I have been involved with Internet discussions and apologetics for a very long time, at least in Internet terms. I remember debating a man from the Netherlands via email about Catholic theology in 1992, before I was even officially received into the Catholic Church. Considering “Internet years” are somewhat like dog years, I figure that’s 119 years of online debates and discussions (and it even feels like more sometimes). Over that time I have developed some rules of engagement for Internet apostolate that might be helpful for others.
1) Always remember the superiority of the real world over the virtual world.
If you are spending more time interacting with people over the Internet than you do in the real world, then you need to seriously curtail your online activity. God made us physical beings and we cannot replace physical interaction with virtual interaction. It’s just not the same.
2) Your salvation is more important than your involvement on the Internet.
If frequenting a blog or forum disturbs your peace and makes you anxious, uncharitable and/or unkind to those around you, you should simply stop going to that blog or forum. I have had to abandon certain forums and blogs because I found myself too upset with those I encountered there. It is better to simply walk away.
3) Don’t ever say anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t say in person.
This is a pretty common suggestion, but it is very true. If you wouldn’t call someone a putz to their face, don’t call them that online (and if you would call them that to their face, perhaps you need to see your confessor).
4) Don’t write anything in anger.
If you write a post or comment on a blog or on a forum in anger, be sure to preview it before posting. Then delete it.
5) Don’t stereotype people.
It is very easy to stereotype the people we “meet” over the Internet. If someone says he likes the Traditional Latin Mass, don’t assume that he is an “angry Traditionalist” who rejects Vatican II completely. If someone says something supportive of Rush Limbaugh, don’t assume she supports everything he espouses. The truth is that most people don’t fall into nice and neat categories. I remember encountering a person online who was devoted to the Latin Mass but also supported liberal Democrat politicians. Remember to just debate actual arguments raised, not positions you assume the person also holds. Don’t think you actually know people you only encounter online. You don’t.
6) Take at least one day off a week from the Internet.
Preferably Sunday. Remember that man was not made for the Internet, but the Internet for man. If you feel you need to be on the Internet every day, then you are showing signs of a dangerous addiction. This is unhealthy, even if the sites you go to are not harmful themselves.
7) Always assume the good intentions of others.
If someone writes something that could possibly be interpreted multiple ways, assume the best interpretation. I have seen countless examples of someone making a point, someone else misinterpreting it and attacking it, then a whole discussion ensues before the original poster returns to say that he never meant what he was accused of saying. Writing is a difficult task, and often what we write isn’t exactly what we mean. Give people the same benefit of the doubt that you want to be given.
8) Remember who the real Enemy is.
It’s not some heterodox blogger or pro-abortion advocate. It’s Satan. Those who do things that support his reign are slaves of Satan, and our duty is not to try to defeat them, but emancipate them and help them become sons of the True King. Yes, we must resist evil in all its forms, but those who advocate for evil need to be converted, not conquered.
9) Remember that God resists the proud.
Even when they are right. On the Internet you encounter people at all stage of their spiritual life. Many don’t know the first thing about the Faith yet still expound upon it. It is easy to look upon them like the Pharisee did to the Publican. Instead of quickly jumping in to tell them how they are wrong, first say a prayer for them and then gently lead them to a fuller understanding of the truth. I can guarantee that a prideful retort will do nothing other than turn them more away from an orthodox understanding of the Faith.
10) Don’t just go to Catholic sites.
Part of the history of Catholics in America is that we have often lived in ghettos, completely excluded from those outside the Church. It sometimes feels like we are returning to that on the Internet. We only go to Catholic sites and Catholic blogs and Catholic forums (and usually only those we agree with) and it gives us an unbalanced view of the world. I spent over four years as the only Catholic at a Protestant apologetics forum, and it was a very fruitful experience for me. Not only was I able to defend and explain the Catholic Faith to many who would never hear about it, I also learned a great deal from the Protestants at the site and honed my apologetic abilities. Obviously we shouldn’t visit immoral sites that might lead us into the near occasion of sin, but we should be salt and light on the Internet and bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all corners of the virtual world.
If you have any helpful rules of engagement you use, feel free to leave them in the comments!