The blogosphere is the biggest rumor mill on the planet. That’s what I think, anyway.

Consider its primary claims to fame: exposing Trent Lott’s statements at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party … uncovering Jayson Blair’s plagiarism at The New York Times … digging out John Kerry’s real Vietnam War record ... revealing Dan Rather’s questionable journalism.

From what I can tell, bloggers initially relied on a few vague rumors to get those stories rolling.

Why are rumors a natural part of the blogging media? They lack the rigors of doing real research and verification. On more than one occasion, a reader of my blog has written to me, stating that my facts weren’t quite right. I respond unapologetically: “Yup, my facts may have been inaccurate. It’s just a blog. I link to my source and let my readers make up their minds.”

Don’t get me wrong. I try to present accurate facts. I never re-produce something that I know is wrong and I often check and verify my facts. Just last month, for instance, I started to refer to Jacques Maritain as a convert to the Catholic faith from Judaism. Something told me to look that up and, indeed, I was wrong. Maritain was raised Protestant.

For the most part, the blogosphere is a place where millions of people comment on millions of topics with very few knowing whether the facts underlying the topics are accurate.

Webster defines rumor as “talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source.” If the blogosphere isn’t a massive rumor mill, I’ll eat this page and purchase a 20-year subscription to The Star.

Of course, the Internet in general is good for gossip. Gossip wants two things: spice and speed. He wants to hear something good and he wants to hear about it right away. The Internet, with its easy updating and speedy delivery, services both desires well. Not surprisingly, there are all sorts of sites and blogs devoted to the juiciest celebrity (Blabber, Gossipedia) and political (Wonkette) gossip.

Nastiness in St. Blog’s?

Compared to the blogosphere in general, rumormongering in the Catholic blogosphere is rare. To the extent there is any nastiness, it mostly takes place in the comments section of blogs — often by “comboxers” who weigh in anonymously. Their ability to do so is one major drawback of the blogosphere.

But Catholic bloggers will occasionally scratch. The affair between Scientologist Tom Cruise and Catholic Katie Holmes brought out a fair amount of clawing. Priest scandals have brought out the worst in some people, too. There was also an unfortunate incident with a prominent Catholic writer a few years ago that got the Catholic blogosphere spinning.

And there was the Rod Dreher affair.

Dreher is a writer with the Dallas Morning News, a convert to the Catholic faith from Protestantism and the author of a popular book, Crunchy Cons. He was also one of the first journalists to write probing pieces about the priestly sex scandals a few years ago. A few Catholics responded harshly to Dreher’s writing. Dissatisfied with the Catholic Church and attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy, he and his wife tried an Orthodox Church in the Dallas area.  They loved it. Started taking initiation classes.

Dreher wanted to keep his departure from the Catholic Church a secret, waiting for the right time to announce it to his many Catholic readers. Unfortunately, a man — who has been accused of using comboxes to “stalk” Dreher — wrote to Dreher’s Orthodox priest and asked about it. The priest inexplicably confirmed that Dreher was converting, and the alleged “combox stalker” revealed it to the folks at Catholic Light (catholiclight.stblogs.org), which forced Dreher to publish his conversion story on his blog (beliefnet.com/blogs/crunchycon) ahead of his preferred time.

This is unsavory stuff but it’s relatively tame. Ferreting out and then leaking news about a Catholic writer leaving the Church is a mild form of word-warring compared to all the unrestrained yapping that goes on about celebrity extramarital affairs, congressional page scandals and the like. The fact that it’s pretty much the worst thing I’ve seen in the Catholic blogosphere in the last two years is a good indication that Catholic bloggers tend to behave themselves.

Which isn’t surprising. Good Catholics fear gossip as spiritual poison. St. Thomas Aquinas devotes four chapters (“questions”) of his Summa Theologiae to gossip-related vices: “reviling,” “backbiting,” “tale-bearing” and “derision.” Each can rise to the level of mortal sin, he concludes, citing the likes of St. Jerome and St. Bernard, plus a rich assortment of Bible verses.

Can there be good gossip? I think it can be useful or, at least, legitimately interesting. As a Catholic who likes to know about ecclesiastical developments — who’s getting appointed where, forthcoming Vatican documents and liturgical changes — I find the blogosphere very helpful. I especially recommend Bettnet (bettnet.com/blog), American Papist (americanpapist.com) and Whispers in the Loggia (whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com).

You could go elsewhere, but these men double-check facts and offer reality checks (“Folks, if you really think the Pope is going to appoint Mel Gibson a cardinal, you need to put away the vodka.”)

Father Philip Powell at Domine, da Mihi Hanc Aquam! (hancaquam.blogspot.com) — the Latin means “Lord, give me this water!” — thinks that there are not only useful rumors, but good ones. A finalist in last year’s Catholic Blog Awards for Best Theological Blog, Father Powell points out that the Gospel episode in which Jesus appoints Peter as the first head of his Church starts with gossip: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

As the “Head Gossip of the Church,” Father Powell says, it is Peter’s “job to make sure that all the rumors, all the whispering and innuendo, all the chit chat and yammering about who Jesus is, comes out right. It is his job to make sure that what gets whispered is more than rumor and story. He [and the other disciples and eventually the whole Church] are charged with setting loose in the world the juiciest bit of chisme (gossip) creation has ever heard: Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God!”

It’s an interesting slant on a problem that has plagued friendships, neighborhoods, palaces and White Houses for ages. When enlisted in the cause of Christ, even gossip can be a source of good.

Eric Scheske blogs at

ericscheske.com/blog.