Lay Catholics and the church online

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Article Spirituality

When Amy Welborn started her blog In Between Naps in September 2001, she was one of just a few Catholics using the medium to discuss issues of faith and culture. An Our Sunday Visitor columnist and book author, Welborn saw her blog as a place to test new topics and to interact with readers.

Fairly soon, however, Welborn was writing more words online than she was on paper. Her blog quickly became one of the principle hubs of a thriving online Catholic community, receiving thousands of hits a day. By the middle of 2002, there were dozens of Catholic blogs, and by early 2003 the number had risen into the hundreds.

Welborn argues that the clerical sexual abuse crisis, which exploded into the news in early 2002, was the main reason for the increase in the number of Catholic blogs. “People were coming onto the Internet both for information and to vent,” says Welborn.

Since that time, the Catholic presence on the Internet has expanded even further. Catholic newspapers and magazines have joined their secular counterparts in setting up websites and blogs. There are now hundreds of Catholic groups on Facebook.

A striking feature of this movement of Catholics into cyberspace is that it has largely been led by the laity. “There are now a million minor ‘brokers’ of Catholicism and the majority of these are laypeople,” says Tom Beaudoin, theologian at Fordham University and the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass).

But quantity doesn’t always imply quality, cautions Dolores Leckey, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “There’s no quality control on the Internet,” says Leckey. “Nothing gets checked. Assertions become fact. There’s nothing you can do about it unless you are willing to spend 24 hours a day online.”

The Internet has also become home to some who want to police the boundaries of the Catholic community, suggests Beaudoin. “In the past, a priest or a theologian could make a comment locally that would never register in the larger Catholic world. Now you have people on the Internet circulating it globally,” he notes. “The medium is being used to discipline and punish people.”

While the Catholic Internet may have a conservative tilt, Beaudoin argues that the medium may nevertheless present a longterm challenge for a church that stresses the importance of a hierarchical teaching authority. The Internet, says Beaudoin, encourages a more “decentralized, iterative, and individualistic approach to being Catholic."

Welborn, for her part, is cautious about making predictions about the future. “I think the wildness and wooliness of the Internet is going to shift as people rely more on smartphones and less on PCs. People may spend more of their time online using applications than reading blogs and exchanging opinions,” she says. “This is all changing so fast.”

This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 8, page 15).