How Catholic Bishops, Media, and Social Media Hinder the Mission of the U. S. Church
The Catholic Church in the United States faces significant issues. Attendance is falling, and the abuse crisis remains unresolved. These problems combine to case a financial emergency.
Politics divide Catholics. White Catholics overwhelmingly supporting the GOP, and non-white Catholics gravitate toward Democrats.
Major issues like immigration, family separation, and gun violence split Catholics, and many people in internment camps, with families separated, and victims of gun violence are Catholic.
Compounding these matters is a lack of trust in the episcopacy, Catholic media, and social media. The three function almost like an enfeebled trinity of malfunction, debilitation, and decay.
1. The Episcopacy
The U.S. bishops are divided into at least two camps: a culture warrior group and a set of bishops more in line with the priorities of Pope Francis.
The fault lines appeared at the General Assembly in the fall of 2019. Culture warriors insisted on naming abortion as the preeminent issue facing Catholic voters while the others sought to promote a wider set of topics related to a consistent whole-life ethic.
Sexual abuse cases including hundreds documented by grand juries, harm the bishops’ credibility because bishops have participated in abuse and covered up for abusers. The Vatican laicized one of the most prominent clerics in the United States, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, after his decades of abusing seminarians became public. The Vatican still has not released their report concerning him.
Some bishops appear to oppose the agenda and authority of Pope Francis. Backed by wealthy supporters, Cardinal Burke has repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Supreme Pontiff. This Cardinal often partners with EWTN subsidiaries to promote his discontent and accuse Pope Francis of trying to “contradict theological truths.”
Multiple U.S. bishops supported disgraced Archbishop Viganò when he falsely accused Pope Francis of covering up for Cardinal McCarrick. Meanwhile, Viganò in his capacity of Papal Nuncio to the United States allegedly covered up improprieties of Archbishop Nienstedt.
Additionally, after a series of exposés, Bishop Malone of Buffalo was forced to retire for mishandling abuse cases, and the diocese declared bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Auxiliary Bishop Grosz of Buffalo retired after allegedly mishandling abuse cases. Meanwhile, a letter from Bishop Malone surfaced. He addressed it “in the Name of God” blaming and sanctioning the priest who was the whistleblower in the diocese.
In February 2020, Archbishop Perez replaced Archbishop Chaput as the Ordinary of Philadelphia. Chaput has been a culture warrior, so his replacement signaled a new era in this leading archdiocese. Instead of laying low as retired bishops as supposed to do, Chaput has remained in the public eye. He is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which is reported to have the President of the United States as one of its attendees.
Unless the pope asks for a bishop to resign (like he did for the entire Chilean episcopacy), he has few remedies for dealing with rogue bishops. The politicization of the episcopacy, division within its ranks, and corruption among its leading members causes confusion and consternation among the faithful.
2. Catholic Media
Catholic media outlets shape opinions related to issues facing the Church. Few organizations simply deliver the news of the day. Catholic News Service (an arm of the USCCB) tends to provide balanced coverage of the issues facing the Church.
Reactionary media organizations drive the conversation on social media and beyond. Many of these organizations like Lifesite, Church Militant, and Remnant News serve as tabloids spreading gossip and innuendo.
One of the most powerful Catholic media outlets in the world is EWTN. This right-wing organization has multiple platforms including television, radio, digital and print. EWTN personalities appear on Fox News, and their hosts regularly criticize Pope Francis. Their “Papal Posse” sets out to criticize the decisions, pronouncements, and actions of the Holy Father.
EWTN’s subsidiaries, such as Catholic News Agency (CNA), National Catholic Register, and ACI Prensa, serve as platforms for opinions that often tacitly oppose Pope Francis. In 2019, Heidi Schlumpf of National Catholic Reporter performed a three-part exposé of EWTN, its various wings, and financial backers.
First Things is a quasi-Catholic publication. Its writers skew to the right on the political spectrum as they embrace the usual culture-warrior issues and critique Pope Francis with a semi-intellectual veneer.
Not all Catholic media spews gossip and propaganda. Mainstream print and digital Catholic organizations include The National Catholic Reporter (NCR), America (a Jesuit organization), and Commonweal. They sometimes receive criticism for being “liberal” only because reactionary Catholicism leans so far to the right. They also give space for progressive voices while remaining loyal to the Church and official teaching.
Consistently centrist media organizations include Our Sunday Visitor, U.S. Catholic, the Boston-based CatholicTV, and Crux (funded by the Knights of Columbus).
Readers and supporters of one style of Catholic media rarely trust other sources. People who consume information from EWTN rarely trust (say) America or NCR. It’s not unusual to find right-wing Catholic news consumers suggesting other media organizations of not being sufficiently Catholic.
