke sternly (I think St. Jerome would have felt at home on today’s social media). But we have to remember we don’t write with the insights or talent of these ancient authors! Where they might deliver a stinging rebuke, we often wind up delivering a stinging insult that hardens people in their attitudes or treats people of good faith abusively, driving them away. That’s a bad thing, and we need to avoid it. St. John Paul II describes this negative side of polemics in Ut Unum Sit:

[38] Intolerant polemics and controversies have made incompatible assertions out of what was really the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality. Nowadays we need to find the formula which, by capturing the reality in its entirety, will enable us to move beyond partial readings and eliminate false interpretations.

In other words, we can get so caught up in fighting each other that we lose sight of what we hope to achieve in service of the truth. The end result is mutual hatred and mistrust that hardens positions to the point where no reconciliation is possible. St. Nicholas of Flüe described it as, “You would not be able to untie this knot in the rope…if we both pulled on each end, and that is always the way people try to untangle their difficulties.” (Congar, Yves. O.P. After Nine Hundred Years (1959) p. 79)

That doesn’t mean Catholics can’t refute error. What it means is we can do more harm than good, thinking of those we meet as foes to vanquish instead of people to help. If we drive them away, how will we bring them to Christ? Charity must reign in all dialogue. We must think about our words and our tone. Yes, there are people inside and outside the Church who attack us and promote error. We must certainly defend the faith and show why the attacks against the Church are unjust. But we must not be jerks about it and we must not give in to wrath—especially when it comes to people who seek the truth in good faith but might have trouble overcoming obstacles.

For example, today many attack Pope Francis, accusing him of error and harming the Church. That’s wrong and we must oppose it. But we have to distinguish between people who unjustly attack him and those Catholics—wanting to be faithful—who see the harm in the Church and fear these critics are right. If we direct abusive polemics at them, we might end up driving them into that camp.

Unfortunately, people today often think the attack on idea is a personal attack on them because they think the idea is true. So when we attack ideas spread by the abusive critics of Pope Francis, we need to make our ideas clear and charitable. Yes, that’s hard at times. We can’t control how people interpret what we say and write. Sometimes people get offended when we mean no offense. In such cases, we need to explain patiently what we do mean. Some might treat us wrongly. But we cannot let our anger drive our response. If we can’t avoid that, then perhaps we should rethink whether we should be part of the attack. 

Not everybody can do polemics with charity. Even if we can, people might still take offense, thinking it is a personal attack, and we might drive them even further away from the truth. So we should consider our words well, striving to avoid treating the other person as an enemy. We should neither patronize nor antagonize others when spreading Our Lord’s teaching.

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