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Friday, July 23, 2004

Human Shields

I used to write for a Catholic internet site that had a problem. Its self-perception did not match its reality. If you have ever wondered how today’s Catholic Church has gotten into the position of taking its marching orders from the Supreme Court and the Democratic party instead of from the Gospels, the story I am about to tell might be informative.

The site in question was organized and run by good people interested in Doing Something Good for the Faith. An organization for disseminating the Gospel on the Internet was founded, an organization based on the idea that we are entering history’s third millennium since God walked the Earth, and we need to adapt the proclamation of the Gospel to use the newest possible media, be on the cutting edge.

The problem
The problem was simple: everyone in the developed world felt they had to be on the Internet. Millions of sites out there, you know. How do we rise above the noise? Well, as any good marketing consultant can tell you, the best product in the world won’t sell if no one knows about it. So we have to get people onto this: we are promoting the Gospel. Hmmm…. Think, think, think. What shall we do?

A brilliant idea was proposed. Most parishes don’t have websites (or didn’t at the time the organization was founded). Pastors tend to be backward people, especially in the big city. Why don’t we offer free website hosting and/or content to them? It’s a win-win situation – they get a good Catholic site, we get free advertising. As an aside, there’s an irony here: the more rural the parish or diocese, the more likely it is to have an internet presence, e-mail, website and the like. Rural distances make it very cost-effective to communicate this way. It is the inner city parishes, parishes that are cheek-by-jowl, where the bishop doesn’t have to drive more than ten miles to reach 60% of his pastors, it is these parishes that have the worst computing infrastructure.

From the lips of the brilliant to the fingers on the keyboard is but a step. As it was proposed, so was it done. The new proclaimers of the Gospel offered free parish websites to anyone who wanted to sign up. The idea was brilliantly successful. Hundreds of parishes signed on and now get their content from this Catholic organization.

All seemed to go swimmingly until… until a terrible thing happened. You see, the Catholic organization wanted to talk about events from a Catholic perspective. In this culture, that meant some of the events under discussion would be about – dare we say it (yes, we dare) – sex

Sex spoils everything
It’s remarkable, but true. The word "masturbation" appeared on the front page of the provider’s site. It was duly propagated to the front page of hundreds of parish web sites across the nation. Within hours, nasty letters arrived from pastors and parishioners asking how such a word could have been permitted to appear on the front page of the feed to a Catholic parish! There were children present!

Now, not being privy to all the details, I can only reconstruct what happened from stray fragments of conversations I have had with various people over the course of the last year concerning this (dare I say it? Yes, I dare) seminal event. But even I, who am but a worthless scrivener, can detect the rank odor of decay. Pray tell, kind reader, how many children do you think make it a habit to surf to their own parish website? If the number rises into double digits in any parish, color me purple and wash me in jello. The complaint is, shall we say, somewhat odd.

Further, we could bring out the example of the Cure d’Ars, a priest so renowned for holiness that the devil reportedly feared that three such priests might appear in the world at the same time, lest his empire of sin be destroyed. The Cure, a man not known to season his words with mince for more pleasant consumption, once took offense at the language of the drovers who passed through town. He gave a sermon in which he remonstrated all his parishioners for their bad language, and then, from the pulpit, read out a list of words he did not want to hear anymore, so that there might be no misunderstanding. True, it is not recorded if children were present, but somehow I doubt the presence of children would have prevented him from instructing the adults.

The result
In any case, this set up a certain sense of the gun-shy in the leaders of our vaunted Catholic organization. They began to cringe at the sight of Catholic teaching that was too… well… too raw. Sure, they would promote an extremely raw movie by an extremely well-known Catholic director about the execution of a Jew two millenia ago, because that improved their visibility and the Catholic director in question had "paid his dues." But the proclamation of the Gospel had to be toned down. We don’t want to further injure the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick.

So, watch the execution movie, but don’t reproduce the words of a woman who is forcibly aborted. Speak against homosexuality, but don’t use the Catechism’s words about it being "intrinsically disordered." Not on the front page. Children might see it, you know. Make the content like G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis (but not like Lewis in "The Four Loves", where he called gays "pansies"). We want to be Mother Theresa (she didn't own a computer) or St. Francis (but not when he rejected a town for its hardened sinfulness and preached the full Gospel to the fishes instead).

In short, be gentle and kind, not harsh and disturbing. Otherwise parishes might start dumping our feed, and then we can’t proclaim the Gospel to everyone! Remember, the Gospel is about Jesus’ love for us – don’t make it into a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. I mean, uh… well… you know. The principles are clear. Really.

That became a popular phrase, "I've already made this clear."

So, if you ever wondered how it happens, that’s how it happens. That’s how the Gospel gets watered down to nothing.

It all starts with the adults, specifically with the parents. When the truth is put out there, the parents complain, "We must protect the children!" Protect them from what? From the sins you are committing? From the consequences of the sins you allow to flourish around you? But these questions are never asked.

So, Father can’t talk about masturbation from the pulpit because there are children in the congregation. He can’t write about contraception in the bulletin because children might read it. He can’t talk about the sin of divorce at the football rally (the only other place his adult parishioners regularly show up) because there are children present AND it is not appropriate. This is a football rally, Father. He can’t talk at all.

The parents use their children as human shields to protect themselves from being told they are sinners. Whosoever brings forward the light of truth will suddenly find a small, large-eyed child between him and the person to whom he is preaching. And the person behind the child will keep repeating, "How can you say these things in front of an innocent like this? What big brown eyes he has! Can you look in his eyes and talk about such filth?"

So, I found myself defending my content – written for adults - from a man who insisted he ran a family website and who therefore insisted my content was not appropriate for his website. I pointed out that his website had no family content. Everything on it was for adults. There was no teen content, no children’s content. It was marketed to adults. What on earth was he talking about?

But, you see, he thought he ran a family site because the adults who helped catapult his site to the top of the Catholic internet heap told him he ran a family site. After all, that’s why he couldn’t run content that fully matched the Gospel – he was running a family site. The people who threatened to pull their support used that as their club. "How dare you harm our children, our family with your talk about our sins?"

Now, one could ponder the logic of this: don’t preach the full Gospel to the family, because the family is the foundation of both society and the Church. Hmmm… something not right about that.

But like most of the American bishops, he had been taken in.

Since our conversation (and my departure), the comedy (in the Dantean sense) has grown towards farce. The site is even now working to change its image to conform to its detractors. It will be adding children and teen content in order to actually be a family site.

Note the progression. They wanted to reach everyone, so they went for assistance to the places that were in most cases not preaching the full Gospel: the parishes. The parishes artificially inflated the website's link popularity but crippled its ability to preach the Gospel because now the people who ran the website were subject to the same forces that crippled the priests. Then they turned themselves into an on-line (read "ultimately ineffective") parish by acquiescing to the vision of the parishioners instead of the vision they had begun with. Like Dan Brown, they are very popular, but like Dan Brown, it isn't quite the Gospel anymore.

Human shields work. The Nazis knew it. The Soviets knew it. The terrorists know it. All sinners know it. Christ refused to allow it. Will we?

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