Commandments for believers who blog

Popes rarely produce viral sound bites, but legions of Catholic bloggers continue to pass around a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in which he openly blessed the passion that drives them to their keyboards. "Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for 2000 years," he said, in a 2010 Vatican address easily found at YouTube. The goal is to live in the "digital world with a believer's heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet's incessant flow of communication."

If that quotation is too long, bloggers can embrace this shout out from Pope John Paul II, who could become the patron saint of digital scribes. Just before his death in 2005, he proclaimed: "Do not be afraid of new technologies!"

That quote should fit atop a computer monitor.

"The greatest obstacle is always fear, when the church tries to get involved in something new," said Brandon Vogt, author of "The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet."

"There's the fear of the unknown, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of creating controversy and, most of all, the fear of causing divisions in the church. ... Are there going to be bad apples? Of course. Will there be people who think they've been appointed as the pope? Of course. But Catholic leaders -- including our bishops -- can't ignore what is happening online."

As in the secular media, the social-media tsunami has rocked the old-guard religious publications.

For Catholics, diocesan newspapers long served as the official establishment voices, often clashing with independent publications on left and right, as well as those produced by religious orders such as the Jesuits. Now, Catholic bloggers have emerged as a quick-striking source of alternative commentary and information -- often from a sharply pro-Vatican point of view.

"The Catholic blogosphere is probably one of the most orthodox parts of the American church, in large part because there were so many people who feel like the church being attacked and they want to defend it," said T.J. Burdick, a Catholic educator who edited the new "One Body, Many Blogs" e-Book.

In this collection, a circle of Catholic writers provided their "10 commandments" lists for blogging about religion. In addition to the need for prayer before clicking "post," these blunt recommendations included:

* First, said Marc Barnes of the Bad Catholic blog: "Don't suck. There is a tendency within the Christian world to think the work we do will be good work, if only we do it for God." Anything less than excellence "is no service to God, no matter how well we think we are witnessing, giving testimony, or whatever Christian euphemism we want to use to disguise the fact that we can't be bothered to make something awesome."

* Never assume "everyone who reads your work has the same viewpoint on issues of faith," wrote Lisa Hendey of CatholicMom.com. "Find a Jewish, Protestant or even Atheist friend or acquaintance and invite them to join you for a cup of coffee and a peek at your blog. While they view it, watch carefully how they interact with your content and what lasting impressions they have in reading your work."

* Along that line, but in pews, Deacon Greg Kandra advised: "Keep an open mind to the many ways there are of Being Catholic. Not everyone loves the Latin Mass. Not everyone adores strumming guitars and liturgical dance." When in doubt, he added, "Ask yourself periodically: WWJB?"

* Kevin Knight of NewAdvent.org warned: "Truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a pixel, will pass from the Wayback Machine cache until all is accomplished." With a strong "amen," Katrina Fernandez of The Crescat said her first commandment is to "remember that we will be ultimately judged by every word we utter and write. The Internet is forever, folks."

* Former atheist Jeff Miller, blogging at The Curt Jester, advised: "Do onto other bloggers as you would want them to do onto you. If you want to be linked by others, then be generous in linking to others and to give proper attributions to where you first noticed a story. If you want others not to jump to conclusions about what you write, make sure you are not doing the same."

State of the online Godbeat 2010

For journalists who care about life on the Godbeat, the list of the dead and the missing in action has turned into a grim litany. Some religion-beat jobs have been killed, while others have been downsized, out-sourced, frozen or chopped up and given to reluctant general-assignment reporters.

Gentle readers, please rise for a moment of silence.

The Orlando Sentinel. The Dallas Morning News. Time. The Chicago Sun-Times. The Rocky Mountain News. U.S. News & World Report. The list goes on, especially if you include smaller newsrooms that have always struggled to support Godbeat jobs.

At least 16 major news outlets abandoned or reduced commitment to religion news as a specialty beat in recent years, according to the Religion Newswriters Association. Two of those empty desks -- at the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe -- were recently filled.

