Facebook screenshot (used with permission by Raymond Harris)

For members of the clergy, how essential is that aspect of their public selves? And who gets to decide that?

On Facebook, it’s the company that decides, a policy which has set off renewed public debate in recent weeks after a prominent D.C. Catholic priest – who also is a national columnist – was locked out by Facebook because his clerical title was listed as part of his name on his personal page.

Monsignor Charles Pope wrote about his experience, spurring multiple other priests to say they have had the same experience in the past year. Pope, a blogger for the Washington archdiocese and a columnist with the National Catholic Register; the Rev. Michael Paris, chaplain at the University of Maryland; and the Rev. Raymond Harris, a Baltimore priest with an active online ministry, have all in recent weeks had their accounts locked until they removed their clerical titles from their names. On their Facebook pages, friends say they are hearing of more and more priests having similar issues.

The fresh debate about what titles are allowed on Facebook reflects two intense, complex issues of American life in 2015: the place of institutional religion in the public square and the question of identity online. In this case, the two aren’t related but overlap.

For conservative Catholics – among whom Pope is a relatively well-known figure – who feel besieged by everything from the legalization of same-sex marriage to the White House’s contraception mandate, the Facebook policy is evidence of a culture that is sidelining them. For experts who watch the bigger issue of how people and tech platforms deal with identity and privacy, this is simply evidence that the culture hasn’t figured all this out yet.

“Facebook doesn’t understand or chooses not to listen that for Catholic priests or sisters, we understand ‘father’ or ‘sister’ is not a title like a career choice. It’s a way of life, it’s integral to who we are. I’ve been known this way for 21 years,” said the Rev. Raymond Harris, a priest in Baltimore of two parishes who is active on Facebook and Twitter. “Facebook differs on that and that’s the religious issue.”

Harris put a large “FR” as his photo – so it will be right before his name – last week after Facebook shut him out because he had used “Father” in his personal page name.

There’s no evidence that priests or clerics are being singled out. Facebook’s policy bans “titles of any kind” – including doctor, professor or president – from being included in your name on your personal page. Other communities have complained too, including Native Americans, drag queens and Irish people who use Gaelic names.

“Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe,” the policy reads.

Experts on technology and culture say social media platforms are still debating and struggling with how to balance privacy, decency and respect for diversity. And coming to different conclusions, with different policies about what names are required, if any.

Nuala O’Connor, president for the Center for Democracy & Technology, said there is a lot of thought going into questions today of “digital dignity,” and that Facebook has a team of people working on the issue.

“When people are identifiable on line, there is a higher quality of speech, more respect, less hate speech, and these real name policies are an intentional outgrowth of that, which is a laudable goal,” she said. “But it’s not perfect in its implementation. How do we create both a safe place for free speech but also respectful dialogue, communities of care and respect, and that is hard.”

Facebook has made clear that you are not required to use your legal name on your page. Last year, Chris Cox, chief product officer for Facebook, issued an extensive apology after hundreds of LGBT people and people who dress in drag said their accounts were halted because of the name issue.

“I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks,” Cox wrote. “The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess.”

Facebook doesn’t search itself for violators, and reaches out to people if they get a complaint.  Cox said the company processes several hundred thousand fake name reports each week – mostly people who are “bad actors,” he wrote, impersonating people, bullying or engaging in domestic violence or other problems.

O’Connor said the policy hasn’t changed since 2014 and that the communities that complained then remain dissatisfied.

That said, Pope’s column about the issue again brought it to public attention, including a Foxnews.com piece and other social media-active priests like Harris and Paris, who said their accounts were locked last week. A few months ago a change.org petition was launched to fight “a law” — reflecting how influential Facebook policies are often seen — that it characterized as prohibiting Christian clergy from using their titles. This week, it had more 17,000 signatures and many comments showing people saw the carrying out of the policy as explicit bias.

“I am very tired of the discrimination against Christians and Catholics in general,” one typical comment read.

Even as the topic is debated widely across Facebook and Catholic blogs, it remains hot-button for both institutions involved – the Church and the company.

The archdiocese of Washington declined to allow Pope and Paris to speak without first consulting its communications office and did not make that happen under the deadline of this story. Facebook declined to make anyone available to discuss its policy and many of these related issues unless it was on background. The Post declined.

A Facebook spokesman who would not be named noted that titles are allowed on public pages – compared with personal ones – and that there is a way in the settings mode to go in and add a sub-title such as a nickname or a name with a title under your “real name.” He also issued this statement.

“There are lots of pages where people like elected officials, religious figures, celebrities and others connect with people using their titles. We ask people to use their names on their personal Facebook profiles.”

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