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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WilliamStPaul.