What does the number 26,300,000 signify? It’s not the number of seconds in a day (734,400); it’s not the population of France (61,000,000); it’s not Donald Trump’s salary for his work on The Apprentice this year ($3,200,000 to say "You’re fired" 34 times). It is the number of sites you can choose from when you use the Google search engine to look for the word Catholic online. Catholic colleges, high schools, parishes, dioceses, news magazines and many Catholic organizations all have plugged into the net. At every level, from grass roots to the papal Curia, Catholics have decided that the Internet is a great way to connect with people.
Catholic-Animals (formerly the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare) has a Web page. So does the Catholic Order of Foresters, a Fraternal Benefit Life Insurance Society (think Catholic Knights with trees). Visit www.familyland.org, and you’ll find yourself at the Web site for the Apostolate for Family Consecration, complete with a headshot of the beaming Cardinal Francis Arinze and dates for Holy Family Fest 2005: Experience a True Catholic Family Vacation Without Leaving God Behind! In a single sitting online you can read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (courtesy of the Vatican at vatican.va), arrange a date (at catholicsingles.com), discover a programSt. Ann’s Parish in Dallas holds its preschool rodeo on April 15listen to or make an online retreat (at creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/online.html) and then read some more (americamagazine.orgwhat else?).
Despite the breadth of material that can be found online, the most popular Catholic Web sites all have a very similar agenda and approach. The top five Catholic sites, as reported by catholicrankings.com in December 2004, are Catholic Exchange, EWTN, Catholic Answers, Catholic Online and New Advent. The password for many of these sites is orthodoxy.
Tom Kyd, Web master for Catholic Exchange, would like his site to be a Yahoo for Catholics, a Web portal that people use as a starting point for their time online. And in fact, at Catholic Exchange you can check your e-mail, get the latest news, even look for stock prices. Perhaps more important, though, Kyd sees the site as a one-stop destination for Internet users, particularly Catholic Internet users, where you can get...fresh, daily faith-and-life content. The site’s front page is packed with information and possibilities, including a community section, a link to a message forum, daily Scripture readings and online Bible study.
A sidebar with 24 channels, a few in Spanish and Chinese, is both catechetical and conservative, featuring a channel about The Passion of the Christ and a headline in its education section asking readers to Just Say No’ to Government-Run Schools. Catholic Exchange features columnists of a similar bent, including George Weigel, Michael Barone, Linda Chavez and Michael Medved. Kyd acknowledges that Catholic Exchange’s readers are probably conservative, but he is quick to draw a distinction between political conservatives and the religiously orthodox. The orthodox, he maintains, do not pick and choose. [They] actually live their faith as set down by the Catholic catechism.
Most people going to EWTN.com have probably already seen the Eternal Word Television Network or have heard its radio station, so they probably will not be surprised that the Web site supports these other media, providing television and radio schedules, promotional information on shows and even the opportunity to listen or watch in real time over the net.
At the same time, EWTN.com boasts an impressive archive of Catholic resources that its vice president for communications, Scott Hults, says is well used by seminarians and students of Catholicism. The site’s most popular feature is the question-and-answer section, offering users the chance to ask experts about anything from Scripture to sacred music.
Elements of the site hint at a conservative approach. A search for preferential option for the poor yields only eight results: seven concern abortion, and one opposes liberation theology. An inquirer about voting is told that Catholics with an informed conscience should not vote for any candidate of any party who is pro-choice. At the same time, EWTN’s library has at least one article about a living wage campaign and, in contrast to some more insistent conservative voices, the site’s voting guide acknowledges that in the end, every voter must weigh all the factors and vote according to their well-informed conscience.
According to Hults, it’s the need for knowledge and orthodoxy that brings people to EWTN.com. In this world of uncertainties and vagaries and relativism, people are very hungry for real foodspiritual food. The church is the source for that and has the wisdom of the ages.
Catholic.com (Catholic Answers)
One of the more controversial popular Catholic Web sites, Catholic.comthe Web site for Catholic Answershas received much media attention for its Voting Guide for Serious Catholics, which listed five non-negotiable issues Catholics were to consider in the 2004 presidential election. When asked why the guide made no reference to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Faithful Citizenship, which emphasized much more than five issues and avoided language like non-negotiable, Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization replied, We weren’t aware of its existence when we wrote our document. The claim is hard to believe, as the U.S. bishops have published a document on campaign issues every four years since 1976.
Catholic.com is typical of assertive Catholic apologetic sites in presenting this sort of guide. Its extensive archive also includes various booklets and back issues of Catholic Answers’ print magazine, This Rock. An online forum of just under 15,000 membersaccording to Akin, the largest Catholic forum onlinegives Web users a place to talk or ask for more.
Some readers are not sure the answers are right, however. I sent an article from Catholic.com entitled Endless Jihad to Jack Renard, the author of 101 Questions and Answers on Islam and a professor of theological studies at St. Louis University. He replied: Based on flimsy scholarship and faulty premises, [the article] assumes that vast numbers of Muslims are terrorists’ and that the key sources of the tradition (the Qur’an and Hadith, for example) not only condone, but actively enjoin terrorist tactics.
