Diocesan official says “I believe that blogging as currently manifested should be made a serious criminal offence”

My good friend Fr. Tim Finigan, His Hermeneuticalness, told me a puzzling tale.

Once upon a time, a man learned that the Holy See has stepped up its concern about the rise of Satanism and has stressed that all dioceses should have an appointed exorcist.  The man, whose interest was peaked, sent an email note to all the dioceses far and wide across the land actually having an email contact address – not all did, it seems – asking whether or not those dioceses had appointed exorcists.  Of the 21 dioceses he querried, 2 replied.  Of those 2 one refused to answer.   And it is the message sent with that refusal which is the object of my puzzlement.

Here now are some of the details.

The person who did the writing with the question is Richard Collins who has the blog Linen on the Hedgerow.

The diocesan official who wrote with a refusal to Mr. Collins is Fr Derek Turnham of Stokesley, North Yorkshire, which is the Diocese of Middlesbrough.  Fr. Turnham is a communications officer for the diocese.

This is what Fr. Turnham wrote to Mr. Collins:

Dear Richard

Thank you very much for kindly responding with the information about your research.

I am afraid that for personal ethical reasons I am not prepared to co-operate – I believe that blogging as currently manifested should be made a serious criminal office because of the significantly negative comments that are so often made about people who are trying to do their best are so destructive to the good of society.

I noticed that the website of Fr. Turnham’s diocese, Middlesbrough, is actually in a blog format.  CAFOD is the largest word in their tag cloud.

Okay.  I think we can all stipulate that some people using the Catholic blogosphere, for whatever reason – excess of zeal, perhaps, old scars, mischievousness, Asperger’s syndrome, rarely malice – write things which are better left unwritten.  But in the main the Catholic use of the blogosphere is quite fruitful.  Bloggers have responded well to the Church’s call to use better the new tools of social communication and they are getting better and better as they live and learn.

But Fr. Turnham seems to have some animus for bloggers.  Fr. Turnham, a former Anglican married Catholic priest, has been willing to speak to the BBC.  He wasn’t so reticent with The Tablet back in 1997.  So it is not as if Fr. Turnham doesn’t like to communicate.  Right?  On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t like the fact that blogs sometimes bring to light things people ought to know about.

What it is that Fr. Turnham finds so objectionable about blogs and bloggers that he would send such a hysterical answer to a layman who asked a reasonable question?

Perhaps the answer lies with Fr. Turnham’s desire for attention?

After all, he wrote that obnoxious and rather benighted response about blogging to a blogger.  Fr. Turnham, who probably knows something about communications – given that he is an official handing these matters for his diocese – must have known that his rude answer would be disseminated in the blogosphere.  Pretty obvious, right?

I can only conclude that Fr. Turnham wanted some attention.

And now he has some!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. isnowhere says:

    Very odd…. I almost thought is was a really dry attempt at humor….

  2. Giambattista says:

    Of coarse Fr. Turnham doesn’t like blogs (and discussion boards, email and etc.). These things allow for people with zeal for the true Faith to organize/assemble in order to fight for what is right. Those who took an axe to the Church in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s could have never imagined the power of instant social communication. I think the Internet is the greatest thing to happen to the Church since VII. Speaking from the perspective of a traditionalist, I find it comforting knowing that every time our “rightful aspirations” are infringed upon the whole traditionalist world knows about it within hours. Yes, I would think the Internet is the worst nightmare of those seeking to trash the Church. Every move they make is exposed to the world before the sun goes down (in the last time zone, lol).

  3. My blog has given me a voice I would not have otherwise. I’m not brave enough Terri stand outside an abortion clinic with a sign that reads, “I regret my abortion,” though info stand out there. With my blog I am able to talk about being post abortive and how I have found mercy and healing. Of all the feedback I have received 90% has been positive. The other 10% taken care of by my delete button.

    I often wonder how different things may have been all those years ago had I had the Internet and access to people to talk to when I felt so completely alone facing a pregnancy at 17.

  4. I’m not brave enough TO stand outside an abortion clinic with a sign that reads, “I regret my abortion,” though I DO stand out there.

    Sorry – fumbling fingers!

  5. Trevor says:

    Is this post really necessary, Father? [Yes.] Your blog has an extraordinary number of readers, and thus, quite a bit of influence. [Indeed, it does.] Does a comment from this official from a small, relatively unimportant diocese need to be broadcast throughout the Catholic world? [Yes.]

