Theologian and University President Criticize Catholic “Cyber-Militias”

Theologian Massimo Faggioli and President John Petillo of Sacred Heart University have analyzed some of the issues regarding recent social media attacks from “far-right” Catholic groups who use vicious rhetoric against LGBT people.

Massimo Faggioli

Faggioli, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, called these right-wing groups “Catholic cyber-militias.” He wrote in La Croix:

“These cyber militants are not alone. Rather, they are part of the “age of anger” from which the Catholic Church is not immune. These groups and individuals are particularly active and influential in the Catholic Church in the United States. Much of this is the result of more than thirty years of episcopal appointments under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which recast the US episcopate in the image of the ‘cultural warrior.’”

Faggioli’s concern with these groups that staunchly enforce doctrine is that they use fear and intimidation to do so. He suggested a new kind of “doctrinal watchdog” has stepped forward:

“This system of institutional control over orthodoxy has now become more complicated. It is one of the perverse effects of a more decentralized Catholicism (a decentralization, by the way, that we really need). Those who are calling the shots now are not the pope, the Roman Curia or the cardinals and bishops. Neither are they the religious orders, theologians or Catholic universities. Those who appear to be in charge on sensitive issues today are the verbally violent propagandists on Catholic social media.”

Overall, Faggioli points to the fact that these extremely conservative groups are not as uncommon as we think in U.S. Catholicism and that the institutional and ecclesiological implications of hateful cyber-speech are becoming increasingly problematic.

John Petillo

President Petillo of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut, also expressed being perturbed by harmful rhetoric used by far-right Catholic groups, In an essay for The Huffington Post, he wrote::

“I find myself deeply troubled over the nature of public discourse in our country today, and especially concerned about attempts to stifle voices on college and university campuses. Protests from both liberal and conservative protagonists are not new: our Constitution was framed to protect freedom of speech and includes – in fact, advocates for – the right to share our views without fear or reprisal. But the bias, personal judgment and hostility being openly expressed against people with differing opinions, ideas and practices is a smear on the ink with which the First Amendment was penned.”

Addressing the university as a whole, Petillo emphasized in his article that Sacred Heart is an institution open to “discussion and debate.” His message to the students is that of dialogue rather than succumbing to ad hominem attacks against those who disagree with our own perspectives:

“When activists stoop to direct or indirect threats of violence as a strategy for achieving selfish and misguided goals, voices of reason must prevail. Capitulation only rewards their arrogance and strengthens their intent. Our resolve to invite discussion and contemplate difficult topics must be even stronger. Institutions of higher learning– and the messengers we attract – must never be silenced.”

The commentaries by Faggioli and Petillo are responses to the recent cancellation of lectures by Fr. James Martin, SJ. Theological College at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. cancelled a scheduled lecture by Martin that was supposed to be delivered on his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. The seminary disinvited him due to “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites” related to the priest’s newest book on the Church and LGBT Catholics, Building a Bridge. Two other organizations, CAFOD, the British bishops’ humanitarian aid organization, and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre also cancelled lectures by Martin over fears of right-wing attacks

Far-right groups successfully intimidated the sponsoring institutions and pressured them, via social media, into disinviting Martin. Despite the fact that Martin’s lecture would not have directly addressed his book Building a Bridge, which focuses on creating dialogue around LGBTQ issues in the Catholic Church, he was punished for having written it in the first place. His message of welcoming LGBT people into the Catholic Church was targeted and effectively squashed because it upset the right-wing.

The objections posed by Faggioli and Petillo highlight an important concern: if Catholic institutions can be pressured into disinviting a speaker, what does that say about how we foster dialogue in the Church? How much control do fringe groups have in deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t? While it was Fr. Martin as an individual who was barred from speaking, it was really his message of LGBTQ inclusion that was being censored. Rather than confront Martin with their disagreements, questions and concerns, his critics simply hid behind a keyboard.

Instead of shutting down dialogue, we ought to follow President Petillo’s call to open avenues for dialogue both inside and outside the university setting: “Ours is a platform for learning, not a stage for willfully restraining opinions that might cause discomfort or acrimony.”

–Lizzie Sextro, New Ways Ministry, October 19, 2017

8 replies
  1. R. Boyle
    R. Boyle says:

    Right wing anger and rhetoric emanate from a sick psyche, obsessed with a narrow range of issues, but usually centering on sex. Right wingers reveal more about themselves in their attacks on others than shedding light on those whom they attack and accuse.

  2. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    These “Catholic” cyberbullies are of the same breed that have taken it upon themselves to issue a “filial correction” to Pope Francis and his message of mercy in Amoris Laetitiae. It is therefore encouraging to see how quickly an open letter in support of Francis to counter this absurdity has taken off. That letter, initiated in Austria and the Czech Republic, has already gathered as formal signatories some 200 respected theologians, prelates and scholars – including six bishops. The associated petition already has nearly 7000 supporters, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. It does not yet appear to have had too much publicity in the USA. Please sign it, and share:

  3. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    It is precisely this version of Catholic, these angry, self righteous and rigid interpreters that do the Church harm. The Church is US, not the clergy. The clergy has a wonderful role, but it is all of us who are the Church.

  4. Ruthann Fox-Hines
    Ruthann Fox-Hines says:

    Can we get a list of the catholic “hate” groups. One I would put on the list is “Priests for Life” –a one issue group that lobbies against Democratic candidates.

  5. Jeannette Mulherin
    Jeannette Mulherin says:

    Where have all of these concerned theologians, priests, and bishops been while these militant websites have been viciously attacking Catholic feminists, women priests, and anyone who supports them?

  6. Kris
    Kris says:

    A well-written article.

    The intellectualism, that ideas be expressed not just freely but dispassionately, is more ‘Vulcanesque’ than human: it would appeal to Spock, but not to a ‘son of Adam’, or a ‘daughter of Eve’. Emotiveless argument is frequently unconvincing.

    The price of free speech is the expression of feeling, even very strong feeling. And we are being unrealistic not to expect it. What to do, then? As regards Fr Martin, I do, of course, blame principally those cyber bullies (the phrase ‘cyber militants’ is too soft); but I blame, too, those instutions that caved in to the bullying. Where was their intellectual, never mind moral, backbone? What was the nature of the threats they received? I suspect their capitulation had more to do with fear of losing intellectual credibility than with physical attack. And that (human pride) is probably a greater danger to academic freedom, and freedom of speech, than anything else.

  7. Deacon Thomas Smith
    Deacon Thomas Smith says:

    As the old Clerical Club looses its false power ( based on fear and ignorance), they react in hateful angry ways…. “shooting themselves in the foot” and showing their ugly side. Just like Neo-cons, they are losing to LOVE and reason, and will do everything In their waning false power to preserve the fear and prejudice that has damaged so many souls for so long. Maya Angelous wrote: “Stand in the ground of love. Evil has always been. Love will win.” HE has got our backs!


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