Catholic Activism in the Age of the Social Internet Delivered August 7th, 2010 at the Catholic New Media

Celebration, Boston MA Please attribute to Thomas Peters, www.AmericanPapist.com (Online video archive: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/8776585) 1. Why Catholic Activism Matters I m going to talk today about Catholic activism. I m going to talk about moving from discussing what s happening in the world in our blogs, podcasts and other social media, into doing something about it. I believe that often we tend to get lost in the details of running a blog or a social media enterprise. We obsess about the number of comments our posts are receiving, the number of people listening to our podcast, the number of websites linking to us, and forget about why we are doing what we are doing in the first place. My talk therefore begins with a vision of what Catholic online activism is, and what it looks like in practice. It s something everyone can do, no matter the focus of their blog, because I believe Catholic activism in its various forms, is a calling all of us can pursue in small ways or, if we choose, big ways. To be clear, I m not going to talk only about political activism, or Catholic social activism, or even pro-life activism, I m going to talk about Catholic activism in general and as a concept, and about online Catholic activism in particular. I m going to explain the program, or mission statement which describes what I am trying to do with my blog, American Papist. I m certainly not holding myself up as a perfect example. It s a work in progress. But I believe it is a good and worthy work, and one that needs the best allies, the men and women here today. I think you may also find, that crystallizing the mission of what your doing with your blog will help you in lining up all the other details. And move your blog from being a personal project, to becoming a fulfilling occupation (or hobby) that accomplishes something you can be rightfully proud about. 2. Catholic Exceptionalism For as much as we talk about what Catholics have in common with non-Catholics, for instance natural law, the common good, rational arguments ... Catholics do still view the world differently. A Catholic is a sign - a good sign - of contradiction. Our formation in the scriptures and teachings of the Church, our sacramental and Eucharist-centered spirituality, the example in our lives of good and holy priests, the pope - all of these things are only found together in one place - in the Catholic Church. That s why Catholics have something unique to say about anything happening in the world - why we have Catholic cooking blogs, Catholic mommy podcasts, Catholic movie reviews, and on and on - Christ transforms and elevates every good thing in human life, and the Church is a constant teacher who forms the perspective with which we view events in our daily lives.

All of this means Catholics approach activism in a different way as well. Our faith provides illumination about what is wrong (or right), it provides the target list , so to speak, of what are goals should be, it tells us how we are to prioritize that list, and finally, it tells us how to go about achieving those goals, for instance, with charity, and hope in Christ. Catholic activism, furthermore, is communal. Catholics know that we are the body of Christ. We are meant to be the salt of the earth, and the candle not hid underneath a basket. 3. What does the Catholic Activist Community look like? This community for Catholic activism is both large and small. On the one hand, it is large because we - us in this room - have a huge, amplified effect based on the medium we use. Our ministries and apostolates touch more people than we ll ever know. My American Papist facebook fanpage has over 5,000 fans. The average person on Facebook has 130 friends. Do you know what 5000 times 130 is? I was a theology major - I had to use a calculator: 650,000. Talk about a megaphone to the world. Even if you only have your 130 friends, the community of individuals you can touch second-hand is almost 17,000 people. So, on the one hand our audience is potentially, very large. On the other hand, our community for Catholic activism is small. The number of committed Catholics - or, as I like to call them, papists , in other words, people who joyfully and fully accept all the teachings of the Magisterium, is small, certainly in relation to the number of people living in the United States, and probably also in relation to the number of people who, when asked, self-identify as Catholics. But the fact that we are small need not discourage us. Pope Benedict has written that creative minorities shape culture. They always have. Small groups of individuals who know what they believe, why they believe, and can communicate clearly what they believe to others, transform the cultural and social environment they inhabit. Committed Catholics are the creative minority in America today. Consider who we are and what we have to offer our country, uniquely. We have our faith, and from that faith we have a mission to evangelize the world, not only in the things of God, but also in the things of man. Christ reveals man to himself, and whenever we act in Christ, we provide witness to what humanity is called to be. And while our experience of our faith and spirituality is subjective, the content of our faith, and also importantly, our morality, is objective - which means you can argue for it, convince others of its rightness. In particular, this group of committed Catholics is well-placed to be a transformative, creative minority. Those who employ media old and new in their ministries and apostolates, and indeed private lives, are exceptionally well-equipped to do this work. 4. The Importance of Unity

