There have recently been several articles about the state of Catholic blogging, including one from Damian Thompson in the Catholic Herald , mainly writing about himself, and also a very thoughtful piece from the inimitable Deacon Nick Donnelly, concerning online behaviour and manners among Catholic bloggers. As might be expected, even the discussion of this gets super-heated and soon the Catholic tribes are lobbing grenades at one other, and the wounded cry “Ad hominem!” and seek reinforcements. After two days of raging argument on this subject, a whole blog article with all its comments was deleted on one well-known Catholic blog a few days ago, as it had turned into open warfare and veered into libel.
I will explore this issue from the inside and examine in particular the tribal elements in Catholic blogging: especially the role of online tribal chiefs. Some of them are publicly identifiable and some are carefully hidden away in the shadows behind the comment boards.
Since the Thompson article mentions the role of sockpuppets on his old Daily Telegraph blog, I will begin by declaring that I am – or was – the infamous Frere Rabit, oddly identified by the anti-Catholic trolls as the supposed ringleader of traddy sockpuppeteers. In fact, I didn’t lead anything, and I never knew why I was so regarded. Maybe an avatar of a rabbit in a Cistercian habit had special hate appeal for atheists, who knows? Apart from my non de plume as the Rabit, I was easily identifiable online: my own blog, a minority-interest online diary centred on animals, showed my real name to any who could be bothered to look at it. I therefore became an easy and constant target, taking all the flak for the Catholic group of sockpuppeteers. As the prime target of those really anonymous people (trolls who covered their tracks so well that they could never be identified), my workplace was sought out; my online history was stalked and examined with a fine-tooth comb, and damaging false allegations were made; my professional integrity was brought into question; and all kinds of dark motives were attributed to me. It was not a tea party, but luckily my employers had a sense of humour!
That’s how we began and there is a kind of blogging folk history at work here: even Damian’s article buys into that, but surprisingly -as a journalist – he never probes below the surface. This minority subculture deserves exploring at a deeper level. He refers to past times on a blog long gone, but the story needs updating. Gradually with an increase in the availability of comment boards, things became increasingly ugly. In his article re-posted on Catholicism Pure & Simple, Deacon Nick Donnelly writes very wisely about the difference between criticism that is fair and reasoned, and the kind of rage which characterizes so much argument on blogs now. There is a huge irony here if you know the history of the blog in which the article appears, but few readers of Catholic blogs would recognize the irony as they know little about the hidden tribal world of Catholic blogging.
Catholicism Pure & Simple began five years ago and the hidden charismatic tribal leader of the little group who got together to start that blog was none other than “Mundabor”, whose current blog contains the most openly offensive protracted rage against Pope Francis that I have ever seen.  So complete is his rage now that it appears even beyond the realms of self-parody: “You cannot serve Christ and Francis,” he now rails. But in those early days of the CP&S blog, Mundabor was running the show: he was the charismatic leader (with Ben Carter as his aide-de-camp) and the rest of us were the squaddies. I was responsible for graphic design. When the kind of extremes Mundabor wanted to go to became apparent, we organized a coup and took the ownership of the site off him! His password for the site was “Salazar” – after the dictator of Portugal. We managed to change the password and lock him out completely, together with his fuming lieutenant.
Mundabor’s Blog was his riposte, and after that coup the direction of the CP&S blog proceeded for a short time as a collective before another charismatic tribal chief managed to wrest control, a rather intelligent but obsessive woman in Switzerland who seemed to spend 24/7 blogging. Her clumsy control methods led to more tribal arguments and some people walked out: I was first to go. Eventually – after the stress of her own control methods had worn her out and she disappeared – a new collective direction emerged, which continues today and seems to have a lighter touch.
Most people reading a “traddy” Catholic blog like this will know nothing of the warfare behind the scenes, and will have no idea who are the hidden tribal chiefs directing what they see on the web-pages. We whose traddy tribes happily bitch about the liberal mafia of “Ma Pepinster” at The Tablet and Ed Stourton on BBC’s Sunday programme don’t have the grace to admit they at least demonstrate editorial transparency. Our secret online tribal chiefs do not and in some cases are entirely invisible.
John Charmley’s recent article in the Catholic Herald talks of a “a tendency for commentators to assume they are more Catholic than the Pope.”  The extreme utterances of Mundabor are just the pointy-hatted raging mad-clown tip of the iceberg. There are many more hidden sub-groups with their own tribal culture and invisible tribal chiefs, who sometimes have their own agenda and will subtly tutor their sub-group to educate them into seeing what the true target of the group should be.
In the recent fracas concerning the parish of Blackfen in Southwark, most Catholic readers of blog articles referring to the matter will be entirely unaware of the role of a closed Google Group, and its hidden tribal chief. This group was originally formed by a number of traditionalist commenters on the Damian Thompson blog. In fact, I believe I first proposed it, though did not set it up the Google Group account. At the time when we first gathered there it had just one purpose: it was an organized rebuttal group for responding to anti-Catholic trolls on comment boards.
