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Religious cyber-vigilantism on the rise

From tradition to tradition there's a family resemblance.

“Building A Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” by the Rev. James Martin. Images courtesy of Harper Collins

Last Friday the National Catholic Reporter reported that Cardinal Blase Cupich had invited Fr. James Martin, S.J. to offer two nights of Lenten reflections at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral.

This is news?

It’s news because, as many of you will know, a week earlier Martin was disinvited from speaking at Catholic University’s Theological College and a couple of other places, thanks to a campaign by what we might call the Catholic Alt-Right — specifically the websites Church Militant and Father Z.

“Homosexualist James Martin to Address DC Seminary Alumni,” ran the headline on Church Militant’s August 18 story. Martin (“known for his advocacy of same-sex genital acts and transgender ideology”) put himself in the crosshairs by daring to publish a book that urges a nicer, more accepting relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community.

The horror, the horror!

So Theological College decided to pull the plug on the lecture, not because it agreed with Martin’s critics but because “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites” might mar the school’s centennial celebration with “distraction and controversy.” Score: Alt-Right Vigilantes 1, Catholic University 0.

Except maybe not exactly Catholic University 0.

In its account of the disinvitation, America, the venerable Jesuit magazine for which Martin has long worked, noted — with a subtlety some might call Jesuitical — that Theological College “originally said the decision was made ‘after consulting with [Catholic] University and archdiocesan advisers.'”

It then proceeded to quote from a statement from the university throwing the seminary under the bus. After pointing out that Martin had spoken on campus the year before, the statement said, “We regret the implication that Catholic University supported yesterday’s decision.”

There followed a quote from University president John Garvey that began by lamenting pressure on universities “from the left” to withdraw speaker invitations. “It is problematic,” said Garvey, “that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.”

It could be asked why Garvey, as head of the whole Catholic U. operation, didn’t simply arrange for the invitation to be reinstated. Likewise, the disappearance of any mention of an implied go-ahead from “archdiocesan advisers” fell well short of the Archdiocese of Washington or its cardinal archbishop weighing in directly. Perhaps this should be put down to the hallowed Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

In any event, a full-blown teapot tempest ensued, with news coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post, plus defenses of Martin from San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy on the left and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on the right. Cupich’s pointed invitation was merely the icing on a cake of some fairly serious pushback.

But such religious vigilantism will not stop, neither in the Catholic Church nor elsewhere. And in every case, there’s a family resemblance.

Take Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Commission, nearly lost his job for angering Trump enthusiasts in his denomination by presuming to criticize the Republican presidential nominee during last year’s presidential campaign. His board stood up for him but, it appears, not without his agreeing never to criticize Trump again by name.

Then there’s David Myers, a UCLA historian recently named president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York City, who’s been attacked by alt-right Jewish vigilantes for being too left-wing on Israel. The pushback on behalf of a first-rate scholar has been substantial, but as my RNS colleague Jeffrey Salkin bitterly puts it, the war is only the most recent example of “McCarthyism with a smear of cream cheese” in the American Jewish community.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, a bunch of traditionalist Catholics, including no less than the head of the schismatic Saint Pius X Society, issued a “filial correction” of Pope Francis, charging him with seven counts of heresy relating to his readiness to permit divorced and remarried Catholics access to the Eucharist. Call it McCarthyism with a smear of holy oil.

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