The Liturgy and the Court of Google

by William Bornhoft

A couple weeks ago I wrote in Aleteia a piece arguing against the practice of “liturgy shaming”, my term for what happens when Catholics hurl insults and rash accusations of heresy from their keyboards about an instance of apparent liturgical abuse or poor taste. It’s essentially gossip disguised as righteous indignation. I suggested that rather than use the mob rule of the Internet to “expose” liturgical problems, parish problems should be dealt with on the parish level.

Rather than behaving like prideful whistleblowers appealing to the online masses when we are offended, we should properly communicate our grievances through the Church’s hierarchy, starting with the first person in authority.

I was surprised at much pushback I got on this thesis. The most common rebuttal was that “going to the proper authorities”, as I suggested, often does not result in the desired outcome. Some thought I naive for even suggesting it as an option. Joseph Shaw over at The Latin Mass Society wrote extensively about the pitfalls of taking complaints to the hierarchy. He also showed some examples of liturgy shaming that “worked”.

What is more, contrary to Mr Bornhoft, this method works. Yes, it has worked, not every time, but again and again. The priest with the hoverboard in the Phillipines [sic]: suspended. The Australian priest allowing ‘help yourself’ Communion, leading to Communion being given to a dog: excommunicated. Even in the weird and wonderful diocese of Linz in Austria, they aren’t still having the Blessed Sacrament procession with a foccacia in a huge pair of tongs.

Many Catholics probably agree that church leaders don’t always respond adequately to problems, liturgical or otherwise. But the failures of the hierarchy do not justify liturgy shaming as a viable and morally acceptable option. Despite the examples Shaw cites, I’m not convinced that liturgy shaming has or will ever “work”, in the same way that gossiping about a person’s faults doesn’t work. No matter the outcome, sin is committed in the process. Liturgy shaming is a scandal in of itself.

After writing in Aleteia, a friend sent me an article by Peter J. Leithart in First Things in which he reflects on the temptation to take our problems to “the Court of Google” because resolving disputes through church channels is laborious, slow, and unsatisfying.

…many Christians are perfectly content to take disputes with their brothers to the web, presenting them before the court of public opinion, before unbelievers.

We want vindication, and the web seems to provide the opportunity. That’s not really true, because web disputes are more inconclusive than any court case could be. No internet dispute is ever over. People just move on to inspect the next crash site. That laborious, flawed, church-based way of resolution seems to be the method Paul lays out. We may do it badly, but God has entrusted the judgment of the world and angels to the saints, so we had better start getting some practice.

Leithart notes that, like most temptations we act on, leveraging the power of the Internet in our disputes certainly feels more satisfying, and is much easier, than going to through the church. But it’s not how we as Christians are called to act.

Keep in mind I’m not advocating that any discussion of parish problems, liturgical or otherwise, must be kept offline. There are charitable ways to talk about liturgical abuse or poor taste online that don’t involve shaming. Catholics disagree all the time. Every article I read in response to my original piece was charitable. It’s a blessing that we’re able to have public theological discussions like these. To hurl insults and accusations of “heresy” or “satanic worship” about a parish or a pastor solely based on a photo or a single testimony you read online is entirely different, and is an indefensible course of action.

I acknowledge it might not always be so black and white. So how can we discern between what is “shaming” and what is a simply a public theological discussion? Leithart ends his piece with a question that gets at the heart of this, and I can’t improve upon it, so I’ll repost it here:  Is Jesus honored when Christians take one another to task before a watching world?

William Bornhoft is a freelance Catholic writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. You may contact him at wmbornhoft@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @WilliamStPaul.

19 comments

  1. I actually don’t believe that it’s relevant whether liturgy-shaming works or not. What I find over and over in the church is that achieving a desired end through wrong means always, in the long run, obviates whatever good the end promised. As a mentor of mine has said, “In the church, nothing that we do matters as much as how we do it.”

