One of the most exciting mediums for gathering news and opinion is Twitter, the online social networking service. If you follow the right people, it’s a never-ending flow of information and analysis from professional pundits and accredited journalists from around the world. In another era, so much public discourse among competing reporters would be unthinkable, but in the digital age, nobody bats an eye when a CNN news anchor shares his insights with a journalist at the Washington Post.
In addition to secular media, Twitter has also become an important source of Catholic news and opinion, where a wide range of Church-related issues are reported on and discussed. Many of the world’s top Catholic thinkers and leaders are active on Twitter, and many probably spend more time on it than they’d like to admit. Recently, I watched with fascination as a Vatican reporter, a professor of theology, and a Dominican Friar engaged in a vibrant discussion on the impact of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum.
Yet while Twitter has emerged as one of the more interesting and popular mediums for Catholic discussion, I’ve also found it to be one of the least effective. During the Synod on the Family last fall, theologians and pundits sparred on Twitter over the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. I watched as extremely talented writers desperately tried to construct their arguments 140 characters at a time. The result was a long stream of tweets that readers had to piece together to make any sense of what the author was saying. I’d be willing to wager that despite the hundreds of hours Catholics spent on Twitter during the Synod, few if any changed their original positions—not because of stubbornness, but because exchanging views about Catholic teaching is next to impossible to do effectively two or three sentences at a time. Realizing how futile it is to argue this way, some commentators resigned to short, fiery insults and attacks aimed at their opponents. The personal nature of Twitter can spur us to attack people rather than ideas. Amidst a heated exchange over the Synod, one high profile columnist subtly accused his sparring partner, a theologian with opposing viewpoints, of supporting heresy, which lead to even more hostility on both sides and eventually spilled onto the pages of the New York Times. Personal feuds overtook the Gospel as the main focus of what some called “the Twitter Synod”.
Twitter is not just an impractical medium for theological discussions; it’s a dangerous one. Twitter rewards nastiness and wit, and makes little time for temperance and kindness. For Catholics, specifically, I’ve seen how it amplifies divisions in the Church and leaves us amnesic about our shared faith and unity in Christ. With the arrival of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the battles of last fall are already making a comeback on Twitter.
If you don’t use Twitter, you might ask whether the bickering on a micro-blogging site is of any consequence for the Church. I would argue that it is; rambling, vitriolic debates among top Catholic thinkers and their many followers will lead to hardened hearts and increased division in the Church, while resolving nothing.
Twitter is ideal for finding links to interesting articles and tracking news stories. And it’s even good for the occasional discussion. But it’s time we admit the obvious: complex theological debates should stay off Twitter. Magazines, blogs, websites, email, and even Facebook better provide the necessary space for discourse that Twitter doesn’t. While it’s hard to resist, I encourage Catholics, especially those in influential positions, to refrain from igniting and engaging in debates on Twitter that deserve more than a 140 character limit.
William Bornhoft is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.