Moderators of social media giant’s r/Catholicism page facilitate open and honest discussion, act as sheriffs of the Catholic wild west

DETROIT — It’s the place to go for the really hard questions.

Thinking about the priesthood? Worried your best friend is losing their faith? Is the news of abuse committed by clergy causing your own crisis of faith?

It’s also the place for light-hearted topics.

Where were you baptized? What is your favorite hymn? Do you have a favorite pilgrimage site?

For almost 60,000 subscribers, it’s where they go to find answers, find counsel and find community.

And nobody knows anyone’s name.

r/Catholicism is a “subreddit” — that’s code for “section” — of Reddit, the ever-popular social media forum and self-described “front page of the Internet.” The webpage is a division of Reddit’s wider conversation on everything from the latest gadgets to politics to funny cat videos and GIFs — all with a Catholic flair. On r/Catholicism, the conversation ranges from questions about theology, advice on dealing with crises of faith, conversion stories or even jokes about the saints.

Reddit might be likened to Facebook in the way users interact with one another — with one significant difference.

“What makes Reddit stand out versus Facebook or other message boards is the anonymity of it,” said u/Pax_et_Bonum of the Archdiocese of Newark, one of 17 moderators who manage user posts, keep an eye on the conversations and remove any posts that violate the subreddit’s rules on r/Catholicism.

Because anonymity is the “cardinal rule” of Reddit — those who “out” another user’s identity are harshly criticized in the Internet community — Detroit Catholic agreed to only publish sources’ usernames for this story, in order to keep the identity of the moderators and users who were interviewed secret.

It’s no joke. And there’s a reason Redditors so closely guard their anonymity.

“Anonymity allows one to discuss the faith a bit more easily, in that there may not be pushback against you personally in real life for sharing the faith,” u/Pax_et_Bonum said. “Thinking, for example, of Christians in persecuted regions, but it also lets someone discuss (the faith) with you without ‘reputations’ getting mixed up in it.

“On the other hand, the anonymity makes it less personal and sometimes brings out the bad parts of people’s personalities,” u/Pax_et_Bonum said.

Reddit is a social media platform similar to Facebook, but with the difference that users' identities are kept anonymous, which helps facilitate a more open conversation about difficult topics, say moderators for the site's r/Catholicism "subreddit."

Moderators are tasked with following users’ conversations, providing input when asked or linking any questions to an expert on the subreddit who could better deal with inquiries or requests for clarification.

While the Internet provides a certain degree of freedom to discuss almost any topic, r/Catholicism does have its rules. By using the subreddit, users agree to refrain from anti-Catholic rhetoric, attacks on fellow users, uncharitable responses to legitimate, misplaced posts on the sub’s “Free Fridays” or reposting other disallowed submissions.

“A lot of people have questions about theology that may seem like a no-brainer to someone who has been studying it hard, but it’s difficult for those less rooted in their faith,” said u/PhoenixRite, also of the Archdiocese of Newark, an r/Catholicism moderator for five months. “We have a lot of users who say they are the only person in their family who wants to follow Christ, and they’re worried about their parents finding out. It’s a good place to ask anonymous questions.”

Space to discuss difficult topics

Anonymity also gives people the latitude to ask questions about difficult topics such as same-sex attraction, converting to the faith in a home hostile to Catholicism, or what it truly means to believe in Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.

It also means that average Catholics — not just the hierarchy or well-known public figures — can influence the conversation, thanks to Reddit’s system of “up voting” posts. Basically, users can “vote” thumbs up or thumbs down on each submission — similar to Facebook’s “likes” — with the most-voted content rising to the top of the page.

“With Reddit, the best content can rise to the top, without it being boosted by people ‘up voting’ the content just because it came from a priest or a canon lawyer,” u/PhoenixRite said. Because everyone’s identity is secret, “it could be a high schooler really steeped in Thomas Aquinas who gains the respect of the community because he is knowledgeable.”

The moderators admit sometimes people post things that are contrary to the magisterium of the Church — and posts that are directly anti-Catholic are removed — but for the most part users just want to feel a sense of community and are seeking answers.

“Most people there have a good heart and are trying to help people,” u/PhoenixRite said. “An overwhelming majority are trying to help. From time to time, we have people who disagree about what that ‘help’ means. We have a wide variety of opinions regarding Vatican II or the handling of the abuse scandal, for instance, with people who feel strongly one way or another and people who feel everywhere in the middle.”

Reddit moderators for the r/Catholicism "subreddit" say anonymity helps users feel comfortable asking questions about the faith and getting feedback from other Catholics. (Detroit Catholic photo by Dan Meloy; illustration by Francisco Hernandez)

With anonymous commenting can come some not-so-charitable replies, admits u/PolskaPrincess, the only r/Catholicism moderator from the Archdiocese of Detroit. But it also liberates people to feel a sense of vulnerability about God they might not have in person.