If Catholics in social media are to be an effective community, we must have unity. The favorite narrative the secular press likes to apply to the Church is that there are many ways to be Catholic, many disunited aspects of Catholicism. In short, there are many different types of Catholics, and whose to say which one is the real Catholic? The media s favorite Church is a chaotic, disunited one. That means what they fear most, is a unified Church. This also means renegade or dissenting Catholics will automatically get more visibility than faithful ones. Honestly, it s as if the reporters at the New York Times haven t updated their rolodex since the 1970s. This used to be a far more crippling situation for us Catholics who wanted to get the truth about the Church in front of the world before the advent of social media. As important as the old media still is, we dont need them like we used to - and they know it. Which means they re forced to listen to us again, at least more than they used to. This situation also puts the burden back on us. We can no longer sit back and lament the fact that no one is coming to interview us. We can fire up our web cam and record a video for YouTube. We can write a blog post about it. We can link to a good news summary on our Facebook profile. We can get together and make it a trending topic on Twitter. We have, in a word, options. This discussion brings up one of my favorite questions: why are the largest and most read Catholic blogs all written by faithful Catholics? Why are there so few (and until recently, almost no) liberal blogs? Because the liberals didnt need to blog, didn t need a mechanism for self-publication - they had the old media. They already had a platform. The democratization of media we are witnessing, is a very good thing for orthodoxy. 5. The Laity Must Lead Here s a complicated part of my speech, and I hope it s a discussion we can return to during the Q&A - in this quest to establish a vibrant community of Catholic activists the laity must lead. I love bishops. I love priests. I am honored to be personal friends with many of each. But in this field, its the laity who must lead. When I was younger I believed Catholic activism involved mostly letting a priest or bishop know that there was a problem, and then hoping he would fix it. Many of us have probably fallen into this temptation. Oh bishop, why don t you excommunicate him? Oh father, why won t you write an article in the local paper about that horrible antiCatholic play that s coming out? They would listen to you. There is a place for the active role of the clergy, but there is a void of strong lay Catholic leadership in this country. And I do not mean to disparage the few prominent lay Catholic leaders there are. But I think if you would ask them, they would appreciate reinforcements. Certainly in politics, we have been disappointed by person after person who has betrayed their Catholic faith the first time it became a sacrifice for them to practice it. Luckily, there is a wealth of things lay Catholics can do on their own initiative, through the grace of their own baptism and confirmation, while respecting all the clear lines which the Church has drawn over time.

When the laity leads, when committed Catholics, with unity, in large numbers undertake activism, surprising things happen. The world listens. I stumbled across this phenomenon in the course of my blogging. Now, I had been blogging for years before I noticed any tangible impact I was able to have. I got so used to simply talking about something I didnt like, or praising something I did, and then moving on, that I basically forgot that people were reading it, that it was having an effect on their lives, and opinions, and especially, that the people involved could be reading it. This has changed over time. I m not sure where it first began, but the opportunity was certainly made more available when I began to get more active in politics, specifically pro-life politics and conservative politics in general. There is a system that pro-life and conservative organizations have worked out over time. It involves lobbying, and involves going directly to people in positions of authority and trying to influence them. Without intentionally deciding to do this, I began employing some of those same techniques in my blogging and social media. Working with CatholicVote, I began to promote their efforts to save the Mother Teresa stamp secularists had demanded that the U.S. Postal Service withdraw it because they found it offensive. When the Mother Teresa stamp is unveiled in a month in Washington DC, CatholicVote will bring 150,000 signatures of Catholics supporting its release. Now, that s one good thing. 6. Catholic Activism in Action Here s another, more surprising example. On March 29th of this year someone mentioned they had seen a very offensive anti-Catholic ad on TV produced by Kayak, a popular website that searches for the cheapest airplane ticket. It depicted two young, repressed nuns who were counting the days before they could escape their convent and break out their tiny bikinis on a carribean party beach. I did my papist thing, I blogged about it and explained why it was offensive. Then I took a second step, I told my readers how they could publicly tell Kayak they weren t going to use their services on Facebook and Twitter. This means that people who do use Kayak, when they searched Kayak on Twitter or visited their Facebook page, were confronted with dozens of Catholics quietly explaining why they weren t going to go with Kayak anymore. Essentially this was a streetside demonstration on Kayak s virtual property. And you can bet the Kayak people had some quick meetings on their end, because they pulled the ad (even from YouTube) the very same day. Kayak s chief marketing officer got in touch with me and personally apologized. I was happy to inform my readers that I intended to use Kayak again. Kayak, as a business, quickly decided it wasnt worth singling-out and alienating Catholics. And they made a smart business move - and Catholics stood publicly and effectively on principle. What I think made this most effective was that we interacted with Kayak on its territory. We didnt issue a press release, we - as Catholics - showed up in the company s virtual space. Which made it easy for them to listen to us, and see what harmful effects their marketing decision had had. I believe they ll think twice before they go after those backward, repressed Catholics again.

