7 Things Bishops Should Know About Catholic Bloggers

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This Sunday, I’ll be in Baltimore for a special event hosted by the USCCB. It’s titled “An Encounter With Social Media: Bishops and Bloggers Dialogue” and it follows the success of last year’s Vatican Blogger Meeting. The two-hour event will include a panel discussion, a presentation on Catholic new media by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), and plenty of time for informal conversation. I’m most excited to meet, talk, and laugh with bishops, and prove that Catholic bloggers are far from scary insurrectionists.

Since I’m not planning the event I have no idea what topics we’ll cover. But to set the stage, here are seven things bishops should know about Catholic bloggers:

1. We are your friends, not your enemies.

The average Catholic blogger is a faithful Catholic. She’s the homeschooling mother-of-five who turns to the Internet for spiritual connection. He’s the recent convert interested in apologetics. She’s the committed scientist, exploring how faith ties into her work.

Most Catholic bloggers are loyal disciples who share your same mission: to know and make known Jesus Christ. They’re not interested in critiquing you or challenging your authority.

Are there are a few bad apples? Sure. They’re present online just as in the world of print. However, judging the Catholic blogosphere by these few cases would be to badly miss the mark.

The overwhelming majority of Catholic bloggers respects your authority, honors your leadership, and recognizes the tremendous difficulties that come with your office. We are resolutely faithful to you and, as seen through the HHS controversy and Fortnight for Freedom, we’re willing to stand with you even in tough times. We take seriously the commands of St. Ignatius of Antioch:

“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father…Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8)

 

2. We don’t all blog about news, journalism, and politics.

Since many secular bloggers focus on topics like current events, politics, and controversy, it can be easy to equate “blogging” with “news commentary.” And there are many Catholic bloggers who focus on that.

But most deal with areas like catechetics, apologetics, prayer, and family life. They’re full of personal stories and rich discussion about the liturgy and the sacraments. They focus on conversion more than current events. And while they’re willing to discuss Church teaching on hot-button issues, they certainly don’t chase controversy.

Newspapers and political websites concern the here-and-now, and are driven by breaking news. Yet most Catholic blogs are less interested in “getting the scoop” and more with growing in faith, conversing about timeless topics, and building relationships with people from all walks of life.
 

3. Blogs are just one piece of Catholic new media.

If by “new media” or “social media” you only mean “blogs”, you’re missing a huge chunk of the online world. You’re omitting the thousands of Catholic podcasts, YouTube videos, crowd-sourcing projects, discussion forums, mobile apps, and more that are drawing millions of people toward Our Lord. It would be like gauging the world of print by only looking at magazines.

In many ways, other new media tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and mobile apps are more representative of the digital revolution than blogs. Blogs are more of a bridge between traditional and new media. They’re somewhat like newspapers or magazines, in that they feature short articles on a particular topic. They’re “new,” however, in the sense that they are digital and built on two-way flows of information. Yet if we want to engage the breadth of Catholic new media, we can’t stop with blogs.
 

4. Some of you are some of us.

In the last few years, many bishops have followed Pope Benedict’s advice to “be present in the world of digital communications” (44th World Communications Day Message.) From Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s “Gospel in the Digital Age“, to Bishop Christopher Coyne’s “Let Us Walk Together“, to “Cardinal Sean’s Blog” in Boston, new episcopal blogs are popping up every month. (Here’s a list of several more.)

That means you don’t have to listen to my case for Catholic blogging: ask your brother bishops. Chances are they’re blogging and using other new media tools to extend their pastoral voice.

I recently asked Bishop Coyne, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, “what one thing would you want to say to your brother bishops about new media?” He replied:

Don’t be afraid of it. It’s not difficult to get started and there are plenty of people who would be willing to show you how. Once you begin to use it, allow yourself to be authentic. Speak words of encouragement and words of faith that will help build [people] up, just like we [bishops] do wherever we go.”