“Being able to be anonymous in some cases allows them to be a lot more open and honest about Him in today’s society that’d we’re not given space to express in public,” said u/PolskaPrincess. “We have emotions, struggles, questions with our faith where if someone in the coffee shop overheard you, you kind of feel a little bit like they might judge you. r/Catholicism is the safe place to go to talk about those feelings.”

The freedom of open expression without fear of reprisal — either socially, or in certain parts of the world where the faith is under attack, physically — gives r/Catholicism the unique advantage of being a source of knowledge for anyone without judgment on where they’re from, how old they are, where they went to school or where they are in their faith journey.

u/RomanCatechist is a contributor on the Catholic subreddit from the Archdiocese of Detroit. As a recent convert to the faith, he still had questions even after going through RCIA.

“Every question you can think of about the faith is on there,” u/RomanCatechist said. “I had a question about the Eucharist, which at first I thought was extremely weird, being Pentecostal before I converted. What I like about Reddit, unlike going on Catholic.com, is people are answering you live. You can have a conversation and continue to learn; people are always learning.”

From the digital world to the real world

With more and more people joining the Catholic subreddit, there is always new content for users to find on the site that keeps drawing people in, beginning more threads of discussion and debate.

“I really like to answer questions and share my story; that’s why I use Reddit,” u/RomanCatechist said. “I don’t think there is a big difference between giving witness on Reddit versus doing it in person. It’s still your story.

“I’ve met some other users through other channels, making friends with each other on Facebook and getting to know them,” u/RomanCatechist continued. “It creates a community, where everyone seems to know each other. We have one guy who is from a Muslim country sharing his story, and we’re praying for him to be OK, because Catholicism is dangerous where he lives. But here, he has a community; he has people praying for him every day.”

“I’ve met some other users through other channels, making friends with each other on Facebook and getting to know them,” u/RomanCatechist continued. “It creates a community, where everyone seems to know each other. We have one guy who is from a Muslim country sharing his story, and we’re praying for him to be OK, because Catholicism is dangerous where he lives. But here, he has a community; he has people praying for him every day.”

From the Epistles of St. Paul to the Gutenberg Bible, the Church has always found a way to use the communication tools of the day to spread the message of Jesus Christ.

But with Reddit, where the No. 1 rule is anonymity, spreading the Gospel can be tricky. Still, Reddit users argue their usernames and profiles can be just as much a reflection of who they are in person.

“I have a name there; I’m Polska, and I have moved some of those relationships into real life,” u/PolskaPrincess said. “Even though my friends in real life know my real name and real-life identity, they still most of the time call me Polska, because that’s who I am to them.

“Evangelization is the same in real life; it’s about authenticity and being open and honest,” u/PolskaPrincess said. “On r/Catholicism, you can talk to significantly more people who don’t know the first step to coming back to the faith. We’ve had people who were baptized Catholics, had all the sacraments, but haven’t been in a church in decades and want to know what the first step is to coming back.”

In an age when taxis have been replaced by Lyft and Uber, ordering takeout has been replaced by GrubHub and future spouses can meet online, Reddit moderators argue it’s only natural for people to come in contact with the faith through online forums.

But even the online, anonymous nature of Reddit doesn’t negate the raw emotion of having an encounter with Christ through shared experiences.

“I’ve heard about people who have lost jobs, asking people to pray for them looking for a job, preparing for marriage, having a crisis of faith, unplanned pregnancies or deciding if RCIA is right for them,” u/PhoenixRite said. “Some of them are deeper issues, a personal crisis or a mentor who disappointed them at some point. People are surprisingly vulnerable in what they are willing to say, sins they are willing to confess.

“We’ve had people say, ‘I don’t want to say X, because the priest will judge me,’” u/PhoenixRite said. “There is something there (about Reddit), even better than the confessional screen, where people bring up what they would never bring up with someone one on one. People are willing to open up themselves on the internet.”

That harsh reality is a sign the Church could do a better job teaching the value of confession, u/ PhoenixRite added.

But while Reddit is in no way meant to supplant the clergy or the sacraments, the users and moderators of the subreddit want to be there to provide what the Church has offered for more than 2,000 years: companionship and an authentic relationship with Christ.

“The Church struggles to create authenticity and vulnerability, not just in the confessional, but with Catholics building relationships in real life,” u/PolskaPrincess said. “I’ve had conversations with people who have said r/Catholicism is the start of their journey to taking Catholicism seriously. We’ve even had a user who came into the Church based on their experiences with Reddit, with users answering the questions is a polite manner, faithful to the Church’s magisterium.

“Yes, in an ideal world, everyone just goes to their local parish and asks their priest, but we don’t live in the ideal world,” u/PolksaPrincess added. “That’s what this community is for. Even though it’s online, it’s still a community. That’s when Reddit is at its best: a place to go for answers, questions, debate and fellowship.”

And it’s only a click away.