    Unrelatedly (sort of), there are ways to acknowledge and laugh about the unintentional absurdities that pervade all liturgical cultures. One Facebook group I follow shares service bulletins with disastrous and hilarious typos. Part of the humor is knowing that no church, and no liturgist, is safe from instructing the congregation to sing “Miserere nostril Domine.”

  2. And that’s why we should never make police abuse videos available to the public but instead hand it over to the authorities for proper disposal.

    There is no sin here. These incidents aren’t relayed in confidence. The liturgical dancers are up there claiming to spread the Word. These videos often come from the organizers themselves. Let’s help them! That some will make accusations that go beyond the facts (heresy!) is no reason keep these ribbon dances to ourselves. Baptists scream heresy at the sight of any Mass. You might claim that the shamers intention is impure. But the intention is exactly that of the the one who notifies the authorities which, according to you, is no sin.

  3. Some things to keep in mind:

    1 Detraction in a formal sense is probably not an issue here, as liturgies are a public event, but one might argue that vastly amplifying the public audience might be detraction in spirit.

    2. Calumny is very much a possible issue.

    3. Even without detraction and calumny, violations of our overall duty of charity (which is, however, not the same thing as prosaic kindness) are very much a possible issue.

    4. One can engage in what is being described as liturgy shaming by allusion and indirectly, and while thinking it’s defending worthy principles.

    Most importantly, to me, is becoming much more aware of the insidious pleasures of the cultivation of resentment. Now that is an egoistic thing that often travels (courtesy of rationalization) in the blindspot of a more worthy motive. Resentment never is of God, and needs to be fiercely inventoried by ourselves.

    More generally, watch for opportunities for ego to ride side saddle.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Exactly. The dynamic is similar to the sort of gossip and detraction that has occurred within parishes for centuries. In a parish, strong leadership can discount the method, and perhaps the shamer input is marginalized. Where shamers have the ear of certain authorities, they have turned a certain hierarchy on its head, placing themselves at the apex of control. Sometimes that’s the point. The parable of Luke 15:11ff is illustrative in this regard.

  4. When my kids come home from school and tell me that so-and-so was talking during class or didn’t do their homework or threw green beans at the ceiling fan, I advise them to mind their own business. Unless someone is in danger of getting hurt, then tell the teacher and let him or her handle it. Apparently some internet commentators never learned this lesson.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      But if the Church is one body, shouldn’t the members on one side care what the members on the other side are doing? (And I have avoided the loaded terms “left” and “right” on purpose.) Is it possible that prolonged exposure to shoddy liturgy can be detrimental to one’s spiritual growth as a Catholic, and so we should be willing to point it out and help to correct it when we see it?

      Surely the MANNER in which we point it out and correct it is up for debate, but I think we’re far beyond just minding our own business.

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan:
        Correction has more credibility when one is invested in accompanying the people involved. Engagement in the Culture of Complaint, not so much, when complaining is the whole point and the correction, not so much.

      2. @Jeffrey Pinyan:
        OK, but does that make it your place to correct priests from across the country or across the globe? If their bishop has appointed you to his liturgical police force, I’d like to see your badge.

  5. When my kids come home from school and tell me that the teacher isn’t following the required math curriculum and instead showing cartoons, I don’t chastise my kids. Also, I would remind everyone that the incident that sparked Bornhoft’s piece was pics posted by the parish on the parish’s public Facebook page. The publicity was intended. The negative reaction wasn’t expected. I have trouble believing that pundits criticizing Trump’s latest rally antic are guilty of detraction.

    1. @John Mann:
      “I have trouble believing that pundits criticizing Trump’s latest rally antic are guilty of detraction.”

      Because you’d be using rationalization to miss the point.

      There’s a dimension of detraction that involves the part of prudence that involves discretion and proportionality.

      The two situations you compare are not comparable. And, given the chance, I’d offer ample remonstration to pundits.