    In some ways, he’s said the same things that Bishop Dolan and others have said (including your self): people need to self-edit. Comments on the Internet can be extremely destructive to Christian charity. He used an unfortunate expression, that most likely doesn’t correspond to his own views [?!?] (since you said the diocese operates a blog and he’s the communications director).

    I don’t agree with his idea that the laity have no business knowing what goes on in their chancery? Of course not. Ideally, there would be more openness between the two. Largely, that depends on whether the priests in those offices are willing to share information (since they’re supposed to have years of formation). Although, the faithful also have to assume good will, and not assume their chancery smells like brimstone (which is all too easy when people don’t personally know their diocesan officials).

    I think you’re making a lot of assumptions, Father. [Look who’s talking!] I don’t think it’s readily apparent that this priest intended for his comments to be spread throughout the blogosphere, or that they’re so malicious that they really need to be. [Okay, that’s a ‘no’ vote.]

  6. Trevor says:

    Sorry, the third paragraph should begin “Do I agree…”

  7. One of those TNCs says:

    What I want to know is, what in the world is a “serious criminal OFFICE” ???
    Or does he mean “offense?”

  8. Jack Regan says:

    As a non-blogger (and as one who isn’t as ‘anti’ as some may think) I find the phenomenon of Catholic blogs fascinating.

    Bloggers like Fr. Z and James (who brought this tale to light) got the hand of using the web in the early part of the last decade. They learned to use it effectively when the rest of the Church were either producing spectacularly bad websites, or not bothering with the web at all. After this, two things happened. Firstly, the blogs achieved a certain dominance because they were the significant Catholic force on the web – really, they were the Catholic web to many people. And this was to their credit. They blazed a trail, that the rest of the Church is now following.

    But the second thing that happened is that certain blogs did certain things which were well out of order. In some cases, nasty, abusive and a few other adjectives I could throw in too.

    Before I get hit with a very large stick, I should caveat the above sentence by drawing attention to the word certain. The majority of bloggers (though perhaps representing a certain spirituality within the Church) were well-motivated people putting out good content. But nasty was there too.

    To give one example: about 4 years ago, a blog (not this one) took exception to something that a certain prominent lay Catholic did. The concerns were (at least partly) justified, but the way they were aired were not. The attacks were ad hominen, and were a long way from what can be justified as Christian correction. What’s more, some commentors on this site took it upon themselves to send nasty E-mails to the guy and even to phone his home with abusive diatribes – one of which was picked up by his little girl. I wrote to the blogger asking him to state clearly that this sort of behaviour was wrong. He refused to do so.

    The answer to something like that in the past was ‘well, people are upset.‘ Maybe so. but it didn’t justify it, and I think that’s a lesson that the majority of the blogosphere has learned. Of course, most bloggers were never like that in the first place.

    Though this sort of thing was not the norm on the blogs, even back then, all of the bloggers sadly became tarred with the same brush. The word ‘blogger’ to those Catholics who were aware of the phenomenon (yeah, most aren’t!) became a by-word for nasty and it’s a reputation the blogosphere has found it hard to shed among mainstream Catholics who are aware of the Catholic web. Like those who work in diocesan communications offices.

    I said a while back on another site that there is about to be a seed change in the Catholic web. The rest of the Church is getting good at using the web at long last, and in the coming years we are going to see a different Catholic internet. The bloggers won’t enjoy the dominance in this decade that they enjoyed in the last, but I sincerely hope that they can be part of the picture in the years ahead – and I’m sure that they will be.

    I had a brief foray into Catholic blogs as a commentor a few years back, and frankly I was scared away. I came back recently – hence my registration here – and I have been pleased to discover a blogosphere that has changed. Sites are starting to figure out that the comments they allow in their comboxes really do reflect on the people who run the site, and so they’re being a little more circumspect. It’s also clear that the blogs that are just plain nasty (which are few and far between) are falling dramatically in prominence and are finding their content picked up by more reputable sites less and less.

    In short, I would disagree with Fr. Turnham’s comments, but I do understand what sort of things in the past probably gave rise to them.

    Blogs are an important, and good, development in the way the Church communicates. They have taught the rest of the Church a lot and they will have a strong place in the years ahead.

  9. B2J9G says:

    Bravo Trevor, I endorse your comments entirely. And I can even sympathise with Fr Turnham. I have read so many viscious and venomous blogs that I sometimes despair, I really do.