Akin responded that he hopes Professor Renard has not blinded himself to the very real role these texts can play in directing Muslims to see violence as a solution to problems in the present day. He further encouraged Renard to examine the Catholic Answers piece, Islam: A Catholic Perspective.
This debate in many ways highlights the position Catholic Answers takes. Whether it is disagreeing with The Da Vinci Code, contemporary secularism or scholars of Islam, the staff of Catholic Answers is convinced not only that there is a right answer but that they already have it.
Catholic.org (Catholic Online)
Like Catholic Exchange, Catholic Online is a Web portal with e-mail services, news and channels and links to other Catholic sites. The site hosts over 1,000 Catholic organizations, dioceses, parishes and businesses, providing its clients with communications services, electronic marketing and database management. In the process, Catholic Online gains access to an accumulated list of over 160 million Catholics.
According to the founder and president, Michael Gallaway, Catholic Online has over five million pages of content on its easily searchable site, divided into 469 categories, with 10,930 fully screened links. Furthermore, Catholics can buy from Catholic merchants through a link to www.catholicshopping.org or pay tithes and give a donation online at Catholic Financial Services. This site has everything but a steeple.
Still, what’s most interesting about Catholic Online is Your Catholic Voice, which is both a political action group and a foundation (with separate tax statuses for each). Y.C.V. divides Catholic social teaching into four areas: life, family, freedom and solidarity. Unlike certain other Catholic sites, it makes a concerted effort to give serious attention to each. The site is clear in its opposition to gay marriage and characterizes House minority leader Nancy Pelosi as a nominal Catholic. In general, its politics are markedly conservative. Yet it also has substantial sections on social justice and commitment to the poor, insisting that the state has special duties to provide for its citizens. Gallaway, the current chairman, puts the organization’s enrollment at over a quarter million members.
While identifying himself as a Republican, Gallaway acknowledges that Catholicism is a challenge to any worldview. There’s no such thing as a conservative or liberal Catholic; you’re either faithful or unfaithful.
Almost any time you Google a distinctly Catholic word or phrase like The Vatican, holy water or exorcism, you’ll get a link to the New Advent Encyclopedia as one of the first possible matches. Founded in 1995 by Kevin Knight, a layman from Colorado, New Advent has six major sections. Visiting one of these is like stepping into a Catholic time capsule. Most familiar is the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, which was transcribed article-by-article by volunteers around the world. The articles were fine encyclopedia piecesfor 1914but some are troublesome now because of their archaic theology. [The] content is outdated and, in certain sections, may misrepresent Catholic teaching, says Laura Sheahen, a senior religion editor at Beliefnet.com, a popular nondenominational Web site. Sheahen quotes as one example a New Advent article on Judaism: Judaism has remained the barren fig-tree which Jesus condemned during His mortal life. Knight agrees that the site needs to include a universal disclaimer on all of the articles and various special notes regarding information that is no longer accurate, especially in its articles on Judaism. He hoped to have these notices up by May.
Something for Everyone
These Web sites, particularly Catholic Online and Catholic Exchange, offer vast opportunities for interaction and information. Web readers can talk, listen, evenappropriately enoughpray. At the same time, the most impressive commonality among the five is their generally monolithic, conservative conception of the Catholic faith. The orthodox do not pick and choose, says Kyd. These sites seek to provide answers, and these answers come with a significant bias. Elements of the catechism, Catholic social teaching, Catholic history or theology that do not fit neatly into the sites’ conservative politics are most often conveniently ignored. To some degree, Catholic Online resists such easy classification.
These are not the only major Catholic Web sites, but they are the most popular, according to catholicrankings.com. The fact that they are more successful than other, more progressively minded Web sites is worthy of note because Internet users are generally presumed to be more liberal than the general population. Other comparisons support this hypothesis: CNN.com has a dramatically better Web ranking than FOXnews.com; likewise, the Democratic National Committee’s Web site does far better than that of the Republican National Committee. So why do Catholic Web sites fall out differently?
For now, the question remains an open one. Some propose that younger Catholics have become more traditional in their faith. Yet in a recent study, the sociologists James Davidson and Dean Hoge found little substantial difference in attitudes between these millennial Catholics and those of their parents’ generation (Commonweal, 11/18).
Politics aside, it is hard for Catholics with Internet access to get bored. The Internet hosts sites for former Catholics (excatholic.meetup.com), separated and divorced Catholics (nacsdc.org), Catholic moms (catholicmom.com) and religious and civil rights (catholicleague.org). One can find Catholic Charities (catholiccharitiesinfo.org), Catholic Relief Services (catholicrelief.org) and Catholic AIDS ministry (ncan.org). One can learn about Christ’s Diapers (catholicculture.org), the Pope’s Valentine Cookies (cookie.allrecipes.com), Catholic devotions (theworkofgod.org) and Catholic social teaching (odjspm.org). One can even play Catholic trivia (check out bustedhalo.com).
So hop online, conservative, liberal or somewhere in between; there’s something there for everyone.