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Twitter Is Not A Format For Complex Moral Discussion

 

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 [3], 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.

change_me

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.  [4] 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 [5] 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 [6]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 [7] 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 [8] 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.

40 Comments (Open | Close)

40 Comments To "Twitter Is Not A Format For Complex Moral Discussion"

#1 Comment By HeartRight On April 28, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

The Holy Father needs a blog more than he needs a twitter-account.
Twitter is the 21st century equivalent of the lapel-button, and its ability to communicate is very restricting.

#2 Comment By WhollyRoamin On April 28, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

Nuanced or not, I’m pretty sure the His Holiness has the argument backwards.

Social Sin is the root of inequality. Not the other way around.

#3 Comment By Peter H On April 28, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

One’s lack of knowledge about something should never be offered up as proof that something does not exist. It merely proves that one has been unwilling to listen — or look — for views that have not fallen into his or her lap.

I would put Haseltine’s tweet in the same category as Rod’s “Where are all the liberals who oppose divorce?” post of a week or so ago.

I will have to confess that, in the midst of a hectic week, I did not participate in the comments to that post, nor did I look to see if there had been an update. I didn’t want to “anger up the blood,” to quote Grandpa Simpson.

#4 Comment By Zathras On April 28, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

Is the twitter post meant as the end of a discussion or the beginning? The uncertainty and vagueness of the post can be a feature, and not a bug.

#5 Comment By William Dalton On April 28, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

That Dan Haseltine, as professed and acclaimed Christian of his generation, would even phrase his question as he did in his Tweet is an indication of the decline of moral formation in the Church today. Thirty years ago, such a question would have been put by the other side – why shouldn’t homosexuals give up their immoral practices and get married, i.e., to a person of the opposite sex, because the concepts of “marriage” and “same sex relationship” were incompatible. When I first started posting public comments on the issue twenty years ago, on the old Presbynet and Ecunet “bulletin boards”, the discussion was conducted in groups with headings such as “Same Sex Unions” – whether they should be allowed, because such a creature was understood on both sides to be, at best, an alternate to marriage, not a species of it.

And, again I’ll say as Dan and his tweetmates seem not to have gotten the message, in this day and age there is no state (on this continent) stopping “gay marriage” in the Biblical sense, i.e., two people of the same sex engaging in carnal behaviors. The issue is solely whether the state should bestow the tax and other benefits of marriage upon such relationships, and whether the state should apply its “seal of approval” such as to give them the veneer of moral respectability.

#6 Comment By thomas tucker On April 28, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

I will be glad when Twitter has jumped the shark. But I shudder to think of what might be the next fad.

#7 Comment By thomas tucker On April 28, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

btw, I’ll add that I don’t think serious thinkers and people with positions of significant influence should be on Twitter at all.

#8 Comment By Thursday On April 28, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

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”.

Cmon, don’t you know that these words only apply to when a conservative destroys something a liberal cares about.

#9 Comment By Aglo On April 28, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

Speaking of the Regensburg address, when I first read about that I was struck by this quote:

“God….is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”

That’s one of the most eloquent arguments in favor of religious liberty ever given. Who said it originally?

Roger Williams?
Thomas Jefferson?
George Washington?
Thomas Paine?
James Madison?

Nope….it was the 15th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos.

That’s one of the things that caused me to stop believing in the naïve “Americans invented freedom” view of history. Hard to be an American exceptionalist when the very things that supposedly made America “exceptional” were, in fact, quite commonly found in the history of the Old World too.

#10 Comment By charles cosimano On April 28, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

I look at twitter as a sort of rhetorical mortar, to throw small bombs and shake things up a bit.

#11 Comment By jamie On April 28, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

Nope….it was the 15th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos.

Hmm… “Look how peaceful my Cursader-sustained Christian empire is compared to the bloodthirsty saracens and janissaries who threaten my political domination of Anatolia, er Christian domination of the Levant, er freedom of conscience in then Holy Land!”

Beware Byzantine emperors begging for mercy.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 28, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

“God….is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature … one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”

“Hard to be an American exceptionalist … the very things that supposedly made America ‘exceptional’ were, in fact, quite commonly found in the history of the Old World too.”