 

5. Digital imprimaturs are not a good idea.

One of the big questions in the Catholic blogosphere concerns authority. In an online world that is by nature egalitarian, how can bishops speak with any unique authority? Similarly, how can Catholics be sure that a website they visit faithfully and authoritatively presents Catholic teaching?

As you know, the answer is easy when it comes to print. Your censor gives it a nihil obstat, you give it an imprimatur, and people can be confident it contains no theological errors.

But what about blogs and websites? Should we institute some form of digital imprimatur?
I don’t think so. I’m convinced it’s a bad idea for three main reasons:

First, blogs and websites are constantly changing. If you grant an imprimatur to a specific website, there’s no guarantee its content would remain orthodox.

Second, validating tens of thousands of Catholic sites and millions of new articles each year would be a futile effort.

Third, as Matt Warner points out, blogs are not libraries of digitized books. They are virtual conversations. They’re more like pubs and living rooms than soapboxes or encyclicals. We would never put an imprimatur on a bar stool or living room couch, nor should we propose one for blogs.

However, within the last few months the Vatican has come up with an interesting alternative: the purchase of the “.catholic” top-level domain name. Their idea is to invite reputable Catholic organizations—mostly Vatican-recognized religious orders, prelatures, and dioceses—to use the domain. So for instance, you might soon see a website address like “OpusDei.catholic.”

The “.catholic” suffix would be a marker verifying the site’s orthodoxy and legitimizing the organization. Catholics looking for trustworthy content would then feel safe visiting sites under that domain.

That’s one interesting alternative that deserves careful consideration. In the meantime, lean into those online spaces where your authority and trustworthiness are already established, namely diocesan websites and the USCCB website. It’s those places you can speak from, confident that people will respect the content as valid and orthodox.
 

6. Blogging is crucial to the mission ad gentes and the New Evangelization.

With the Year of Faith and the recent Synod on the New Evangelization, Catholics everywhere are looking for fresh ways to spread the Gospel. The aim is to reach two specific groups of people: those who have never heard of Christ, and those inactive Catholics who were sacramentalized, but never evangelized. Thus, the mission ad gentes and the New Evangelization are linked.

Yet when you consider the myriad forms of media available today, one thing becomes clear:

No technology is more effective at reaching those two groups, non-Catholics and inactive Catholics, than new media, and specifically blogs. Catholics blogs provide a safe, unthreatening environment for non-Catholics to explore our great faith. Curious seekers may never knock on the door of a rectory. But if they stumble across a Catholic blog, especially in the comfort of their own home, they’re much more open to reading and commenting. I see this every day on my own website and social media platforms.

Second, as Blessed Pope John Paul II noted, the Internet is the modern world’s great Areopagus. It’s a melting pot of ideas and philosophies where people expect to find truth through dialogue. We Catholics are never afraid of healthy conversation. We’re convinced it will ultimately lead to Truth, whom we know as a person: Jesus Christ. So the Internet holds great potential for us.

Last September, the excellent CARA research group released a study showing that Catholics are not engaging new media in large numbers. However, when you combine that with the fact that many Catholic blogs draw more readers than most Catholic newspapers, an important insight emerges:

A huge percentage of people reading and commenting on Catholic blogs come from outside the Catholic fold. For our mission-driven Church, that’s fantastic news. And it confirms that blogs and other new media are vital to the mission ad gentes and the New Evangelization.
 

7. We’d love to help you.

Among Catholic techies you’ll find an incredible amount of talent and enthusiasm. We’re eager to serve the Church through blogging, podcasting, and social media, but the problem is, most have never been asked to help.

Yet consider the Mormons. Mormons make up about two-percent of the general U. S. population, but they blanket the online world. They’re ubiquitous on blogs, YouTube videos, Google search results, and advertisements.

How has such a small group made such a huge impact? Well, through inititatives like LDSTech, Mormon leaders have invited their faithful to contribute their skills. The result has been multiple websites, several mobile applications, hundreds of videos, and thousands of blog posts all over the Internet.

