Published October 25, 2010
Pressure is on to change the Roman Catholic Church in America, but it's not coming from the usual liberal suspects. A new breed of theological conservatives has taken to blogs and YouTube to say the church isn't Catholic enough.
Enraged by dissent that they believe has gone unchecked for decades, and unafraid to say so in the starkest language, these activists are naming names and unsettling the church.
— In the Archdiocese of Boston, parishioners are dissecting the work of a top adviser to the cardinal for any hint of Marxist influence.
— Bloggers are combing through campaign finance records to expose staff of Catholic agencies who donate to politicians who support abortion rights.
— RealCatholicTV.com, working from studios in suburban Detroit, is hunting for "traitorous" nuns, priests or bishops throughout the American church.
"We're no more engaged in a witch hunt than a doctor excising a cancer is engaged in a witch hunt," said Michael Voris of RealCatholicTV.com and St. Michael's Media. "We're just shining a spotlight on people who are Catholics who do not live the faith."
John Allen, Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, has dubbed this trend "Taliban Catholicism." But he says it's not a strictly conservative phenomenon — liberals can fit the mindset, too, Allen says. Some left-leaning Catholics are outraged by any exercise of church authority.
Yet on the Internet and in the church, conservatives are having the bigger impact.
Among Voris' many media ventures is the CIA — the Catholic Investigative Agency — a program from RealCatholicTV to "bring to light the dark deeds of evil Catholics-in-name-only, who are hijacking the Church for their own ends, not the ends of Christ."
In an episode called "Catholic Tea Party," Voris said: "Catholics need to be aware and studied and knowledgeable enough about the faith to recognize a heretical nun or a traitorous priest or bishop when they see one — not so they can vote them out of office, but so they can pray for them, one, and alert as many other Catholics as possible to their treachery, two."
The blog "Bryan Hehir Exposed" is aimed at a top adviser to Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, who is the former head of national Catholic Charities and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Among the bloggers' claims is that Hehir is a Marxist sympathizer who undermines Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage.
Hehir, who has advised church leaders for four decades, hasn't responded to any accusations and neither has O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar known for his humility. However, O'Malley said in April on his own blog that Hehir "inspires us with his compassion, vision and fidelity to the work of the Church." In August, O'Malley blocked access from archdiocesan headquarters to one of the critical blogs, the anonymously penned Boston Catholic Insider.
"The lack of civility is very disturbing," said Terrence C. Donilon, the archdiocesan spokesman.
The work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is another frequent target.
Activists and bloggers, including Bellarmine Veritas Ministry of Texas, have been investigating the bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a national grantmaking program created in the 1970s to support community organizing and economic development.
The activists concluded that some of the grantees back same-sex marriage, artificial contraception or abortion rights. As part of the push, activists accused the director of the bishops' national social justice office of serving on the board of a nonprofit while it advocated for gay marriage and abortion. The claims against him were shown to be unfounded.
Still, the bloggers had an impact.
The bishop who oversees the anti-poverty grants said that a few, but not all, of the accused grantees had indeed taken positions contrary to church teaching and had been defunded. Since the controversy erupted, 10 of the 195 U.S. dioceses have suspended or dropped annual parish collections for the program, and the bishops are reviewing their grant policies.
Thomas Peters, who runs the popular "AmericanPapist" blog, said fellow orthodox Catholics have embraced the Web because they feel they finally have a platform that can compete with well-established liberal Catholic publications, such as the National Catholic Reporter. (Some conservative bloggers call the paper "the National Catholic Destroyer.")
Peters, 25, considers himself on the more positive side of the orthodox Catholic blogosphere, although some targets of his commentary disagree.
He condemns the vitriol he sees online, and promotes a blog feature called "bishops with backbone," in praise of church leaders who rein in dissenters. He also added an online function to send thank you notes when leaders take tough stands, recently generating 500 letters in one day for Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis who refused Holy Communion to gay rights protesters at a recent Mass.
"All of these things that we say in public are meant for the best good of the church," said Peters. He began his blog several years ago and now works for the American Principles Project, a conservative advocacy group founded by Princeton University scholar Robert George.
The rise in lay conservative fervor comes at a time when the need for activism would seem less urgent. The U.S. hierarchy has seen a wave of retirements in recent years that has swept out leading liberals. The men taking their place are generally more traditional and willing to take a harder line against disobedient Catholics, from politicians to parishioners.
But even with these changes, bloggers say too few prelates speak out. The activists also say that since the 1970s, after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, liberals have filled the bureaucracy of the church, hiding dissent from the bishops they serve.
"There's an old saying: Once you become a bishop you never get bad news or a bad meal," said Carol McKinley, 53, a Boston-area blogger who named her site "The Tenth Crusade." "Not a single bishop will look at the whole. They enjoy their ignorance."
Critics of the bloggers contend the activists are motivated mostly by politics, not theology. The blogs feature nearly as many attacks on President Barack Obama as church leaders. McKinley's site, until recently, was called "Throwthebumsoutin2010," in anticipation of the midterm elections.
The late Saul Alinsky, the father of modern community organizing, is also a common topic on the conservative Catholic blogs. Activists complain that many groups that receive grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development use the tactics of Alinsky, a hero of the political left and a preoccupation of the political right since the 2008 election. When Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, he worked with people trained by Alinsky.
However, the conservative Catholic activists insist their faith, especially church teaching on abortion, inspires all their work.
Catholic officials are struggling to come to terms with the bloggers and have organized several recent media conferences on the topic, the latest at the Vatican this month. The U.S. bishops' conference issued social media guidelines in July calling for Christian charity online.
Still, no one expects the Catholic blogosphere to change tone anytime soon. Many of the conservatives most active online had spent years raising the alarm about dissent on their own in their local dioceses without much effect. Now, they feel they are finally being heard online.
"There's a general sense among many faithful Catholics that no matter how much they write their bishops, no matter how much they go to the pastors, all of these unfaithful things keep getting taught," Voris said. "I think enough Catholics are saying, 'That's it. I've had it.'"