Catholicism’s increasingly powerful political right reflects fringe America, fueled by paranoia, conspiracy, racism, and the threat of apocalypse.
This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
It isn’t yet light when Alexander Tschugguel and his cameraman sneak into Rome’s Santa Maria in Traspontina Church to steal the statues. A lone elderly parishioner sits in the pews as Tschugguel—a young Austrian convert to Catholicism, so neatly dressed he might work there—quickly genuflects, then steps behind the rail of a side altar and picks the statues up: five slim wooden carvings, less than two feet tall, of a naked, kneeling woman with long dark hair, Indigenous features, and a heavily pregnant belly.
No one stops him as he carries them outside and down the Bridge of Angels, where, in the shadow of the hulking Castel Sant’Angelo—the setting of both a purported medieval miracle and an action sequence in a Dan Brown novel—the two men abruptly pitch one statue over the side. Sensing a need for greater ceremony, Tschugguel aligns the remaining four on the bridge’s ledge, then shoves them, one by one, into the Tiber. On their YouTube video, you can see the last one land with a splash, stirring a chorus of seagulls as the current carries it away.
For Catholic “radical traditionalists” at odds with a pope they consider too progressive, it was “the splash heard around the world,” as one right-wing news site put it; a purge “which may well go down in history as the moment the counter-revolution started.” For their more moderate brethren, it was the culmination of an absurd and distressing season of reaction. And though they might not know it, for the rest of America it was a watershed moment too, establishing the tone and subtext of some of the most vicious debates this year. Donald Trump has pinned his 2020 hopes, in part, on dissident Catholics who view the church as compromised, the pope as an unorthodox interloper, and their theology as not just compatible with, but spiritual backbone for conspiracy theories like QAnon. What happens after Tuesday, in the Church and in this country, in some ways will mirror this battle.
The theft happened last October, six years into a cold civil war that started with the election of Pope Francis, when the Vatican hosted a gathering of Catholic leaders from South America’s Amazon basin. Among Catholics who lauded the pope’s efforts to foster a more diverse, poverty-focused church, the Amazon Synod was a welcome continuation: three weeks of debate about the church’s role in addressing climate change and the continuing effects of colonization, as well as a crucial focus on the principle of inculturation—how the church might better respect and integrate local cultures. Or, as Francis put it, how to build a church with an “Amazonian face.”
For conservatives who viewed the Argentinian pope—the first non-European pope in more than 12 centuries—as somewhere along the spectrum between misguided and heretical, the synod’s working document contained worrying hints of ulterior motives: abolishing priestly celibacy, ordaining women ministers, and further liberalization down the line. For even-further-right traditionalists, who toy with the idea that the pope is illegitimate, an apostate or worse, it represented something more dire: the replacement of Catholicism with a globalist, multicultural “eco-theology,” grounded in socialism.
The weekend before the synod began, the pope attended a ceremony in the Vatican gardens. It was the feast day of St. Francis, patron saint of animals, ecology, and the poor. Around 20 members of the South American delegation planted a tree with soil brought from around the world, including parts of the Amazon where Indigenous activists have been killed fighting corporate agriculture interests. They also prayed around a fabric mandala of symbols from the region. At its center were two wooden statues—identical to the ones Tschugguel stole—of Indigenous pregnant women, variously described by Vatican officials as representing “Our Lady of the Amazon,” Mother Earth, and life itself.
Francis’s critics saw something else: a circle of Indians in face-paint and feathers, prostrate before a pagan idol of the Andean fertility goddess Pachamama, while the pope looked on. Conservative Catholic media seized on the supposed scandal. The right-wing First Things declared the synod had revealed “an antichristic church.” A Mexican priest burned a Pachamama effigy, noted the (liberal) National Catholic Reporter, while an influential church leader in Washington, D.C., posted on Facebook that “the new idolatrous Pachamama Church” represented “dangerous devil worship.” German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, citing scriptural prophecies of end times, called the statues “the ‘abomination of desolation in the holy place.’”