"In the 1990s and early 2000s, the largest papers often had multiple religion reporters. That has disappeared, for sure. That is where the biggest cut for religion has occurred," said RNA director Debra Mason, who teaches at the University of Missouri.

"We suffer in the meantime, and one possible casualty is all our experienced, better writers. I do worry that the next generation of religion writers don't have any mentors or internships, etc., to gain experience."

Mason stressed that the religion beat is not being singled out. Sweeping changes in the industry, coupled with hard economic times, have been especially destructive in big-city newspapers that once had the resources to fund a variety of specialty beats -- from the arts to fashion, from science to religion. Also, high profits in the 1980s and into the '90s had inflated some newsroom staffs.

At the same time, Mason said she sees another trend. New forms of religion news and opinion can be found in a variety of settings online, including sites such as Politics Daily, The Huffington Post, Creedible.com, Read the Spirit, Immanent Frame, Religion Dispatches and the powerful Catholic weblog, Whispers in the Loggia. CNN leaders recently announced the creation of several specialty news sites, including a religion weblog. Beliefnet.com continues to evolve.

Dedicated readers have never had greater access to the work of journalists and public-relations professionals employed by major denominations and religious groups of all kind -- from Baptist Press to the Episcopal News Service and everyone in between. Alternative news sources have sprung up in cyberspace, such as the Stand Firm network for Anglican conservatives, The Wild Hunt for modern pagans, Orthodox Christians for Accountability and flocks of Baptist blogs -- from BaptistLife.com to SBCvoices.com -- representing establishment and independent writers.

The harsh reality today, according to Rocco Palmo, the man behind Whispers in the Loggia, is that all too often readers who care about religion face tough choices. Will they place their trust in traditional news reports that are, these days, often written by journalists who have little training to prepare them for the rigors of the religion beat or the opinion-based work of experienced insiders and scholars who may have ideological axes to grind?

"There are fabulous religion reporters who are still out there grinding away in the mainstream media, but they are an endangered species for sure," said Palmo. "I still think that basic, hard-news reporting is the gold standard and we need more of it. ... But most of what you see when you go online is commentary and criticism. You don't see that much original reporting being done. ...

"If anything, people like me are just trying to step in and fill the void."

Someone will have to do that because, year after year, religion keeps playing a vital role in shaping many of the world's biggest stories, from the streets of Iran to voting booths in America, from scandals shaking Catholic sanctuaries to mysteries unfolding in genetics research laboratories.

It's impossible to tell these complex stories accurately without grasping the role that faith plays in the lives of millions and millions of people around the world.

"Religion stories are the most exquisite stories to tell," stressed Mason. "I believe that we'll figure out how to effectively and efficiently tell stories about faith and values once this media transition is sorted out. The question is not whether or not we'll have religion news, but whether or not there will be anyone left who knows how to cover it."

B16 says, 'Thou shalt blog'

When Eunice Kennedy Shriver died, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley candidly reminded his Archdiocese of Boston flock that this was one Kennedy who was consistently faithful to the church's teachings. "She was preeminently pro-life, against abortion and there to protect and underscore the dignity of every person," noted O'Malley, praising the founder of the Special Olympics.

When Sen. Edward Kennedy died soon after that, the cardinal strongly defended his own decision to preside at his funeral -- despite the senator's public stands against church church's teachings on abortion and sexuality.

"We must show those who do not share our belief about life that we care about them," O'Malley argued. "We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people's hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss."

The cardinal didn't deliver these highly personal messages from the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Instead, he posted them on "Cardinal Sean's Blog" at BostonCatholic.org -- his own multimedia journal.

O'Malley isn't alone. A few other bishops and priests have made the jump into cyberspace. However, there will be many more bloggers wearing Roman collars if Pope Benedict XVI has his way. In a message addressed straight to priests -- bypassing the offices of many cautious bishops -- the pope has urged them to start spreading and defending the faith online.

"The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul's exclamation: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel,' " said the pope, in a message released on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists.

"The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled," argued Benedict, whose online presence has risen with the birth of Pope2You.net and the Vatican YouTube channel.

"Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different 'voices' provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis."

