Last month on Facebook a Catholic humor site shared a public photo album uploaded by a Catholic parish in Seattle. The photos were of their liturgy, which featured liturgical dancers, ribbons, streamers — you name it and they probably had it. Many, myself included, considered the photos cringe-worthy and saw a liturgy more focused on modern art and individual expression than celebrating the Eucharist. The humor site undoubtedly shared the photos as an act of ridicule, and dozens of its thousands of fans followed suit.
Comments on the parish’s photo album quickly piled up, ranging from the relatively mild accusations that those in charge of the parish possessed bad taste, to particularly nasty allegations of heresy and satanic worship. Other commenters made jabs at the dramatic facial expressions of the liturgical dancers.
Whoever administered that parish’s Facebook page must have been horrified to learn they had been the target of public derision. Not only is the photo album gone, the parish felt it necessary to delete its Facebook page entirely.
I suspect many Catholics who saw the photo album believed the parish deserved the negative publicity, and that maybe it would do the parish some good. If we shine a bright light on the irreverent liturgy, the thinking goes, perhaps someone in the hierarchy will discipline the pastor involved and put this madness to an end.
This instance of online liturgy shaming wasn’t unique in its viciousness. I followed a handful of groups on Facebook that frequently engage in this practice, including the amusingly named “SLAP” or “Survivors of Liturgical Abuse in Parishes.” The group exists in part to curate the names of renegade parishes and liturgical horror stories. The posts are often accompanied with photographic evidence, usually something shocking or cringe-worthy.
I sympathize with the Catholics sharing these stories. The liturgy should be sacred and glorify God, and sometimes it feels like it’s doing anything but. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat once wrote that he “is regularly appalled by the state of the liturgy in the American Church.” I often find myself in agreement with this sentiment.
However bad it might be, though, if we step back, reflect and pray, it should become obvious that Catholics must avoid using the brute force of the Internet to “expose” liturgical problems and shame the offending parishes. It is both uncharitable and impractical — uncharitable because we often wrongly assume the worst rather than the best intentions of the parish (“they’re heretics”; “this isn’t allowed in the Church”; “they must not care for God or the Eucharist”) without knowing anything about it. It is impractical because viral shaming campaigns are not a realistic method of reform or correction in the Catholic Church. Shaming people does not encourage them to listen; it usually urges them to hide, as this parish did by closing down its Facebook page.
Parish problems should be dealt with on the parish level, when possible. If that fails, they should be dealt with on the diocesan level, and so on. This is entirely in keeping with our teaching of subsidiarity. 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. This is usually the pastor of the parish itself, who could be sympathetic to your concerns. Pastors aren’t mind readers, and they’re not perfect. We should not assume that any negligence — liturgical or otherwise — was their intention. Of course, the pastor might not be the best person to hear your concerns. Depending on the circumstances, someone lower, such as a parish administrator, or higher, such as someone at the diocesan level, may then be in a better position to handle your complaint.
In any situation a good deal of prayer and discernment should go into how conflicts are handled in the Church. When we feel the urge to make a nasty comment or post a scandalous photo of liturgical abuse online, we should ask ourselves whether it’s love of the Church that is guiding our hearts, or a sense of entitled judgement. I’m willing to bet that more often than not, hubris influences how we respond.
As Catholics we’re still learning how to navigate the tides of the Internet effectively without falling into worldly and often sinful habits. We will all make mistakes, I’m sure, but we must continue to examine our behavior, promote what is working and throw out what is not.
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.