The time a senior cleric forced me to leave Twitter 

Three years ago, the Convention on the Constitution spent some time discussing Same Sex Marriage. It led to a wider debate about the nature and definition of marriage and whether “marriage” was the best word to describe such a partnership between two persons of the same sex.

Having listened to one such discussion, I fired off a quick tweet. I told my 500-plus followers: “I don’t care what they call it, I’m in favour of marriage equality.”

The downside of Twitter is that you can make statements in the heat of the moment that land you in hot water or that you later regret. And, after I sent it, I began to wonder and worry. Maybe I had been a little rash, maybe I should have worded it more carefully. Given that I’m a Catholic priest, I expected an instant response.

And I was right. A journalist spotted the tweet and thought it newsworthy enough to write a little story about it. The day the story appeared, my boss came to see me. He said that a senior cleric was annoyed about my tweet and had told him to instruct me to take it down. He didn’t identify who the senior cleric was but I understood it to be a bishop.

I agreed to delete the tweet. I knew I shouldn’t really have posted it given the trouble the Redemptorists were already in at the time.

But it was his next request that really took me aback. “Did you tweet something lately about mandatory celibacy being evil?” he asked.

I said I couldn’t remember offhand but it sounded like something I would say. “Well, they want you to delete that tweet, too,” he said.

I promised to do so.

And so I opened my Twitter account and deleted the statement from a few days earlier about marriage equality. Then I went searching for the tweet about mandatory celibacy. I scrolled back through what seemed like hundreds of tweets before I finally found it. It too was deleted as requested.

But I was shocked and angry. The tweet about celibacy had been posted five months previously. About 80 percent of my tweets at that time were sports related, roughly 10 percent were about politics, and the rest had to do with everything from religion to the weather. Somebody in an office somewhere had spent a considerable amount of time systematically ploughing through my tweets about Luis Suarez and Liverpool Football Club and the goings on in Dáil Éireann and Westminster in search of church-related statements of mine to be offended by.

I couldn’t believe that they would go to all that bother, and that, with church attendance falling and abuse stories still surfacing, they had so little to be bothered about. There is nothing heretical in expressing a view on mandatory celibacy. It was not as if I was denying the creed.

I was so angry and upset that I decided to leave Twitter. If I couldn’t tweet with integrity, if everything I said was being monitored from on high, if my statements were being censored, then I would not tweet at all. I decided to exit the medium quietly, and I did.

Eighteen months later I returned to Twitter. I missed being able to comment on current and sporting affairs (especially about Liverpool Football Club), but mostly I wanted to recover my voice.

Of course, silencing someone or making them retract a statement isn’t going to make the victim change his or her mind. And so, just four days before the marriage referendum last May, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times advocating a yes vote. I found it amusing and satisfying that the sub-editor chose that deleted tweet of mine as the heading for the piece: “I don’t care what they call it, I’m in favour of marriage equality.”

I got to make my point after all, only this time to far more people than would ever have read the original tweet.

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Author: frommypulpit

I'm a Redemptorist preacher and writer, with an interest in history, politics, and sport, who is living with chronic back pain.

6 thoughts on “The time a senior cleric forced me to leave Twitter ”

  1. Winning the argument and getting to make your point seems more important than ensuring that families and marriage get the kind of support they need. As a Catholic, I am fed up reading and listening to statements from priests who seem to think that being liked is more important than being faithful to the Church and Christ’s Teachings. You are right that attendances at Church is dwindling and maybe if priests preached the Word of God without apology, people might not drop out so easily. They might be more informed. It is so sad to hear young people talking about the Catholic Church in the language of the media, using the same aetheistic arguments and criticism of the Catholic Church. The fact of child abuse etc. Is not a good reason to promote SSM or criticise celibacy. Spare a thought for the young married couples with children, trying to bring them up in the Catholic faith and who need the support of their priest especially now in these times when they are meeting difficulties from anti Catholic sentiment in schools, media etc. Surely they shouldn’t have to fight a battle with the very person who is supposed to be supportive of their role within the parish and Church to which they belong.