For tech-savvy Catholics, it's stunning news that the 82-year-old Benedict used the word "blog" in the first place, noted Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based scribe whose "Whispers in the Loggia" weblog is a global hot spot for Vatican news and gossip. The tone of this papal message, he added, is relentlessly positive -- a striking departure from the Vatican's many downbeat messages about media in the past.

The bottom line, noted Palmo, via email, is that "against the backdrop of the widespread American experience of mass closings of parishes, declines in attendance, etc., we're learning that one thing that helps folks want to keep staying close is when ... the church realizes that one hour on Sunday just isn't enough, that people are looking for something to help keep them connected and inspired through the week. So I think Benedict is calling priests to see that they have a crucial role in that, and to see this not as some sort of hobby or personal indulgence, but a vitally important extension of their ministry. Anything that bears fruit to that end lifts all boats."

Catholic leaders will, however, need to be careful when working in this chaotic, even deceptive, online world.

After all, some early reports about Benedict's message about digital media mentioned that Vatican officials marked the occasion by opening an official Twitter feed -- @vatican_va -- complete with the Vatican coat of arms.

It was a fake. Catholic News Service soon established that the Vatican has not taken up tweeting -- yet.

"The whole episode has prompted some Vatican media people to remark, 'It wasn't us -- but it should have been us,' " noted John Thavis, the CNS bureau chief in Rome. "So don't be surprised to see a real Vatican Twitter feed in the future."

Why pastors detest email

For millions of users, the World Wide Web has turned into a Devil's den packed with urban legends, pop-up porn, Nigerian get-rich schemes and tidal waves of spam pushing medical products that make sailors blush.

That isn't how the Internet Evangelism Day team sees things. It notes that "over 1 billion people use the Web," the "Internet is changing the world" and "God is using the Web to transform lives."

"The Internet has become a 21st century Roman road, marketplace, theater, backyard fence and office drinks machine," proclaims the site's webmasters. "Web evangelism gives believers opportunities to reach people with the Gospel right where they are, just as Jesus and Paul did."

Tech guru George Gilder knows where the Web evangelists are coming from and offers a hearty "Amen." He remains convinced that cyberspace is territory that religious leaders have to explore and, hopefully, master.

"The Internet is very good for building communities and, obviously, churches are communities. It allows a particularly charismatic, or brilliant, church leader to reach potential followers not only in his community or in his immediate locality, but all across the country and the world," said Gilder, the author the trailblazing books "Microcosm" and "Telecosm."

"This is the power of the Net," he said. "It can free people from this sort of entrapment in a narrow locality and allow them to find support for their particular faith, wherever it may arise."

But there's a fly in the digital ointment. There's a reason that Gilder's online "Telecosm Forum" is for subscribers only -- he needs to focus his time on serious questions raised by committed readers who are truly interested in the issues he wants to research. Gilder invests his time and energy in this one online flock.

That's the bottom line: A decade or two down the digital information highway, people who are serious about the Web are learning to invest their time more wisely.

That includes religious leaders, who are as buried in digital junk as everyone else. Many ministers who once were anxious to think outside the local-church box have been stunned at the time commitment this kind of "online ministry" requires.

The good news is that ambitious religious leaders can do 24/7, online, multi-media, interactive ministry at the local, national and even global levels. And the bad news? Users will expect them to build and maintain these 24/7, online, multi-media, interactive ministries at the local, national and even global levels.

This is a mixed blessing for ministers who are already struggling to keep up with the fast-paced realities of life in the flesh-and-blood, analog world. Websites, blogs and email can become curses, as well as blessings.

The Net is, for better and for worse, a tool for interactive communications, stressed Gilder, who is an active churchman. Anything that amplifies speech has the potential to help evangelism and other crucial ministries in most churches, which are communities of believers that need to interact with the world around them in order to survive or thrive.

However, religious leaders need to ask serious questions about the size and shape of the online ministries they attempt, he said. Should forums about sensitive or controversial issues be open to all comers? If a congregation offers an interactive website for people who are asking religious and personal questions, is there anyone with the time and skills to maintain it? Will posting a minister's online address produce contacts with people who truly need help? Who will screen all those emails?

