Sacred Hate

Does a prophetic “hate speech” exist?

How many times have you visited a website or a blog and spent some time reading and, feeling somewhere between amused and indignant, the stream of hate-filled comments, sarcastic jokes, vulgarity, double entendres, etc. etc.? Sometimes, perhaps, we were even tempted to reply and start off an exciting and quite useless back-and-forth with interlocutors unknown, the result of which is usually simply confirming yourself in your own positions together with a “healthy” sense of release after having launched an offensive on the ignorance and ineptitude of others.

Whoever has had some experience on social networks or blogs knows well how they are infested by comments filled with hate and insult (also known as hate speech). Someone, somewhere, in some blog calling itself “Catholic”, has surprisingly begun to pass off this hate speech as a form of courageous and legitimate protest against the “modernist” failings of the Church, appealing even to the “parrhesia” (clear speech) of Jesus and of some of the Saints (such as Catherine of Siena) against the corruption of their times.

Yet is this appeal truly a valid one? Let’s take Saint Catherine as an example. In a letter to Pope Urban VI (we’re in the 14th century) she writes: “Most holy and dearest Father … Now is the time to unsheathe this blade; hate the vice within you and your subjects, and in the ministers of the Holy Church … at least, most holy Father, may their disordered way of living and their evil habits and customs be eradicated by your Holiness”. There is a condemnation here, and a clear one at that. Yet what distinguishes this letter from the type of comments alluded to above? Here we find no hate or personal polemic: just a firm and loving condemnation of actions and attitudes.

Personal and inflammatory attacks on “heretics” have not been lacking throughout the history of the Church, and it seems to me that this is what appears to be happening today on the web against the Pope and other Church figures considered to be close to him. The Pope, or one Cardinal after another, is insulted just as generically as are immigrants, the irritating actor on Big Brother, or one of the contestants of X-Factor … in other words, the fact that the web tends to render one piece of information just about equal to any other means that no more are facts and ideas being discussed, but persons are being directly attacked. This is the feature that makes it most clear that we’re dealing with hate speech. Should it be possible to exercise dissent within the Church in this way, passing it off for a prophetic “holy fury”? The response is clear: no. Hate speech, understood as a public attack, often anonymous, not on what someone “does” but on that which someone “is”, has nothing Christian about it, even if the person involved were indeed an “apostate”, a “heretic” or otherwise: the objective of hate speech isn’t correction and reconciliation, but the destruction and humiliation of one’s adversary. Are any antidotes available? Saint Peter Faber, a Jesuit and one of the first companions of Saint Ignatius, would counsel those who worked among Lutherans that, before saying anything to them at all, they should “have great charity for them and love them in truth”.

A truly open glance upon those whom we hold to be in error may receive, all things said and done, fewer likes on Facebook, but it just might change his or her heart more than a thousand condemnations.

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