Is it possible to sin in the way you use the internet? Yes, there are many sins being committed online. But this post is specifically about sins against religion that are committed online by Catholics. I’ve been discussing Catholicism with my fellow Catholics online since the mid-1990’s. In that time, I’ve noticed that many Catholics are committing objective mortal sins against their own Faith, by the way they use the internet. And these sins occur in many different ways. I’ll outline just a few of these.
Teaching Doctrinal Error
“My brothers, not many of you should choose to become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1).
There are very many Catholics online who have decided to teach their own understanding of the Catholic Faith to others. The problem is that many of these persons, I would even say most of them, do not understand Roman Catholic teaching in sufficient breadth and depth to be qualified to teach. As a result, they spread doctrinal errors and even grave heresies on matters of faith and morals. They harm many souls.
On any particular point that is in error, we might charitably conclude that the individual errs unknowingly, and perhaps with little culpability. But many of these online teachers err on numerous important matters of faith and morals. They clearly did not obtain a good understanding of the Faith before they decided to teach. And so they sin by arrogance, even if any particular error is taught out of ignorance. A person who is ignorant in a subject area should not be teaching. But on the internet, any Catholic can teach others without using their real name, without any qualifications, and more importantly, without a good understanding of the subject area.
To make a comparison, suppose that someone with little medical knowledge and no real qualifications went online and began giving medical advice, which people actually followed to their detriment. This behavior would be understood to be gravely immoral, perhaps also illegal, and certainly actionable under civil statutes. To teach in the field of medicine without sufficient knowledge would harm health and endanger life.
But in the field of theology, on matters of faith, morals, and salvation, the teaching of these ignorant yet arrogant Catholics is still worse. For they harm the soul, and they endanger eternal life. The soul is more important than the body.
The guilt of these many online Catholic teachers of doctrinal error can be ascertained by the fact that their errors are many and grave, and by the fact that they do not accept correction. I say this not merely because they don’t accept correction from me, or from someone else who presents a theological argument to them online. They openly disagree with the teachings of Popes and Ecumenical Councils. They speak about Pope Francis as if they were his judges. In all cases, whenever they encounter an idea that is contrary to their own mind, they reject it. And if any magisterial teaching is not to their liking, they distort or radically re-interpret it.
Some of these false teachers teach under their real name; others are anonymous. It is particularly absurd, and yet all too common, when these false teachers assert their errors with no theological argument, under cover of anonymity, yet seemingly with authority. They make baseless bold and very emphatic assertions as to what is true or false, what is or is not Church teaching, with little or no support for their claims. And if anyone disagrees, they make personal attacks on that person.
How do they obtain listeners if they have no reasoning to support their assertions? They simply tell people what they want to hear. They justify all manner of grave sins. They vastly over-simplify every theological question, so that they can seem to understand and explain everything. And they are uncorrectable. No theological argument ever seems to them to carry more weight than their own opinion, which they present as if it were dogma. And yet what they claim to be the doctrine or dogma of the Church is often in fact a grave error, one that harms souls.
Jesus said: “Therefore, whoever will have loosened one of the least of these commandments, and have taught men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19).
So someone who teaches errors in relatively small matters of faith will be least in Heaven. What then will become of these false teachers who arrogantly teach many grave errors and who have contempt for all who disagree? They are like the Pharisees whom Jesus rebuked sharply.
Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you travel around by sea and by land, in order to make one convert. And when he has been converted, you make him twice the son of Hell that you are yourselves.” (Mt 23:15).
So it is today. By means of the internet, the false teachers of today travel as if by sea and land, over the face of the earth, to make one convert to their own errors, blind guides that they are. And when they succeed, that person become twice as fit for Hell. For he falls into still more errors, one after another. Woe to you, blind guides!
Among the most grave yet common errors is the promotion of the use of abortifacient contraception. Many Catholics today are teaching online that contraception, while intrinsically evil, somehow suddenly becomes not intrinsically evil and not at all immoral, if the person has a good intention, or a medical purpose, or is in a difficult circumstance. To the contrary, the Church teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances, and that no intention or purpose or circumstance can transform an intrinsically evil act into a moral act. But these false teachers claim the contrary.
These false teachers are encouraging, promoting, and approving of the use of abortifacient contraception to many persons online. Often, the subject arises in response to a question posed by a fellow Catholic who is considering using abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, or for some type of good intention, or in a difficult circumstance. These false teachers are relentless in asserting, again and again, very emphatically, as if it were absolute unquestionable dogma, that their fellow married Catholics can morally use abortifacient contraception. This is not a theoretical discussion among theologians. These are actual cases of married Catholics who inquire whether it is moral, for example, to use abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, while remaining sexually active in a marriage.
