‘God and fools’
Although I left the Catholic Church many years ago, I have a great deal of respect for members of the Society of Jesus — Jesuit priests and brothers. As one of their missions is education, Jesuits have a reputation for being first-rate scholars who take on controversial issues regarding the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, the first pontiff from the Society of Jesus.
Writing in America — The Jesuit Review magazine, Fr. James Martin posits that some Catholic clergy helped give rise to mob violence at the U.S. Capitol in January. He provides numerous examples of vitriolic anti-Joe Biden-Democratic Party YouTube presentations, sermons, writings and remarks by Roman Catholic clergy.
In an August 2020 YouTube presentation — viewed over 1.2 million times — Fr. James Altman, a priest from Wisconsin, stated “You cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat … Repent of your support of that party and its platform, or face the fires of hell.” In a written statement, Bishop William Patrick Callahan said that although Fr. Altman’s tone was “angry and judgmental,” he (Callahan) understood “the undeniable truth” that motivates the message.
In a follow-up video Fr. Altman stated that “Liberal Catholics were Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” comparing the tactics of the political “left” to those of Nazis. A few weeks later, Rev. Ed Meeks, a priest in Maryland, preached a homily (uploaded on YouTube with 2 million views) wherein he declared the Democratic Party the “party of death.” Speaking of Rev. Meeks, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Texas told his 40,000 Twitter followers that “Every Catholic should listen to this wise and faithful priest.”
Fr. Martin states the anti-Democratic Party, anti-Joe Biden rhetoric is focused on abortion. If a candidate declared a pro-choice position, Catholics could not vote for that individual because abortion is an intrinsic evil. He states this perspective does not adequately reflect the church’s teaching, which leaves the final choice of whom to vote for to one’s conscience, “recognizing there are many important issues that a voter might have to consider.”
Fr. Martin notes that in “Faithful Citizenship,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.” Fr. Martin argues that one “morally grave reason” would be if the pro-life candidate were “unhinged,” unfit to govern and posed a threat to the country.
After the November election, the caustic rhetoric continued. Father Jeffrey Kirby of South Carolina preached a homily on how to survive the “evil” Biden administration. Rev. John Zuhlsdorf of Wisconsin conducted an exorcism (broadcast on YouTube) over those who were involved in counting votes. He said these individuals engaged in fraud, sin, lying, cheating and stealing, and had “put their souls in terrible mortal peril.”
In a now-deleted tweet, Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, wrote: “Why is it that the supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party can’t say a goddamn thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump? What the hell do you have to say for yourselves losers?”
Framing the language of political party and candidate differences in terms of “pure good versus pure evil,” Fr. Martin states, contributed to the presence of many rioters at the Capitol Building. If one political party is the “party of death,” as some Christian leaders including Catholic priests and bishops have stated, then fighting against it is “an absolute moral imperative” and eradicating that party “a triumph for life.”
There were numerous moral issues in the November election, Fr. Martin notes, including abortion, economic justice, racism, migrants and refugees, care for the poor, and care for the environment. (I would add expanding affordable health care and fighting COVID-19, both pro-life issues.) However, a substantial number of people on one side of the political divide focused primarily on abortion as the litmus test for all moral decision making — the overriding issue that determines “if a candidate or a party was evil.”
Fr. Martin argues that many individuals who stormed the Capitol Building “felt they were doing something holy. Why wouldn’t they? This was a fight against evil. After all this is what a cardinal a small number of bishops and many more priests … had been telling them for months. They heard it from the pulpit, they read it in parish bulletins, and they saw it on social media.”
For some insurrectionists the attack was motivated by religion and politics. Fr. Martin states the signs rioters carried told their story: “God, Guns and Trump,” “You Need Jesus,” “Jesus is My Savior, Trump is My President,” and “Jesus Saves.”
Would the “Jesus Saves” crusaders have attempted to save then-Vice President Pence from those chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” or would they have provided the rope? History tells us that religious fervor (in any faith) coupled with political fanaticism is a highly volatile, dangerous mix that often results in violence.
Fr. Martin notes that in his address to Congress (in the Capitol Building) on Sept. 24, 2015, Pope Francis said “there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”
An “alarming number” of pro-life Catholic clergy, Fr. Martin concludes, contributed to the simplistic, reductionist good or evil dichotomy Pope Francis cautioned us to avoid with this reductionism resulting in violence and death.
Theologian Gary Macy (Santa Clara University) reminds us of the centrality of humility in Christianity. “Only God and fools have certainty. The rest of us should take ourselves a good deal less seriously.”
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
Barlow, R. (Jan. 28, 2021) “The Catholic Right’s Combusting Psyche,” WBUR, www.wbur.org
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (accessed 2021) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org
Macy, G. (2021) Personal correspondence.
Martin, J. (Jan. 12, 2021) “How Catholic leaders helped give rise to violence at the U.S. Capitol,” America Magazine, www.americanmagazine.org
Newport. F. (Nov. 13, 2020) “Religious Group Voting and the 2020 Election,” Gallup, https://news.gallup.com
“Full text of Pope Francis’ remarks to Congress” (Sept. 24, 2015) PBS News Hour, www.pbs.org