Sinful Anger in Social Media and the Loss of Civility

Social media in-and-of-itself is a good. Social media has given me the opportunity to become a writer and to grow in knowledge and skill in that area. I have been able to interact with people across the world who have written to me in response to articles that I have been blessed to publish. We can now keep up with friends and family worldwide and make new friends across the globe. This is a wonderful side of technology; however, there is a dangerous trend in Catholic circles to respond to others in writing in a manner that is uncharitable at best, and sinful at worst. I know I am not the only person who has watched this trend with deep concern. I left Facebook for this very reason. I got tired of the fighting and yelling. Now I only deal with it in the combox of my articles and the hate filled emails I receive on occasion from professed Catholics.

Here are some suggestions that we need to keep in mind as we engage with others, Catholic and non-Catholic, in social media.

We are called to be Christ to the world.

Every Mass we attend ends with one of the following “Go forth, the Mass is ended, Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Do we glorify God when we scream and rant at other people who we disagree with on social media? Can we evangelize in this manner? No, in fact, chances are when we act in this manner we need to get to Confession when it is next available. Plus, the people we are engaging with will shut down immediately.

Our Baptismal call is to bring the world into conformation with the Most Holy Trinity. This must be done in charity, truth, and also with respect of the free will of the other person. Admonishment of the sinner must be done in love and charity, not out of our own sinful anger and pride. And as hard as it is to understand, admonishment of the sinner is a call by God and we are not to go around admonishing everyone. Typically, when we “love” to admonish others, we are ignoring our own sins.

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:1-5

No one will be converted to Christ if they are browbeaten by the other party. Our admonishment, when it is called for, must be born of charity and prudence, not anger and pride. Admonishment is a holy endeavor.

Not every thought in our head needs to be shared on the Internet.

The advent of social media has given us a false sense of importance, which very often leads to pride. We are convinced that every thought in our head must be shared and that we have the right to tell everyone what we think. From the Catholic perspective, this is not true. We have an obligation to live lives ordered to prudence. This means checking our tongue and discerning whether we are really called by God to engage another person in debate. It also means accepting in humility that our every thought is not necessarily correct. We often do not understand our own motives or how experiences and emotions can blind us in the face of certain topics. Prudence must be the order of the day, so that we can avoid sinning in social media. We must learn how to discern when to share our thoughts and when to keep them to ourselves.

If sinful anger rears its ugly head, then walk away.

Sinful anger is a powerful beast that is very difficult to control. It is often confused with righteous anger, but they are not even remotely the same thing. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that sinful anger desires vengeance. It is the desire to tell another person off, to rant, rave, and hurt another person. It often comes with a know-it-all attitude and the heavy, and deadly, sin of pride. Both sinful anger and pride are deadly sins because they blind us to God. Sinful anger also blinds us to reason and leads us to irrationality. We end saying deeply hurtful and sinful things to another person. If vengeance begins to drive us in social media, then walk away. Shut off the phone, laptop, tablet, or computer and go for a walk. Pray for peace. If we give in and attack another person in sinful anger, then it is time to get to Confession. Once a year isn’t even close to enough Confession if we want to seriously progress in holiness. Sinful anger and pride are destructive and deadly for a reason. Another thing to keep in mind is when we respond in sinful anger, we are placing the receiving person in a position of near occasion of sin because they may fall into sinful anger in response. We have an obligation to protect others from near occasion of sin too.

We don’t have a right to correct everyone.

There is a classic xkcd comic that sums up nicely how so many of us feel when we allow pride to blind us on the Internet. In the comic the one character asks if the other is coming to bed and the one on the computer replies, “I can’t this is important. Someone is wrong on the Internet.” We aren’t required to agree with every author or Facebook friend. You aren’t required to like all of my writing, for instance. That’s not why I write. I write because God gave me this gift and called me to use it at this point in time. But, we need to keep in mind that unless something is a glaring error, our corrections are born out of opinion, not necessarily fact. We do not have a right to go around correcting everyone. In fact, this type of behavior is typical of the person struggling with pride. How do I know? I struggle with pride and anger, that’s how I know. Your opinion and mine are not necessarily the right one, so it is better to bite our tongues than to end up writing a comment or email that comes across as arrogant and prideful, which it usually is. Let’s at least be honest with ourselves. I’ve done it too.

True discourse is born of civility.

