A small group of right-wing Christian websites are attacking Catholic leaders who encourage the Church to build bridges with LGBTQ people, sparking online campaigns that push schools and Catholic institutions to disinvite them from speaking.
The latest example came earlier this week, when Shawn Copeland, a Catholic theologian who teaches at Boston College, was scheduled to speak at a college in Michigan. The topic of her talk, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday, was Pope Francis and his “agenda for social justice” — a relatively benign topic for Madonna University, a Catholic school.
But a few days before she was scheduled to speak, Church Militant—a website affiliated with far-right Catholicism—published an article blasting Copeland for promoting a “pro-homosexual agenda,” citing sections of her theological works where she suggests Christ would embrace LGBTQ people.
A few days later, a Facebook post run by the school’s Center for Catholic Studies and Interfaith Dialogue announced Copeland’s talk had been canceled “due to some messages in the media that misconstrued the content of Dr. Copeland’s lecture.”
The disinvite was in many ways unexpected: Copeland, who did not return requests for comment on this story, is a decorated theologian whose CV lists her as a graduate Madonna College, and speaks often at various schools and events. But it also tracks with an developing trend within American Catholicism, where far-right blogs and websites—often acting in direct defiance of Catholic hierarchy—work to discredit and malign Catholic thinkers that voice anything remotely akin to LGBTQ inclusion.
Copeland’s disinvite comes on the heels of a similar incident last week, when a talk by America Magazine editor and Jesuit priest James Martin was canceled at Catholic University’s seminary, Theological College. Church Militant and right-wing blog “Fr. Z” published articles and videos ahead of Martin’s visit decrying his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter Into A Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Martin was also criticized on the conservative website LifeSite, which has called for him to be removed as an adviser to the Vatican.
“Those intense emotions really surprised me, because the book is very mild.”
Martin told ThinkProgress he was somewhat confused by the sudden outcry over his book, which carries the endorsement of a Catholic bishop and two Cardinals on its cover. Although it has elicited strong reactions from readers—the vast majority of which are positive, he says—Martin argues it stays well within the Catholic Church’s historically conservative teachings about sexuality, and stops far short of a full-throated endorsement of LGBTQ relationships.
“Those intense emotions really surprised me, because the book is very mild,” Martin, who was also disinvited from an event hosted by the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, said. “A very conservative priest friend of mind said, ‘I have a confession to make: I read your book and i don’t know what al the fuss is about.’”
But right-wing websites blasted the book anyway, with Church Militant head Michael Voris personally attacking Martin himself, calling him a “homosexualist” and a “heretic.” The school reportedly received a rash of angry phone calls that echoed websites frequented by what Martin calls “alt-right Catholics.”
“The rector said they have been receiving hateful phone calls, including people screaming at their receptionist. He was worried that their alumni day would be marred by protest,” Martin said. “The characterizations of my book are completely unfair, completely unjust, and completely inaccurate.”
In an email exchange with ThinkProgress, Voris said his group’s intention wasn’t for Martin or Copeland to be disinvited, arguing Church Militant is trying to reject those they say “oppose…Church teaching.”
“The persons launching these attacks portray the reconciliation of the church and the L.G.B.T. community not as a worthy goal but as a grave cultural, religious and familial threat.”
“We are not ‘hoping’ anyone is disinvited or not invited in the first place,” Voris said, although the Church Militant Twitter feed repeatedly asked in recent days why Martin is allowed to speak in any diocese. “We are helping in the effort of faithful Catholics who feel deceived by various leaders who hold these ‘speakers’ up as credible representatives of the faith. What is abhorrent is their message that goes against Catholic teaching.”
But while Voris and other groups insist they are trying to protect orthodoxy, they appear to operate well outside established Church hierarchy. Since Martin was disinvited from Theological College, Catholic leaders on both coasts—who arguably represent different ideological camps within American Catholicism—have leapt to his defense. Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia, published an article in the conservative outlet First Things calling attacks on Martin “inexcusably ugly” and referring to groups like Church Militant as “cyber-militias.” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Francisco went even further, describing the campaigns against Martin as evidence of a “cancer” in the Church.
“The attacks on Building a Bridge tap into long-standing bigotry within the church and U.S. culture against members of the L.G.B.T. community,” McElroy wrote. “The persons launching these attacks portray the reconciliation of the church and the L.G.B.T. community not as a worthy goal but as a grave cultural, religious and familial threat.”
Voris, for his part, shrugged off accusations that he was bucking Church hierarchy.
“Archbishops are not the Church. Nor are cardinals,” he said. “They are ordained and consecrated to safeguard the teaching passed onto them, not re-invent or re-interpret it. It does not belong to them. Even Jesus had Judas. The standard of measure is being faithful to orthodox teaching, not siding with one bishop or another.”
“Archbishops are not the Church. Nor are cardinals … Even Jesus had Judas.”
Despite his fervor, Voris and and other right-wing Catholics that staunchly oppose LGBTQ relationships appear to occupy an increasingly lonely position among American Catholics. According to a 2016 PRRI poll, more than 60 percent of white and Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. support same-sex marriage, and roughly the same percentage of both groups oppose allowing businesses to refuse services to gay and lesbian people by citing their religious beliefs.
But while Church Militant and similar organizations may be small, they are typically considered part of a rising group often referred to as “radical traditionalist” Catholics, who represent the religion’s hard right-wing in the United States and Europe. People affiliated with the movement often openly criticize Pope Francis, who they see as too progressive, and have formed vocal online communities. Church Militant insists they don’t engage in “harsh” criticism of the Pontiff, although the distinction is unclear: pieces often distinguish between “faithful Catholics” who express “concern” about the Pope’s actions and “liberal Catholics” who celebrate him.
They also may have powerful allies: Steve Bannon, Editor-in-Chief of Breitbart News and former adviser to President Trump, has many close ties to radical traditionalist Catholics. Church Militant reportedly often cites Breitbart articles.
Church Militant, which Voris says he has been banned from speaking on certain church properties, is no stranger to run-ins with Catholic hierarchy. The group originally broadcast using the title “Real Catholic TV,” but the Archdiocese of Detroit issued directives telling the fledgling network it “does not have the authorization required under Church law to identify or promote itself as Catholic.” Church Militant argued the archdiocese didn’t have the jurisdiction to strip the title from its name, but eventually changed it anyway, claiming it “wasn’t worth fighting” Church officials.
“In the end it’ll hurt not me, because I have plenty of speaking engagements. But it’ll hurt LGBT Catholics.”
For now, though, their campaigns against speakers who even encroach on pro-LGBTQ messages seem to be working.
“It shows the influence of the Catholic alt-right groups over the local bishops, who in both cases were Cardinals,” Martin said. “It’s a kind of parallel magisterium.”
Voris told ThinkProgress he has reached out to Martin offering to debate him. Martin, meanwhile, has kept a busy speaking schedule despite the controversy: in addition to other appearances, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced on Friday he would deliver Lenten reflections at a major cathedral in the city next March.
Martin argued the whole kerfuffle was detracting attention from the issue of Catholics who claim LGBTQ identities.
“In the end it’ll hurt not me, because I have plenty of speaking engagements,” Martin said of the controversy. “But it’ll hurt LGBT Catholics.”