Criticism had been building before the synod even convened. Brazil’s far-right government, fearing further condemnation of its deforestation and deregulation policies amid historic Amazon wildfires, attacked preemptively, calling it leftist foreign meddling. Members of the ultraconservative network Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), historically tied to Brazilian agricultural interests but now more active in the U.S., launched a watchdog website warning the synod was a “neo-Communist project” seeking to impose “tribal life” on the West. On the eve of the synod, both TFP and the anti-abortion coalition Voice of the Family hosted their own conferences in Rome, featuring climate change deniers, historians who argued “Deforestation is a symbol of civilization,” and right-wing Catholic media figures warning that “Pope Francis and his clerical allies are creating a globalist organization with a Catholic-appearing face.”
Tschugguel, who was a seasoned conservative activist in Austria—having helped organize antiabortion marches, anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns, and a now defunct far-right political party—attended both events. There he met Taylor Marshall, a former Episcopal priest from Texas who has become one of the internet’s most pugilistic “rad trad” Catholics. Marshall spars with church bishops on Twitter and hosts a YouTube show that’s recently cracked the top 50 Christian podcasts, and authored the 2019 book Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church From Within.
Over dinner one night, Marshall and Tschugguel hatched a plot to rebuke the synod, mulling first whether to rip out the Vatican’s new tree—a nod to St. Boniface, a medieval monk who chopped down an oak held sacred by Germanic pagans—before settling on the statues, which had conveniently been moved outside Vatican City and into the Roman church as part of a cultural exhibit. Both men flew back to their home countries, and Marshall wired Tschugguel money to cover a return trip near the synod’s close. After the heist it would be Marshall who’d edit the video before Tschugguel posted it anonymously.
“The Pachamama Slayer” became an instant “rad trad” icon, compared to Jesus driving money changers from the temple and the Maccabees. In a celebratory LifeSiteNews video, one interviewee suggested the thief might be a modern-day saint. Gleeful hashtags like #Splashamama popped up alongside racist memes of a Photoshopped Pachamama speaking pidgin English as she visited bad harvests on Catholics who used plastic straws.
After Tschugguel revealed himself two weeks later, he was invited on a U.S. victory tour, hosted by Marshall, LifeSiteNews, and affiliates of TFP. In the flurry of talks and interviews he gave, Tschugguel—tall, Teutonic, a little goofy—explained that the statues were an affront to the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” But also, he told some listeners, they represented the church’s plan to establish a syncretistic one-world religion on behalf of a one-world government that would extinguish national sovereignty, starting in countries like Brazil. If his audiences considered the claim a leap, it was hard to tell from their questions: Who were his favorite bishops? Could they meet his wife? He posed with Marshall at a Texas gun range, and announced the launch of his new nonprofit, the St. Boniface Institute—mission statement: “No to paganism in the Church! No to the globalist agenda in the Church! No to the ongoing destruction from within!” Donations accepted.
It wasn’t just lay traditionalists cheering Tschugguel on. The Vatican had condemned the theft as racist religious intolerance, and the pope personally offered an apology. But a handful of high-ranking churchmen—stalwart opponents of Francis—praised it as heroic, including cardinals Raymond Burke of the U.S., Walter Brandmüller, and Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Germany, as well as Kazakhstan bishop Athanasius Schneider (who wrote the foreword for Marshall’s book and presided over Tschugguel’s wedding). Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador who, in 2018, called on the pope to resign, wrote, “Our dear Alexander has remembered the warning that our God is a jealous God.”
A few months later Catholicism’s internal convulsions spilled over into America’s election, as right-wing Catholics, including those at the center of Trump’s campaign, cast the contest as a choice between true defenders of the faith and Joe Biden’s apostate “Pope Francis Catholics.” Marshall, whose book presents Francis as the culmination of a 150-year Freemason plot to overthrow the church from within, joined the campaign. Viganò wrote Trump a letter, describing himself and the president as allies in a Manichean struggle against a united deep state/deep church front. Trump declared the letter “beautiful” and tweeted it out.
Catholics, Ralph Reed once said, are “the jump ball of American politics.” Conservatives can’t win without them, but they can go either way, the consummate swinger, sometimes determining elections, often reflecting them. Comprising about 23% of voters, Catholics have sided with the winner in most presidential contests over the last 50 years. But they aren’t a bloc. Pollsters break them down variously: white or Hispanic, lapsed or active, attending mass daily or weekly or only on Easter, accepting of church doctrine or not. White Catholics break down further, reflecting solidly liberal and conservative bases and their own swinging center, perpetually up for grabs, and abundantly represented in this year’s battleground states.
