COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.—Catholics are making their presence known in cyberspace. Web surfers who type the word “Catholic” into an Internet search engine will find in excess of 200,000 URL listings (websites) devoted to various aspects of the faith. Many dioceses, religious communities, Catholic colleges and universities, publications, parishes, and apologists maintain websites—even the Vatican has one. “On-line,” one can find everything from six different translations of the Bible (with concordances), to the latest research on the Shroud of Turin, to the writings of the Fathers and doctors of the Church, to the Pope's weekly schedule and speeches.
The trouble is that not all of these sites support the magisterial teachings of the Church, and sometimes it is difficult to know what to expect judging from a website's address title. Computer users might search through a long list of sites before finding a doctrinally sound presentation of the material they seek.
For example: who could know that http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/ contains bitter anti-Catholic diatribes from several fallen-away Catholics, including one who calls the Pope “the Roman monster,” a “weirdo” and an “antichrist”? Or that http://www.catholicism.org/ contains the work of a religious community of men, The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who reject Vatican II's teaching about the possibility of salvation outside the Church?
The full range of doctrinal extremes that surround the Church is present in cyberspace.
John Bicknell, a software designer for a major telecommunications corporation in Colorado, is an expert on Catholic Internet sites. He has found a wealth of Church documents on-line, many of them cross-referenced and linked to other complimentary topics, but he has also come across a good deal of information that has a “negative impact” on the faith.
Bicknell said that he feels the dissenting information on both sides of the spectrum that is available on the Internet “does the Church harm from within and from without.”
“This hurts us from within when a Catholic not well-schooled on the documents of the faith … could see some legitimacy in these movements and be seduced by them. It is so easy to become confused,” he said. “And this hurts us from without when a non-Catholic making an inquiry sees this and believes that this is the official position of the Church.”
He advocates a rating system of Internet sites to make it very clear to computer users which sites really do represent the official teachings of the Church.
“There probably should be some kind of registry or review committee for these sites. Maybe it would not be as formal a process as an imprimatur, but it might help,” Bicknell offered.
The sheer number of sites, and the fact that their contents can be changed on a daily basis, makes an undertaking of this kind daunting. In addition, in the secular world of cyberspace, any mandatory system of rating web sites according to content is at the center of a heated debate concerning First Amendment rights.
Benedictine Brother Mary Aquinas Woodworth, a member of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, agrees that a formal review process is untenable. Brother Mary Aquinas and his religious confreres in the New Mexico community have a business known as “the scriptorium@christdesert,” which designs web pages for other institutions.
“The only way to provide lists of soundly Catholic sites is for bishops' conferences and diocesan and parish web sites to provide links to sites that they like and that are sound,” Brother Mary Aquinas said. “Some simple principles could be drawn up to help pastors make such decisions.”
In the meantime, some new books on the market can help browsers wade through the overwhelming selection of Catholic materials on the Internet and clue users in to their content. Catholics on the Internet by Brother John Raymond of the Monks of Adoration of Petersham, Mass., recently published by Prima, is on sale in religious and secular bookstores throughout the country.
“One of the things that got me to write this book was the number of Catholics that didn't even know there were Catholic sites on the [Inter]net. There are so many of them, I thought somebody should sort them out,” Brother Raymond said. “When you go into a restaurant, you don't know what to eat until you look at a menu.”
The monk, who had a professional background in computer science before becoming a religious 11 years ago, describes his book as “more than just a yellow pages.”
“I offer the information to get people going: how to buy a computer, how to get onto the Internet, etc. You don't have to be computer literate to have fun with this,” Brother Raymond said.
The monk also included information for those who want to use their computers as evangelizing tools by developing their own websites. His book contains the Holy Father's homily on the Church and the computer culture.
“The Catholic faith is so appealing that presenting it clearly will bring converts to the Church,” Brother Raymond stated. “The Internet can most definitely be an evangelizing tool.”
Brother Mary Aquinas said that electronic media can benefit the propagation of the faith in unique ways, because it can effectively convey the “intimacy of love” to the computer user.
“Broadcast media is not intimate—it's one to millions. But the digital media will allow communications to be one to one, very intimate, and on this level, the faith can have life. It's a whole new opportunity for the faith, a gift from God that could bring a new advent to the Church in the new millennium,” he said.
A case in point: Spiritual direction via the Internet is increasing in popularity due to the give-and-take possible on interactive sites that allow the computer user to make comments or ask questions online. At several sites, priests communicate with people and offer spiritual advice. One such site is specifically for fallen-away Catholics who are interested in coming back to the Church, and for whom the anonymity of the Internet is a comfortable venue for discussion.
The Internet may be the ultimate resource for cultivating a prayer network that spans the country, and even the world. Brother Raymond, who also writes a prayer column for Catholic Twin Circle, receives eight to 10 electronic mail requests for prayers per day. He always honors the requests, but often advises the people who contact him to seek the personal guidance of a priest as well.
Brother Raymond cautioned that, although it is an unequaled tool for communication among the faithful, the Internet cannot replace face-to-face contact with a priest, or people gathering together to worship.
“Advising people about sacraments and receiving sacraments are two different things. All my theology training stressed that the sacraments are a personal kind of thing. It's a meeting with the Lord Jesus. That can't take place over the Internet or on the phone,” Brother Raymond said.
The Internet is becoming more complex than just designing attractive and informational Web pages, though. The technology is constantly moving ahead, and Brother Mary Aquinas hopes that the Church will keep pace.
He is developing a new project—an ambitious spin-off of the scriptorium@christdesert. The new enterprise, called “nextScribe” (the participants in the project are known as “the Scribes of St. Peter”), is an attempt to build original new media of superior technical and creative quality, similar to that of Walt Disney Studios and Steven Speilberg's Dreamworks Productions.
“NextScribe is an attempt to be certain that this power of intimacy in the digital media will be used not just to create a society of people of commerce, but to elicit fully-rounded people … people who are the fullness of love in God's image,” Brother Mary Aquinas said.
Molly Mulqueen writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.
Solidly Catholic Sites at a Glance
Here are some of the “experts'” favorite Catholic Internet sites, that include doctrinally sound information:
Brother John Raymond's “Top 20 Picks of Catholic Homepages” from his book, Catholics on the Internet (For Internet addresses to these sites, visit the website for Brother Raymond's community at http://www.rc.net/org/monks):
√ The Vatican Homepage
√ Catholic Connect!
√ The Catholic Information Network (CIN)
√ Catholic Online
√ Eternal Word Television Network
√ University of St. Thomas—Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library
√ Christus Rex et Redemptor Mundi
√ New Advent Catholic Website
√ Catholic Information Center on the Internet™ (CICI)
√ Catholic Answers
√ The Catechism of the Catholic Church
√ The Catholic Calendar Page
√ The Ultimate Pro-Life Resource List
√ St. Patrick's Parish, Dublin, Ireland
√ Saints Lives
√ Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
√ The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
√ The Mary Page
√ Office for Vocations, Archdiocese of Los Angeles
John Bicknell's six favorite websites for apologetics and Scripture study:
√ Catholic Insight (http://www.gat.net/~catholic/index.htm)
√ Biblical Evidence for Catholicism (http://ic.net/~erasmus/)
√ Catholic Apologetics (http://pw2.netcom.com~matt1618/index.html)
√ Bible Gateway (http://bible.gospelcom.net/bible?)
√ The Holy Bible (http://www.cybercomm.net/~dcon/drbible.html)
√ Nazareth Resource Library (http://www.cin.org/users/james/index.htm)
Brother Mary Aquinas Woodworth's “nextScribe” studios has a website: www.nextscribe.org