Today, there are ten times as many Catholics in America as Mormons. Theoretically, we have ten times the talent, ten times the gifts, and ten times the energy. Our challenge is to harness it.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to manage every digital evangelization effort in the country. That’s not your responsibility, nor is it a prudent approach especially in light of subsidiarity. But many of us bloggers, especially the laity, do need support, blessings, and counsel from our bishops.

To that end, here are some practical ways that bishops and bloggers can work together:

- Get to know the bloggers in your diocese. Chances are, there are several Catholic bloggers locally whose pageviews rival that of your diocesan newspaper. They have huge platforms and are eager to serve. Consider hosting a meet-and-great dinner with some of them and discuss ways you can help each other.

- Work together on campaigns. Next time you establish a spiritual theme for the year, or host a campaign like Catholics Come Home, ask local bloggers to play a role. Also, consider making your own content shareable. If you have videos embedded on your diocesan website that can’t be shared anywhere else, you’re chaining your message down and preventing bloggers from helping you.

- Give bloggers access. Grant interviews to bloggers as well as to journalists. After all, you’ll reach a wider audience through blogs than through print. Also, give bloggers advance notice on any big project or announcement you’re making especially if it’s controversial. If the local secular news hears about it before your local bloggers, your loyal defenders will be left playing catch up online.

- Provide pastoral care. The Internet comes with its own spiritual problems which demand new pastoral answers. Pope Benedict and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications have provided their own advice. But each diocese needs to teach its flock how to avoid the dangers of blogging and social media, as well as how to use the Internet to evangelize and grow in faith. This priority needs to come from you. Consider writing a pastoral letter to your diocese about the Internet. Host a diocesan conference on new media. Or perhaps reach out to Catholic bloggers and offer your own spiritual direction.
 
 
I don’t pretend to speak for all Catholic bloggers, which is why I’m inviting others to share their own thoughts here in the comment box. I’m sure this weekend’s meeting will unveil other insights too, so stay tuned!
 


 
UPDATE: Here are some more thoughts from my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Thomas Neal. While we both lived in Tallahassee, Tom was instrumental in my conversion to Catholicism. Now he teaches spiritual theology at Notre Dame Seminary and blogs at the brilliantly titled, Neal Obstat blog. Here he comments on my post from the perspective of a theologian:

“The unique character of the new evangelizing power of cyberspace in general, and blogs in particular, is that it allows the laity to exercise their unique position as ‘insiders’ in (digital) culture and offer their own unique ‘genius’ of proclaiming the Gospel in the saecula as co-workers with the Shepherds.

This means that the Shepherds must pastor their sheep on this digital continent and encourage them to exercise their prophetic calling that flows from Baptism. If Bl. John Paul II meant what he said in 1999—’the hour of the laity has struck’—then the digital content may mark the hour of fulfillment.

Also, the blogs offer to theologians, Scripture scholars, and other ecclesial specialists an opportunity to serve as public intellectuals who can engage in the higher level conversations that presently fill cyberspace.

Blogs also offer theologians the opportunity to give the laity unique access, on a more popular level, to the rich fruits of their theological labors that academic journals or scholarly books simply don’t afford.”

 


 

What else should bishops know about Catholic bloggers?

 

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  • Amanda Castro

    Well said Brandon.

  • Josef Bordat

    Thank you very much!
    Josef Bordat
    Catholic Blogger from Germany (jobo72)

  • Eva Ulian

    Seven helpful points Brandon, not only for bishops but for bloggers too. However, I should like to bring up something not mentioned, namely that there are many Catholics who blog but not necessarily about religion, church and so on, therefore do not come under the “official” “Catholic Blogger” definition.