The Trump campaign has seized on the opportunity in all the predictable ways, emphasizing that he’s the only president to preside over a U.N. assembly on religious freedom or make a personal appearance at the March for Life. In a quick-turnaround book, The Catholic Case for Trump, conservative U.N. lobbyist Austin Ruse argues that the president’s heavily Catholic inner circle—from Steve Bannon to Kellyanne Conway to Attorney General Bill Barr—proves the maxim “personnel is policy,” delivering on issues prior Republican administrations never touched, like the defunding of Planned Parenthood or the establishment of a State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights, by which Catholicism’s natural law doctrine devalues LGBTQ+ rights. During the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Trump announced he would sign the “Born Alive” executive order, which compels federally funded hospitals to give medical treatment to babies who survive abortions. Amid the height of the pandemic’s first wave, he hosted a call with church leaders, pledging aid for struggling parochial schools. He underscored the promise by declaring he’d been the best president “in the history of the Catholic Church.” And he reminded them of it during October’s Al Smith Dinner, an election-year charity event hosted by the New York Archdiocese, when Trump claimed that Catholic schools “needed hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, and I got it for them. Nobody else.… I hope you remember that on November 3.” Never mind that all three of his SCOTUS appointments come from Catholic backgrounds. (Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh are both practicing, while Neil Gorsuch was raised in the Church.)
While Catholic clergy aren’t supposed to make endorsements, a wink is not a sin. This summer conservative Rhode Island bishop Thomas Tobin tweeted, “The first time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.” Cardinal Burke told Fox that “no practicing Catholic” could vote for a pro-choice politician and that pro-choice candidates like Biden should be denied Communion. (“You have to be with President Trump when it comes to pro-life,” POTUS himself told Catholic TV network EWTN.)
Yet for every cleric declaring Catholics must vote on abortion above all else, there have been others, like Kentucky bishop John Stowe, who said, “For this president to call himself pro-life, and for anybody to back him because of claims of being pro-life, is almost willful ignorance.” And while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has, overall, praised Trump’s positions on abortion, marriage, and support for private schools, it’s criticized him as often over immigration, climate change, poverty, and the death penalty—the federal version of which Barr reinstated in 2019. When Trump’s campaign planned to launch Catholics for Trump in Wisconsin, the archbishop of Milwaukee released a statement that the Church was “in no way affiliated to or sponsoring this event.”
And in June, when Trump showed up at the Pope John Paul II shrine in Washington, the day after his pepper spray photo op at St. John’s Church, Washington archbishop Wilton Gregory condemned the visit as a disgrace. “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated,” wrote Gregory (who last week was named the first African American cardinal in Church history). Trump “was pissed about that,” a White House staffer later told the EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency. “The president doesn’t get why the bishops aren’t with him for doing work on religious liberty.”
To a man with a famously transactional worldview, Catholics weren’t honoring the deal. That sense of betrayal has ratcheted up as poll numbers show Trump slipping among white Catholics.
The day after Gregory’s reproof, Archbishop Viganò—who’s lived in hiding since 2018, claiming to fear for his life—denounced him as a “false shepherd.” Two days after that he followed up with his open letter to Trump, warning that the president faced a deep state aided by a “deep church” dedicated “to globalism, to aligned thought, to the New World Order.” And under this combined threat, all manner of things, from BLM protests to pandemic public-safety measures, amounted to a “Biblical” fight between “the children of darkness” and “the children of light.”
All this goes back a long way, but you can start in 2013, when Francis was elected after the highly unusual resignation of Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), who’d been an enforcer of doctrinal purity. When Francis, a theological moderate from outside the Vatican establishment, made statements seeming to downplay Catholics’ traditional focus on abortion, and elevating the environment, refugees, and the excesses of capitalism as equivalent moral concerns, conservatives dug in.
In his new book, The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church, Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb chronicles 100 instances of opposition since Francis became pope, from cardinals writing books against his agenda, to major U.S. donors cutting off funds for Vatican projects, to former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon’s quest to unite European right-wing populists. The critiques and scandals have been reported obsessively by a conservative U.S. Catholic media network that has grown into an opposition force of its own, from far-right websites like LifeSiteNews and Church Militant to the more mainstream EWTN.