I have noted many cases in which these anonymous teachers of doctrinal error have succeeded in convincing Catholics to use abortifacient contraception while remaining sexually active. Actual abortions occur as a result of the response given by various online teachers of Catholicism. These false teachers are committing the grave sin of formal cooperation with the sins of contraception and abortion. All the while, they claim to be pro-life. This false claim, that it is moral or somehow approved by the Church to use abortifacient contraception while sexually active, does grave harm to souls and does in fact result in actual abortions.
Abortion and contraception are each intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Therefore, these acts are not justified by a medical intention, nor by a difficult circumstance. Anyone who promotes abortifacient contraception as if it were moral is committing the grave sin of formal cooperation with abortion and contraception.
Teachers will have the stricter judgment. These anonymous teachers of grave doctrinal error, who succeed in convincing their fellow Catholics to use abortifacient contraception, will be judged and punished severely by God.
Unnatural Sexual Acts
Another grave sin that is promoted online by many different Catholics is the use of unnatural sexual acts within marriage. As I’ve explained many times, in books on Catholic ethics and in online articles, unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Therefore, they are not justified by intention or circumstances. And merely labeling a sexual act as “foreplay” does not justify the act. Some acts of foreplay are licit, and other acts of foreplay are illicit. The purpose to prepare for natural marital relations does not justify the use of unnatural sexual acts.
And yet, whenever this question is raised in a Catholic discussion group there are innumerable anonymous commentators who will emphatically proclaim that unnatural sexual acts are moral as long as the spouses are both willing and the set of acts includes (or the spouses intend to include) one act of natural marital relations. This grave error is proclaimed by them as if it were a dogma.
Again, this is not a merely theoretical discussion among theologians. I have read many discussions in which a sincere Catholic inquires as to whether certain types of sexual acts are gravely immoral in marriage; often the inquirer admits having some sense that such acts are immoral. And yet he or she is reassured many times over, with a long series of emphatic, and sometimes even triumphantly joyful, online posts claiming that all such unnatural sexual acts are “not unnatural”, are “not immoral”, and are entirely good and “holy”. They go so far as to claim, without any basis whatsoever, that the Church approves of these types of acts within marriage. These false teachers are committing the grave sin of formal cooperation with gravely immoral sexual acts.
When, on many occasions, I or someone else posts an explanation to the contrary, the response is often a series of malicious personal attacks. I’ve noted many discussions in which persons (other than myself) objected to this blanket approval for unnatural sexual acts within marriage. And in response to this legitimate objection, they were harassed with personal attacks by numerous posters until they departed from the discussion. Then these same persons, who many times have driven away anyone with a contrary point of view, claim there is unanimity on the question.
The Infallibility of Scripture
It seems to be the majority view of online commentators that Sacred Scripture is only infallible in matters of faith and morals, or in matters of salvation. Yet this claim has been many times condemned by the Magisterium. Numerous Popes and Councils can be cited in support of the correct doctrine, that every assertion of Sacred Scripture on any topic, including physical sciences and history, is infallibly true. The claim that inerrancy is limited to only certain topics does grave harm to the ability of the faithful to be guided toward salvation by Scripture.
Conservative Errors and Liberal Errors
There are many other errors that are commonly promoted and taught, as claimed Catholic doctrine, online by false teachers. Some errors are particular to conservative Catholics, and other errors are particular to liberal Catholics. The fundamental mistake on both sides is to assume that the correct answer to every theological question is always conservative, or always liberal. And neither side seems to consider the Pope or the Magisterium to be their teacher — except when they like the particular teaching.
Aside from specific doctrinal errors promoted online, there is an even more disturbing trend found in online discussion groups and in the commentary at the end of blog posts and religion articles. There are many Catholics who use their ability to speak anonymously online to express malice towards anyone who disagrees with them. There are personal attacks, offensive language, denigrating and condescending remarks, and behavior that is manifestly unchristian. But because these persons are anonymous, they behave very badly. Sometimes these comments might be charitably attributed to the heat of the moment in a difficult discussion. But it happens so often, and the expressions are at time so full of open malice, that I can only conclude that some persons are sinning gravely online by expressing hate of neighbor, rather than love of neighbor.
It will be interesting to see, once we faithful souls reach Heaven (if indeed we are as faithful as we think), to see how many souls lost their eternal salvation because they sinned against their own religion, against the holy Catholic Faith, by their misuse of the freedom of expression on the internet. And many more souls will be spending a particularly long and painful time in Purgatory for much the same reason. For no matter how well you hide your true identity online, God knows everything you do and say.