Thursday, 1 May 2014

Break all his pencils!

Rev Nick Donnelly and the Protect the Pope blog that he wrote, became the focus of intense media attention after Deacon Nick was asked by his Bishop "to voluntarily pause (sic) from placing new posts on the Protect the Pope site." His wife, Martina, then took on the day-to-day running of the blog, welcoming contributions from a range of writers. I added my own thoughts to the general discussion in the post The pitfalls of censoring Catholic bloggers which was taken up in various publications.

Now, over six weeks on, the story has been re-ignited because the Bishop has refused Deacon Nick's request to start posting again. Although Martina was posting on her own behalf, she has felt unable to continue after the Bishop's additional statement that he does not want anyone posting on Deacon Nick's behalf. Many commenters have encouraged or even cajoled Martina to continue, but I respect her decision since the glare of publicity can be highly disturbing. In any case, there are others who will continue the work.

James Preece is discomfited by the affair because he felt that Nick's blog dealt with matters more charitably than he might, but has now resigned himself to getting up earlier in the morning to blog more assiduously. (He has started by Getting in on the ACTA.)

Response to the latest development has come from a wide range of sources. An example of one of the more trenchant blog posts, an impressive multi-contributor blog has a robust analysis from a Baptist blogger for whom the treatment of Deacon Nick is another reason for not becoming a Catholic. (Pray for the writer, such "reasons" often become motivating causes of conversion.)

Riposte Catholique, a Paris-based service which has "plusieurs milliers de lecteurs chaque jour" has published Angleterre: un diacre interdit de blogue par son évêque. They picked up the story from a French Canadian blog Notions Romains: Declaration du diacre Donnelly a propos de la fermeture de son blogue «Protect the Pope». I don't imagine that the story is limited to the Francophone world.

Permit me a couple of observations. Those versed in public relations often quote the American dictum "Tell the truth, tell it fast, tell it all." In other words, do all you can to get a bad story out in one go rather than drip-feed, giving the press the chance to run it for days or weeks on end. I am not, of course, suggesting that the Bishop has told a lie, but it does seem fair to say that he probably wasn't going to say in due course "OK Nick, time of reflection over, you can get back to blogging again now." Although the more conditional initial statement might have seemed a good idea, in PR terms it would have been better to impose the unconditional ban to start with, rather than speak of voluntary pausing and a time of reflection, and then bringing the axe down six weeks later, firing up the story all over again once it had cooled down.

More importantly, there are inherent problems with trying to censor online activity. First, it won't do what you hope it will do. The hope is that a nuisance will be eliminated. In the short term, comments from other Bishops complaining about your clergy and implying that you cannot control them will die down a bit, but the overall result will be a more determined bloc of writers and commenters who will be hostile to episcopal control. It is likely that "Protect the Pope" will be resurrected in one form or another, perhaps with a different name, and probably with less concern for courtesy than that shown by Deacon Nick.

Secondly, it is difficult to censor a person completely. I am not against censorship per se; there are times when an authority, civil or ecclesiastical, must exercise control over free expression for the sake of the common good. In the Church it is quite reasonable to remove a theologian's license if he is teaching as a publicly recognised Catholic theologian but dissenting from the teaching of the Church. This is not a step to be taken lightly: such theologians often gain sympathy by the disingenuous claim that their human rights have been transgressed. Nevertheless, such limited and clearly defined censorship does protect the faithful from being misled by someone claiming to teach in the name of the Church while contradicting her doctrine.

On the other hand, an attempt at general censorship without clear limits is bound to fail, more so than ever with the rise of social media. To prevent someone from influencing others by comments that are found inconvenient or irritating, you must not only tell him to stop posting on his blog, but also tell him not to start another blog, to close down his Twitter and Facebook accounts, suspend his email account and send to a recycling facility or charitable institution his computer, his tablet, and any mobile telephone made since the mid-1990s. You also need to try to construct a canonically valid order preventing him from using any new channels or devices for social media that nobody has thought of yet, but might be invented at any time in the future. And...


I never tire of pointing out how much damage those things have done since they were invented.
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