Contrary to myth, America’s use of force and violence has only been exceptional in its truly industrial scale application.

#13 Comment By Matt On April 28, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

So, based on your preconceptions about inequality and social life, you misunderstood what the Pope meant. But it was so puzzling to you, that you thought about it more, and in dialogue with others, you were led to a deeper notion of inequality, and a return to catholic social teaching (which were both in your memory, but dormant, I guess, since they didn’t illuminate Francis’ remark immediately).

Sounds like Francis nailed it. Maybe the Pope knows what he’s up to.

If your worry is ‘sure, *I* get it, but the tweet will make leftist materialists think the Church is on their side’, you might consider that the Pope knows what he’s up to there, too.

#14 Comment By Peterk On April 28, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

“the guy was trying to discuss a complex moral topic on a 140-character medium,”

there is just no way that one can discuss any topic limited to 140 characters let alone a complex one.
Twitter “conversations” remind of picking through shredded documents and trying to gain context for what I’ve picked out, so I pick out another piece, then another and then an other, and i still don’t know what is going on

#15 Comment By Dave Dutcher On April 28, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

The inequality thing really hurts because it’s so much of a liberal catchphrase that the Pope has to know how people will receive it. It’s like he’s just trolling us all now.

Dan Haseltine…eh. I like Jars of Clay and own their albums, but if it’s that prevalent that Christians are letting the world set their value systems, I think we’re in for a rough time ahead.

#16 Comment By Alexander S. Anderson On April 28, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

jaime, do you really want to turn that critique around on the Founding Fathers? Just because Manuel II Palaiologos’ sins are more visible than, say, Thomas Jefferson’s (who’s sins are plenty visible) does not mean that his sins were somehow worse or that they take away the merits of what he wrote.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 28, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

“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.”

It is difficult enough to discuss even simple concepts on a forum or even in email. Good grief, even a comment during a phone conversation can become unwieldly. I don’t twitter, but this form of social dialogue makes no sense to me.

And one can be caught unawares when a seemingly benign reference sparks unbeknownst meaning in someone. I had that happen in me over the word, ‘babe’, just this weekend. Celibacy does have its pitfalls. The term embodies intimacy or some form of slight that just created all manner of internal angst.

I started thinking how could I explain my joy of the music of Harry Chapin and still maintain some level of integrity over sexual purity. How in the world could I have a deep meaningful conversation about a song as complex as “They Call Her Easy,” in text or twitter application. It just could not happen. It’s a very simple song, but loaded with messages. I had never heard that song before a month ago. About a young lady who hates loneliness so much she’s easy. But the song is not about being easy. It’s about those who take advantage of people who give easily. And how much better a world we’d have if everyone gave so freely — and it’s not about relational behavior giving. If I tweeted I love that song – it would be cause for doubt about my morals.

I have to laugh at how many times one has to note sarcasm, kidding, not really, being facetious.

I am not convinced that twitter has added to human communication or relationships to the positive.
Personally, I think the Pope is playing with fire, because there are those who are seeking any out to topple the basics of faith and practice.

#18 Comment By Alexander S. Anderson On April 28, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

I’m going to post the thoughts of Artur Rosman and his wonderful blog here: [9]

I also think Matt is right. The Pope posts something on Twitter and suddenly Catholic Social Teaching is something we talk about, instead of hiding it under a rock or giving it lip service. I can’t think of a better use of 180 characters.

#19 Comment By WorldWideProfessor On April 28, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

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…..

….allowing us to ignore the whole thing and go back to sleep.

OK, seriously: I’m all for context and background. But maybe the Pope senses that the paper trail of encyclicals and whatnot becomes, at some point, an excuse for complacency — yeah, yeah, we all know that the Church has “social teachings,” that there are some nice (Latin) words written down somewhere on inequality, but it’s not like that means we’re actually supposed to do anything differently than we’re already doing, right? Maybe the Pope believes there’s a kind of static that he needs to cut through by keeping the message very simple.

#20 Comment By John On April 28, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

Twitter as any kind of “tool for discussion.” He he he. You are funny Rod. Are you trying to be a comedian?

