Explaining the Catholic Faith online

Simplicity reigns supreme in internet discussions and controversies. The position, in a discussion or controversy on any topic, that can be explained most simply and in the most entertaining way is the position that tends to prevail. On the topic of Catholicism, this tendency has harmful effects.

Twitter posts are only 140 characters (not 140 words). Bumper sticker arguments win out on Twitter. Theological arguments generally require more than 140 characters. People who read blogs tend to prefer short and simple posts. (My lengthy theological posts are not well-tolerated.) They tend to prefer or require or expect sources of information to be entertaining. People are so accustomed to news-ertainment, news presented in an entertaining manner, that they expect all sources of information to be entertaining and easy to understand.

Facebook sites have a ‘wall’ where various anonymous persons can post whatever comments they like. On blogs that allow comments without moderation, and on blogs that are poorly moderated, anonymous persons state opinions that are harmful to souls. In discussion groups, such as Catholic Answers, that allow anyone to join and be anonymous, every tenet of the Catholic Faith is attacked. Absurd arguments are offered to support heretical positions, and the number of adherents of the position tends to make it seem as if that position has prevailed, even in the face of sound theological arguments, or clear magisterial teachings to the contrary.

It is said that the anonymity of the internet allows people to express themselves freely, saying what they really think and believe. Fine. But now we see what many Catholics think and believe on topics of faith and morals. They don’t believe what the Church teaches. Most Catholics are in a state of material heresy: they have knowingly chosen to reject certain teachings of the Catholic Faith that are required beliefs. It is apparent from the public expressions of these material heresies that many persons are also in a state of formal heresy. They know that the Church teaches one doctrine or another as required beliefs, but they freely choose to reject it nonetheless.

But it gets worse. Many persons are now using the internet to spread heretical teachings and substantial doctrinal errors, with the claim that this is what the Church really teaches. They present these false teachings directly to the faithful online. They use over-simplification and easy to understand explanations. They make their distorted doctrines simple and entertaining. And so they win many adherents. And these adherents mistakenly believe that they are learning the Catholic Faith.

These false teachers like to over-simply the Faith because it allows them to seem to completely understand every topic in theology. The Trinity? here’s the explanation right here, in a quick video or post. Simple, now you understand it (supposedly). The Eucharist? let me explain it to you … no mystery, no in-depth theology, now you know this doctrine as well as your online teacher (which is to say, not very well). Great mysteries that one could study for a lifetime and not fully understand, that one cannot even fully understand with the help of the Beatific Vision of God for all eternity, are explained (supposedly very thoroughly) online by a blogger or a commentator.

To the contrary, the Catholic Faith is not so simple and easy to understand. The mystery of the Trinity cannot be adequately explained in a blog post, or a brief online YouTube video. Not only is the mystery of the Trinity beyond complete human comprehension, but even what can be known and understood about the Trinity would fill many volumes.

{21:25} Now there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if each of these were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not be able to contain the books that would be written.

So, too, is the Eucharist a great mystery, beyond complete human comprehension. So when you read a couple of brief blog posts explaining it to you, as if this were the whole explanation, that cannot be correct. The oversimplification that tends to occur on the internet takes the mystery out of the Faith. But even what can be understood by the finite fallen human mind in this life is over-simplified in many internet sources. The over-simplification results in doctrinal errors, which no one seems to notice (or care about). The over-simplification of the Faith allows some persons to teach and others to learn, very easily, without much time and effort. All that drudgery of studying and learning is gone.

Moral theology is a vast field. And yet there are persons who have oversimplified Catholic morality, and who present their distorted moral doctrines online, for others to learn. Which arguments in moral theology tend to prevail? The simplest and easiest to understand, but also the easiest to accept. The explanation that puts the least burden on the believer, that allows the greatest range of behavior (supposedly without sin) is the explanation that tends to seem right to the fallen sinner, living in sinful secular society.

The simplest, easy to accept, most entertaining position on a matter of faith or morals tends to prevail because the internet is, to some extent, a game show format for presenting information and entertainment. Now of course there is an abundance of good in-depth information available online, including many magisterial documents, many versions of Scripture, many books that are online or can be purchased online, many good lengthy theological articles. But many Catholics ignore these sources. The internet is treated as a source of simple and entertaining explanations, even on matters of faith and morals.

What can you do to avoid this problem?

* Read Sacred Scripture (in print and online)
* Read magisterial documents
* Read real theology books and articles
* Read fewer blogs (and the like)
* Prefer online sources with lengthy in-depth theological arguments
* Learn the teachings of the Church from many sources
* Avoid foolish online discussions with anonymous persons who have no real in-depth understanding of the Faith, nor any sound theological arguments to offer
* Be wary of simple easy-to-understand explanations of complex theological questions
* Learn to distinguish magisterial teaching from theological opinion
* Avoid any author teaching grave doctrinal errors

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Biblical scholar

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