That s just one example. I ll name just one more. On June 13th, during the World Cup, I posted the video of an anti-Catholic ad produced by carmaker Hyundai which depicted a sacrilegious soccer Mass. Through our efforts in emailing Hyundai, they also pulled the ad off of the airwaves, and sent notes of apologies to anyone who contacted them. On this issue my blog was joined by many other Catholic blogs that contributed in the email campaign. Companies listen to unified, numerous criticism. And the unique message from Catholic activists - a unified, reasonable, rational message originating from a huge number of people in an intense frame of time quickly lets them know that they are on the wrong side of an issue. They can t dismiss it, because they know they are dismissing it at their own peril and fortune. Conversely, our wider audience those who see what we are doing are faced with questions about the rightness (or wrongness) of our activity. We become, I believe, a good example to the world, when we stand together and stand up for what we believe. We aren t afraid, in other words, to put our faith into action. Because we are entering the social age of media, grassroots means more than upper tier. In the old days, if something outrageous was done that targeted Catholics, the major Catholic organizations - such as Bill Donoghue at the Catholic League - would issue a fiery press release, Bill would appear on the major cable networks (remember what I said about rolodexes?)... and it ended there. Typically, no widespread support would materialize behind him, and the offending companies or individuals would shrug it off. If you pay attention to these things, the Catholic League still fires off multiple press releases a day. But the game has changed. Companies and individuals aren t worried about someone who they are used to seeing offended, acting offended again. They are worried if the people, be they potential customers or possible supporters, start speaking out. Those powerful in the media and the culture have become adept at marginalizing individuals. They can marginalize Bill Donoghue (I m only using him as a visible example) - what they can t marginalize as easily is thousands, and tens of thousands of people. When those who count power as everything see me, they can scoff. When I say I work with an organization which includes 500,000 members, and you ll be hearing from them, they may scoff, but they do it privately. In public, they listen. 7. Catholic Activism within the Catholic community Catholic online activism is not only targeted at the world outside. It can be fruitfully employed to improve the situation within the Church. I have organized email and phone campaigns to support bishops who have had to make hard (and right) decisions in their diocese. I have organized campaigns that criticize poor decisions made by, say, Catholic universities that invited pro-abortion Presidents to speak at their commencement. That one, conducted with the Cardinal Newman Society, resulted in hundreds of thousands of emails, and national press coverage. The volume of the activities proved to the mainstream media and national audience that our complaint was not a fringe hang-up. What was happening offended the sensibilities and principles of a huge swath of Catholics. People are smart, they know if a few hundred thousand people are willing to visit a website and enter their

information, many more times that agree with the ones who troubled themselves to do something about it. Any person who was called upon to explain the Catholic position couldnt be marginalized as easily for his views, because that individual could point to the unfakeable grassroots support which followed it. Catholic online activism is still in its infancy stages. We haven t even begun to tap the potential of mobilizing active Catholics to lobby for fair treatment of our faith and figures of faith in the public square, for Catholic politicians who act Catholic when in office, and even for the dignity of human life at all stages. Hopefully I ve impressed upon you some sense of the good things that are waiting for us if we organize, unite, and publicly fight for truth and justice as Catholics, in the online continent, in the virtual marketplace of ideas, in the area where modern man lives more and more of his life, forms his opinions, and seeks truth and justice. 8. The Need for Catholic Activism All of this couldn t come too soon. Now that we know a bit better what potential weapons for good are in are arsenal, I d like to continue with a description of the battlefield and a call to Christian arms. I have one foot in the Catholic world, and one in the U.S. political arena. And for five years I have intensely consumed information and engaged in the battlefield of ideas, both in the Church, and in the secular realm of U.S. politics. I easily spend 15 hours a day (Sundays excepted) somewhere near a computer or my smartphone reading the headlines, writing my stories, tweeting my alerts, attending the meetings, talking with those who are in the trenches of the culture war. Here s what we re in for. We re in for dark days and hard times, especially if you are a papist. And if we are to save Western culture, the American dream, and the freedom of the Church to proclaim the good news this century, we must be the tip of the spear. We need Catholics to live their faith, love their faith, and be proud of it. We need Catholics to start families, support their local parish, be aware of what s happening in the world around them. And we must use every technological means at our disposal to even the playing field. We must blog the truth, podcast it, friend it on facebook and re-tweet it. We must inhabit the digital continent and become as familiar with its terrain as the first Jesuit missionaries who mapped the New World. And like them, we must be willing to give up our lives for this mission. Not, please God, literally. But the white martyrdom which is the charism of our age - the slow, painful death of one who is mocked, shunned, ignored, and passed-over, simply because their are faithful. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice. We re not crazy when we think that Catholics are treated with unique harshness and particular violence in our culture. Look at how they treat the Holy Father. Every time someone feels free to attack the pope in that fashion, it s a good bet they ll free to attack you for defending him, and what he stands for. No one likes to be confronted with a sign of contradiction. But it s good that they be forced to see one from time to time.

