Published October 4, 2022
I opened a Twitter account several years ago, but rarely post. Instead, I use it to follow a dozen or so people I admire. Among them is Carlo Lancellotti, translator of Augusto Del Noce’s superb books. But other posts show up frequently on my feed. . .mostly proving that Twitter is the graveyard of reputations and common sense.
If surfing the net has a Bermuda Triangle, Twitter qualifies as it. It’s the place credibility goes to disappear. Donald Trump diminished himself, his achievements, and (more importantly) the presidency with his constant Tweets. But he’s hardly alone in damaging the respect due his office.
Public figures seem drawn to Twitter like moths to a flame. They tend to believe in their own importance because, after all, if they weren’t important, they wouldn’t be “public figures.” So they feel duty-bound to comment on a vast range of things—including matters that demand real depth and sophistication—in a space the size of a beer label.
Of course, the more important the figure (Trump excluded), the likelier his or her Tweets will actually be drafted by someone else. Or so one can hope.
@Pontifex is the official Twitter account of Pope Francis. The Holy Father’s Tweets are always sincere and sometimes quite insightful. But “walking together” along the Twitter path can have unintended consequences, like the occasional Bouncing Betsy landmine.
On September 24, @Pontifex tweeted:
The plant paradigm takes a different approach to earth and environment. Plants cooperate with all the surroundings [sic] environment; even when they compete they cooperate for the good of the ecosystem. Let’s learn from the meekness of plants!
Put aside the question of whether plants can ever be “meek.” The sheer oddity of the post illustrates the ambiguity of Twitter as a tool. As a Catholic friend raised in farm country noted, “It’s not even true. What about the weeds? Weeds destroy good crops and do not cooperate for the common good.”
Mentioning the above, of course, invites accusations of being “anti-Francis” and deliberately focusing on a small misstep to sully the pontificate’s bigger picture. But that already seems to be happening by Rome’s own hand—and it’s a source of distress, not glee.
Fidelity to the Holy Father is a Catholic obligation, but it does not involve turning off one’s eyes and brain. In a time of moral confusion, millions of families, including my own, need clarity and courage from Church leaders. We need this pope’s ministry to succeed; and we do, in our home, pray for him every day.
One vapid Tweet does not discredit its author. But it does raise yet more questions about current Roman prudence; questions about the character and competence of Francis’s collaborators; questions that go well beyond whoever actually manages the @Pontifex account.
For example, voices warned early on that problems in the German Church, if left uncorrected, would not stay in Germany. As Belgium’s bishops just confirmed, they haven’t. Authorship of these developments needs to be shared. As I’ve noted previously, Rome opened the gate for the German synodal path. Rome let it happen. And Rome bears at least part of the responsibility for the results.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich—the Holy Father’s choice for relator general at the 2023 synod on synodality—has already criticized Church teaching on homosexuality, dismissing it as “incorrect,” discredited by science, and in need of change. He later revised his words and claimed that he “fully believes in the tradition of the Church.” But whether anyone might really believe him, given his earlier remarks, is another matter.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has distinguished himself with confusing comments about Italy’s abortion law, and by allowing the work of his academy—in the words of substantive critics—to propose “a revolution of Catholic sexual morality.” Meanwhile, Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, at a September 22 gathering, praised U.S. Catholic synodal participation as “very, very high”. . .at barely 1 percent of American Catholics.
Given the dumbed-down, turbulent nature of modern mass media, things leaders say and do can easily be misreported, misinterpreted, or just be unintended mistakes. But it’s hard to miss the persistent appetite, in certain precincts of this pontificate, for an overhaul of Catholic sexual morality and the “updating” of Christian anthropology it would necessarily trigger.
At the root of that appetite is the desire for some sort of concordat with the sexual revolution and especially with the issue of homosexuality. But affirming, or at least de-stigmatizing, homosexual relations would run directly counter to Scripture. And the only way around that obstacle is to regard the Word of God, and the way the Church has consistently interpreted it, as conditioned by time and culture—and thus subject to re-interpretation.
Where that would lead should be obvious. And not good.
In his recent, best-selling book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, the Belgian clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet notes that the Enlightenment tradition, having undermined religious conviction, has proved unable to replace it with anything more humane. It has not led to more freedom but rather “to more fear and insecurity” and a new, “hyper-strict morality.”
That new morality is “more and more aggressively enforced, both by the government and the population itself”—with the result that “support for free speech, freedom of the press, artistic freedom, and basic self-determination is decreasing at an alarming rate.”
What’s actually happening, Desmet argues, is the rise of a new breed of “technocratic totalitarianism,” shaped by the tools and techniques of mass formation. But it can be mitigated, he notes, when people have the courage to resist it and offer alternative visions of human dignity and purpose.
In other words, in Catholic terms, there’s never been a time when vigorous evangelizing and confident Christian witness were more urgently needed. Tweets about plants probably won’t get it done.
And it wouldn’t hurt to clean our garden of its weeds.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.