An extremely interesting write up by Damian Thompson on the evolution or devolution of Roman Catholicism in social media.
For those who were there one way or another at ground zero, Thompson's brief history is equal parts nostalgia inducing and sobering.
Conservative Roman Catholics really lit the fire with social media. I recall in those years prior to Benedict's pontificate the number of well seated liberal theologians who openly mocked such "popular publications" and dismissed such efforts. Two years later they grew defensive around the notion, eventually noting the popularity and ability to influence perception but still refusing to give it much credence. By the time Benedict's papacy came to a close, the liberal wing, after almost a decade of being beaten and bruised online, finally realized how to work on the same level.
The rise of Roman Catholic blogdom coincided with Benedict's papacy and was accompanied by a triumphalism (in virtue or his election) that quickly devolved into petty, scathing vindictiveness at anyone who did not toe the same ideological line. As Thompson notes, "things became nasty."
Pray Tell, the social media hub of Liturgical Press, wonders how it was that Benedict's papacy attracted supporters "far to the right" of Josef Ratzinger.
Pray Tell, to the editor's credit, actually gets the question right. The conservative/Traditionalist blogosphere made a habit of cherry picking Ratzinger's writings and speeches to suite an ideological agenda. The most famous being every avoidance of Ratzinger's assesment that liturgical reform was needed and that, "apart from a few minor criticisms" he was "very thankful" for the Missale Romanum of Paul VI. Ratzinger, like his predecessor, saw himself as fully confirming of Vatican II and resolutely determined to ensure the Council would be implemented and its legacy solidified.
To ask why or how such interests to the right of Ratzinger could ever attach themselves to his papacy so resolutely, however, betrays a genuine disconnect from the reality of the Roman Church, the situation on the ground, after the Second Vatican Council. In a period of demographic decline (and the collapse of the Roman Church in Europe) Ratzinger seemed to be the only member of the hierarchy willing to hold post-Vatican II Catholicism up to the sunlight test.
Ratzinger openly acknowledged the theological ambiguity, while fashionable as a pastoral practice in a multicultural context, had served to denigrate the perception of the legitimacy of the Christian faith. For those whose discontent stemmed from liturgical matters, Ratzinger seemed to provide a source of empathy. Ratzinger was able to mention the Tridentine liturgy without dismissing it as irrelevant and fully acknowledging some its better traits. Furthermore, he offered a sober assessment that the wholesale abandonment of the "Latin Tradition," in terms of both language and chant, was not necessarily the most well thought out decision.
In reaction to the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Church, whether due to a mistaken interpretation of the Council's intention and decrees or due to an accurate assessment of both, pivoted to left in many large pockets. Benedict's papacy, in virtue of his own willingness to offer criticism of some dominant trends in Roman Catholicism, was the event through which certain tensions related to the direction set out after the Council finally came to the surface.
Suddenly, it became a safe environment to ask questions critical of the Council and, more importantly, the hierarchy responsible for its implementation. One did not have acquiesce to the post-Vatican II euphoria. One could have a more detached, if not critical, perspective. Unfortunately, certain parties, lay and cleric alike, were not content with the change in atmosphere. "Things got nasty," and what were once reasonable avenues for constructive, if not avant-garde, discussion were now spitting venom and, in liturgical circles, preoccupied with the most juvenile of things.
Without playing a game of "who-did-what-first," it is only fair to say that it would be a matter of time before an equal and opposite reaction rose to the surface. Enter the pontificate of Francis.
At the height of the devolution of discourse, I reached out to a rather well known priest and blogger who, in between photo sets of sumptuous meals and drinks he was able to enjoy a continent away thanks to the timely donations of his readers, was fixated with pillorying certain groups of nuns and certain parts of secular society. I highlighted a particular instance and noting the subtle hypocrisy of his vindictiveness and noted that he would, eventually, get an institutional church as intolerant as his most colorful written explosions, but by that time it would be out for people like himself. He promptly blocked my IP address. Six years later, I think I've been proven correct.
When the pendulum is finally set in motion, it seems like it never stops. The pendulum always swings. The only thing that can stop it is another force capable of arresting its motion and forcing stasis. While the pendulum swings, such an event is unpredictable and unlikely for all practical purposes.
Eventually the current swing to the opposite ideological direction will prove the catalyst for a response strong enough to pull things back. In truth, it may have already started. Thompson notes that last October in Rome demonstrated that the same social media awareness and presence was capable of derailing what by all accounts was a carefully constructed synod and pre-drafted interim report. Rather than wait for history to be written and react to it, the more rightward leaning interests sought to divert history midstream. The real test will come this October when decisions will be made.
The legacy of Benedict's papacy is, for the near future, tied to the interests that latched onto his papacy and the currents that came to the fore during his presidency in the Roman Church.