Tempted by the Fruit of Another Identity?

The following message was entered into our Web site guestbook recently: "I have become very depressed with all that is in the news lately about the Catholic Church. My blood sugar level is also real low tonight. I am seriously thinking about getting in my car and turning on the gas. Please pray for my soul. Father Joe."

The message gave no contact information.

We have a free message board called "Eucharistic Prayer Partners" at monksofadoration.org and our prayer warriors picked up on this cry for help. One person posted an "Emergency Prayer Request for Father Joe" copying the above guestbook entry and asking people to pray for this troubled priest. Several people responded, posting their prayer support both on the message board and in the guestbook.

"Father Joe" responded to all this with the following: "I am feeling a little better now. I am now thinking of leaving the priesthood. It has become a disgraced vocation in the eyes of many. Just imagine: the words ‘priest’ and ‘pedophile’ are used in the same breath. I want to live a real life. Thank you for your prayers. You are good people."

These same "good people" now encouraged "Father Joe" to remain a priest, offering suggestions for things he could do to revive his love for his vocation. I jumped in there encouraging him, too, and inviting him to e-mail or call me. Instead he responded to me in the guestbook, saying: "I appreciate everyone's prayers. I am going to speak to my bishop about leaving the priesthood. I agree with Brother John that a priest is always a priest, but sometimes it is best for the priest (and the Church) if some priests leave active ministry. I am one of those priests."

"Father Joe" continued to use our guestbook. He answered an offensive posting to it. As people complained of this post, I deleted it and "Father Joe’s" response. This began a series of angry posts by "Father Joe" who was upset because I had deleted his response. No matter how I responded to him, he seemed to only get angrier. I finally responded with the only thing left to say — "I’m sorry." The next post from "Father Joe" was very revealing. He wasn’t a priest at all! It turned out we had been dealing with a layperson who had always wanted to be a priest and was now suffering with depression. He was sorry for all the trouble he had caused me and said he would not post in our guestbook again. I of course accepted his apology, but told him never to impersonate a priest again.

Now Joe pretending to be "Father Joe" would be considered a crime in the real world. But even in the virtual world of the Internet, bogus "Father Joe" could do a lot of damage. This, of course, should make one cautious about believing a person claiming to be a priest really is one on the Internet. Now Joe could really believe that playing "Father Joe" on the Internet is OK because, after all, we are talking about virtual reality — aren’t we?

But it is not okay.

"Criminal behavior in other contexts is criminal behavior in cyberspace," according to "Ethics in Internet," the recent document issued by the Pontifical Council on Social Communications.

The Internet being a decentralized system has "proved to be congenial to a mindset opposed to anything smacking of legitimate regulation for public responsibility," the document says. This has lead to an exaggerated individualism regarding the Internet. "Here, it was said, was a new realm, the marvelous land of cyberspace, where every sort of expression was allowed and the only law was total individual liberty to do as one pleased."

This false sense of liberty without responsibility has led to people doing and saying things on message boards, in chat areas and in e-mail in the virtual world that they would never even dare say or do in the "real" world.

"Anyone with the necessary equipment and modest technical skill can be an active presence in cyberspace, declare his or her message to the world, and demand a hearing," says the document. "It allows individuals to indulge in anonymity, role-playing, and fantasizing and also to enter into community with others and engage in sharing." We have certainly seen with Joe pretending to be "Father Joe," how anonymity, role-playing and fantasizing can be misused in cyberspace. Impersonations, of course, are only one way the Internet can be misused. For example, sometimes in online apologetics discussions, you’ll see otherwise-good Catholics using sharp sarcasm and venting unbridled anger even as they seek to defend the Church against her accusers. Would they speak this way face to face? And how affective could this approach be, anyway? The Catechism, in its section explaining the Eighth Commandment (No. 2478), talks about avoiding "rash judgment … [E]veryone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way."

Ethics in Internet is a wakeup call to all of us to use the Internet with ethical responsibility. The rule of thumb, if it’s ethically bad to do or say something in the real world, then don’t do it on the Internet, either. For the complete document Ethics in Internet go to vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/index.htm. May your witnessing of the faith in the "virtual world" be as effective — and as ethical — as your evangelization efforts in the real one.

Monthly Web Picks

In honor of Father’s Day, let’s see some of what is available for Catholic Fathers online.

Family Life Center International in Port Charlotte, Fla., hosts St. Joseph’s Covenant Keepers’, online resources for dads, at www.dads.org.

The Knights of Columbus at www.kofc.org say on their website that they are "Catholic gentlemen committed to the exemplification of charity, unity, fraternity, patriotism, and defense of the priesthood." Men, check out the Web site and get to that local Council today.

Effective Father Ministries at www.effectivefathers.com gives guidance to fathers and grandfathers. The opening web page says, "Fathering…is about building a team."

Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation "Guardian of the Redeemer," on the person and mission of Saint Joseph in the life of Christ and of the Church, would be appropriate reading for fathers on Father’s Day. You can find it at vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15081989_redemptoris-custos_en.html.

Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at john@aplusconsultingnow.com.

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org