Twitter is an abomination. You want a conversation, pick up the phone and start pushpins down on the numbers. You want to start a debate, get something published in those monthly journals.

#21 Comment By Chris 1 On April 28, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

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.

Meeting the world where it is used to be called “Evangelism.” It’s not a “method,” it is the Great Commission.

Want to read something totally “undisciplined?”

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.”

If Francis’ tweet was an error, how much wronger is this?

#22 Comment By BillWAF On April 28, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

You might want to review Andrew Brown’s column about this: “Pope Francis condemns inequality, thus refusing to play the game.” [10]

Brown is particularly interesting because he frequently defended Pope Benedict in the past.

#23 Comment By kag1982 On April 28, 2014 @ 8:47 pm

How is Francis’ statement at all controversial or outside the social Gospel? It is clear that Francis has a very liberal view of economics. He believes that the decline of the family and civil society is due to income inequality.

#24 Comment By wycoff On April 28, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

“America’s use of force and violence has only been exceptional in its truly industrial scale application.”

The US is certainly not exceptional in this area. The history of the 20th century shows that most significant European nations, as well as Japan, are at least the US’s equal in that field, with China, Turkey, and others close behind. America’s armed imperialism pales in comparison to the Brits’. Let’s keep perspective here.

#25 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 28, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

Twitter is not a great medium for detailed discourse. But for throwing high heat past someones ear it works wonders

#26 Comment By Robert On April 28, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

Haseltine’s comments show this group is simply a secular band disguised as a Christian group now. He is simply an entertainer, not a theologian or Bible scholar. Unfortunately, many will now refrain from supporting radio stations that play their music and will keep their children away from them. Dan made clear where he stands and even said he fails to see guidelines for “morality” in the Bible. This statement was truly the most shocking, totally unreal for anyone fronting as a Christian group. They simply are not.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 28, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

“Meeting the world where it is used to be called “Evangelism.” It’s not a “method,” it is the Great Commission.”

Well,

if the Pontiff had twitted — Christ is risen be ye’ sanctified – repent of they sins and come hither all ye heavy leaden, for he will carry you thru.”

Or

“Christ desires to break bread with thee – come and eat.”

Or

“The world without Christ is an unequal hades – come unto him and be restored”

I would say, that’s evangelical. But the tweet above is political. hardly an invitation to know Christ save as a round about end run.

#28 Comment By Viking On April 29, 2014 @ 12:54 am

No one yet, as of my writing this, has mentioned what fairly jumped out at me about Pope Francis’s tweet. To wit: the Middle Ages were the era when the Roman Catholic Church was in its ascendancy. It was also a time when the lord of the manor had very unequal power over his serfs, and the masters of the guilds far more influence than the apprentices and journeymen. Was the RCC preaching a change in economics then?

#29 Comment By Chris 1 On April 29, 2014 @ 1:10 am

Jesus said “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Given the way all y’all read these things, that is (as you put it) “…political. hardly an invitation to know Christ save as a round about end run.”

#30 Comment By Larry On April 29, 2014 @ 2:04 am

We all have a tendency to view this Tweet through the prism of American politics. Pope Francis is not immersed in the daily goings on of American politics the way a reader of TAC might be. We might be focused on ourselves but Pope Francis has a worldwide church to consider and the world outside of the good ol’ USA can get pretty gritty.
For example, go to a place like India with a caste system and look at people lying in the gutter being stepped over without a care and tell me that disregard for another human being isn’t evil and isn’t based on inequality.

#31 Comment By HeartRight On April 29, 2014 @ 4:05 am

‘You want to start a debate, get something published in those monthly journals.’

Which no one reads.

Which cannot be said of either the Twitter-account Pontifiale OR the blog of our Working Boy right here.

#32 Comment By kag1982 On April 29, 2014 @ 7:38 am

Again…. You guys did know that Francis took the social Gospel which is very left leaning very very seriously. Remember Evangelii Gaudium? In fact all popes including JPII had a very liberal view on economics. This doesn’t mean that they are Marxists and want the government to forcibly redistribute wealth but they all thought that inequality was bad. There is a tendency to think that the modern Catholic Church is part of the Republican Party when outside pelvic issues the Church’s concerns are incredibly liberal.

