Yesterday, I made the case that the problem eating the heart of American conservative Christianity is plain: it does not trust Jesus Christ and so is embarked on the project of trying to save itself since it is convinced he will not do it.
One of the warnings God gives Israel about the cost of faithlessness is this:
I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. (Le 26:36)
This seems to me to be the state of American conservative Christianity in this hour. It is afraid of everything and, as frightened people often do, it is blustering to hide its deep terror.
This expresses itself, not only in fear of such relative trivialities as Harry Potter, but in fear of everything the Cult of Trump commands we fear: refugees, women, science, education, environmentalists, brown people, black people, Native Americans, liberals, gay people, and (for Catholics) this pope and the Magisterium.
The message of the Francis-hating right in the American Church is very clear and profoundly rooted in fear that verges on and even passes into despair. It is this: We are on our own. The indefectibility of the Church has failed. Our pope is a heretic. Jesus did not know what he was talking about when he said to Peter that on him he would build the Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Hell has won, the pope is the enemy of the Faith. So is the rest of the Magisterium. You can forget it when Jesus said he was with the Church to the end of the age. You can forget it when he said the Spirit would guide the Church into all truth. The Church was guided into error at Vatican II and it has done nothing but get worse, leading to the election of Satan’s Pope. You can forget the promise he made to the apostles and their heirs that “He who listens to you listens to me.” That’s all over now. We are on our own, the enemy is inside the castle and in fact has taken the castle. Here is the ambient noise coming from this terrified and tiny (globally speaking) American white conservative subculture with a giant gl0bal media microphone:
Know this: There is no corner in which you can hide and practice the ancient Catholic faith. They will not let you. There is no oasis they will not find and destroy. If you still have the mass and the faith, do not be content. They will find you.
— Creative Minority (@CMReport) September 4, 2019
Therefore, only they, the Greatest Catholics of All Time, can save the Faith from the enemies that are now everywhere, inside and outside the Church and at the very top. This is the message now being broadcast to Francis-hating, Trump-adoring white conservative Catholics by such organs of propaganda as EWTN, the National Catholic Register, and Sophia Institute Press, and CRISIS, which have published and teamed up to promote the seminal text of this thesis, INFILTRATION by Taylor Marshall. Where you would never in a million years find Dan Burke of the Register doing a warm and friendly interview with, say, the head of Catholics for a Free Choice, you do find him lobbing softballs to Taylor Marshall and assuring his audience (by not challenging Marshall) that his book is neither a conspiracy theory nor a naked attack on the Holy Father and the unity of the Church.
But, of course, it is both those things and is steeped in fear that the Church is both betrayed and persecuted, not only by shadowy forces here in the US, but by the Holy Father and the entire Magisterium:
Here is Marshall’s intensely paranoid thesis, briefly summarized by D.W. Lafferty at Where Peter Is:
The central thesis of Infiltration is this: “The Catholic Church is in crisis because the enemies of Christ plotted organized efforts to place a pope for Satan on the Roman Chair of Saint Peter. […]It has been a slow, patient plan to establish a Satanic revolution with the pope as puppet” (1). Marshall leaves no doubt that he believes this “pope for Satan” is Pope Francis. The story begins with a document entitled The Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita, which was allegedly written by a member of an Italian secret society, the Carbonari, sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century. The goal of the plot proposed in this document was, as Marshall puts it, to one day have “a Freemasonic naturalistic Pope reigning on the Chair of Saint Peter […]” (2). With the election of Pope Francis by the “Sankt Gallen Mafia” of corrupt cardinals, Marshall alleges, this goal was reached: “Mission accomplished for the Sankt Gallen Mafia: at last they delivered to the world a ‘Revolution in Tiara and Cope’ as had been prophesied by the Freemasonic document Alta Vendita more than 150 years before. After a slow, patient revolution, they had secured ‘a Pope according to our heart […]’” (31). Pope Francis’s “worldview and philosophy,” Marshall states, “is essentially that of a nineteenth-century member of the Freemasonic Carbonari.”
Marshall gets from Point A (the Alta Vendita) to Point B (the election of Pope Francis) by assembling a ramshackle narrative with parts largely dredged up from existing fringe Catholic sources. What gives him leeway to shape and twist his material into any shape he wants is that he hovers between constructing a narrative with human conspirators and a narrative that is driven by Satanic, demonic forces.
The way to spot these enemies is listen carefully not for ideas compatible with the Faith as laid out in the Catechism (since this is a document tainted by post-conciliar thinking) but for the right wing culture war shibboleths and code words that we, the Greatest Catholics of All Time, either approve or condemn. There are certain Folk Heroes you can trust and a certain constellation of media, both social and right wing, that you can rely on. Some of these include sources you can trust even if they are not Catholic at all (such as libertarian economists and NRA spokesmen and certain celebrities known for their right wing views about abortion, money, sex, conspiracy theories, and power).
But beware! There are many, many people who are enemies, the pope chief among them, as well as any who speak well of him, or who are connected to them (guilt by association is an important component of the conspiracy theorist’s analysis). And nearly everything outside a very narrow list of approved things and people is a colossal spiritual danger compounded of liberalism and demonic power. Touch it, and you will be spiritually poisoned and die an eternal death. (A favorite image for them is that of the giant bowl of M&Ms with a few of them being poisoned. Would you dare touch even one????!!!!!????) In the end, the only thing you really have to go on is your feelings, your particular conservative peer group (all others must be scrutinized for impurity), and your personal take on what the Tradition said–or used to say in your personal opinion.