    I think these people should be acknowledged and encouraged in blogging just as much as the “official” Catholic Blogger who blogs on Catholicism. And just as you have mentioned on twitter, those who may not knock at the presbytery door may very well read a “Catholic” blog. Considering, according to the survey, that only 5% do so this could well be because they may think oh no, more preaching! Whereas some may not approach an “official” blog with “Catholic” stamped on it for the same reason that they would not knock on a presbytery door they may very well read a blog that attracts them because it holds their interest.

    Many non-church goers will not approach a blog that smells even just a little of religion but they will engage in some other blog that draws them either because of the more casual style and direct form of writing or the topic dealt with. Frankly, if the Church wants to attract non-church goers she had better be ready with an army of these bloggers who are Catholics but don’t directly blog about Catholicism but being Catholic they nevertheless transpire that God has his finger in every pie. I think being a Catholic blogger is also this.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Great point, Eva, and this is something I really tried to emphasize at the meeting. We need more Catholics who evangelize online by engaging the culture–by blogging about non-religious topics through a Catholic lens.

      The master at this is Fr. Robert Barron who finds the “seeds of the Word” in secular films, books, op-ed’s, and current events. He then pulls out the Catholic spirituality latent within.

      We need more Catholic bloggers doing that with topics like marriage, parenting, music, art, entertainment, video games, sports, and more.

  • http://www.BraveCatholic.com/ Brave Catholic

    They should know we will hold them to magisterial teaching. We are tired of them being silent on obvious areas like ProAbortion politicians receiving communion. Do something about it or be called out.. That’s what Jesus did.

    • Micha_Elyi

      Yeah, why do bishops complain about some blogger with a couple of hundred readers when there’s nothing but silence in response to the public behavior of politicians who claim to be Catholic, politicians who have the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of voters?

      Don’t get me started about supposedly Catholic universities getting a pass from bishops.

  • Chris O’Brien

    Hey there! I was pointed over here by Fr. Finigan from the Hermeneutic of Continuity. This is probably the best post I’ve read on blogging in months. Thanks for sharing it. I particularly like your idea of local bishops using local bloggers. If that happened in my diocese I believe there could be a major increase in conversions/ returns to the Faith/ advancement in the spiritual life.

    Thanks you so much for this; feeling a little burned out now. This has reenergized me!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Diane-Korzeniewski/619653409 Diane Korzeniewski

    The bishops need to consider the broader communication issue with evangelization. Here’s a question: How do people get critical messages from the Church?

    1) Parish bulletin
    2) Pulpit
    3) Catholic Radio & TV
    4) Internet
    5) Secular sources (i.e., NY Times)

    Sorry this is long. I’m tired, and I’m not gifted with brevity, which is worse after a long day. Hopefully, there is something helpful, if anyone manages to read it through.

    Catholics who go to Mass weekly, can get important information from the parish bulletin, but when coupled with something from the pulpit, ensures it is heard.

    Chances are, most Catholics listening to Catholic Radio and watching Catholic TV, are A) already a committed weekly Mass-goer, B) homebound and would be going to Mass weekly if they could. These Catholics are either augmenting what they are already getting at church, or they are filling a void left by unchallenging homilies without substance.

    People of all ages, but perhaps more so the young and middle-aged, are getting their Catholic information and news from the web. Here too, they are either augmenting what they are already learning on a regular basis at Mass, or they are filling a void. This was the case with me when I began engaging in Catholic forums in 2005, then eventually got into blogging about a year later.

    When we see that 50% of the Catholics (without distinction) voted for Obama and 48% for Romney, despite the assaults against religious freedom and Obama’s militantly anti-life and anti-family policies, I think we will eventually find that those folks get most of their information on the Catholic faith from secular news sources, like the New York Times or the local paper/newscast. Of those who get their information from these kinds of sources either get them in print or online. Print is going out fast and online news is increasing.