  10. Jack Regan says:

    The line above about bloggers ‘representing a certain spirituality’ reads badly…

    Simply means that a lot of blogs are traditionalist and/ or liturgical. Which I’m not knocking – just saying :)

  11. Joe in Canada says:

    Given that anything can end up on a blog, I wonder if Father is going to have to stop answering all questions.

  12. Imrahil says:

    A criminal offence and a sin are two different things (not denying that in general the first is also the second).

    If Father Turnham thinks blogging were a sin, I could understand his reaction. But, apparently, he doesn’t, and neither would there be any grounds to say so at the moment.

    However much, on the other hand, Father Turnham may think that blogging ought to be forbidden, as he cannot and does not deny that it is not forbidden as yet, he should (with all respect to Father Turnham) treat the blogger as a man exercising what is plainly his right to do. Nothing hinders him in the meantime to write a petition to the competent legislator.

  13. sallyr says:

    I wonder how the letter to the Diocese was worded, and whether it contributed to the very defensive response by Fr. Turnham? I used to work at a Diocese, and we’d get some pretty outrageous mail from people who gave the impression that they were the thought police, or that it was their job to instruct the Bishop about the proper meaning of Catholicism.

    I’ll never forget receiving a note from a national pro-life leader demanding that a very prominent Church leader must retract his statement he made in the course of an interview. He said that promoting contraception would not end abortions because they often fail, and then people with a contraceptive mindset will seek abortions. Somehow she interpreted this remark as being both “pro” contraception and “pro” abortion. She wanted a transcript of the interview and a “clarification” of the remarks to be sent to her immediately – even though I could see no way that anyone other than she would misinterpret what was said. This Bishop is one who has prayed the rosary in front of an abortion clinic and been one of the most prominent in defending life, and yet this pro-life leader seemed eager to blindly accuse him of promoting abortions and contraception and to demand he retract his remarks and only speak in a way she approved.

    Another time we were inundated with emails and phone calls because a blogger put out incorrect information about the stance the Church had taken with regard to a proposed law regulating all of our state’s Catholic hospitals. The truth was that we had carefully and painstakingly negotiated a law that permitted Catholic hospitals to abide by Catholic teaching on life issues, but this blogger believed the opposite – that we had “caved in” and agreed to a serious violation of the moral law. We got hundreds of phone calls and emails demanding that we immediately close all of our more than 50 hospitals in the state (not sure what we were supposed to do with all the patients in those hospitals). No matter how we tried to clarify the truth, many, many people believed the blogger over their own Archbishop. This law is now the envy and model of every other state Catholic conference facing the same problem.

    You get enough of these unreasonable bloggers and emails from people and I can see how they can create a context that can make you bristle at an emailed demand for information, even if the particular person asking for the information has the best of intentions. The instant and anonymous nature of email does lend itself to creating a “gotcha” culture – no matter what you say it will be used against you. I do think people need to be a bit more thoughtful about the way they go about using the internet and emails.

    There is something about how faceless and anonymous blogging is — It’s very hard to establish a human relationship to the person on the receiving end. I refuse to read comments on many large blogs and news websites because the sheer evil and hatefulness they seem to draw forth from people is sickening. That’s an extreme example, but it does point to the nature of the problem. Very few people would be as rude to a person standing in front of them as they are on blogs.

    That said, many blogs have caught on and do indeed create a respectful forum where a kind of community does emerge – like this blog!

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    I’ve run into these kinds of complaints before. Even in 1995/6 you’d hear them from some people online who had a stake in controlling information.

    For those of you who weren’t on the net very early on, educational institutions had some of first entry-ramps onto the internet at decent prices, and you were much more likely to find a religious order priest or a teacher during your travels through the old text forums and bulletin boards than you are now.

  15. amenamen says:

    My curiosity is piqued by the suggestion that there should be a criminal office. Why can’t criminals work in dens of iniquity, the way they used to? There is just too much bureaucracy nowadays.

  16. Shamrock says:

    Catholic blogs are for the most part informative and well done ( such as this one ) and it would
    be wrong in view of today’s technology and the need for evangelization to discontinue. However much could be done to improve the comboxes by the Administrator deleting offensive and
    anti-Catholic rants by persons who spend much of their on-line time trolling the Catholic blogs
    and making outrageous and extremely libelous statements. Often these are left in place by the
    Administrator for days…if not forever. Much of this ends up as misinformation regarding the faith and goes undefended by the blogger. ( this is not true of Mark Shea..he is very interactive I find at his website) That is my only complaint. I think the term criminal
    office was a typo …read the header !