9. The Challenges of Catholic Activism We are the unlucky generation who is going to have to survive the maturation, the logical conclusion, of the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Our parents (or at least, my parents) fought against those who said a women had a right to choose. Our generation is told that abortion is a positively good thing, a right of passage for the liberated woman that ought to be celebrated. Our parents had to listen to those who said it wasn t a bad thing to be gay, that love is free and who s to judge? We are told that gay intercourse is good, a sacrament that should be deemed a marriage by every Church, and that those who still cling to the traditional teachings of the Church (and natural law) are literally bigots whose opinion is not even to be tolerated. Our parents were told that, when it comes to contraception, a married, loving couple should be permitted to avoid pregnancy to facilitate intimacy. We are told that the pope s firm condemnation of contraception is literally killing millions of people in Africa. Our parents were told by Catholic politicians that they could not let their personal beliefs effect the decisions they make as politicians. We are told by our elected officials that they provide public funding to kill the unborn, push for the legalization of same-sex marriage, lobby to introduce contraception to gradeschoolers, because of their Catholic faith! In each of these examples, the historical progress (or as I would call it - regress) is clear. In a culture that continues to decay as it forgets even the memory of its Christian roots, those who hold fast to the promises of Christ and his Church are ever more a sign of contradiction. 10. Catholic Activism, in Continuity with the Catholic Mission So that s why we need missionaries in the digital content. That s why the witness of your Catholic blogging and your presence in Catholic social media matter. That s why simply blogging your thoughts about the day, because they are necessarily influenced by your faith, is a powerful witness. Blogging allows us, or at least challenges us, to be honest, with a freedom that we don t often enjoy when we are in our places of work surrounded by coworkers (and our boss), when we are in a supermarket and just want to buy a gallon of milk without being asked are all those kids yours? , when we are at the doctor s office and are asked if we know about the benefits of birth control, and that it s free. Blogging allows us an even playing field (which is all we ve ever wanted) in the public square of ideas and values. It affords us the time and freedom first to marshal our ideas and second, what I am asking to marshal our numbers. To become a unified, numerous and powerful voice for the good news. I ll close with a story from the bible, which is always a safe way to end a speech at a Catholic gathering. Did you know that Jesus used technology? He did. He used the technology of his time. When the crowds became too numerous, Jesus got on a boat cutting-edge technology at the time to better reach those crowds. He used the

boats provided by his first disciples to cross the sea, though storms threatened to capsize it at times, and go wherever the people who needed to hear him were. May the Catholic blogs and social media apostolates here, be that little flotilla of boats that brings the saving message of Christ even into the depths of the social internet. +++

5 Conversations/Goals for Catholic Activism: 1. We need to have a national conversation about the responsibility to vote Catholic, and of the responsibility of Catholic politicians to act Catholic 2. We need to have a national conversation about the fact that being truly Catholic means holding and believing everything the Church teaches with authority we have to make it clear that cafeteria catholcisim is not Catholicism its Protestantism 3. We need to have a national conversation about the fact that the Church is an uncompromising defender of life, and that Catholics provide concrete support to women who are tempted to seek an abortion 4. We need to have a national conversation about the fact that the Church is not anti-gay. That it loves persons with homosexual inclinations so much that it will not stand by as they ruin their lives and endanger their soul 5. We need to have a national conversation about the importance of the family, that the family is the fundamental building block of society and that government must protect and provide for the traditional family

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