Cover Story

Meet America's Catholic tribes

Illustration: Adam Dant

The McCarrick scandal and mixed messages from Rome have sparked conflict in the American Church. Here are the colourful combatants

The Catholic Herald’s new US readers know that this is a horrible time for American Catholics. Mass-goers were assured that the Church had tackled clerical sex abuse. Alas, the assurances came from bishops who were still covering up crimes, including those of arch-abuser Theodore McCarrick, who – incredibly – drew up the bishops’ sex abuse guidelines.

What many readers may not know is that the civil war provoked by the McCarrick revelations, and by mixed messages from Rome, is being fought by a colourful array of Catholic “tribes” – noisy groups of priests and laity who disagree on pretty much everything. Liturgy, sexual morality, Pope Francis, Vatican finances – there are fault lines everywhere, growing wider thanks to a deadly combination of scandals and social media.

Casual observers usually assume that the battle is being fought between two camps: liberals and conservatives. Pious Catholics remind us that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, conservative nor liberal,” for we are all one in Christ Jesus. And that’s perfectly true. Yet the American Church is rife with factionalism – sometimes toxic, sometimes comically petty, often both.

Yes, this is essentially a fight between conservatives and liberals. But there are sub-divisions within both camps, and they do matter. For example, you can be orthodox and conservative without being “traditionalist”. Lots of right-wing Catholics dislike the elaborate rubrics of the Old Missal. Many “trads”, meanwhile, regard these doctrinally hard-line New Mass adherents as vulgar televangelists.

As for the Holy Father, some conservatives recoil at the mention of his name. Others are worried by his pontificate, but won’t tolerate personal criticism of the Successor of Peter.

On the Left, meanwhile, “Team Francis” propagandists come close to deifying the Pope. Other liberals are pro-Francis but their true obsession is LGBT identity politics. To further confuse matters, there are unusual points of intersection. For example, some traditionalists dislike the free-market just as heartily as trendy Jesuits, and quote the same anti-capitalist passages of papal encyclicals.

For the first US edition of the Catholic Herald, we braved the trenches so that you don’t have to. Now we bring you profiles of six of the tribes fighting for control of the American Church.

Papal Knights

The newest Catholic faction to enter the fray, the Papal Knights pride themselves on perfect obedience to Rome. They are mostly academics, led by Professors Adrian Vermeule of Harvard and Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas. They like to put an orthodox spin on Pope Francis’s most controversial acts, for example defending the China deal with reference to medieval concordats. As a result they irritate both conservatives and liberals – and, as their Twitter followers know, they delight in doing so.

Militants

The Militants are hard-line conservatives who dislike Pope Francis so intensely that – at their most extreme – they make him sound like the papal villain of a Jack Chick tract. Their best-known spokesman is Michael Voris, whose Church Militant website launches daily ferocious (and sardonically witty) attacks on disgraced papal allies. They don’t hunt as a pack, because they’re fighting for the same audience, but they agree that sodomy is the greatest threat facing the Church.

The discovery of an apparent gay mafia – uncovered in part by the militant journalists of LifeSiteNews – has put a spring in their step. The only US cardinal they admire is Raymond Leo Burke, though they wish he wouldn’t dress up so much.

Rad Trads

The Rad Trad’s arrival is heralded by a whiff of pipe smoke. Clad in tweed and sometimes sporting pectoral crosses that would make an archbishop blush, Rad Trads mistrust everything that followed the year 1965 (and 1789, for that matter). They do everything in their power to avoid the Novus Ordo; some of them drop to their knees in silent prayer to escape the dreaded Sign of Peace. At Old Rite services, if they spot the tiniest deviation from the rubrics they will have a quiet word with the celebrant over drinks. (They take seriously St Paul’s injunction to “take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”.) If they were English they would be Jacobites. Like their hero GK Chesterton, they favour the quaint economic philosophy known as distributism, modelled on medieval guilds.

Rad Trads are profoundly orthodox, taking their cue from Benedict XVI rather than John Paul II. Yet they are the conservative faction least likely to make a fuss about “bedroom issues”. They are dismayed by the Militants’ near-pornographic descriptions of homosexual acts, preferring to see them as symptoms of a wider social decay stemming back to the Reformation, if not the Renaissance.

