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Evaluating Piety is a Tricky Business

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 15, 2005

We encounter some interesting problems when reviewing Catholic web sites, especially when it comes to our Fidelity rating. In one recent case involving a site devoted to Carthusian spirituality, a particularly touchy issue arose.

This site has an active forum featuring tens of thousands of posts by hundreds of participants. The regular materials on the site are generally excellent as are most of the posts in the forum, but our reviewer noticed some problematic posts which were uncorrected by the moderator.

The problem with the posts in question is that they represent a slightly secularized or New Age approach to Carthusian spirituality, in which the object of prayer tends to be described as entering into the silence within ourselves without reference to God. In other posts, there is a similar failure to distinguish between Buddhist meditation (which has a purely natural reflectiveness) and Christian prayer (which seeks to put the soul into ever greater union with God).

The question is how much error is too much in a public forum? Does every wayward post in a forum have to be answered for a site to earn our Green fidelity rating? Is there enough reason for caution here to make the Yellow rating more appropriate? Two of our reviewers had been mulling this over, and they were looking to me for guidelines to resolve the case.

In the end, I applied a relevance test to the errors. Clearly the same purity cannot be demanded in an active public forum as in the materials posted more permanently by the site's editors. A random misstatement here and there is probably no cause for alarm. The question is whether the various errors constitute a pattern which undermines the Catholic purposes of a particular site.

In this case, I decided, the errors were particularly tendentious—very relevant indeed. Every form of piety has its own dangers, and the chief danger of certain contemplative traditions in our time is to be poisoned by the fascination with Eastern prayer forms, as well as by Western narcissism, so that prayer becomes a self-centered technique rather than a direct and vibrant contact with the Living God.

For this reason, the errors in the forum were of a predictable type to which those who run the site must be exceedingly sensitive. While it would be excessive to insist that if a single errant post goes unanswered or unclarified, the Green fidelity rating must be withheld, clearly such a web site must have a generally strong forum plus clear standard materials addressing these particular points in the proper way.

An occasional "random" error in a public forum is not a cause for grave concern, but even a modest pattern of errors affecting the core purpose of a Catholic site must be taken very seriously indeed. Otherwise, it is reasonable to suppose that visitors will be looking for this topic on this particular site, and that they will be led astray.

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