How online propaganda is tearing the Church apart

(Cartoon: Christian Adams)

I have a question for you. Which side are you on in the Catholic cyber-wars? I think I can guess the answer of many Catholic Herald readers. “What cyber-wars? We’ve heard nothing about them at Mass.”

That’s a reassuring answer. Alas, I suspect it won’t be long before most Catholics discover that there really is a sort of war on.

Consider that, until about two years ago, the term “fake news” meant nothing. Now we’re learning, in greater detail every day, how misuse of social media can swing millions of votes. If the faithful aren’t aware that prominent Catholics of left and right are flinging digital diatribes at each other, then that can only be because they aren’t visiting Catholic websites.

Here’s an example that’s just caught my eye. Ten minutes ago, I spotted the following words in a sidebar peeking out of my browser: “James Martin SJ Thinks You’re a Nazi.”

The headline is from the conservative Crisis magazine. It’s clickbait at its most cynical. Still, I couldn’t resist. Why does Fr James Martin, editor-at-large of the liberal Jesuit publication America, think I’m a Nazi?

Author Austin Ruse – his real name, not a hidden clue that someone’s taking the mickey – explains:

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego wrote a column about James Martin SJ that said Martin’s critics are a cancer on the Church, that criticism of his work is driven by homophobia, a distortion of Catholic moral theology, and is an attack on Pope Francis.

This shameful column was applauded by a chorus including Elizabeth Scalia, the editor of one of the largest Catholic websites in the country [and] Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University, among others.

James Martin himself has taken to calling his critics the “Catholic alt-right”, a phrase he likes very much and has repeated a number of times … Faggioli and others on the left have gleefully repeated this, too. It should be noted that post-Charlottesville, “alt-right” is generally understood to be coterminous with White Supremacy and Nazism.

Let us consider what this name-calling really means. Cancers are supposed to be cut out and killed. And Nazis are supposed to be attacked.

What a feast of non-sequiturs! In August, a white supremacist rammed a car into anti-racist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring others. After that, left-wing agitators tried to identify the radical “alt-right” with white racism and neo-Nazis. Some of the mud stuck.

But it’s not “generally understood” that the alt-right is “coterminous with” (ie, the same thing as) white supremacists and Nazis.

There are indeed white supremacists who identify as alt-right. However, this umbrella term also covers distinguished conservative thinkers, undistinguished conservative journalists and assorted right-wing fruitloops. Some of these people are racists, but the proportion whose racism is of the German National Socialist variety is vanishingly small.

So, when Fr Martin labels his conservative critics the “Catholic alt-right”, he’s not calling them Nazis. Still less is he implying that they need to be attacked or killed. On the contrary, he’s making a neat analogy. Or, if you prefer, a cunning Jesuitical one.

Members of the secular alt-right may not appear to have much in common: some are grotesque show-offs, others thoughtful and plausible; some write academic papers while others preen like game-show hosts. But they are all essentially cyber-warriors. They aim to shift digital opinion so rapidly that liberals are left blinking in bewilderment.

Catholic critics of Pope Francis also form a coalition that encompasses opportunistic agitators and troubled intellectuals (and, as in the case of the political alt-right, there’s a degree of overlap). Also, they work digitally. They are adept at wrong-footing sluggish liberal bishops with their tweets and Facebook posts, often directing readers to longer articles. Although I’m not part of the Catholic alt-right, I can understand the appeal of this modus operandi. It’s addictive.

So James Martin’s talk of a “Catholic alt-right” is artfully judged. But it’s also thoroughly disingenuous.

Put simply, there is now a sort of Catholic alt-left and he is part of it.

“Team Francis”, the lobby of left-leaning papal loyalists who ascribe almost miraculous powers to the Holy Father, has learned one lesson from the right-wing Catholic blogosphere. Digital comes first.

This summer, Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor-in-chief of the La Civiltà Cattolica, co-authored an article – apparently sanctioned by the Vatican – about a supposed “ecumenism of hate” between “Evangelical fundamentalists” and right-wing “Catholic Integralists” in America.

The piece failed to define its terms and displayed an alarming ignorance of the American religious landscape. It would not have passed muster as an undergraduate essay. Catholic conservatives had no difficulty demolishing it.

But left-wing Catholics, especially outside the US, were exhilarated by its hysteria. Its appearance in their inboxes made their day. And that was the whole point.

Another example from this week. Massimo Faggioli announced on Twitter that the views of many lovers of the Old Rite “are not Catholic any more”.

A few years ago, the opinions of a middle-ranking lay academic would have counted for little. But Faggioli is a cyber-warrior who knows how to press the buttons not only of left-liberals but also his enemies. The latter went ballistic online, as he’d hoped they would.

And Fr Martin? He’s just published a book which conspicuously fails to affirm Church teaching that gay sex is always sinful. The resulting digital campaign against him led him to being disinvited from giving a lecture at the Catholic University of America.

Some of the anti-Martin protests were horribly toxic – which was convenient. The hatefulness allowed him to distract attention from his subtle and unrelenting questioning of fundamental Catholic teaching. He is urbane and slippery.

Meanwhile, on the conservative wing, we have the “filial correction” of Pope Francis for allegedly encouraging heretical views.

This is a long, painstakingly researched document that – I will wager any amount of money – the Pope has not read. It’s boring, and the list of signatories is unimpressive and badly judged. Who thought it was a good idea to ask the head of the SSPX to sign? Talk about playing into the hands of liberals who want to portray all orthodox Catholics as crypto-Lefebvrists.

That said, the “filial correction”, like Fr Spadaro’s silly article, excited true believers and does seem to have rattled Team Francis.

It’s not easy to take a step back from all this, especially when the Pope himself specialises in sending out conflicting signals. But perhaps we’re not stepping back far enough.

In this week’s Sunday Times, the non-Catholic historian Niall Ferguson described the “massive polarisation” of global society created by digital networks. “One recent study of 665 blogs and 16,852 links between them showed that they formed two almost separate clusters: one liberal, the other conservative.” On hot-button issues, conservatives retweet only conservatives and liberals only liberals.

The frightening political consequences of this mindset are already plain to see. The effect on Catholics has only recently become visible.

Ferguson writes that, thanks to the disasters created by digital propaganda, “the skies are darkening over Silicon Valley”. Make no mistake about it: they are also darkening over the Church.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the October 6 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here