“There’s this whole Catholic-right media landscape that functions like a Catholic Fox News,” says John Gehring, Catholic program director for the liberal advocacy organization Faith in Public Life. He notes that EWTN’s lead anchor, Raymond Arroyo, has a regular gig cohosting Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox. Just as that network radicalized Republicans, right-wing Catholic media did the same. “It’s this echo chamber where you hear a lot less about what Pope Francis is talking about in terms of economic inequality, racism, and environmental justice,” says Gehring, “and a whole lot about Viganò.”
In 2018, Viganò released an 11-page letter charging that Francis ignored early warnings about a defrocked cardinal who’d sexually abused minors and seminarians; he decried a Vatican “homosexual network” and called for Francis to resign. Around the world Catholic bishops’ conferences immediately voiced support for the pope, but the U.S. conference took weeks to do the same, and even then, some two dozen bishops announced support for Viganò instead.
Partly that reflected how deeply the U.S. clergy sex abuse crisis had scarred American Catholics. In the context of America’s political parties, says Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at Villanova University, the crisis came to be interpreted along polarized lines, with the left blaming hierarchical church culture and the right, essentially, homosexuality.
“On the right they’ve used that massively at every level,” says Faggioli. “Conservatives have weaponized the scandal to try to get rid of Pope Francis and said nothing about what John Paul II knew, what Pope Benedict knew. Only Pope Francis and a list of liberal cardinals or bishops.”
The reaction to Viganò’s claims also reflected how U.S. bishops tend to be more conservative than their counterparts abroad. Under John Paul II and Benedict, U.S. conservative Catholics enjoyed a close relationship with the Vatican, particularly over issues like abortion. By contrast, while “Francis isn’t actually very liberal on many issues,” says Jon O’Brien, former president of the progressive group Catholics for Choice, “he’s not very good if you want to go after abortion as a full-time job.” Rome’s regime change left conservative Catholics adrift. “They ended up having to live in a way that progressive Catholics had to live for many years, which is on the outskirts of town.”
That sense of displacement coincided with other shifts—as Faggioli puts it, “the end of ‘the American century.’” Francis might not be a liberal pope, but he is a global one, says Faggioli, and his papacy meant the U.S. lost its status as the church’s favorite son. “There’s a theological disorientedness among conservative American Catholics that’s also a political and geopolitical sense of being lost.”
It wasn’t coincidental, he says, that between Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Francis’s in 2013, and Trump’s in 2016, a segment of Catholic conservatives veered sharply into more radical ideological terrain. “They saw a Jesuit from Latin America who was talking a lot about the poor, the environment, the marginalized, and how capitalism is corrupt. And they saw it was the destruction of what they expected Catholicism was going to be, which in their plans was a Ratzingerian church forever,” says Faggioli. “The alt-right in the Catholic Church was born in that moment.”
“Alt-right Catholicism” became clearer after 2016. Steve Bannon, upon expulsion from the White House, went to Italy and made plans to launch a populist “gladiator school” in a former monastery outside Rome, in cooperation with an institute overseen by Cardinal Burke. He spoke with Italy’s vehemently anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who emerged from their meeting bearing a T-shirt that read, “Benedict is my pope.”
Over the past two years, Bannon’s movement collapsed and Salvini slipped from power, but a series of “National Conservatism” conferences have drawn together traditionalist Catholics and far-right activists, under a theme contrasting Francis with John Paul II. At the first meeting in 2019, a correspondent for Church Militant described a “war between globalism and nationalism being waged at the heart of Western Christendom,” going on to contrast speeches John Paul II delivered in Soviet Poland—addresses credited with helping end Communist rule—with Francis’s emphasis on global solidarity. (The meeting also featured, as Gehring reported elsewhere, an opening “Patriotic Rosary” that included a reading from Robert E. Lee, asking God’s blessing “upon our cause.”)
And it cut both ways, as the alt-right began adopting the trappings of traditionalism, like using Crusader imagery in social media profiles. “The populists and nationalists were looking for some kind of soul for their politics. And they found it in some symbols of the faith,” says Lamb. “And I think they’re very powerful symbols. Quite often they help make the whole case that the past has been lost.” But along the way of the far-right getting into Catholicism, Lamb continues, “Trumpism got into the church.”
