There was a time in the Catholic Church when supporters of doctrinal orthodoxy could count on the Vatican to do their policing for them. But the advent of a pope who sees his role as less about policing orthodoxy and more about creating dialogue, coupled with the decentralizing forces of the internet and a free-floating populist–conservative anger, has given rise to the same sort of vicious cyber-bullying that has characterized attacks on feminists and others who challenge the right.
Jesuit priest James Martin had the temerity to write about the need for the Catholic Church to build bridges and open dialogue with the LGBT community. His book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity was written with the permission of his superiors based on a talk he gave to the Catholic LGBT group New Ways Ministry,* also with the blessing of his superiors. The book was endorsed by two U.S. cardinals and the cardinal who heads the Vatican’s office on laity, family, and life issues. It didn’t call on the church to reassess its rejection of same-sex marriage or question its teaching about homosexuality. In Martin’s own words, “it is about dialogue and prayer, not about sexual morality or the sexual practices of LGBT people.”
But that didn’t stop elements of the fringe Catholic right from launching, again in Martin’s words, an “hysterical, vicious and immediate” attack on him. Groups like the Church Militant, which was recently singled out in the apparently Francis-approved take-down of the American Catholic right by Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, and lone-wolf bloggers like “Father Z”, used Twitter and other social media to accuse Martin of heresy and the perversion of youth. He was called a “faggot,” “fairy” and “perfidious”—the last by Austin Ruse of the Catholic “family” lobby C-FAM, who also called him “pansified” when he complained to Twitter about hate speech used by the right-wing site Catholic Vote.
They got the right-wing echo chamber so ginned up that three talks by Martin were cancelled, most recently and most prominently by the Theological College at Catholic University, where Martin wasn’t even talking about the “gay book” but receptionists were treated to people calling in screaming.
Such witch hunts against even a crack of progressive sunlight being allowed to stir the dusty orthodoxy of the church aren’t anything new, of course. When some 100 Catholic nuns, priests and theologians signed on to a statement saying that abortion wasn’t wrong in all instances and could be a “moral choice,” the discipline came straight from the Vatican, backed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes pressured the priests and nuns who signed to recant their support. Lay theologians saw their speaking engagements and part-time teaching gigs dry up.
What is new is that these attacks are coming from outside of the Vatican by groups and individuals who have no formal authority in these matters but are still managing to exert influence once reserved for members of the hierarchy. Even Catholic University admitted it cancelled Martin’s talk not because of what he might say, but because of “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites.”
As Massimo Faggioli noted in LaCroix International:
This sort of vitriol is profoundly changing the communion of the Catholic Church. And not just in its ethos, but also in the way it functions. It signals a new kind of censorship that uses verbal violence to intimidate individual Catholics, as well as institutions within the Church – institutions that exist (also) to protect the rights of Catholics.
Of course, this isn’t happening in a vacuum. As Faggiolo notes, these groups “have felt affirmed and encouraged by the kind of American Church politics shaped in the United States and enforced by the Vatican”—pre-Francis that is. It’s Francis’ very reluctance to enforce orthodoxy that has driven these fringe-right groups, who bathed for so long in the soothing doctrinal certainties of John Paul II and Benedict and thrilled to witch hunts against liberals, to assert their own right to police what the Vatican won’t.
And, as Martin noted, while groups like Church Militant set themselves up as “traditional,” they are actually “subverting tradition” by pitting themselves against “legitimate authorities” in the church such as the bishops.
Thus it wasn’t surprising last week when a group of third-tier theologians and disgruntled priests, along with one “bishop” from the break-away Society of St. Pius X (which has no standing with the Vatican), delivered a letter to Pope Francis last week accusing him of heresy for his controversial “Joy of Love” document on remarriage and divorce. The signatories said the letter was a “filial correction” issued to school the pope on where he had gone astray, a measure that hadn’t been employed since the 14th century.
The letter was largely dismissed by mainstream Vatican watchers, although it had the far-right Catholic blogosphere in a lather predicting it was “the first piece of the puzzle, with next steps still to come in a long and extended process. … that will likely lead, God willing, to an initiative of a canonical nature from those who have the mandate to act.”
In the cyber-sanctuaries of today’s empowered Catholic far-right, it seems, everyone thinks they’re the pope.
*This article originally noted that Fr. James Martin’s book was based on a talk he gave at Dignity. RD regrets the error. Thank you to the readers who alerted us to the mistake.