“Cyber-vigilantism” or just a free-for-all for religions on the Internet?

There have been mounting reports on the growth of “religious cyber-bullying,” or in the words of journalist Mark Silk, “religious cyber-vigilantism,” and often such charges are aimed at the religious right. Silk’s blog Spiritual Politics (September 25) finds something akin to a religious “alt-right” in the recent Internet campaign against Jesuit James Martin surrounding his speaking and writing on LGBT issues in Catholic venues. In one much-reported case, Martin was disinvited from speaking at the Catholic University of America after such Catholic right websites as Church Militant and Father Z issued a stream of criticism against Martin and his views. Silk adds that there is a “family resemblance” between such activism and the Internet campaign waged by conservative activists against Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist official who was critical of the campaign of Donald Trump. Silk extends his critique to the Jewish world, citing attacks by “alt-right Jewish vigilantes” against the appointment of historian David Myers to the presidency of the Center of Jewish History because of his alleged left-wing views on Israel.

But in the Catholic case, at least, the growth of religious Internet conflict may not be just a matter of conservative intransigence. In the New York Times (September 20), Ross Douthat writes that institutional actors, starting with Pope Francis, have set much of the conflict in the Catholic Church in motion. He writes that the “conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative, are the all-but-inevitable result of the pope’s decisions to stir the church tensions into civil war again, and then to fight for the liberal side using ambiguous statements and unofficial interventions rather than the explicit powers of his office.” The pope has decentralized authority informally “while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not.” Douthat points to Francis’s uncertain position on remarried divorced Catholics receiving communion and the Vatican’s acceptance of different interpretations of the church’s teaching on suicide, particularly assisted suicide: “In this environment, anyone who wishes to know what the pope really thinks is better off ignoring official Vatican offices and instead listening to the coterie of papal advisors who take to Twitter to snipe against his critics.” To remedy the often “toxic rhetoric” evident on both sides of these conflicts, Douthat recommends that Catholic liberals and conservatives acknowledge their differences and fully debate them, preferably offline.

(Spiritual Politics, http://religionnews.com)