Social media and spiritual dangers for Catholics today

Priests and laity can help each other along the way of grace in different ways, cooperating so as to refine the the authentic desire to fight corruption within the humanity of the Church.

(Images: Phone: Rami Al-zayat; St. Peter's Basilica: Eleonora Patricola | Unsplash.com)

One of the major box office hits in 1999 was the Wachowski Brothers’ film The Matrix. A famous scene in the film is when Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) offers Neo (Keanu Reeves) a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The concept of choosing the red pill or “red-pilling” refers to the journey of personal realization and integration of the full truth of reality, beyond one’s personal preferences and experiences alone. In the movie, the choice of the red pill or the blue pill has its consequences. The choice of the blue pill brings about a life of ignorance and confined comfort and slavery within the façade of the digital dream world to machines that is the Matrix. The choice of the red pill, however, will free Neo from the enslavement of the Matrix. This would be a path towards an uncertain, unstable future, living the full truth of reality in all of its raw difficulty. Neo chooses the red pill and Morpheus serves as a guide for Neo in adjusting to the harshness of this new reality, helping him to become “the chosen one” that he was destined to be.

This “red pill/blue pill” analogy is an apt description of a spiritual journey taking place today in the lives of many Catholics. This awakening is marked by a coming to terms of these Catholics with the truth of the reality of the sin, evil, and corruption presently infecting the human nature of the Church. Examples of this infection manifest through teaching errors in faith and morals, banal liturgies in parishes, and the failure by some of the Church’s pastors and lay members in leadership positions—to say nothing of the clerical sex abuse scandals in recent years.

Some of these “awakened” Catholics greatly desire to speak out against this situation. This desire is good, and, if rooted in their prophetic role given in baptism, such persons could even become the equivalent of modern-day prophets who echo their predecessors in the Old Testament. These prophets urged Israel of old to reject idolatry, repent, and turn back to the merciful embrace of God, the divine spouse. The Catechism speaks of the role of prophets of the Old Testament in the following way:

Through the prophets, God forms his people in the hope of salvation, in the expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all, to be written on their hearts. The prophets proclaim a radical redemption of the People of God, purification from all their infidelities, a salvation which will include all the nations. Above all, the poor and humble of the Lord will bear this hope (CCC 64).i

The prophets become figures that help Israel discover her true self – who she is in the eyes of God – His beloved, faithful spouse despite her infidelities and idolatry. In this role, they became mentors who help Israel understand who she is called to be by the Lord, what the reality of His saving plan is and is not, and to get her back to living out the covenant. This role is perfected and fulfilled in the person of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, during His public ministry, passion, death, and resurrection. This same prophetic work of God continues through His Church until the end of time and the Church encourages it through the responsible use of social media.ii

Indeed, when the media is employed well, Catholics can serve in this needed prophetic role. They can be agents that the Holy Spirit uses to call the Church both to repentance and to rediscovering who Christ established her to be within the world. At the same time, however, the media can also be abused through the spreading of anger and frustration that can be otherwise understandable but vitriolic. In this spirit, pride, fear, anger, and unbridled passion run free, lead both to sin and demonic influence through possibly destroying faith, hope, and charity.

The dangers of this raw spiritual rage point to the importance of humility and self-detachment from one’s passions, preferences, and opinions within the life of faith. In that life, there can be a rawness of spiritual emotions in the things that affect us, are around us, and the things and people we love. It is important that we know how to deal with reality in the light of God’s plan of salvation and His unfolding of grace.

This observation is true not only within the individual lives of each of the baptized but also within the corporate life of the Church in her own humanity. It is especially true in the light of the sins of the Church’s members and those called by Our Lord to serve in His own person as her pastors, i.e. His priests and bishops.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, one of the great Thomists of the early 20th century and a former teacher to Pope St. John Paul II, noted that the saints, despite their differences, had one thing in common, “they manifest admirable delicacy of feeling for the afflicted; at times they alone can find words which uplift and fortify.”iii In regards to the road to sanctity in relation to the passions, Garrigou-Lagrange also wrote:

…the passions must be moderated, not materially but proportionately to what reason requires in relation to a more or less lofty given end to be reached in given circumstances. Thus, without sinning, a person may experience great sadness, great fear, or lively indignation in certain grave circumstances.… On the road to perfection, those who are naturally meek must become strong, and those who are naturally inclined to be strong-willed must become gentle. Both are climbing toward the summit by different slopes.iv

Garrigou-Lagrange makes another observation that is important to keep in mind:

With rash haste many beginners, otherwise very good, at times wish to make too rapid progress, more rapid than their degree of grace warrants. They desire to travel rapidly because of a certain unconscious presumption; then, when trial comes, they sometimes let themselves be cast down at least for a moment. This condition is similar to what happens also in young students at the beginning of their curiosity in their work; when it is satisfied or when application becomes too painful, negligence and sloth follow. As a matter of fact, the happy medium of virtue, which is at the same time a summit above two opposing vices, like strength above temerity and cowardliness, is not attained immediately.v