This new group was tremendous fun and very effective because nobody knew we were organising ourselves as commenters. There were probably no more than half a dozen of us who were active daily, controlling a large collection of sockpuppets between us. The other people were more on the periphery of the group adding encouragement and advice, or doing research and stalking the trolls. (Some of it linguistic analysis!) The rules of the game were quite straightforward: see how long your latest sockpuppets would remain on the comment boards, attacking anti-Catholic or liberal commenters, before the moderators (referred to as “Sri Lankans,” because of their supposed call centre in that country) demolished the sockpuppets like skittles; and the whole game could start again with clean socks next day.
When that kind of activity is reassessed, carefully considering Deacon Nick’s words about online rage, I can happily put my hand up: guilty as charged. But of course, Nick needs to remember too that it was that same Google Group that gave full coordinated support to him during the censorship of his own Protect the Pope blog. As late as this year, we were in support of another beleaguered blog in Canada: Vox Cantoris and David Domet’s battle with Fr. Thomas Rosica. We even managed to gain the involvement of Bishop Athanasius Schneider: no small achievement for a little group of sockpuppets… or is the collective term, a drawer of sockpuppets?
In all my involvement with this little tribe, I was never its leader. I am an initiator, an ideas man, not a leader. The tribal chief here – another hidden Catholic tribal chief of the comment boards – emerged over time and assumed control, deleting comment threads she did not like and directing the purpose of the group as she saw fit. “Sorry, I’ve had to delete five threads, just in case anyone ever gets in here and sees what we are up to.” That sort of thing. (Don’t worry, I will not reveal anything more, if a certain tribal chief’s pulse is racing as she reads this.) A wider Catholic readership deserves to know what happens behind the scenes. Gradually, subtly, this group was re-directed to a point where its main focus was on a few individuals in South East England dioceses, and the efforts of the group were slowly and imperceptibly channeled into the parochial vendettas of Arundel & Brighton and Southwark.
What I have described as hidden charismatic tribal leadership has led to the complete implosion of that Google group after the disastrous way it was manipulated into meddling in the hot potato of the “Blackfen scandal”. Once the Church Militant TV service picked up the story and ran with it – directly as a result of the activity of this closed Google Group – there was a sudden moral panic and a metaphorical burning of the evidence. My own view had been that we needed to encourage discussion of the wider question of poor Episcopal oversight, rather than engage in moral mudslinging against a pastor who had been dumped into an impossible situation. There were others who just wanted one obvious victim, and the priest would do. He had – after all – rebranded himself with a rainbow cat avatar. Yes, pretty grim, but not deserving of everything he then got.
A short time ago, the guns that this group used to train on the anti-Catholic trolls were then used against each other and it all got very ugly. Game over. I walked. Mea culpa: I should never have gone down this road. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm the politically correct pigs are telling the other animals in their secret blogging farm that the Rabit was never to be trusted: he was a rood and norty traitor from the time he first zizzed his paws and joined battle alongside them. He was all along simply polishing his cunning plan for treachery.
I titled this article referring to those Catholic tribal chiefs of the online world, those who are visible and those who are invisible. I do not regard anything I have written here as disloyal, and those who know as much as I do will recognize that I have revealed nothing damaging and have left out any significant clues that might be used by “the enemy.” Oh sorry, I forgot for one moment: I am the enemy now. I am certainly aiming for embarrassment: the time has come for this to end. It has got out of control. But I am not intending to damage any individual or reveal anyone’s secrets. I have come dangerously close, in order to give this piece its edge, but those in the know can see how little I have actually given away.
In a time when we are discussing the ethics and the morals of online activity by Catholics, the role of specific tribes and tribal leaders needs to be part of the discussion. It ranges from open outright rebellion against the Pope himself; through more respectable tribal groups and leaders who are politely dismissive of current authority; and finally to obsessive low-level attempts to dominate discussion in local Church matters, which is happening in the last example I gave.
There is more rage than intelligent criticism in much of this and the best thing that could happen is that many more people begin the self-questioning I am doing now. I shall have no more to do with tribal groups, neither will I be manipulated by hidden tribal chiefs in somebody else’s online game or turf war, for I have seen some shocking manipulation just recently and I am very changed by it. When you realise how you have been used by another individual as a pawn in their game, it is hurtful. I’m also filled with remorse about the hundreds of hours of God’s gift of time I have wasted over these years, with no obvious tangible benefit to anyone, least of all the cause of true humour, which identifies with and humanizes its subjects, not pillorying them as its victims.
I must go now: I need to find a priest and confess to thirty-seven sockpuppets in five years
 31/7/15 catholicherald.co.uk/issues/july-31-2015/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-catholic-blogosphere
 29/7/15 catholicismpure.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/when-faithful-catholics-get-it-seriously-wrong
 28/7/15 mundabor.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/more-catholic-than-francis-of-course-i-am
 24/7/15 catholicherald.co.uk/issues/july-24th-2015/are-you-more-catholic-than-francis