“It was kind of like Pepe Catholicism,” says David W. Lafferty, an independent scholar who writes about conspiracy theories for Where Peter Is, a moderate Catholic site founded to rebut right-wing attacks on Francis. A sort of “Catholic LARPing,” Georgetown theologian Adam Rasmussen noted on a Where Peter Is podcast, where alt-rightists organized primarily around racial grievance could pretend they were “Knights Templar fighting the forces of darkness in the deep state.”
Lafferty, who used to consider himself “a very conservative Catholic,” even cautiously optimistic about Trump, watched a transformation overcome traditionalist personalities like Marshall, whose podcast once consisted mostly of discussing orthodoxy in lay terms. But Marshall got “red-pilled” and became increasingly enmeshed in far-right politics, saying things like Muslims “must convert or be wiped off the face of the earth.”
Church Militant—also begun, founder Michael Voris tells me, to provide an orthodox counter to pop-culture fare like The Da Vinci Code—transitioned too, coming to declare itself the home of “the red-pilled laity” who were abandoning the “Church of Nice parishes” for the rawer meat of traditionalism. As Voris wrote recently, “It’s not only liberals who can get all ‘woke.’”
A couple weeks after Viganò published his open letter, Trump tweeted a quote from an interview Marshall did with Jack Posobiec—an alt-right activist and Pizzagate firestarter—in which Marshall said BLM demonstrations against statues of religious figures entangled with colonialist or imperial history represented “a war on Christianity.”
The Catholic right was elated, declaring Trump’s amplification of the interview a show of solidarity against liberals in the Church. “The president is aligning himself with those voices among Catholics that, though in a minority, are determined to fight for the authentic and true Catholic faith,” wrote LifeSiteNews.
Soon after Marshall announced he was joining the advisory board of Catholics for Trump. “It’s a war between the children of light and the children of darkness,” Marshall said in a video announcing the news. “And you know who knows it? Not Joe Biden.”
To church moderates the message was also clear. “Trump hasn’t received the support he wants from mainstream Catholicism, even from the bishops,” says Mike Lewis, founder of Where Peter Is. “So they’ve decided instead to turn to the leaders of the Catholic alt-right, to rally their supporters.”
“It’s kind of a strange thing to be doing, but when you’re slicing and dicing the ‘Catholic vote,’ I think he might realize that’s his base,” says Gehring.
In July unnamed White House officials told the Catholic News Agency that deputy chief of staff for communications Dan Scavino, who helps run Trump’s Twitter account, had advised the president to bypass the bishops and court Catholics through non-establishment figures instead.
The campaign suddenly became a lot more Catholic. In 2016, Trump had certainly appealed to Catholic conservatives, including at their extremes. Among his advisory board members then was the bombastically antiabortion priest Fr. Frank Pavone, who, several days before the election, underscored his Trump support with a speech from an altar bearing an aborted fetus on it. But this time around, Pavone tells me, the campaign is positively suffused with religion.
Alongside drumbeat messages about abortion and religious freedom, Catholics for Trump hosted “Theology Thursday” Zoom sessions with figures like Marshall and Sebastian Gorka; weekly prayer calls and rosaries; and blessings from priests like Pavone before canvassers went door-knocking. From his new perch within the campaign, Marshall cohosted a live-streamed LifeSiteNews rosary, led by Viganò, praying for Trump’s victory. And CatholicVote, an independent political group that shares an adviser with the campaign, commissioned a mailer pitting collaged photos of Trump, Ronald Reagan, and John Paul II against those of Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Ilhan Omar, asking recipients, “Which side are you on?”
Then there was the convention, which opened in August with a prayer by a delegate who described himself as a “Catholic, Donald Trump Republican” and Don Jr., warning the election was “shaping up to be church, work, and school versus rioting, looting, and vandalism.” There was Nicholas Sandmann, the Catholic high schooler turned conservative celebrity after his clash with a Native American activist; former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who garnered a Presidential Medal of Freedom after calling Biden “Catholic in name only”; and a nun, Sr. Deirdre Byrne, who declared Biden and Kamala Harris “the most anti-life presidential ticket ever,” while brandishing a rosary she described as her “weapon of choice” (a flourish she later said that Marshall had inspired).
When the convention closed with a rendition of “Ave Maria” sung from the White House balcony, Catholic commentator John Zmirak, who in 2017 suggested Trump might defend traditional Christianity against Pope Francis’s failings, declared, “This is the most Catholic moment in American history.”