      PS: I think folks who’ve followed my comments on the Internet for the past 20 years knows I am as likely to remonstrate with my own side on this kind of thing as with an opposing side – as well as with myself. Doesn’t make me anyone’s superior. It’s just something I do to lower the heat and allow more space for light, because I find there’s way too much rationalization getting in the way of what otherwise could be real conversation.

      PPS: I would further add that Jordan Zarembo is wonderful model of transparent self-accountability in this regard. He doesn’t self-censor in such a way as to appear unduly irenic (I will cop to being guilty of that, however), and he reflects and reconsiders. Marvelous exemplum that is rare on religion blogs on the Internet. I cherish his example here.

  6. John Mann : And that’s why we should never make police abuse videos available to the public but instead hand it over to the authorities for proper disposal.

    The analogy limps, badly. At least, it does if by “police abuse” you mean unreasonable use of physical violence, and by “liturgical abuse” you don’t.

    The analogy would be nearer the mark if people were sharing videos of police officers telling a bad joke to each other, or making a spelling mistake on their paperwork, or if the videos were of priests pilfering from the collection plate during the offertory, or sexually assaulting someone during the sign of peace.

    Given what the word “abuse” actually means, I think we need to think long and hard about using it for some deviation from liturgical norms. We have enough actual abuse to deal with before we start spreading the term so thin.

    1. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
      And therein lies the problem that renders this entire discussion moot. The Anti-Orans Brigade accuses the Kyrie Dance Troupe (the Trouped Kyrie) of disobedience, heresy, and sacrilege and the ribbons dancers, blind to the plank, accuse the whistleblowers of detraction, calumny, and lack of charity. The reasonableness of the tactics to expose the abuse is entirely dependent on the reasonableness of the abuse. Would anyone object to shaming a priest for using a Big Mac and a pitcher of sangria for Communion? No, I’m not saying ribbon dances are that bad but they’re worse than mere “telling a bad joke” or “making a spelling mistake” and it’s not unreasonable for it to be so widely viewed as unreasonable that it goes viral.

  7. If liturgy shaming is so egregious, why did you not set a more charitable example and quietly correct Mr. Shaw’s misspelling of “Philippines” rather than shame him by making use of the rather prominent and accusatory [sic] annotation?

  8. I think that I am quite happy to field complaints in person from parish members. I have had not a few in my time, usually as the result of an attempt to get things done right in the Liturgy (i.e., as the IGMR says).

    What I won’t do is take note of anything that is reported as ‘what some people are saying.’ With me, anonymous comment is sure to be ignored.

    AG.

  9. Matthew 18:15-17 could guide a lot of shamers. Jesus, there, wants us to start dealing with offenses one-on-one. Going to the Internet first (or maybe at all) seems antithetical to what our Lord directs.

    I also have to wonder about this prevalent habit of whipping out a cell phone during Mass in order to record videos or snap photos. Many of the shamers should post selfies showing their own lack of devotion during the Liturgy.

  10. Every single person here who has had to preach and in the process has put people to sleep or prompted listeners to look at the cell phones to see what else is going on…should not cast the first, second or third stone. The Church is made up of humans in need of redemption…what the “gotcha” part of liturgy shaming does is let people know that some of the humans never make mistakes, or God forbid, try to correct cultural weaknesses in a constantly evolving liturgical experience. The Church that corrects and admonishes through Snapchat has ten seconds to figure out what happened, why it happened and how it happened. I trust that is why Jesus took some time to write in the sand.

    A child throwing green beans at the ceiling fan should be reported, a child throwing lima beans at the ceiling fan should get chocolate milk and longer recess. And everyone knows that.

    1. @Ed Nash:
      lol

      “… put people to sleep or prompted listeners to look at the cell phones …”

      People make choices, and decline opportunities when life doesn’t go as they expect or command. Placing the blame on others is as old as Genesis 3.

  11. My three-fourth’s of a century on earth gives me a position to respond to all of the above. Considering the Church’s ongoing of “ecclesia reformanda’ the discussion on almost all of the above is clear evidence that some people just have too much time on their hands. Turn the page please.

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