Garrigou-Lagrange’s point then touches upon the sin of precipitation, which Saint Thomas Aquinas defines as “a manner of acting by impulsion of the will or of the passion, without prudence, precaution, or sufficient consideration.”vi It is a sin directly opposed to prudence and the gift of counsel, and leads to an impertinence or audacity in judgment. We can fall into precipitation when we substitute our own natural activity for divine action, acting with “feverish ardor without sufficient reflection, without prayer for the light of the Holy Spirit, and without the advice of a spiritual director.”vii

A powerful Scriptural example of the sin of precipitation is found in the dialogue of Saint Peter to Jesus at the Last Supper, “‘Although all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times’” (Matt 26:33ff). Later, when Peter tried to stop Jesus’ arrest by wielding a sword and cutting the ear of Malchus, Our Lord replied to Peter, “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me” (John 18:10-11)? Peter was cured of his presumption and egoism by the humiliation of his triple denial. From that point on, he would no longer count on himself, but on divine grace, which led him to the very heights of sanctity through martyrdom.viii

At various times, any of us can be like Peter in relation to the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit and the unfolding of the will of God in our lives and the life of the humanity of the Church. We can become cowardly or brash, seeking to wield the sword of our own pride, self-will, preferences at the evils around us, thus becoming tempted.ix Many do so in the thought that it is their duty because of the dereliction of the Church’s pastors in many quarters, yet they risk impaling their souls on that same sword because they lack the humility and virtue to wield rightly that sword with the armor of God.

The pastoral guidance of the Church’s clergy is intended to intervene in these matters and offer spiritual direction. The great priestly saints of the past helped to guide and form souls and were attentive to the reality of the needs and dangers affecting the Church’s life in their own age. They were guiding lights who, through humility, wisdom, and fidelity to tradition in the light of the needs of the time, were able to guide and form souls to divine union with Christ throughout their age.x

Given the present state of affairs among the clergy, such spiritual guidance has not been forthcoming en masse. The faithful are desirous for it, and, without it, further tensions have been created, to say nothing of confusion and spiritual destruction. We see these things most acutely when the faithful take their outcries to social media. These outcries speak to the lack of and desire for true spiritual fathers and is deeply felt by various clergymen aware of their own limitations and inability to help people outside of personal prayer.

It is clear that Catholics are in desperate need of true, authentic spiritual fathers. These men are not “yes-men” who merely affirm and feed one’s personal observations and opinions. No, they are well-aware of the present dangers, while still processing the data of the current human landscape and have humble wisdom in doing so. Such priests help the faithful to live their prophetic roles, given in baptism, by refining their perceptions and observations regarding the state of the Church into an affective and effectively charitable way for the salvation of souls.

Spiritual fathers know that charity ought always to be the way in these matters, otherwise there will be many dangers. One such danger is the placing of heavy burdens upon otherwise innocent people’s backs without the overall salvation of souls in mind (cf. Matt 23:4). Charity in the heart is not engendered thereby or is destroyed completely. Such action receives the condemnation of Our Lord for those who cause scandal (cf. Matthew 18:6).xi No true spiritual father worth his salt would risk his soul or the souls of those under his care in this way.

Indeed, spiritual fathers humbly challenge people inclined to take up the sword of their intuitions and gradually to put on the mind and heart of Christ (cf. Rom 12:2; Phil 2:5). Our Lord did as much with Peter after the resurrection when Peter professed his love for Jesus three times to undo his triple denial (cf. Jn 21:15-18).

In the end, like Morpheus and Neo, priests and laity can help each other along the way of grace in different ways, despite their own sins and limitations. This cooperation extends to the refining of, not destroying, the desire to fight corruption within the humanity of the Church. When done in the light of the spiritual life, helping people become aware of these dangers can be an exercise of one’s prophetic calling from baptism. The refinement, however, ensures that this recognition and integration of the truth through social media is done according to the will of God and bears good, enduring fruit rather than to bring about the fruit of spiritual death through the rageful sword of unchecked vitriol.