  17. JARay says:

    I first knew about this from a blogger, James Preece, who lives in Hull which is in the Diocese of Middlesbrough. James has taken a number of people to task for their activities within that diocese and I would not be one bit surprised if Fr. Turnham had James in mind when he made his comment. I can only say that James is, in my mind, a fine, faithful Catholic and I have his blog as one of my favourites. If anyone is interested in seeing James Preece’s blog it is http://www.lovingit.co.uk

  18. benedetta says:

    amenamen, I agree — perhaps a guild would have greater appeal than offices?

  19. TC says:

    @ Fr. Z “Okay. I think we can all stipulate that some people using the Catholic blogosphere, for whatever reason – excess of zeal, perhaps, old scars, mischievousness, Asperger’s syndrome, rarely malice – write things which are better left unwritten.”

    You left out the professionally angry.
    I think sallyr has hit the problem on the head. Sad to say I have reposted stories from one blog to another which later turned out to be baseless.

    Maybe we need a Catholic Snopes for false stories that make the blog/email chains.

  20. benedetta says:

    Blogs aside, it does actually seem important at this point given what is happening that dioceses do provide for exorcisms. At one time the idea may have seemed laughable, but I don’t think it is a laughing matter any more given certain things. I think fulfilling this spiritual need would be excellent pastoral practice.

    Perhaps his diocese has appointed someone to look after this need and he just would really like best to reply to the question and have a discussion with a newspaper type of publication. Which true enough these days pretty much all also have blogs. But, maybe it is his preference and believes that it is the best communication outlet to inform others as to what his diocese is doing regarding this concern, speaking to a professionally trained journalist. As to not wanting the approaches adopted and the reasons for them discussed, well, it is true that just for the asking, a professional media type of inquirer would not get that sort of response. Is knowledge only the domain of the certified and official and the high profit margin or are people permitted to freely think through and discuss things as they arise.

    Not sure really that with blogs and internet, email and commenting that ad hominem attacks made in the course of debate is that much more. There is a volume and a response time factor that is different but I don’t think that ad hominem attacks were invented with the blogosphere. Probably the type of attitudes observed by many is an outgrowth of overall lack of respect for human life, lack of decorum and manners, the dictatorship of relativism which is unable to engage in discussion about the value or lack of value inherent in certain choices, the attempt to banish God from the public square, the crassness of a great deal of popular culture and media. If there were no blogs, would people be decent to each other now more than during times past, I am not sure. Maybe the blogs have just exposed something that is and has always been there. I don’t really worry about adults and blogs so much. But what young people are involved in with misuse of cell phones etc for really destructive and unhealthy activities, without help of maturity or spiritual formation to overcome the temptation or to make sense of what they experience or observe, that to me is much more of a worry than people making uncharitable comments on blogs or msm stories on the web or as this diocesan official seems concerned with, people questioning actions by people just trying to do good. To be honest I think given what young people are dealing with at younger and younger ages without ability or maturity to sift through or make healthy choices, I think an appointed exorcist would be a very wise step and a few other areas could be looked at in addition to give young people a fighting chance.

  21. Sixupman says:

    For matters Midlesborough, see the “Catholic and Loving It” blog.

    Blogging shines light into the areas which the Bishops’ Conferences would rather have not publicised, such is one of the benefits.

  22. catholicmidwest says:

    What a lot of the commenters here may not realize is that the internet has gone through an evolution of forms in the almost 20 years it’s been available to the general public. First static comment pages, then forums and text chats, then webpages in HTML, then webpages using editors, then interactive chats, now blogs, Facebook and twitter, etc. Who knows what will be next?

    All along the way, there has been a strong Catholic presence on the web because some of the first entrants onto the web were educators and institutions like colleges. Some of these colleges and teachers were Catholics. One of the popular early forms were simply link-pages to documents, pictures and other educational resources. Some of them were run by priests but many were run by lay Catholics. I remember “Iceman” who had one of the biggest Catholic sites around. Later there was Catholicity. Does anybody here remember that? There have been live adoration sites with webcams online for more than 10 years now. In fact, this may have been one of the precursors of the current increase in real adoration sites on the ground in the US. The official Catholic presence has come along just in the past couple of years, and before that, somebody had to do it.

