Earlier this week, the world of Catholic Twitter went up in flames when one of its star members was revealed to be a fake.
For those unaware of #ThisCatholicGirl-gate, Chase Padusniak, like many a social media-savvy Catholic, developed a “Twitter-Relationship”, as it were, with (who he thought was) a cute Catholic college student who broadcast her Catholicism across various social media platforms. Speaking in Christian platitudes and hitting all the Catholic buzzwords, #ThisCatholicGirl drew Chase into her idealistic Catholic fantasy until he was stung by the venom of her deception upon discovering her ruse. One devout Catholic was catfishing another.
Then again, how many Catholic Twitter users can claim that their digital mask is identical to their true self? Twitter and other mediums of social self-revelation can be a peculiar place—a place that can rapidly become surreal.
In December of 2014, I received intuitions that my three-month relationship was ending when I noticed that my then-beau was more “talkative” with #ThisCatholicGirl on Twitter than with me. I asked myself—Is Twitter flirting a thing? Is it rational to be jealous of some online girl thousands of miles away? What my intuition was telling me was that just as we have in-person boundaries, both emotional and physical, there are also boundaries to be established online. As one Twitter user aptly pointed out, the example of #ThisCatholicGirl is a cautionary tale for the need of emotional chastity in our lives.
“She was cheating on her husband,” wrote Tommy Tighe, “in the sense of becoming emotionally involved with someone else.” I couldn’t agree more; my initial pangs of jealousy at my then-boyfriend’s exchanges with another woman online were the response to a creeping sense of infidelity. I came to the realization that bonding emotionally online with someone you are or might be physically attracted to is, at best, unwise. At worst, it is a kind of emotional infidelity. And as all of us on Catholic Twitter came to find out, This Catholic “Girl” was actually a married Catholic woman. Courting the attention of men to the point of entering into a kind of dating relationship—even without having physically encountered the other person—is indeed marital infidelity.
Let #ThisCatholicGirl serve as a clarion call for Catholics and non-Catholics everywhere to cultivate the virtue of emotional chastity as we date in the digital age. The mind behind the Twitter handle seduced at least six Catholics—intellectual, conservative, presumably devout men looking for love. In order for us to properly assess the romantic compatibility between two people, we must remember that we are people and not Twitter handles. The personhood of the other is not disclosed in 140 characters, but in conversations IRL—beyond the screen—gradually over time.
While many of us—writers especially—have a propensity to idealize the other, we mustn’t let our romantic illusions cause us to lose our grasp on reality. These one-sided Twitter-lationships are really forms of narcissism. We project certain aspects of ourselves onto another, filter that which we idealize in the other, and construct for ourselves a kind of shallow, narcissistic love that is little more than a mutually held illusion. Love is not an idea, but a deeply personal reality of two flawed people who come together to pursue perfection. It is through love that we come to truly understand ourselves, and this love is a personal love—face-to-face, hand-in-hand. There is no amount of online characters that can serve as an adequate substitution for a true self. To fall in love online is like falling in love inside of a video game. Sure, there are people present behind the screen. But the people you encounter are merely avatars. And no avatar can be a substitute for a human face.
At the beginning of a courtship, most of us project a sense of self that isn’t entirely accurate. It’s exciting, romantic, and beautiful to encounter the other for the first time. Relationships formed from these initial but ephemeral first impressions often can’t survive greater tests of compatibility, not to mention the kind of love that leads to the altar. Love is seeing the best in the other, knowing the worst, and retaining the willingness to hold that person’s hand along the way. We may find someone on Twitter, but true love begins with a personal encounter—face-to-face—not at first follow.