The benefits of the rapid exchange of information, via the internet, have afforded countless multitudes new opportunities to learn and grow—not just into more interesting or well-read people, but into a people who can better understand Christ and his Church through continuing education about the Faith. These opportunities prompted St. John Paul II to remark in the 1990’s that, “immediate access to information makes it possible for [the Church] to deepen her dialogue with the contemporary world [and] more readily inform the world of her beliefs and explain the reasons for her stance on any given issue or event.” However, these real and genuine advantages afforded to the Truth are not without obstacles which oppose their genuine flourishing.
As 2002’s Vatican document, The Church and Internet, noted, “The proliferation of websites calling themselves Catholic creates a problem of a different sort…it is confusing, to say the least, not to distinguish eccentric doctrinal interpretations, idiosyncratic devotional practices, and ideological advocacy bearing a ‘Catholic’ label from the authentic positions of the Church.” It is certainly no less the case now, than it was in 2002, that the internet is party to many erroneous teachings from self-styled experts and armchair theologians who claim to offer a better or more exclusive alternative version of Catholicism—one which is better or clearer or less flawed or more sanctimonious. No longer confined to poorly configured individual websites and blogs, many of these alleged instructors can now be found among innumerable parts of social media (a phenomenon which was still ramping up in the distant past of the early 2000’s). Just as the rapid spread of information can lead to a new familiarity with the Church, it can lead to an over familiarity with pseudo-Church substitutes. How can the Catholic faithful hope to find out what is the genuine and certain Church position on individual issues, or about her teaching in general?
While the internet is a new piece of technology, the problems of error and false teachers are always ongoing. As the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes correctly notes, “Nothing is new under the sun.” Even as far back as pre-exilic Judaism there were issues of this kind. Deuteronomy 18 details the punishments for those who claim to be prophets to the Israelites, but turn out to be false.
The early Church had similar encounters with false teachers in the form of the Gnostics, a heretical sect which claimed to have secret knowledge about how to live the faith—even going so far as to write their own Gnostic gospels to trick unwary Christians. What is the Christian response to this confusion? In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul says that anyone, even if an “angel from heaven,” were to preach a false gospel they should “be accursed!” And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul exhorts the Christians to “hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” All this to say that (1) we should not let ourselves be overly troubled for we are not experiencing a unique problem that our forefathers did not also grapple with, and (2) for the contemporary Christian to “hold fast to the traditions” means keeping close to what the Church declares in an official capacity.
The starting point for authentic teaching is the Bible. As the Second Vatican Council notes, “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” What the Scriptures state about how to live a good life is certain to be the authentic will of God. However, there is often confusion regarding the Scriptures and their specific interpretation in daily life—particularly for non-academics who cannot spend all their time learning the nuances of interpretation and theology. Yet even the layman is obliged to follow Christ faithfully for “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” as Lumen Gentium teaches.
One way to get a better understanding of the Scriptures, is to read the reflections on them by trusted saints and early Church leaders such as the Church Fathers. The writings of the Fathers can be easily accessed thanks to the archival work of Kevin Knight, who runs the useful NewAdvent.Org. Pope Pius IX declared during Vatican I, it is not permitted “to interpret holy Scripture…against the unanimous consent of the Fathers” which makes them a useful guide for scriptural understanding. But the Church Fathers are not always unanimous, and this is why an active magisterium is needed to help Christians apply Scripture. In addition to the aid afforded by a parish priest or local bishop, since the early 1900’s every official document produced by the popes and papal approved commissions have been issued through the Acts of the Apostolic See; the official record of the Church’s teaching. However, the most important of these documents are often translated into English and available through Vatican.va; a good starting point for further research. Visiting the Vatican website will give one the opportunity to peruse the various encyclicals, speeches and official declarations by current and past Roman pontiffs. In addition to these resources, the entirety of the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be found through Vatican.va, and can explain in a general way the various teachings of the Church. A good way of locating relevant works for various topics is to type “site:vatican.va” into Google followed by a space and then the name of a particular topic such as abortion or euthanasia. This will return official results from the Vatican on these topics.
When encountering heated social media disagreements, or simply when troubled by seeming turmoil within the Church, it can be helpful to visit the internet resources of the Church Fathers or the Ecumenical Councils, as well as those offered by the popes and bishops, to encounter the teachings of the Church without ideological filtration as can occur through social media. We should take comfort, now and in the future from Hebrews 8’s assertion, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.”