    The good thing about this, of course, is that there is an openness in the Church we have never had before. This is good because it tends to stifle corruption and secrecy which have always been a problem and are still a problem. It also tends, paradoxically, to shut powerful extremists up in the final analysis (read progressive V2 maniacs within chanceries), and that’s a good thing too. Outfits like CTA get placed in their proper perspective. One of the mechanisms for this is simply the sheer number of more or less faithful lay & clerical blogs online, which means the nuts at CTA and the American Catholic Council simply get drowned out by volume and everyday goodness. Another of the mechanisms for this is the Holy See’s (now) common practice of releasing important but controversial documents directly to the internet and to us, rather than using the old practice of letting them filter down through the diocesan structures never to get to us in many cases. Examples? Summorum Pontificum, Liturgiam Authenticam, Dominus Iesus, and so on.

  23. Ben Trovato says:

    As I said on James Preece’s blog, things were so much better when the professionals – the diocesan comms officers, for example – were in control of the Catholic press. We heard none of this whinging then…

    Was it Solzhenitsyn (?) who said it was the photocopier that really destroyed the Soviet Dictatorship: the authorities could no longer control the flow of information and suppress things they did not want the people to know.

    Blogging is the 21st century photocopier.

  24. ContraMundum says:

    I can partially sympathize with Fr. Turnham.

    I can think of at least one popular blog by a Catholic layman that I have to avoid because I have come to see it as a near occasion of the sin of wrath. The blogger himself is completely orthodox and often insightful; that is not where the problem lies, and in fact it made me reluctant to abandon his blog. Even on issues that are not de fide, I almost always agree with him. The problem is the tone. He comes across as both arrogant and bitter from too many skirmishes with commenters to his blog. Even when I agree with him, I find that I want to punch him. As a result, I question whether his blog is any good for the Church, his readers, or him; I know that his blog is no good for me.

  25. benedetta says:

    I think the appointing of diocesan exorcists would be really helpful for a lot of concerns. Although, at the same time as priests on the front lines seem to be targeted for attacks, it may be best to not publicize widely at this particular time which dioceses have done so and which have not. Perhaps not every issue the needs to go through the wringer of squeezing out widespread opinion and commentating in order to advance to action or consensus depending on the need and issue, and at the same time that does not mean that we have to relinquish the right to speak up for our spiritual needs. I do hope that the issue is given good attention, and that leaders look after this particular quite current pastoral need. Of course for leaders who agree that it is a legitimate need there are ways to discuss without having to put a priest doing difficult work further in harm’s way.

  26. It’s the idea of making a personal comment on work stationery that seems strange to me. I mean, when I email some kind of response to a request from another company, I don’t take it as an opportunity to tell my correspondent what I think of the policies of his workplace, or the guy at the store owned by his company who didn’t know how to do his job. When I do have to, say, send something back as unacceptable and ask them to try again, I usually cc my boss and am quite polite about it. If it’s a serious problem, it usually requires consultation, and probably goes to somebody else in the company (like Customer Service or a boss) to work on getting “corrective action”.

    Nobody ever got fired or sued for writing a polite “No comment” letter. Folks working in any diocesan chancery should have plenty of practice, because they can’t ever give the impression of speaking for the bishop if they’re not.

    If you want to speak completely freely about anything work-related, get your own blog and a nice pseudonym, and work on maintaining obscurity both of identifying details and of your true identity. That’s just how it is, in the work world.

  27. RickMK says:

    I think you’re absolutely right – it does sound like what he was after was a bit of attention. I think it’s probably very common that people who say or do outrageous things do it for no other reason than because they crave some attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the time people like that don’t even believe what they’re saying themselves – they just want people to notice them.

    catholicmidwest, you certainly had a very different early experience on the internet than I did! I started using the internet in 1994 (on a Commodore-128 computer of all things, using lynx and gopher and pine as a terminal). I don’t remember ever coming across a religious order priest on the internet until the late 1990’s, and I believe it is a great deal easier and more common now than ever before.

  28. catholicmidwest says:

    I’m surprised, RickMK. I ran across quite a few, even very early on. Were you ever in Catholicity? There were a few earlier forums too, where there were regulars who were clergy.

  29. Scott W. says:

    The net and blogging has been a boon to Catholicism in general and to faithful and traditional Catholicism in particular. Protestant fundamentalists have been sent packing now that good refutations of their usual hoary objections are easily available. For forty years secular progressives running around in Catholic drag have more or less controlled the narrative; now that is no longer the case and the sheer emptiness of their world-view is on display for all to see. When you lose control of the narrative, you tend to get shrill. The comment about making blogging a criminal offense is case in point.

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