It was only a few years ago that I began exploring Christianity after a life of atheism. I’ll never forget the time I was up late at night, feeling lost and slightly depressed as I searched around the Internet for arguments in favor of God’s existence, and I stumbled across a series of heated debates between atheists and Christians. I eagerly followed their back-and-forth comments well into the night, and witnessing this debate would end up marking a turning point in my life. It was one of the events that kick-started the conversion process that would eventually lead me to the Catholic Church.
Though the Christians (most of whom identified themselves as Catholics) made important, excellent arguments in defense of their faith, that’s not what left me scratching my head for weeks to come. What struck me then, which I still remember to this day, is the way the Christians conducted themselves. I’ve long since forgotten the details of those discussions, but I’ll never forget the Christians’ seemingly superhuman abilities to make their points with kindness and humility, even in the face of frustrating misunderstandings and personal insults that would drive most people over the edge.
It’s not that the atheists were so bad — they were just acting the way people typically act in heated online debates about controversial issues — but that the Christians were so extraordinarily loving and calm. They clearly had something that the rest of us didn’t; and whatever it was, I wanted some of it. Reading their words was like stumbling across an oasis of reason and peace on the Internet, and I immediately began seeking out sites run by Christians.
As my research led me closer and closer to Catholicism, Catholic blogs and Web sites became my lifeline into this strange new culture. Not knowing any practicing Catholics in my personal life, the online world was my only glimpse into Catholic culture. I discussed this in more detail in the June article "Google and Ye Shall Find," and afterward I heard from many people with similar stories.
"I am also an Internet convert!" one lady wrote."I’d read lots of books but did not know any Catholics personally. Like you, my first glimpse of Catholicism in practice was through Catholic websites and blogs. I never commented, but I read a lot."
Her e-mail is only one example of something I hear all the time: More and more people are including the Internet in their searches for answers to life’s big questions, and those who search for objective truth often end up encountering the Catholic Church — its Catechism, its encyclicals, and its bloggers. Since they still feel like outsiders looking into a strange new world, these seekers and potential new converts rarely leave comments, send e-mails, or take any other action to identify themselves. They almost never make their voices heard, especially when heated discussions break out, but they are there nevertheless, reading silently. Many of these people, as well as the countless other nonbelievers and believers of other faiths who stumble across Catholic Web sites every day, do not know any practicing Catholics in real life. Without any other frame of reference, the voices they encounter in Catholic articles and blogs and comment boxes represent all Catholics to them.
It’s worth taking a moment to ask ourselves: How well are we representing our faith? For those of us who express our opinions on the Internet, whether it’s through our own sites or comments on other sites, what kind of image do we paint of the Body of Christ through the words we publish on the Internet?
Certainly we’re called to be kind and charitable in every area of our lives; but when we make public statements as Catholics it’s all the more important to prayerfully consider every word we say and to speak in a way that not only defends the truths of our belief system, but shows its fruits as well. This is especially important to remember when controversial issues arise on Catholic Web sites. Ironically, we are probably most tempted to react in anger or sarcasm when discussing issues within Catholic circles, since those topics often verge into the territory of the sacred. (Anyone have any strong opinions about breastfeeding during Mass, the proper use of NFP, or what constitutes appropriate liturgical music?) When these kinds of discussions break out and all the people actively participating seem to be Catholic, it’s easy to slip into thinking of it as a closed-door meeting at the local parish, a family spat among Catholics. Yet with the Internet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Every single one of our online discussions takes place in an open-air forum with people from all backgrounds all across the world as witnesses. Even the smallest blogs and the most obscure comment threads are at least occasionally read by people who know nothing of Catholicism outside of the discussion. When these people read our words, for better or worse they think, "This is what followers of Christ are like."
As social isolation increases in the world outside, there will be more and more people who know nothing about our religion other than what they see on the Internet. Whether we like it or not, whether it’s fair or not, everyone who expresses an opinion online as a Catholic has made him- or herself an ambassador for the Church. I am certainly not suggesting that we shy away from discussing controversial topics or that we put on airs when writing online. I only suggest that we each take a moment to call on the Holy Spirit to guide our keystrokes every time we publish something to the Internet, whether it’s an article, a blog post, or even just a brief response in a comment box. Whenever we log on to the Internet, let us never forget that the world is watching.
Jennifer Fulwiler is the author of ConversionDiary.com, where she writes about her experiences with Catholicism after a life of atheism.