They admire Cardinal Burke but wish he would dress up more.

Team Francis

Team Francis are a group of academics and journalists who invested heavily in the pontificate of Pope Francis and are doing everything in their power to boost his share price. Unfortunately, their near-worship of the pontiff (which must embarrass him) is having the opposite effect.

They may not realise this, as they have worn their fingers to the bone pressing the “block” button on Twitter as soon as they are challenged.

The team’s American leader is the Italian-born Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University, a clever man who needs all his intellectual gifts to interpret Vatican arm-twisting as “synodality”.

Faggioli is affable but never misses a chance to snipe at whistleblower Archbishop Viganò, the former nuncio who revealed the extent of the McCarrick cover-up. His ally David Gibson of Fordham University also misses no opportunity to question the motives of Catholic conservatives who draw attention to various catastrophic Vatican blunders.

Until now, Team Francis have been able to make effective use of two or three Catholic journalists who never deviate from the party line. These journalists, writing for liberal Catholic publications, were then able to shape secular coverage of the Church. Now, however, the mainstream media are asking tough questions about sex abuse that Team Francis are unable to answer.

Just as certain Militants find it difficult to get through a sentence without mentioning Freemasons, Team Francis ascribes nearly all criticism of the Pope to shadowy right-wing pressure groups. What they don’t understand is that if rich unscrupulous conservatives were really determined to undermine the pontiff, the best way of doing so would be to throw money at Team Francis.

Tradinistas

These unusual Catholics, to put it politely, combine the aesthetic sensibilities of a French royalist with the political instincts of a Cuban apparatchik. Originally used to refer to a small band of committed Latin-Mass Marxists, the term now refers to anyone attempting to reconcile theological orthodoxy with Leftist politics, such as Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig. Tradinistas hold liberalism responsible for the collapse of Christendom and see capitalism as incompatible with Catholic social teaching. On the grotesque failures of socialism, and its condemnation by successive popes, they prefer to observe the monastic tradition of “the Great Silence”. Tradinistas have a sense of humour, but it fails them when fellow Catholics giggle at their intellectual contortions.

Jesuiticals

Not all Jesuiticals are real Jesuits, but their charismatic but thin-skinned leader certainly is. Fr James Martin, SJ, epitomises this band of media-savvy priests who don conservative clerical garb (looks great on camera!) to say distinctly un-conservative things. What sets apart this sub-faction of Catholic liberals is a fixation on human sexuality every bit as obsessive as that of the Militants, though needless to say they reach very different conclusions. Fr Martin and his fellow campaigners want to make the Church more friendly to the LGBTQI etc community. (It never seems to occur to them that many gay Catholics are annoyed by the rainbow flag and alphabet soup of initials.)

They use the vocabulary of identity politics, and maintain close links with the über-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, while maintaining that they are not challenging Catholic teaching. The only way they can square this circle is to dance around hard doctrines in a manner that has revived the old (and mostly unfair) stereotype of the too-clever-by-half Jesuit.

The McCarrick scandal has hit them hard. They are disgusted by his behaviour but also insist that all the talk of a “lavender mafia” is an excuse for a witch-hunt against gay priests. They prefer not to be reminded that the term was coined by one of their liberal heroes, the late Fr Andrew Greeley.

Conspiracy Theorists

All the above factions contain devout US Catholics who, sadly, loathe each other – and do so confident that they are spreading the Gospel. But the Conspiracy Theorist is a different beast. He or she, hiding behind a pseudonym, represents what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”. Conspiracy theories have poisoned the national discourse since before the founding of the republic.

Now these sad bedroom warriors, for whom spreading panic is a sort of video game, are worming their way into US Catholicism. The “moderates” among them think Pope Francis is an antipope; the rest hint that he is the Antichrist, who is building a Satanic “NuChurch” with the aid of sodomitical Masonic Illuminati. The only appropriate response for faithful Catholics, liberal or conservative, is to pray for these poor souls and hope that their WiFi crashes.

Michael Warren Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor. Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator. Illustrations by Jeremy Leasor (to purchase prints, email editorial@catholicherald.co.uk)