3. Social Media
When analyzing Catholic Social Media (CSM), it is important to distinguish between Catholics using social media with “Catholic Social Media.” Catholics use social media to share personal news, ask for prayer, and get questions answered. I have often asked my fellow Catholics for prayer and assured others of my solidarity with them.
It does not take long, however, to discover that Catholic Social Media can devolve quickly into a hotbed of arguments, accusations, and abomination.
CSM has a distinctive tone: one of constant contention. Regardless of the issue, people on CSM combat one another over the veracity of their views — as if anyone’s opinion on social media has ever been changed after reading a tweet.
The main topic of CSM is Pope Francis and the direction his papacy is leading the Church. If you search “Catholic Twitter,” you will find Catholics (not sedevacantists) charging Pope Francis with heresy and claiming his priorities are dismantling the Catholic Church.
Yes, many people on Catholic Social Media consider themselves to be more Catholic than the pope.
Arguments on CSM are usually ridiculous. One controversy raged over the pope not allowing people to kiss his ring. Recent battles have included the “proper” way to receive communion in the age of coronavirus and whether the Italian bishops should have suspended public religious gatherings until Palm Sunday.
A handful of U.S. Catholic bishops are known to mix it up on social media, and a couple have reputations of behaving as Twitter trolls. Priests, members of religious orders, and canon lawyers often show up on CSM to argue their points and to stir up controversy.
4. Three Test Cases
Three recent events illustrate how the divided Catholic hierarchy, siloed Catholic media, and toxic Catholic social media combine to cause scandal.
*Opposing the Synod
Immediately before the Amazon synod, opponents of Pope Francis hosted an event claiming that the synod was a way to “Protestantize” the Catholic Church.
One leading conspiracy-minded CSM personality at this event claimed, “The Catholic Church is in crisis because the enemies of Christ plotted an organized effort to place a Pope for Satan on the Roman Chair of Saint Peter.”
During the synod, people on CSM charged the pope with idolatry. Egged on by CSM and supported by Cardinal Burke and right-wing Catholic media, a young man stole two statues and threw them into the Tiber; subsequently, CSM celebrated him as a hero like St. Boniface.
* False Authorship
The problematic alliance between the hierarchy, Catholic media, and CSM became an issue in the days before the release of the pope’s exhortation Querida Amazonia.
Following the synod, many Catholics anxiously anticipated that Pope Francis might change the Church’s discipline concerning priestly celibacy. Seeking to preempt the pope’s decision, Cardinal Sarah published a book (alleging Pope Emeritus Benedict as his co-author) in which he argued against changing the rule concerning celibacy.
Right-wing Catholic media and social media celebrated this book as validation of their beliefs. Opponents argued that Cardinal Sarah had simply made up his argument related to an “ontological change” when a man is ordained. They also countered that, as pope, Benedict allowed married men to enter the priesthood under special circumstances.
* Anonymous Sources
Catholic News Agency ran a hit piece against Fr. James Martin in which the writer claimed “several” anonymous bishops spoke to him following their ad limina visit with Pope Francis. These unnamed sources supposedly claimed that the Holy Father told them that he was angry about Fr. Martin’s ministry to LGBTQ Catholics.
Almost immediately, Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe wrote an editorial in Catholic National Reporter to dispute the CNA characterization of the meeting. After that, Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne released a statement that disagreed with the anonymous report too. National Catholic Reporter published an editorial commending both bishops for going on the record and reproaching CNA for the illegitimate use of Catholic media to harm the reputation of others.
Subsequently, Archbishop Aquila of Denver disputed the accounts of Archbishop Wester and Bishop Biegler.
Catholic historian and theologian Massimo Faggioli has analyzed the unethical use of weaponizing of a papal meeting to smear a person’s reputation, embarrass the pope, and advance a political and ecclesiastical agenda.
Catholics on social media are broader than the subset of people who constitute Catholic Social Media.
Many U.S. bishops perform their duties exceedingly well, and they use social media with aplomb. Bishop Flores, Bishop Seitz, and Archbishop Gomez serve their communities, lead with humility, and communicate successfully online. Several vowed sisters, nuns, and groups of women religious have a positive social media presence.
Most diocesan publications share Catholic news in good faith as they attempt to inform the faithful of events affecting the Church.
Nonetheless, an unreliable clergy, polarized media, and toxic social media combine to hinder the Church’s mission to evangelize in communion with the Successor of St. Peter.
Now is a time for all who participate in the Catholic public square to reassess their actions, confess their sins, and make reparations to resolve the trouble they have participated in.