If that sounds uncomfortably like conservative American Evangelicalism and its sola scriptura/sola conscientia/sola socio-cultural-political-peer-group-of-middle-class-whites habit of navigation-by-panic, that’s because it is. All the Catholic tradition provides for this mindset is some smells and bells aesthetics. The Magisterium is effectively written off as something that ended somewhere around 1958 with the birth of the “Novus Ordo Church”. From here on in, we are to trust in a small network of celebrities who will tell us what to think and do. We are at war, and the world is divided between a small remnant of Real Catholics[TM] on the one hand and Spies and Enemies on the other.
And the Real Catholics[TM] are now fighting a desperate and losing battle with a false pope and a false Magisterium in league with evil liberals across America who are forcing us to drink from Holiday Cups at Starbucks, wishing us Happy Holidays at Target, not caring that Tinky Winky is gay, playing D&D, reading Harry Potter, confiscating our guns, letting brown people invade, letting women be extraordinary ministers, receiving communion in the hand, not caring about banners and bad art in the sanctuary, not caring about the Extraordinary Form, not caring about Marty Haugen music, and the legion of other things that people who would not know real persecution if it bit them on the nose regard as the Martyrdom of the American Church.
The irony, of course, is that this entire way of navigating the Tradition owes nothing to the Tradition and everything to an American culture driven by fads and celebrities and panics. And the choice of celebrities is frequently sketchy and often visible-from-space nutty. It is fond of overtly military Manly Catholic Merch, pitched to exactly the same demographic that talks ceaselessly of imaginary garbage like “white genocide” and The Great Replacement.
The popularity of such “soldier of Christ” military imagery is telling and particularly sinister when priests adopt it, because it signals the adoption of an adversarial rather than pastoral relationship to the flock. Jesus’ words to Peter were “feed my sheep” not “annihilate my enemies” or “Root out my infiltrators.” But in a Church where even the Pope is not pure enough, the Culture War priest must, first and foremost, presume his flock are enemies in need of crushing unless they can prove their bona fides. Only when they capitulate to his authoritarian will to dominate them do they become sheep worthy of anything other than suspicion and expulsion in such a a worldview. MAGA Christianity, fretting about junk like “white genocide” and imagining that Antifa is coming to invade our homes and stewing in the paranoia of Marshall, Skojec, Crisis, Voris, the Papal Posse, and the dozen other voices that have convinced this sect to fear and hate the Magisterium has created a subculture that is every bit as driven by winds of doctrine, fads, panics and folly as American fundamentalism. It is a world of mini-popes with an incredible talent for wrongness. And it is so for one reason: it despairs of Jesus as Savior and so has appointed itself to the role. His promise to the Church has failed. Therefore if the Church is to be saved–from the Pope no less–the Greatest Catholics of All Time will have to save it.
Needless to say, this is an absurd position and wholly unnecessary. It is born of a kind of fevered hysteria that gives away the game by the fact that is not simply this thing or that thing that the Francis-hater hates about the Pope. It is every single thing he says or does. As one of my deranged readers put it, “There is nothing that comes out of this man who is now pope which is not heretical to the Roman Catholic doctrine.” When a critic cannot find anything whatsoever good about the object of his hatred, the problem is not with the object, but the critic. As much as I detest Donald Trump, I would not say that he is devoid of any redeeming qualities. To say such a thing about an obviously good and decent man like Francis–and to say it from virtually the moment of his election–makes clear that the despair and terror of the Catholic conservative Francis-hater was just waiting to be tapped. The fear that Jesus had abandoned the Church was already there. He just galvanized it.
David Mills remarks:
Part of my sympathy for Francis comes from reading him early and finding so much of his writing so compelling. But part of it is just a response to the way his critics read him. The venom and the dishonesty of the reactions are telling and arouse my sympathy for the underdog and victim.
They start yelling that he said X. You show that he did not say X. They keep saying he said X and/or they say it’s his fault for being unclear. You show he was perfectly clear. They go back to saying he said X. They read him, as I said here, like unscrupulous prosecuting attorneys.
And they started very very soon after Francis’s election. Not, I think, in response to anything religious he said, but in reaction to what they perceived as his leftish politics. Conservative politics is a deeper commitment than many of them seem to realize.
And that, in the end, is what this is about. When you despair that Jesus is in charge of the Church, remains with the Church, and will save the Church, you don’t believe in nothing. You believe in anything. You believe in Trump, Voris, Skojec, Coffin, Marshall, Arroyo, Burke, Bannon, Breitbart, FOX, Hannity. You believe in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. You believe in the battle against “white genocide”. You believe in this or that form of piety as the Only True Way. You believe opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world. You believe voting Republican will save you. You believe kidnapping and torturing little children in sadistic camps will save you. You believe avoiding Harry Potter will save you. Or homeschooling. Or head coverings. Or Chesterton. If you are dumb enough, you believe in me (trust me, I’ve gotten my share of fanboi mail from people whose faith is dangerously dependent on me). You believe, like Boromir, that since you are on your own, the only thing left is to make a grab for the One Ring and try to bend the Church and the world to your will.
That is what the schismatic wannabes of the Francis-hating Right seek. And I can tell you already where they are trying to bend it: into a cult of ethno-nationalism. Because when you despair of Jesus, you inevitably fix on one or all of the Four Great Idols to replace him: Mammon, Pleasure, Power, and Honor (sins fully incarnated by the idol to whom Frank Pavone chose to offer a dead baby on the altar of Christ).
They will fail in the end, of course (even if they manage to get somebody they want elected Pope). Because in the end, as the Holy Spirit once reminded John XXIII, it’s His Church, not the pope’s–and not the Greatest Catholics of All Time.
Be not afraid.