Intra-ecclesial online brawls on doctrinal matters are now spreading among Christians in the East. A drift that the Maronite Church is now trying to counter with a singular initiative: a doctrinal handbook, with pastoral instructions, which paradoxically is directed not to those who approach Christianity for the first time, but to all those – priests, religious, self-proclaimed experts and “insiders”, internet “gurus”, and lay “militants” belonging some ecclesial acronym or gang – who on traditional media and social networks are turning the contents of the Catholic faith into a relentless battlefield.

The document, signed by the Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï, is entitled “The truth that liberates and unites”: it was released on Monday 9 April, and presented as a doctrinal compendium to which all those who speak or debate on questions and issues concerning the Catholic faith and the teaching of the Church must adhere.

One of the declared objectives of the patriarchal pronouncement is to neutralize the spiral of controversy, personal attacks, poisonous doctrinal accusations launched against priests, bishops through small virtual doctrinal tribunals that are now multiplying even in the Maronite blogosphere, often using fake social media accounts. The patriarchal text tries to “set things straight” by claiming the magisterial function of ecclesiastical authority, represented “in the person of the Patriarch and the bishops”. The document calls on members of the clergy and religious communities to deal with doctrinal and ethical issues in the media only after obtaining the authorization of their own bishop or superior; it reminds all “web communicators” the canonical dispositions that would eventually affect those who misuse the media to transmit ideas and contents that are not compatible with the teaching of the Church, or those who slander others by acting far from any spirit of “fraternal correction”.

In Chapter VI, the one containing pastoral indications, the Maronite Patriarch reaffirms that those who use social media, writings, teaching and any other activity to spread content incompatible with the doctrine of the Church are sinning against Christ, “who taught the truth and handed it over to the Church”. In this regard, the document reiterates that under “Church laws and special Maronite law”, members of diocesan and religious clergy who wish to use the media to present programs or deal with matters of faith must obtain special permission from the bishops of their dioceses and superiors.

Already in June 2017, during their annual synod – as Fides Agency reports – the Maronite bishops had requested the drafting of a theological-pastoral compendium that would also serve as a reference tool to attempt to regulate online disputes over doctrinal issues. On that occasion, Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï denounced the weakening of the “theological, dogmatic and spiritual preparation” of the clergy, which he linked to the phenomenon of priests committed to self-applauding for their presence on the media.

It is still too early to measure the effects of the Maronite Patriarchate’ initiative taken in an attempt to counter the fierce controversy and personal attacks that loom over the ecclesial environment. Most certainly the pastoral concern and critical approach expressed in the document echo some of the considerations expressed in Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis’ last Apostolic Exhortation,“Christians too “ the Bishop of Rome writes in the text he signed last March 19 “can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned”. Thus – the Pope adds – “ people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others”. While it would be appropriate to keep in mind, especially within the Church, that “ It is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and always trying to teach them lessons “.

Full story at La Stampa.