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  2. But Gerry, weren’t you very naive if you did not realise that there are sadly individuals – and they are not all priests or bishops – who feel they have a mission to trawl social media for people who commit their inmost thoughts to twitter or Facebook or a blog. They are not attractive people, indeed they strike me as sad individuals who pass on their ‘findings’ to bishops and priests, and they then keep an eye on them to see if they are passing it higher up the food chain. Some of them by the way keep an eye on Pope Francis. They know the best addresses at which to contact their favourite Vatican sources. I do not know if I told you that a confrere of ours whom you know. and who occupied a high position in the Roman curia, told me how he was visited by an Irish cleric, a colleague of mine in different circumstances, who wanted to make sure he was up to speed on the thoughts of certain Irish members of a certain religious order. Our confrere replied, “Father, did you not notice I sign myself CSsR?”
    By the way, it is not just expressing religious ideas that get you into trouble on Twitter or Facebook – there have been enough examples of how it backfires on politicians. Social media is wonderful but it is also a very dangerous place in which to express your inmost thoughts as there is little room for clarification,

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    1. Perhaps there are ‘sad’ individuals ‘trawling’ the media but I honestly don’t believe that is any kind of justification for a priest to send tweets as mentioned. The very reason that child abuse among clergy got so much more publicity that that caused by others was and rightly so because priests are supposed to give good example and are in positions of leadership in the Church. It is to priests and the Church that Catholics look for guidance and teaching. Putting it over on ‘sad individuals’ is not good enough. These ‘sad individuals’ wouldn’t find anything if there was nothing there to find.

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  3. Oh my. I’m not so sure I should be taking part on this thread because I’m hearing a lot of “give me guidance” “give me strength” comments. Well despite the abounding intelligence from the “how dare you?” section, I’ll chime in with a suggestion. You, and others like you, would be wise-served to become what I call “Imagineers”. Ask questions and thereby do not make statements. “Can you imagine a Church free from mandatory celibacy?” It does not state your belief. It condemns no one. It makes people think. Never make a statement on social media. Simply ask questions. They can’t ask to be removed.

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  4. I’m not really sure what you are saying. I don’t think ‘imagining a Church without celibacy’ is the answer to anything. There are some people who think priests should have an option on the celibacy issue and to be honest I would not object to that. My point was not with the issue of celibacy but the fact of criticizing the Church, and the attitude towards other Catholics which is a bit patronizing if these Catholics happen not to agree with them. Just read back through your contributions imagining what it is like for a Catholic who believes in God, believes that he founded the church and believes in the teachings of the Church and even believes that everything about the Church is not perfect but also believing that there is a Holy Spirit who has some input into the proceedings. The ‘change whether it is good or bad for society’ brigade seem to know everything, including the motives of everyone who doesn’t agree with them and saying that people are trawling through Twitter to find stuff is a sort of paranoia. Incidentally, I have never talked to anyone in the Church about any priest or person to criticize what they said or did. I prefer to say it to themselves directly if I am concerned about something.

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    1. I’m actually responding to the author of the entry. Whether you think celibacy is the answer to anything is not really my concern but you not objecting to it shows that you don’t think of it as “divine” at least. Matters that apply to the “whole” of society sounds like a dictatorship to me and “free will” and dictatorships don’t mix. God didn’t give us free will for that reason – to sit idly and obey. He gave it to us to be able to decide whether we could change things within ourselves.

      There is no point in criticizing the Church – it is what we are – different, assembled, equal. It is a reflection of its participants. However, change is probably the most important quality of anyone, especially sinners like us so if the Spirit sees fit to change the church, change it shall. You or I have no control over it – only if we see fit to personally change the way we individually perceive things. It applies to topics like sexuality, marriage, celibacy, gender equality. You can’t insist what is good for someone else, only for what is good for you, thankfully. Even children will stand up and make their own decisions at some point.

      What I find interesting is that like most people, I have a tendency to defend traditionalism. It’s inherent in me and possibly most. There is a comfort in knowing what’s around the corner – it’s a science for some people. But this is a lack of intelligence, in my experience. It instils a one-track approach to moving forward which is “protect what we know” even when it is apparently rotting from the inside, out.

      I think we should all be open to learning and to do so, we must ask important questions. That was the point of my post. To explore the possibility of change, important questions need to be asked.

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