It was quite a week, last week. I am surely not the first cleric of the Catholic Church to be caught up in Facebook’s perplexing policy stated by them:

“We ask everyone on Facebook to use the name they go by in everyday life so that friends know who they’re connecting with.”

Indeed, Deacon Greg Kandra, Fr. Jay Finelli, and many others had already been required to remove the “title” that was attached to their first name. Then when I sent my tweet out of my suspension from Facebook until I sent government ID and complied with their policy, quite a little storm erupted. I guess by the time my tweet went out the storm had been brewing for quite a long time. Sadly, I was not as aware of the difficulties other priests, deacons and even bishops had faced. I had vaguely heard the stories and concluded that something must be wrong, but that surely it will be corrected. Further, my Facebook account had been Msgr. Charles Pope for over 6 years and I never had any challenges.

Thus, early last week when my account was blocked I first thought it was a scam. Sometimes identity thieves simulate a website and ask for personal information. Yet after some research I discovered this was the real deal: Facebook was demanding government ID to prove that Msgr. Charles Pope is the real name I go by in everyday life. Strange. I know many people who do not go by the exact name on their driver’s license. What good would a government ID do to prove someone’s name?

I guess my first reaction was perplexity and anger. Why would they be treating me like this? Had I done something wrong? I wasn’t exactly a customer, but I was a loyal user, and had 5,000 friends and many followers. Wasn’t that a good thing? How strange and infuriating. “Government ID! Are you serious?” Why should they care what name I go by? I have had this Facebook account for six years. Msgr. Charles Pope IS the name I go by in everyday life.

My initial strategy was to refuse this intrusive request, rude treatment and just walk away from Facebook. But friends and colleagues asked me to reconsider. At least currently, Facebook is a critical way to connect and get the word out. “Please don’t just go away, Father. Perhaps this will be a long term struggle to get the policy reversed, but stay in the conversation and stay with us on Facebook.”

I want to say that I don’t think this is a religious persecution, or an attack on religious liberty per se. Neither do I think I was personally targeted. My presumption is that Facebook is running some sort of algorithm that flags “suspicious” names.  Others have said Facebook does not “permit” them to use things like Mr., Doctor, Ms. etc. A search of Facebook indicates there are titles such as Imam, Rabbi, etc. There are also a few “Father” and “”Monsignor” names that don’t seem to have been hit just yet. So therefore, rather than a religious persecution or discrimination per se I think what we really have is a very strange errand Facebook is on to purge from its rolls certain very common things it doesn’t like.

Those who make the charge of religious discrimination do so more because Facebook HAS changed its policy toward certain groups largely perceived to be politically powerful and deserving of exceptions. Recently Facebook made very public apologies to the “drag queen” community et al. when they required name changes for some of them. I don’t even want to discuss that group and mention it only to set up this quote from a Facebook spokesman regarding their overall policy:

Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess.

Well, of course “Msgr. Charles Pope” is the authentic name I use in “real life.” A priest friend of mine who also recently got shut down for the “high offense” of having “Father” in his account name wrote to Facebook in reply. I have changed his name here only because I did not have his permission to use it as of this posting:

...As I have shown in additional evidence, persons know me as “Father John Jones” or “Father Jack Jones” in everyday life….If Facebook finds it acceptable for Sister Roma to use the name Sister Roma because that is the authentic name he uses in everyday life...then I cannot understand why I cannot go by the name of “Father John Jones.” I respectfully ask you to remember that “Father” is not a title. “Reverend” is a title. “Father John Jones has been my everyday name for over twenty years.

And thus Facebook seems inconsistent in applying its policy. As such they invites the charge of an animus against religious. But again, I do not make this claim and would want more evidence of such an animus. What does seem clear is that there is an unfair application of the rule. Some individuals from certain groups are bound, and others are not.

But even this is beside the point. The point is that this is a strange rule. Why should Facebook care so much about this matter that they are willing to alienate so many people over it? If someone has a scurrilous or profane word in their name profile, or is clearly impersonating a public figure, fine, I get that Facebook would need to take some action. But terms such as Father, Deacon, Bishop, Monsignor, are very often the name we clergy go by more than our given name reflected on drivers licenses etc. Almost no one calls me Charles. Even close priest friends and family call me “Charlie” not Charles. So I, like my priest friend above, think I comply with Facebook’s stated policy more with “Msgr. Charles Pope” than with “Charles Pope” Almost no one calls me this. 

Facebook is a private company and can do whatever they like. But anyone in Marketing 101 can see that treating your clients and users in ways that are perceived as abusive, arbitrary, rude, and inconsistent is going to mean trouble in the long run. There are many other grievances that people have about Facebook, some fair, some not as fair, but any search of the Internet will reveal lots of frustration about a lot of things.

It is interesting too that young people I know generally do not use the service. (Partly because older people like me use it!) I do not know this from market reports, but anecdotally.  One young adult referred to it as Fogeybook. I have already set up shop at Awestruck.tv, a Facebook-like alternative for Catholics. I also use Google+, Twitter and other avenues to get the word out about what I write. It makes sense that we should use other venues, even as we continue to use Facebook.

Facebook knows their market and users better than I, but I cannot personally see how they expect to grow when they treat legitimate users like offenders and have policies that are difficult to understand and are unevenly applied. I hope to stay in a collective conversation with Facebook. I do not wish their demise. My hope is that they will listen and return to a more reasonable stance on such matters.

I want to be gracious, but I also want to be clear that I am a conscientious objector to this latest round of policies by Facebook.