Many of us enjoy engaging in discourse with others. I have always enjoyed a good debate, but in recent years I gave up on debating in social media. It always resorts to ad hominem attacks, that is, personal attacks. We are not our ideas. We are “embodied spirits” to quote Saint Thomas Aquinas, so resorting to ad hominem attacks is to dehumanize the other person. It is to assume that the sum total of that person is their ideas. In order for us to be able to discuss issues with other people, we must accept that ideas do not make the person. We also need to accept that finding truth is a journey and everyone progresses at a different pace. All we can do is be a guide. We must be willing to be open, even in disagreement, and foster a spirit of civility in all things. I know this is a challenge. It’s hard for me when I get ranting hate mail from readers, but charity demands civility. There cannot be open dialogue if we do not remain in a spirit of love and civility. Yelling always closes off dialogue.

We can’t evangelize from a place of sinful anger.

Here is the question we must ask ourselves when we seek to engage with others in social media: Do I desire to bring Christ to others or to be right all of the time? It is impossible to evangelize others, even cafeteria Catholics, when all we do is rant and rave at them. The assent to moral truths comes from an encounter with the Living God. When we love Christ, then we are able through the supernatural gift of faith, to love His teachings. A person who does not know Christ or love Christ cannot possibly fathom why we live as we do. This is precisely why our job is to show people Christ. It is not to tack on wins for our ego.

Most of the time when we first encounter someone struggling with the Church or Christianity we need to listen. We have to come to them with an open heart to hear what their struggles are in accepting Christ and His teachings. Perhaps they have been hurt, are burdened by guilt, struggle with anger, or they are confused. We can’t possibly reach them and proclaim the Good News if all we do is talk, especially if all we do is yell at them. I can also tell you this is true as a writer. If you are going to yell at me, I am not going to listen to your point. I will either ignore it, delete it, try to write a short charitable response, or laugh at the absurdity of it.  I have done all of these things. When we engage with others, Catholic and non-Catholic, in social media, we are dealing with other human beings, not a computer screen. We need to stop dehumanizing others in social media.

The Internet and social media are wonderful tools. They are goods in themselves as long as we use them in a properly ordered manner. They are not a chance for us to go carte blanche and sin in cyberspace to strangers, family, or friends. We can still sin sitting on our couch at home with a computer or phone in front of us. We have an obligation to be light and truth to others in charity. We do not have a right to be right all of them time, yell at people, or voice every word that goes through our heads. We must foster through habitual action the virtue of prudence. We need to be more willing to listen. We need to stop being presumptuous, which is another sin. It’s time to start approaching social media as Catholics and that is with an open heart that gives the benefit of the doubt, while sharing the Good News. We cannot possibly share the love of Christ if we are locked in sinful anger and pride. Let us go out and ‘glorify God by our lives’.

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • Deacon Toby

    Blessings while we are not called to judge we are to admonish. There are times when I have a ‘temple’ moment. I’m at the age of understanding walking away from an argument has its merits, however in writing the release valve is easier unplugged when you feel that temple moment. Is there justifiable verbal combat, a just war theory on paper? As a veteran my perspective may be different, my pen becomes my shoulder mount as I patrol the battleground of my faith wanting to protect it from any incursion from the enemy. And, as clergy I understand not every letter written on that battlefield is a letter home. When I run out of nitro in my pen, I can grab my other weapon, my rosary with it’s 50 round clip and blaze away. So we live to fight another day. Thanks for the inspiration Constance.

  • Nathaniel Pettit

    Yea a lot of people are really rude and mean on the internet. But Jesus said “Don’t call your brother Raqa or you fool”

  • Roran

    Excellent reminder.

  • Bernadette

    I commented earlier this morning about this great article, but I do not see any comments? Weird…

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Sorry about that, Bernadette. Our system flagged a bunch of comments (for some weird reason) and I just got to them all. Thanks for your comments and pardon the delay.

  • Laurie

    Pamela, I agree with you about pointing out that in urgent times “softness and niceness” may not be what is helpful. Humanity is in crisis! I understand that the tone of a comment can be pride, but it may not necessarily be. John the Baptist didn’t mince words for example. He would not have been deemed particularly soft and sweet in his time.I think that the concept of “niceness” may be a little too much in the realm of the cultural value of tolerance and political correctness. The Lord himself will judge the pure intention of a solid rebuke. And we need reprimand in our culture which can also be in the realm of love.

  • Philip Sieve

    Getting harsh is wrong, it’s true, but I think correcting can seem to be a responsibility one might feel answerable to God for not doing (I hope it’s not sinfu to write . It could also be driven by anger at certain people that let you down or the compulsion could be separate from the anger that could set the sinful tone. I can’t decide.