Among the Trumpified Catholic far right, paranoia, along with growing racism and anti-Semitism, crept in.
Throughout the summer BLM protests became a topic of increasing outrage among traditionalist Catholics. One priest compared protesters to al-Qaida, while another called them maggots and parasites. In Wisconsin, Fr. James Altman live-streamed a mass denying the existence of systemic racism and suggesting lynching was just capital punishment. On EWTN, a Black radio host was temporarily suspended by an affiliate for supporting police reform, and on YouTube, Marshall repeatedly played a clip of a Black woman punching a white woman in a Catholic church.
When protesters turned to public monuments—first of Confederate heroes but later including Catholics with complex histories, like St. Junípero Serra, whose California missions imprisoned Native Americans they’d sought to convert—conservatives decried statue vandalism as evidence of mounting anti-Catholicism. The claim wasn’t without irony. A parody account created to denounce the Amazon Synod’s Pachamama statues posted memes mocking BLM, with tearful liberals crying because they “saw a statue.” Marshall, who funded the mission to steal “the Pachas,” recorded more than a dozen shows thundering against the desecration of Catholic symbols. “Wake up, people,” he warned. “It doesn’t end with a statue. It ends with you dead.”
The Trump campaign and its supporters shifted from calling Biden a fake Catholic to anti-Catholic, with CatholicVote’s Brian Burch accusing Democrats of fostering the “climate of hate” that made attacks on church property possible. The Minnesota-based Freedom Club launched a website with the url anticatholicticket.com. At the end of August, a slickly produced video from a website related to the Freedom Club made that message viral, as Wisconsin’s Fr. Altman preached, over the soundtrack of The Passion of the Christ, that Catholics who vote Democratic must repent or “face the fires of hell.” And even longtime firebrands like Michael Voris found ways to escalate, warning any Catholics who decide “Trump is so crass they will not vote for him,” that they better not complain when they’re “herded onto the trains heading for the camps.”
Next to that it was almost milquetoast to hear Trump say Biden would “hurt the Bible, hurt God.” Or to see his secretary of state pick fights with the Vatican. Or to witness Federal Election Commission chair Trey Trainor give a lengthy interview to Church Militant in which he called the election a “spiritual war” and accused U.S. bishops of hiding behind the “fallacy” of church–state separation to avoid endorsing Trump. (When challenged over the appearance, Trainor defended Church Militant—which days earlier had called for all Democrats and “complicit media” to be “imprisoned for the rest of their natural-born days”—as “one of the best sources of #Catholic News available today.”)
Traditionalist Catholicism has always had a strong undercurrent of conspiracism. Marshall’s Infiltration, panned even by conservative critics, synthesizes accusations that have circulated since Vatican II; most of his arguments, David Lafferty wrote, rest heavily on an unverifiable 1800s document, potentially as fraudulent as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and similarly used by anti-Semites crafting grander theories about Freemasonry and Communists. But increasingly, traditionalists’ conspiracy theories have merged with those in the secular world: about voting, the pandemic, protests, and more.
In May, Viganò had launched an “appeal” manifesto, signed by numerous dissident church and media leaders (including anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.), declaring the pandemic a pretext for a globalist coup aided by “shady business interests.”
“We have reason to believe,” the appeal read, “that there are powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population with the sole aim of permanently imposing unacceptable forms of restrictions on freedoms,” in “a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.” By late spring Cardinal Burke, who hadn’t signed the appeal, echoed its paranoia in warning that governments might implant microchips under vaccine recipients’ skin, “so that at any moment he or she can be controlled by the state regarding health and about other matters which we can only imagine.”
The sentiment spread like its own sort of virus. In Denver a priest told parishioners to disobey mask mandates because they were part of “an attempted communist takeover.” In Minneapolis another priest delivered a homily arguing the virus had been “engineered” to keep the public afraid. LifeSiteNews began warning of a mysterious coming regime called the Great Reset. Crisis magazine published an article by former EWTN president Dan Burke suggesting BLM wasn’t just Marxism but witchcraft, and anyone who’d supported it might need an exorcism. And Kazakhstan’s Bishop Schneider told LifeSiteNews he suspected “this COVID situation was created not only to implement a new dictatorship and control of the population, but in some way to legalize abortion globally…so that the entire planet will be collaborating in the process of killing babies through the vaccine, which will use parts of aborted babies.” Should such a vaccine become mandatory, Schneider added, “we will enter into the time of the apocalypse.”