[NFR: My concern was not economic or political; I know the RCC is not the Republican Party at prayer, and I’m grateful for that. My concern was theological. Is inequality really the source of all social evil? I don’t think so. — RD]

#33 Comment By HeartRight On April 29, 2014 @ 8:44 am

[NFR: My concern was not economic or political; I know the RCC is not the Republican Party at prayer, and I’m grateful for that. My concern was theological. Is inequality really the source of all social evil? I don’t think so. — RD]

It rather depends on what you mean with social.
If you treat social = ezchange of service and goods [ not an uncommon view in certain parts ] then you can treat economic inequality and social evil as equivalent terms.

#34 Comment By Chris 1 On April 29, 2014 @ 9:49 am

I think, Rod, the problem is that you understand sin as intensely personal, not as a corporate thing.

And yet your reaction to Sarah Palin was swift and clear: Torture is evil, and calling it a sacrament is profane.

Do you think torture is not based in inequality, that torture could happen if the torturer and the tortured were equal? Do you think that torture is not social evil, but only personal evil, and that our funding of torture via taxes is morally neutral?

Inequality is the root of social evil, but not all evil, and the only way to make sense of your point is that you deny that social evil exists, or insist that only personal evil exists. But watch Sarah Palin again, or think of any act of genocide, and ask yourself if that is not social evil as well as individual evil.

#35 Comment By Sister Solana On April 29, 2014 @ 10:11 am

kag1982,

Rod’s concern might be that people might apply his statements on equality, in a sacramental context, such as with marriage, since this is part of the political left’s tendency to apply their political theory to everything.

#36 Comment By JJM On April 29, 2014 @ 11:12 am

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.

Um, they want a non-speculative reason to not do something that hasn’t yet happened? If such a reason existed, it would by nature be speculative. I guess no one can satisfy Dan Haseltine, ergo all opposition to gay marriage is hysterics, or something.

I don’t get into gay marriage debates because I don’t think an honest debate is happening, and stuff like that tweet just reinforces that thought. “Can someone give me a reason that is both impossible to articulate and would also convince me? Heh, your move, bigots.”

#37 Comment By jamie On April 29, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

Alexander:

Just because Manuel II Palaiologos’ sins are more visible than, say, Thomas Jefferson’s (who’s sins are plenty visible)…

Oh not at all, I’m not saying this Roman Emperor of the East was a sinner and thus not qualified to comment. I’m saying that his comments were motivated by weakness and fear in the face of losing his empire. He says, “let’s all get along,” but the subtext is, “Muslims should disarm themselves and not challenge my military.” He’s trying to characterize his conflict with Muslims as a religious war and cast the Muslims as the violent and intolerant extremists. It’s war propaganda — it completely sets aside the military and political interests of both parties.

This is very different from Jefferson’s perspective, whose religious pluralism was much more idealistic, and in his case motivated by iconoclasm and a very individualistic sense of Christianity.

#38 Comment By John Hutchinson On April 29, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

I cannot even f-a-r-t in under 140 characters; especially after having to give all the appropriate apologies and rationalizations for its importunity.

#39 Comment By kag1982 On April 30, 2014 @ 12:10 am

@Sister Solana

I think that everyone realizes that Francis is talking about economic inequality. That is definitely what I thought when I read it.

@Rod

I don’t think that Francis thinks about deep theological questions when he rights these things. He is a very smart and very urbane man, but he isn’t interested in deep theological and philosophical questions. He never finished his PhD I believe, but he was bored by theology. Apparently, he told a Jesuit seminarian that fundamental theology was the most boring thing that he ever studied.

I think that this is fine. It is more important to me that Francis is a strong-willed and involved administrator and an astute politician and that he has a high EQ. Benedict suffered because he was an academic without the people skills that Francis has.

I think that Francis thinks that the greatest modern sin is material selfishness and that the devil (whom he talks about quite a bit) sees materialism is a great way to continue his work. He also thinks that material inequality has destroyed the family and the other civil structures that people have relied on in the past.

#40 Comment By Chris 1 On April 30, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

I think that everyone realizes that Francis is talking about economic inequality. That is definitely what I thought when I read it.

That’s a thoroughly American materialist reading. 😉