  • John

    Dear Constance,

    Thank you for the article, which is very well done. This topic is very important and will continue to be so. Maybe a book or longer treatment as well. It relates to so many things such as balancing “evangelization” vs. apologetics. Or Judging vs. “rebuking” or correcting sin. So many in the Church get this wrong b/c their hearts are not focused on patience, love, docility, open hearts and minds, listening, suffering … a true desire to be/share Christ with others. I do have only one other insight to share w/ you.

    Something we tend to do in our humanity is assign “labels” to groups of people. That can be descriptive and helpful but we also need to be careful. In the article above you refer to “cafeteria Catholics”. I find this to be a phrase used often by “traditionalist” or “conservative” (see, now I’m doing it) and it can be offensive and judgemental. In truth, most Catholics are “cafeteria” … we all pick and choose to live or emphasize, etc. certain Church teachings … and judge other Catholics vis ‘a vis how they live the faith. This is problematic. You address it well above… humility, authenticity, honest examination of conscience require us to look at what we think, say and do and realize we are sinners as well. We need to avoid labels or if we use them… need to take care to point out they are labels and generalizes lest we feed into the frenzy of “division” in the Church of which there is plenty.

  • Godsgracesavesu2

    Great article….very needed….and yes, among Catholics on the net too.

  • Pamela

    Well said, Laurie. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t used the word “nicely” since, as you infer, being “nice” simply facilitates today’s political correct culture.

  • Constance

    Thank you for your comment, John. It’s interesting that you argue that I shouldn’t use the term “cafeteria Catholic” which has a very clear meaning and it is not as you define it. Cafeteria Catholicism is selecting doctrines and being disobedient to others. That is heterodoxy or heresy. There is a difference between that definition and say those who submit to all Church teachings, but have a mission of serving the poor in Haiti or praying at Planned Parenthood. We may be called to different missions or emphasis, but we must all submit to the Magisterium and all of the Church’s teachings. Language matters and while we shouldn’t relegate groups to the status of “other” in an attempt to dehumanize them, we are also called to define things as they are in reality. There are far too many Catholics who are being disobedient to the teachings of the Church at their own peril. We must encourage them in charity and truth to submit out of love for Jesus Christ since the teachings are His.

    You yourself use political labels that have no place within the Church theologically. There is no such thing as a conservative or a liberal Catholic. It is Catholic or not Catholic. I am afraid correction using the same error you accused me of isn’t very effective. While I appreciate your thoughts, I am going to have to disagree with you. The first lesson my graduate theology professors taught me was that we do not use political language within the Church because it belongs in political philosophy, not theology. Cafeteria Catholic is a much more PC term than heretic. Thanks!

  • Constance

    Correcting must be born of charity, not pride. Far often we get this wrong. To fulfill the Spiritual Act of Mercy which is admonishment, we must desire out of love, to save another person’s soul. We must have pure motives. Far too often if we examine our consciences we will see that our motives do not stem from charity, but rather, a desire to lord over another or vengeance. We must constantly focus on progressing in holiness so that when moments of admonishment present themselves our response can be born of charity. Admonishment isn’t a work of mercy if it stems from our own anger and pride. We will not get far with others if all they see is our anger and pride and not God’s desire to save a soul.

  • Constance

    I didn’t say “nice” which is often a way of avoiding truth. We are, however, called to respond in charity. That means that our corrections must be born of genuine love. How often are our desires to correct others truly born of charity and how often are they born of anger, pride, and a sense of control? We cannot correct others if we are blinded by sins like anger and pride. My point is that admonishment is a work of mercy because it is born of love. We have to have proper motives to correct others. If we are working towards holiness in our own lives then we will be prepared to answer God’s call to correct others and it is His call, not ours. There are people who will respond in anger no matter how much we love them. This is typically seen in families. In a society as angry and torn apart as our own, we need to be prepared to be rebuked, but we also need to make sure our motives are pure. So often in my own experience, my motives have not been pure and I sinned in the process of correcting another.

  • Pamela

    Oh, I know you didn’t say “nice” — it was ME who did that 🙂 I agree with everything you said. Right now, I am struggling with how to charitably tell people in my parish that clapping for our cantor and musicians during Mass is inappropriate. Until about a year ago, we never saw this happen in our parish; now it is routine and the priests refuse to say anything about it. Yes, a topic for another column and another time. But I would love to hear some suggestions.

  • JMJ

    there is such a thing as righteous anger. We also have a duty to instruct and correct a person when they are wrong or lying.

  • Constance

    Yes, but more often than not, we cannot see the difference. Very often we mistake righteous anger when it is sinful anger blinded by our pride. True admonishment is born of charity, not our desire to be right or lord over other people. Do we take the time to see the difference within ourselves? Far too often, the answer is no. We can offer loving correction, but we cannot lord over people, insult people, or condemn them.

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