Viganò’s June Trump letter had also entwined his message with the convoluted worldview of QAnon, the conspiracy theory turned mass delusion. At its heart QAnon is rooted not just in centuries-old anti-Semitic slurs like blood libel but similar anti-Catholic claims as well. Last fall a believer allegedly attacked an Arizona church with a crowbar, ranting that the Catholic Church supports human trafficking; the year before that, QAnon followers helped a fabricated quote—Pope Francis saying America must be ruled by a world government “for their own good”—go viral. Yet days after Viganò’s letter to Trump, a Q drop linked it approvingly, and two subsequent messages reposted its entire text.
“The mere fact that Q links to the LifeSiteNews posting of Viganò’s letter to Trump means that many thousands of QAnon adherents will read the letter and absorb it into their twisted mythology,” Lafferty wrote at Where Peter Is. There were already disconcerting parallels in the language Viganò and QAnon used: about the “deep state” and “deep church,” certainly, but also about light and darkness, Trump’s role in an apocalyptic showdown, even certain grammatical tics. There was also the connection of Michael Flynn, Trump’s embattled former national security adviser, considered a martyr in Q lore. By fall Flynn’s brother Joseph, a board member of Catholics for Trump, would tell Church Militant that Viganò had become the family’s spiritual guide.
But, Lafferty continued, it also represented a shift: that QAnon no longer viewed Catholicism as pure enemy, but rather, contested ground, with Francis and his supporters on one side and righteous rebels like Viganò on the other.
Viganò began mirroring Q’s style: sending regular messages from hiding—“V drops,” as they say on Where Peter Is—out to the right-wing Catholic press. That the pope’s religious order, the Jesuits, was funded by George Soros. That God would ensure Trump’s victory. That Vatican II was a “devil council” and both its gestures toward religious pluralism and those of subsequent popes—even the beloved John Paul II—had paved the way for the Amazon Synod’s idolatry.
Even some reliably conservative Catholics began to sense things were getting out of hand. In late July, Bishop Robert Barron had assembled an invite-only meeting of Catholic journalists to discuss the problem of “rad trads,” after a clash with Marshall over Catholics’ role in addressing racism led to such a profusion of online abuse that Barron had three staffers working full time to delete the tirades against him.
“I was bitterly attacked online for days, enduring hundreds and hundreds of foul-mouthed, obscene comments,” Barron emails. “It was just flabbergasting, especially considering all of this vitriol was coming from self-described Catholics who were addressing themselves to a bishop of their church.”
When Bishop Thomas Tobin—the same conservative who’d smirked that there were no Catholics on this year’s Democratic ticket—asked why, if Vatican II was so bad, it took Viganò decades to say so, Marshall called him “an infiltrator” too. Nervous conservative Catholic media began warning that traditionalists’ scorched-earth approach was going too far; one outlet suggested that Viganò, in his isolation, “may have become a bit unstable.”
“Where does it stop?” asked one conservative priest who’d written critically of Francis for years.
Maybe never. This month Viganò graduated from flirting with QAnon to what can only be read as endorsing it, declaring in a rambling interview that a President Biden would become the marionette “of a power that does not dare reveal itself,” while “Trump is fighting pedophilia and pedosatanism.”
On Friday, just days before the election, Viganò published a new open letter to Trump, warning him of the coming, “liberticidal” Great Reset in the “first trimester” of 2021, as Bill Gates and the International Monetary Fund collaborate to eliminate private property, impose a “health dictatorship” of mandatory vaccination, place anyone who objects in detention camps, and give “the final blow to a world whose existence and very memory they want to completely cancel.” While the Bible promised the Church and the pope would stand against the Antichrist, Viganò continued, it had become clear that “the one who occupies the Chair of Peter has betrayed his role from the very beginning in order to defend and promote the globalist ideology, supporting the agenda of the deep church, who chose him from its ranks.” Instead, Viganò concluded, “It is you, dear President, who are ‘the one who opposes’ the deep state, the final assault of the children of darkness.”
