Twitter Is Not A Format For Complex Moral Discussion
Inequality is the root of social evil.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 28, 2014
Not meaning to stir things up BUT… Is there a non-speculative or non “slippery slope” reason why gays shouldn’t marry? I don’t hear one.
— Dan Haseltine (@scribblepotemus) April 21, 2014
Above, two controversial recent tweets. Pope Francis you know. Dan Haseltine is the lead singer of the Christian rock band Jars of Clay. He kicked up a huge storm among his Christian fan base with that tweet above. I read his subsequent Twitter feed, and it was almost painful; the guy was trying to discuss a complex moral topic on a 140-character medium, and he couldn’t pull it off. Who could? He felt battered and misunderstood by the end, and if you read his feed, you can see why.
On the other hand, as he admitted in a blog post at week’s end, he brought it on himself. Excerpt:
In my questions and dialogue with people on Twitter, it became evident that the issue I had chosen to discuss was far too personal, nuanced, and deeply connected to faith and our human condition to honor the amount of wrestling that others have done on this topic. And though they were my questions and it was a dialogue provoked by me, it bled into the Jars of Clay world, and my other band mates felt people’s dismay, frustration and the projection of my views and ideas back on to them. It is not theirs to shoulder.
It was a poor choice of venue on my part. I chose some of my words poorly. And I was unable to moderate the conversation in such a way that it kept everyone’s views with a shared validity and civility as I had hoped. And so, I am not going to continue the conversation on that forum. I do apologize for causing such a negative stir.
If you read Haseltine’s blog post, you can see that his thinking about same-sex marriage is significantly more nuanced than you can pick up on a tweet. At the same time, it’s simply disingenuous to think that a rock star who has made his name as a Christian genre artist, and who publicly identifies as a Christian, won’t attract serious criticism for throwing that kind of rhetorical bomb into the mix among his 19,000 Twitter followers, given the clear Scriptural teaching on homosexuality and marriage. It is, of course, possible to make a case for why traditional Christian teaching is wrong, or why even if it is correct, the law should not reflect a Christian understanding of matrimony. But Twitter is not the place to make that argument, especially if you are a Christian with a big public following. Haseltine knows that now.
Pope Francis ought to know it, though his bizarrely undisciplined (for a pontiff) manner of public communication makes one wonder if there’s method here. The tweet above attracted lots of comment, including this somewhat critical remark from me. A couple of readers, including Catholic theologian Michael Peppard, responded by saying that what Francis tweeted is straight out of authoritative Catholic social teaching. They pointed out that “social sin” has a particular meaning in Catholic social teaching, and linked to past statements by popes, showing that there may be a lot more nuance behind the @pontifex declaration than there appears to be.
All this is helpful, obviously, and I’m grateful for the explanatory context. Nevertheless, as a matter of communications strategy, the reader John Mark Ockerbloom is certainly right that whoever is managing the Pope’s Twitter account should include links with these statements, links that take the reader to documents that offer more information on the background behind the Tweet. This wouldn’t be hard to do. A one page, clear “backgrounder” on Catholic social teaching, explaining what terms mean, quoting past encyclicals, and offering links to even deeper teaching, would go very, very far in not only spreading the message, but avoiding opportunities for being misunderstood. That doesn’t mean that Pope Francis’s statement is true or beyond discussion and debate, but it would mean that we would at least be more clear about what’s being debated.
It is certainly true that if people are bound and determined to misunderstand you –whether you’re the pope, the president, or a plumber — they’re going to misunderstand you, take your words out of context, and twist them to their own ends. That is unavoidable. But it is also true that if you want to be an effective communicator, you have to consider both your audience and the medium through which you are trying to communicate. Your hearer has a responsibility to make an effort to understand you clearly. But you have a greater responsibility, it seems to me, to do what you can to make it harder for the reader to misunderstand you. In a perfect world, the world would know a lot more about Catholic social teaching, and would have the background to better judge blunt papal statements (and for the record, I think Francis has said some important and true things on this subject, but I question very much the idea that inequality, as opposed to a more complex view of injustice, is to blame for “social evil”). We live, however, in a world in which messages are received very differently. I can’t find the particular post, but not too long ago, a reader who teaches moral theology in a Catholic school says his students will not listen to his teaching about Catholic sexual morality when it comes to homosexuality, instead quoting the Pope back to him: “Who am I to judge?” When Pope Francis made those remarks on the airplane, he did not intend to change Catholic teaching on homosexuality, but this is how many people received his remarks.
Is it fair? Not necessarily. Pope Benedict’s brilliant Regensburg address was overshadowed by his remarks in it on Islam, which were distorted by the press, and caused the predictable knee-jerk freakout in some Muslim countries. Nevertheless, at the time some observers pointed out that Benedict, who was still new in the papal office, would be better off to realize that he is now the Pope, not a theology professor, so he had better choose his words more carefully, with a global audience in mind. In fact, a prominent cardinal publicly criticized the Holy Father for what the Pope’s poorly chosen (in this cardinal’s mind) words might do to the Church’s voice:
“Pope Benedict’s statement don’t reflect my own opinions. These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years”.
That cardinal, of course, was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who now ought to realize that what he says and how he says it matters far more now that he’s pope than when he was just Father Bergoglio (as he reportedly identified himself to his recent Argentine interlocutor), or even Cardinal Bergoglio.
Anyway, on the Twitter thing, inserting links to a document giving a more in-depth take on the subject of the tweet is badly needed.