The internet is changing the way people cross the Tiber

By Dan Hitchens, Catholic Herald, Thursday, 1 Mar 2018

Not long before his 20th birthday, Antony Byrd decided to put his atheism to the test: “I just started examining my beliefs, on the premise that I could be wrong about anything.” Byrd, who today studies music at the University of Gloucestershire, was a fan of Richard Dawkins’s arguments for atheism, so he started watching videos made by critics of The God Delusion. That led him to other resources: a YouTube channel devoted to CS Lewis; the Instagram channel Catholic Teen Posts. “I went searching for God, hoping He was there,” he says.

Byrd was drawn to Catholicism, but he had his doubts. He was “quite comfortable” with the idea of being annihilated at death – could he really believe in the immortality of the soul? And then there were ethical issues. “I would have said I was pro-life, but I would have made exceptions for the ‘hard cases’ .” But in these and other areas, Church teaching came into focus. Eventually, he stepped into a parish church and spoke to a priest. The internet is “a double-edged sword”, he says, but “in large part” he owes his faith to it.

The way that the grace of conversion reaches people has changed. Last week, in a video which is approaching 150,000 views, the YouTuber Lizzie Estrella Reezay announced that she was becoming Catholic. Reezay’s videos partly resemble those of other young “vloggers”: upbeat 10-minute discussions of mental health, make-up and “how to make the best vegan breakfast smoothie” … but, unlike other YouTubers, Reezay also makes videos about Scripture, theology and – on one fateful occasion – “What I Love and Hate about Catholicism”.

That video brought many comments, especially from Catholics offering their encouragement and support. “I was getting a lot of hate on some of my other videos at the time, so this video’s comments section, in my notifications, was just so loving and so nice and so uplifting,” she said in a video explaining her conversion. People also started sending her book recommendations, Bible verses and links to articles. One advised her to read through the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, which persuaded her of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. Another recommended that she attend a Traditional Latin Mass, which she loved. Most importantly of all, Reezay says, she knew that they were praying for her.

In a sense, both Byrd and Reezay followed the same path that has been trodden by innumerable others over the past 20 centuries: someone hears the Gospel from a persuasive preacher or a Catholic apologist, or comes to know Catholics personally and is able to explore the faith. But now those things take place over the internet.

One of the most discussed essays of the last couple of years was Andrew Sullivan’s “I Used to be a Human Being”, in which he described his internet addiction. “It felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades – a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise,” Sullivan wrote in New York magazine. “I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.” Sullivan urged religious leaders to realise that “the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction” – the endless updates which prevent us from focusing on the one thing necessary.

It’s a plausible case. But God can use anything, even the internet, and if this is a terrible age for distraction and vanity, it is also an era of internet conversions.

Todd Hartch, a history professor at the University of Eastern Kentucky, was received into the Church in 2010. “The internet was crucial to my conversion,” he says over email. “I live in an area with a weak Catholic presence, no Catholic seminaries or universities, and little in the way of catechesis or intellectual life, so the internet was my best connection to the wider Catholic world.

“I really don’t think I’d be a Catholic today if I’d been dependent on physical books, which would have been more difficult to find, and the resources of my local parish.”

Especially helpful were Catholic Answers podcasts, the Vatican website – where Hartch found the documents of Vatican II and John Paul II’s encyclicals – and Fr John Zuhlsdorf’s blog.

Matt Swaim of the Coming Home Network, which offers support to those exploring conversion, says that the internet has broken down some barriers. “Instead of someone with a few questions having to work up the nerve to call a local parish priest and arrange a meeting, they can be afforded either anonymity or a level of confidentiality when exploring those questions through a web search or a closed group like our CHNetwork Community Forum.” But the “vitriol” on parts of the internet can deter inquirers from asking questions, he says.

Dave Armstrong, whose apologetics blog has had more than two million views, describes the internet as “a radically mixed bag”: it allows the uncharitable and the heterodox to gain a platform alongside more reliable sources. “The internet has certainly helped (as a means of making material available) bring many into the Church, but for all we know it may have helped many leave it, too,” he observes.

A journey doesn’t always start with an explicitly Catholic resource. Over Twitter I heard from Brock, an attorney in Florida, who was “basically an agnostic” in college, with little interest in the Church. But he started reading two writers online: David Goldman, an Orthodox Jew who covers geopolitics, and Richard Fernandez, who happens to be Catholic but who mainly focuses on politics and tech. Brock recalls: “Neither of them wrote exclusively or often about Catholic matters (I probably wouldn’t have read them if they did), but they both had a perspective on the world that I now recognise as being founded in a biblical ethic and an understanding of original sin.” As his curiosity grew, Brock was drawn towards the Church Fathers, and then into the Church.

The sheer availability of resources can change lives. Isaac Miller, a Florida-based university administrator, says that seeing Catholic art shared online helped him to grasp the superiority of Catholicism over Protestantism. Another convert told me that “if it weren’t for the internet I wouldn’t have been able to access theological and philosophical writings which formed the basis of my eventual conversion”. The traditional gatekeepers – teachers, opinion-formers – can no longer hide the classical, medieval and early modern texts which subvert contemporary prejudices. “It’s possible to go right to the source,” he says. He later found an online community which helped him to grow in faith.

Similarly, Brock says: “I’m 1,000 per cent more comfortable in my identity as a Christian now because of this online Twitter community.” The internet closes the distance between people who can help each other: I heard from a woman based in Italy who is finding her way into Catholicism with the help of a Costa Rican friend she “met” online.

So Catholics on social media, or in comment threads, should know that they can help others to the faith. Most converts I spoke to stressed the need for kindness and patience. But another said the fierce to-and-fro of social media had been helpful. “I think a more aggressive approach, especially within internet ‘meme’ culture, is better,” he said. “It worked on me, at least.”

This Easter, the Church will receive a new convert: Elena Attfield, a postgraduate student at LSE. As an Evangelical, Attfield used Facebook and Instagram to share the Gospel, “and Catholics were a prime target”. But when some Catholics reached out to her, her perspective began to change.

The doctrines about Our Lady were a puzzle. So Attfield posted her questions in a couple of Facebook groups. “Each got about 200 comments,” she recalls. “They were all different – people recommending books, offering different ideas, or prayers. It was really helpful to know that you’re not alone.”

Attfield appreciated that Catholicism came across as “non-ecumenical” and “intolerant” of error. “If it hadn’t been like that, I probably wouldn’t have converted.” The doctrine of Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Catholic Church) intrigued her – “I thought, if the Church is teaching such a big thing, I need to be sure it isn’t true” – and it helped her to convert. But it was also important that Catholics showed “patience and the willingness to engage gently”.

Attfield still sees the internet as a way to glorify God. “I think it’s a valuable tool for evangelism,” she says, “and for being the light and salt Our Lord calls us to be.”

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the March 2nd 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here