“The alternative is to vote for a person who is manipulated by the deep state, gravely compromised by scandals and corruption, who will do to the United States what Jorge Mario Bergoglio is doing to the Church,” he wrote, referring to the pope by his given name—and thereby not recognizing him as pope. Within hours Q posted each page of the letter.
Fr. Altman, enjoying his own victory tour, went on Church Militant and—nearly bouncing with excitement as he called Voris a personal hero—traced “the disaster that has erupted everywhere” back to the 2019 synod, when “a pagan idol gets waltzed right into the Catholic Church, and set before the altar of St. Peter.” Just weeks after that, he continued, the real start of the pandemic had come, at a global military gathering in Wuhan. “That’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s facts,” said Altman. “But all you need to know: An abomination is brought into the temple, and throughout salvation history, that happens, all hell does in fact break loose.”
It will get worse before it gets better, he added. “I foresee blood in the streets.”
“It’s a campaign made of kamikazes,” says Massimo Faggioli. “I don’t know if they’ll change the electoral math, but it’s part of where the Catholic Church is today, and they know that and they’re using it. And part of the calculus is, ‘We may lose this election, but we will continue to foment and feed this insurgency even after November 3.’… This is not only for the election; it’s a longer game.”
Mike Lewis founded Where Peter Is “to give a voice to those of us whose families, friendships, and communities have been damaged by the backlash” over Pope Francis. He’d watched the schism play out in his own family, as his mother became convinced, in her final years, that Francis was a heretic—a belief, Lewis says, she’d come to through EWTN and the right-wing Catholic press.
“When she became sick, I raised the subject a few more times, but it was clear that her views had become entrenched,” Lewis wrote at the liberal Catholic magazine America. “She even had a coffee mug with the word ‘Viganò’ written on it in capital letters. And every conversation we had about religion drifted into an argument about Pope Francis. Being unable to talk about God with the person who gave me my faith as she lay dying was agonizing.”
This was a story, he tells me, that he heard repeatedly from readers: people who wanted to know why their friends or pastors were suddenly “going nuts about idolatry” but couldn’t find rebuttal anywhere, because the responsible voices in church hierarchy think it best to ignore the fringe.
“You hear about these people who say, ‘I lost my mother to QAnon,’ but it’s happening in Catholic families as well,” says Lewis. “I’ve been one of the few Catholic moderates banging the drum, saying this is not a movement we can ignore. They are getting more and more radical, becoming more and more conspiratorial, and causing serious polarization. And if we don’t dial it back right now—” He stops. “I mean, I don’t even know if we can come back from it now.” Indeed, by the time Francis released a new encyclical earlier this month, sharply rebuking nationalism and appealing for universal fraternity, Catholic traditionalists could only respond that it would be “the ultimate Masonic document,” and that there was no unity they could have with him.
In 2017, the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which is authorized by the pope, published an article charging that conservative American Catholics were getting lost in polarization, joining conservative evangelicals in “an ecumenism of hate” to promote “an apocalyptic geopolitics” that thrives on fear and uses theology to justify belligerence.
“Theirs is a prophetic formula: fight the threats to American Christian values and prepare for the imminent justice of an Armageddon, a final showdown between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. In this sense, every process (be it of peace, dialogue, etc.) collapses before the needs of the end, the final battle against the enemy,” wrote the authors, one of whom is a close associate of Pope Francis.
To Faggioli it was a stunning historical document, marking the drift of American Catholicism away from the global church.
“I think it’s the beginning of a trajectory that is likely, unfortunately, to make the Catholic Church in the U.S. what happened to white evangelicals over the last 40, 50 years—placing the deep feeling of their theological tradition at the service of nationalism and now ethnic–racial nationalism,” he says, citing the 1994 Mark Noll book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which describes a whittling down of Christian theology to an unrecognizable sliver—part self-help, part prosperity gospel, part permanent Republican surrogacy.
“I’m afraid that could be the path U.S. Catholicism will follow,” Faggioli says. “Which means Catholicism will no longer define itself by a series of texts, positions, and international connections, but on the basis of party affiliation and ideological adhesion to a libertarian view of the economy, where you deserve what you get and you get what you deserve.”
And so, beside a global Catholic Church, it would become something separate: isolated, angry, and alone, shouting accusations into the air.