    If the bishops are going to reach people, and especially those who are not fully engaged on a weekly basis, they need an online presence. Now, they could rightly say this belongs to the laity. The problem is that we need to bridge a gap. That gap is a presbyterate which is not 100% on board. There are countless stories by people online and on Catholic radio complaining they never heard a word from their priest about things like the HHS mandate in the weeks leading up to the election. The number of priests engaging in such silent sabotage is shrinking as they age. The bishops cannot operate as if 100% of their priests are communicating things in all fullness, even if they require it be done.

    When the bishops get on social media, and blog, it connects the majority of Catholics who are online with their shepherd. If their pastor is coasting to his retirement and not discussing issues of importance, that blogpost by the local bishop could be the only thing they have to guide them. Right now, we have Catholics in many dioceses, clinging to shepherds that are online, even if it is not their own.

    One other thing the bishops need to understand. Catholics who were raised in the 70′s and beyond – many of them are deeply wounded once they come to the realization that they were not taught the faith. It comes out as anger. Until the bishops take the time to understand those wounds and acknowledge them, they will not know how to deal with “angry Catholics.” I was there for a while, but I had solid priests who refused to let me remain there and they showed me how to move past that anger.

    The bishops have no idea how many souls are searching for God on the internet. When their parish priest feeds them nothing but spiritual junk food week after week, they find solace in a substantive blogpost from a bishop once a week, or even once a month – something challenging. When the bishops are silent, people will fill that void with whatever they can find. Some find positive sources that educate and build them, without feeding their lower nature to dwell in all that went wrong. Sadly, some stumble into the hands of other angry Catholics who tell them why they are so angry, but leave them hanging there.

    Until we are all hearing, all of our priests communicate the fullness of the faith from the pulpit and in their columns, the bishops can fill the void by engaging in social media. I think they will find many of their own, faithful priests – especially the younger ones, also following them and sharing those things with their parishioners.

  • Father Canu

    You (Brandon) say that there are “tens of thousands of Catholic web sites”. You also make statements about “most Catholic blogs” and “most Catholic bloggers”. Do you have actual numbers? Or is it only wishful thinking?

    • http://www.BraveCatholic.com/ Brave Catholic

      Tens of Thousands I would say is pushing it but when it comes to the ones that are actually read and have decent content you end up in the Hundreds. We need more video blogs and podcasts stuff people can listen to and learn from on their commute to and from work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Diane-Korzeniewski/619653409 Diane Korzeniewski

    Thanks, Brandon. Good starting list.

    The experience I have in my own archdiocese is that they are trying to implement social media, but for the past few years, and even the past year, it has started and stopped. There was a Twitter account and a Facebook account. There will be a burst of activity for a short period of time, as if someone on staff gets into it, then is either moved off, lost interest, or doesn’t have time. This is bad because people follow then feel abandoned. I’ve been in touch with people there over this, and I know they want to get these things off the ground. I don’t know if they are understaffed and overworked, or just not into social media and uncomfortable with it.

    They need to look at what some of the more active dioceses on Twitter and Facebook are doing, along with the more active bishops.

    I’ve got a few more thoughts, but I’ll continue in another comment.

  • Mickey

    I haven’t read all the comments on this article but, one that really hit home for me was the fact that there were so many Mormon bloggers. In times of need or even curiosity, it would be nice to have a Catholic perspective online. I started my own blog but, I am not very good at it.

    Also, they should know that it takes great courage to put your feelings and beliefs out for the virtual world and the real world to see. It is like a public confession every time we post or publish anything.

    Most of us don’t know how or even care to convince people to be Catholic, we just want to share our happiness and our faith with the world.

  • Keri50441

    They should know that we don’t all explicitely identify ourselfs as Catholic bloggers.

  • http://www.prayingthemass.com/ Jeffrey Pinyan

    Great list, Brandon. My #8 (which derives from #1, #6, and #7) would be:

    “Help us help you.”
    There are probably some policies in place from a time before social media made the quantum leap it has in the past decade and the last few years in particular. A lot has changed and some procedures may need a bit of aggiornamento.

    Have a blast this weekend. Represent!

  • "There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint." - Léon Bloy