When my friends from New Wineskins first started talking about a Catholic Moral Theology blog a few summers ago, I tried to talk them out of it. I remember a Sunday morning conversation at the end of a stimulating weekend. We were in the cafeteria of Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame, with just hours left in the weekend until we all went our separate ways for another year of busy academic lives. Many expressed optimism about how a collaborative blog could serve the academy, Church, our students, and the public. I was not convinced.
My first concern was that, as I had started to read more of my news online, I became increasingly troubled and frustrated by the tone in comment sections after online stories. The few thoughtful and charitable comments were often drowned out by the many divisive, cruel, and uninformed comments. It seemed to me that medium of the internet was fatally flawed in that it enabled people to say things to one another that they would never say to another human being in person (or so I hoped). Catholic journals were not exempt from this (and I remain frustrated by this, as I am an avid reader of NCR, America, Commonweal, and U.S. Catholic online). “No thanks,” I thought. To spend time posting something that might invite scathing critical comments or even personal attacks in such a public forum hardly seemed attractive.
I was also worried about the time commitment. For a few years my husband contributed to a blog, and I saw how many nights he stayed up until the wee hours of the morning crafting a post, and how he felt tied to the computer (or his iPhone) when there was any possibility of “breaking news” that he would need to post about. “I don’t need that,” I thought. I already struggled with work-life balance, and didn’t need anything else that would take me away from quality family time, academic writing, or that would make me feel guilty when I couldn’t regularly contribute.
My biggest concern, though, was that I would embarrass myself, wreck my reputation, and end up an unemployed Catholic feminist theologian with a special interest in sexual ethics. I know that probably sounds exaggerated, but this is a very real fear for me. At this stage in my vocation, I feel very vulnerable. While it sounds wonderful to say, as we do in our CMT Mission Statement, that we will “avoid the standard liberal/conservative divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation,” I still do not always know how much of my own honest thoughtful theological perspective would be safe to disclose in such a public forum. I am in the probationary period at my current institution, which means that I do not have tenure. And I love my job. So to risk losing it—or to risk damaging my credibility in the classroom—is a risk that I think about every time I write a post and then decide not to post it (which, unfortunately, has become the norm instead of the exception). I hope someone tells me that this fear is unfounded. But given the way our discourse has gone in the last few years in the Church, is my fear so crazy? It seems possible to me that a post here, if perceived as controversial, dissenting, or scandalous, could lead to burned bridges, closed doors from the world of academic publishing, and/or disruption of the classroom dynamic in my teaching (since so many students google their professors at the beginning of the semester to find out what they can about us).
I really appreciated what Jana wrote this week in her contribution to this series:
“I think more than one of us has been nervous about writing because the topics in Catholic moral theology are pretty much always guaranteed to strike someone’s nerve—what if the nerve it strikes belongs to an academic or ecclesial superior? Or one of my friends here at the blog? What if that leads to silence rather than discussion, because it is simply easier and less time-consuming to turn off and disengage the internet?”
This is not the first time that I felt Jana had clearly articulated something I was thinking!
I do not mean to imply that anyone at my school or in my circle of peers has discouraged me from contributing to CMT. I fully admit that it is a self-censoring that keeps me away from CMT for long periods of time. But it is a self-censoring that often feels prudent given the polarized climate of the Catholic Church and Catholic academy these days. It is a self-censoring that makes me sad.
I love the Church, I treasure my faith, I identify as Catholic, and I want to stay in communion with my Church. I am equally committed to a vibrant feminism that demands gender equality and a rigorous interdisciplinary theological method in conversation with the most current scholarship across the disciplines. Are these compatible identities? I believe in my heart of hearts that the Holy Spirit continues to probe, invite, and challenge us to carry on the legacy of Vatican II to update, transform, rejuvenate the people of God. But it seems like some Catholic circles are becoming increasingly hostile to feminism. I believe that my faith and my feminism are compatible. But they also mutually correct and interpret one another in a messy babble of internal psycho-drama. Is that really fodder for blog posts? While I would argue that fidelity to the gospel animates my feminism, and while I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Sean Winters when he explains that CMT and similar blogs can serve as bridges between the academy and the internet public, I still wonder about how best to contribute my scholarly training in this new forum—for the benefit of church and world. When I think back over my published posts this year, I’m disappointed in myself because they seem bland and safe, peppered with quotes from popes and bishops but not necessarily a reflection of my best teaching or theological writing. I think, “I can do better.” But then I think, “Should I?”
I’m still wondering about something else Michael Sean Winters writes, though. I find myself uncomfortable with the idea that CMT has an “ecclesial mission.” Perhaps others could chime in an give me a better sense of the implications of this claim, when MSW writes:
“CMT can discern a part of its ecclesial mission, bringing the best of Catholic moral theology into the public square in a way that it can make a difference in combating evil and fostering the good.”
Michael Sean Winters also links this idea to the New Evangelization movement. I find myself conflicted about the idea of an “ecclesial mission,” wondering if it would be possible to make a distinction between a commitment to furthering academic discourse online in the service of the Church and advocating for official Church teaching on a range of issues (which is what I understand by the term “ecclesial mission”). Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, though. The benefits of this format is that we can pose questions like this and it often leads to correction, clarification, and deeper understanding.
This is an important question for me though. I think this tension is at the heart of my own fears about my contributions to the blog. I keep asking myself, “Who is my audience here?” Can I write about the wisdom of Catholic moral theology, and my enthusiasm for this discipline, while simultaneously acknowledging the real pain that Church teaching causes for so many people? What would I want to say to a young woman taking her first theology class who stumbles on this website because she doesn’t know if she can stay Catholic and stay true to herself as a woman? What if a gay high school student is searching for answers online about faith and homosexuality—will he find here resources that affirm him as a person of inherent value, beloved of God? Will he find the resources to strengthen his faith in a God who loves him beyond measure? If this is what we mean by New Evangelization, I’m on board. But that is not always the impression I get, so I’m reluctant to say that my writing here contributes to an ecclesial mission without some better sense of what that means.
As we celebrate our first anniversary, I want to thank my conversation partners for having the courage I lack, for being willing to jump into the messiness of online theological deliberation, and for modeling Christian discipleship for me and for our readers. I have learned so much from all of you, not only from your posts but from the links you post that invite me to read articles or websites I never would have found on my own. I’m truly grateful for your vision, a vision that saw the flaws of online communication but also hoped thoughtful posts and a policy requiring constructive comments would demonstrate an alternate way of being church on the blogosphere—a method characterized by dialogue and depth. In short, I’m glad you didn’t take my advice that hot summer morning as we shared coffee together! I will continue to discern the level of disclosure that I am comfortable with online, and will sincerely try to contribute more in the future than I have in the past.