Endnotes:

i See also Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, n. 42, “In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel.” 

iiiReginald Garrigou Lagrange, Three Ages of the Interior Life – Volume I. Rockford, IL: TAN Books & Publishers, Inc., 1989, 327.

iv Ibid.

v Ibid, 328, emphasis mine.

vi Ibid, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 53, a.3; q 54, a. 1 ad 2um.

vii Garrigou Lagrange, Three Ages of the Interior Life – Volume I, 328.

viii Ibid.

ix To be clear: one’s instincts and observations may be right on some level or on every level. The danger here, however, may be to confuse the tip of the iceberg for its entirety.

x Figures such as St. Albert the Great and his relationship to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Robert Bellarmine’s relationship to Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, and both Saint Peter of Alcantera and Saint John of the Cross relationship to Saint Teresa of Avila as well as modern figures such as Fr. John Hardon’s relationship to Saint Teresa of Calcutta come to mind, as well as countless others.

xi Lumen Gentium 14 speaks to this reality where it states the following: “[One] is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’ All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”


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About Fr. Matthew MacDonald 2 Articles
Fr. Matthew MacDonald is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2014, he has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as a Bachelors in Sacred Theology, Masters in Divinity, and Masters of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is currently assigned as parochial vicar at Saint Mary’s Church in Washingtonville, New York.

11 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful article. We have all given in to the rage of the moment. Very few of us were able to keep our heads as MEN are supposed to do. We all gave in to the howling anger that was just, but at the same time, it was partially encouraged by the devil. Rather than confining our outrage to its just, natural limits, we allowed the devil to go further than prudence allowed. Now is the time we must all restore the balance. We need to have holy anger, with an emphasis on the “holy”; not on “anger”. We need to give up blaming “the bishops” for everything. We need to discriminate between good and bad bishops. We need to avoid falling for the extremist groups like the SSPX, which is prowling around the edges, trying to pick off the weak. Time to restore the proper, manly, wise, measured and carefully calibrated approach.

    I have always winced when I heard people talking about being “red pilled”. This movie was mostly pagan in its ideas. It is almost demonic, for my money. It is the standard Hollywood justification of evil – you can go be evil, because you “see things clearly” that others are afraid to see. While they engage in a good life, which can be dull, you can engage in a devilish life, going places where they don’t go. You can do evil things, because you are the gnostic one, the chosen one, the only one who can see things as they really are. It’s a temptation to pride, that’s all it is.

    And, the people that were pushing that “red pill” notion seem to have gone down the dark road. Now they are making all sorts of bizarre, strange videos, talking about demons and magical prophecies and visions of God speaking to them. They encourage breaking away from the church and have found new gods in Lefebvre, etc. They have basically broken away from the church and are out howling daily in the wilderness. Notice that they only have fellow howlers on their youtube shows. People that agree with them. Oddly, they now live in an entirely self constructed world of weirdness, as if the red pill they have taken did not reveal the truth to them at all – instead it plunged them deeper into a fantasy world, a self constructed hell of eternal fighting and desperation. They are living in an alternate reality, and they will not let anyone disturb their troubled nightmare.

    • Well written article and excellent use of the Matrix analogy. The choice of freedom and slavery is never so stark until the person realizes the consequences of his choice. We all say we want to be free, but the things that we do and accept are more descriptive of slavery. With freedom comes uncertainty because one will continue to have to make decisions with minimal reliance on others, while slavery offers certainty, three squares, clothing and shelter. China is a good example of this latter day choice.
      We all want to make the right choice, what is good for us and our loved ones. It goes without saying. Aquinas says “Voluntas ad bonum” Our wills are ordered to seek what is good but our reason and our imagination camouflage evil to make it look good when we know it is not. Our our original sin’s tendency to go for the shiny object makes seeking what is really good humanly difficult.
      The only way out of this is to converse with our maker who gave us the freedom to choose what is good. How do we get people to do that? Witnessing is the only answer. The rest we have to leave up to God.

    • “Picking off the weak” are they? You’ve got that very wrong.
      I wish the SSPX blessings and much success.

  2. samton909, how can you attack other faithful Catholics immediately after reading this article? The SSPX is NOT in a state of schism, so don’t treat them that way.

  3. “Examples of this infection manifest through teaching errors in faith and morals, banal liturgies in parishes, and the failure by some of the Church’s pastors and lay members in leadership positions—to say nothing of the clerical sex abuse scandals in recent years.”

    There is much more that could be said, but, if this is true, the institution that you are talking about isn’t the Catholic Church. Jesus Christ promised that He would be with the Church until the end of time. The Catholic Church can’t teach errors.

    • The author is not referring to Church teaching, but to false teaching by certain Catholics. Examples, alas, abound.

  4. Could someone please clarify about SSPX and schism?
    I’ve known folks in the past who attended a SSPX church and don’t have anything unkind to say about them but I’d thought their church was schismatic. If that status has changed I’m glad to hear it.
    Thanks!

  5. “In the end, like Morpheus and Neo, priests and laity can help each other along the way of grace in different ways, despite their own sins and limitations. This cooperation extends to the refining of, not destroying, the desire to fight corruption within the humanity of the Church. When done in the light of the spiritual life, helping people become aware of these dangers can be an exercise of one’s prophetic calling from baptism.”

    Accountability is not a one-way street — so what measures is the author advocating so that bishops and priests can be held accountable?

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