Though the majority of American Catholics are in favor of LGTBQ+ inclusion in the church, a vocal minority of conservative groups continue to spread harmful rhetoric and practices of exclusion. Deemed the ‘Catholic alt-right’ by Fordham University theologian Jason Steidl, this extreme wing of the church was profiled in an NBC article drawing comparisons to the well-known conservative political ‘alt-right.’
Fr. James Martin, author of Building a Bridge, describes these groups as “inject[ing] fear, hatred, and homophobia into religious discourse,” and notes that “they use the same tactics as the political alt-right: lies, personal vilification and demonization of minority groups.”
The NBC article begins by describing a hate-filled missive sent out by a conservative Catholic group shortly before the 2018 election but notes that this type of rhetoric is not one that mainstream Catholics endorse:
“Many Catholics say they are worried that [these] activists…are the vanguard of a new offensive by ultra-conservative Catholic groups that see the growing acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics by Pope Francis and other reformers as a mortal threat to their church. Websites like Church Militant, LifeSite News and the Lepanto Institute are ratcheting up the rhetoric while replacing polite and prayerful discourse with personal attacks on supporters of gay Catholics.”
One of the ways that the ‘Catholic alt-right’ has moved their attacks offline is by protesting supportive programming for gay clergy, including a New Ways Ministry sponsored annual retreat. During the October program, the Dominican nuns who hosted the retreat hired security to protect visitors to their retreat house.Other such protests are becoming common, the article noted.
Additionally, another trend is that conservative groups have been striving to ‘weaponize’ the August grand jury report detailing child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania by blaming gay priests for the abuse of children, including 1,000 girls, rather than the structural dishonesty among the hierarchy.
Catholic alt-right groups have sometimes gone beyond simply writing hate screeds on the internet.. The NBC article references the targeted attacks against Aaron Bianco, a former pastoral minister in San Diego who was the victim of an individually targeted due to his marriage. Bianco “received death threats, had his tires slashed, got hundreds of harassing letters, phone calls and emails, and was physically attacked after mass.” Someone spray painted a slur on his office wall, and two major conservative Catholic websites published articles calling for his removal from his job. These articles included his address and pictures of his family, and were what Bianco says was the ‘final straw’:
” ‘Probably 95 percent of Catholics are fine,’ Bianco said. ‘The people in my parish are great. It’s just these fringe groups that have been able to garner so much attention. The problem is no one has put them in check.’ “
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, postulated that the rise of these extremist groups is because they have been emboldened by Trump, who “has legitimized attacks against entire groups of people and these people are following his example to go after gay Catholics.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, observed that the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has turned a blind eye to extremist Catholics:
“The U.S. bishops have done absolutely nothing to respond to the very vicious and violent way these groups are threatening people…these are things the bishops really should have been speaking out against. But they’re afraid of these groups.”
NBC reported that it took some effort to get a response from the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference about Catholic alt-right groups:
“In response to repeated requests for comment from NBC News, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the following response from their spokesman Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont:
” ‘The promotion and defense of the faith should invite an encounter with the merciful love of Christ and contribute to a more civil and peaceful dialogue in our church and society,’ he said. ‘I urge my brothers and sisters to exercise extreme caution before giving credence to anyone who instigates shameful, digital stoning as a way to defend the Church. Catholic participation in the public square should be marked by both fidelity to the Gospel and to charity toward all our fellow citizens.’ “
Fr. Martin says that he knows of bishops promoting these conservative websites, and that they have an ‘outside influence’ for such small groups. “Fear and hatred are remarkably motivating for some people.”
According to Steidl, who coined the ‘Catholic alt-right’ label, the homophobic stereotypes that these groups use are “as false as they are salacious, revealing…desperation in a society that is quickly moving toward LGBTQ affirmation and a church that is in the earliest stages of considering and acting on the pastoral and spiritual needs of LGBTQ Catholics.”
While some of these groups are quite small, one listed as having only one employee, the impact they are able to have through fear-mongering online content is vast. NBC records the numbers:
“Church Militant produces podcasts, YouTube videos, online articles and a daily talk show that . . . gets about 1.5 million views a month. It has nearly 19,000 Twitter followers, over 68,000 YouTube subscribers and more than 196,000 Facebook likes.”
Their reach has been noted by major secular publications, and the Southern Poverty Law Center says that they focus on attacking LGBTQ members of the church with an “intensity and frequency bordering on obsessive.”
If faithful and loving Catholics hope to remake their church as a place where LGBTQ+ people are fully welcomed, they will need to confront these groups. The Catholic alt-right will continue to grow as long as calls of exclusion and harmful stereotypes are allowed to dominate the messaging of the church. Catholics who believe instead in love and justice as the core tenets of their faith should say so directly and often, and encourage their church leaders to do likewise. We can not allow Catholic alt-right groups to go unchecked.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, December 10, 2018