Father Peter West has been a priest for almost 25 years, but this week he became simply “Peter West” again.
At least on Facebook.
Father West, if we may call him that, said he went to log on to the social media site Tuesday and was blocked because his user name included the title “Father.”
In truth, Facebook has long had a policy restricting members from using professional titles. “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities,” its policy explains. “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 goes on to ask users to refrain from adding to their names “titles of any kind (ex: professional, religious)” as well as a host of other items.
“The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life,” it says.
Many Catholic priests get around the restriction by combining “Father” or “Fr.” with their first name, or using a hyphen between the two, or in the case of religious priests, simply using the initials of their order at the end.
“I know a priest who’s Italian and uses ‘Don,’” a common title in Italy for “Father,” said Father West, who is vice president for missions at Human Life International.
But a recent wave of priests experiencing corrective measures from Facebook has led to supporters creating this week a Facebook community page, "Tell FB: Allow Catholic Priests to keep the title ‘Father’ in their FB name.” It has more than 2500 likes so far.
“The Facebook policy seems unevenly enforced,” said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, in an interview—conducted through Facebook. “I got around it by combining my title with my name: ‘ArchbishopPaul Coakley.’ It seems as if it's an unreasonable restriction on the kind of discourse social media ought to foster. I want people to know who they are communicating with when communicating with me. One of the things that drew me to Facebook is the opportunities it can afford for evangelization.”
“It’s bizarre. This is the first time it’s happened to me,” said Father James Chern, who experienced trouble using “Father” on Tuesday. As director of the Office for Vocations in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and a university chaplain, he finds Facebook very useful for communicating with young people. “I was on earlier this morning and I got a message saying my name ‘doesn’t meet our policies or standards.’ I thought I’d gotten a virus. When I logged on again, same thing. They said ‘We’re not allowing any professional or religious title.’ So I tried putting ‘Father’ in the first name slot, ‘Jim’ in the middle and ‘Chern’ in the last. It came back and told me ‘You’re violating the policy. In one minute you’ll have an opportunity to change your name. If you keep putting in the same name, we will deactivate your account.’
"I was like, ‘Wow! I got a virtual time out, and I have a minute to sit and ponder my existence.’ So I went with Jim Chern, and one of my friends made that profile pic.”
The profile picture is a drawing of a young priest with the initial “Fr.” In the corner.
Father West and Father Chern report seeing other religious titles on Facebook, such as “Rabbi” or “Chaplain.” This reporter found a few imams.
Father Stephen Imbarrato, who also has had trouble using “Father,” points out another anomoly.
“People bring up the contradiction that Facebook came up with all the different genders by which users can classify themselves,” said Father Imbarrato, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Albuquerque. “They were very accommodating there, so why not here?”
Why is it important to be able to use “Father?”
“It’s my heavenly vocation. I did not choose to be Father; God choose for me to be Father, plain and simple,” Father Imbarrato said. “Even my family members don’t call me Stephen. This is not some professional title, it’s a vocation in life.”
In response to multiple requests for an interview, Facebook simply sent an email to this reporter: “Thanks for taking the time to share your feedback. We’re constantly trying to improve Facebook, so it's important that we hear from the people who use it. Unfortunately, we can’t respond to your emails individually, but we are paying attention to them. We appreciate you taking the time to write to us.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia's English edition.