There's one more tricky issue that must be addressed. Many believers are highly skilled when it comes to talking to and arguing with other members of their own flocks, using a kind of "preaching to the choir" lingo that is mere gibberish to outsiders. The religious corners of the Web are packed with websites of this kind, which do much to promote insider debates, but little to reach people outside church doors.

"It's crucial to break out of this kind of parochial language," said Gilder. "If you are going to try to talk to people in the secular world, you have to have people who actually have the ability to do that kind of work online. ...

"It's quite exciting to actually go out into the wider world. But you have to have something to say and you have to know what you are doing."

Invading Anglican closets

The historic Trinity Episcopal Church offers clear online guidance to those seeking a Blessing of Holy Union in its sanctuary on Boston's Copley Square.

The services are based on "A Rite for the Celebration of Commitment to a Life Together" which is used in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

"A priest may bless a same-sex civil marriage or preside at and bless a same-sex union. ... The same liturgical rite is used," say the guidelines. "In the presence of God and the couple's Christian community, the rite includes a declaration of the couple's intent to join their lives together and a celebration of their commitment to a life together."

This is precisely the kind of rite that has infuriated so many conservatives in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

But the sound that Anglican insiders heard the other day was nervous coughing in England. U.S. Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori has decided not to let gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the mother church sit safely on the sidelines while traditionalists take shots at her flock.

What about those same-sex union rites?

"Those services are happening in various places, including in the Church of England, where my understanding is that there are far more of them happening than there are in the Episcopal Church," she recently told the BBC.

What about New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a gay man who is living in a same-sex relationship? According to Jefferts Schori, Robinson is under attack for being honest.

Bishop Robison, she said, is "certainly not alone in being a gay bishop, he's certainly not alone in being a gay partnered bishop. He is alone in being the only gay partnered bishop who's open about that status. ... There's certainly a double standard."

What we have here is an attempt to pull British bishops out and into open combat with conservatives in Africa, South America, Asia and other parts of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion. The presiding bishop has played the England card in a high-stakes game of ecclesiastical poker inside the Church of England.

The tensions were already rising, as Canterbury prepares for its once-a-decade global Lambeth Conference of bishops, this coming July 20-Aug. 3. Conservatives are planning their own Global Anglican Future Conference, June 15-22 in Jerusalem.

Thus, it was symbolic that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently presided at a closed-door Eucharist in London for the Clergy Consultation, a support network for gay Anglican clergy, seminarians, monks and nuns. The Times of London offered this detail: "Secrecy was so tight that a list of names attending was sent to Lambeth Palace with orders that it be shredded as soon as Dr. Williams had read it."

Meanwhile, a few liberal activists have focused on the leader of the one U.S. diocese that has -- so far -- voted to cut its ties to the national church.

Citing a disputed interview from more than a decade ago, backed with hostile testimonies, blogger Lisa Fox of Jefferson City, Mo., claims that San Joaquin Bishop John-David Schofield has repeatedly "outed" himself as an ex-homosexual.

Yes, it's time to publish names, Fox said.

"When a cleric uses his closet as a sniper's nest, he deserves to have a light directed upon his deceit and duplicity," wrote Fox, at her "My Manner of Life" weblog. "For the life of me, I still do not know how those gay-lesbian bishops -- especially the ones on the 'progressive' side of the spectrum -- can look themselves in the mirror each day."

Schofield, meanwhile, insists that he has been misquoted. The 69-year-old bishop does have an unusual background, since he has both taken a monastic vow of celibacy and been a leader in the charismatic renewal movement, with its emphasis on spiritual gifts such as healing and prophecy. He also supports ministries for those who struggle with sexual-orientation issues.

"I always thought I would be married," the bishop told Virtueonline.org. "In my early days of the priesthood, I was an Oblate of Mount Calvary that required annual vows be renewed. By 1966, I was convinced that married life was for me. On November 17, 1966, however, in a life-changing encounter with the Lord, I responded to his request to live a single life for Him."

Schofield also answered the question that others will soon face.

"I am not a homosexual," he said. "I have never been in the homosexual lifestyle."