(RNS) — Protests are common at gatherings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which often touch on national politics or attract heavy media scrutiny, such as during the height of the Catholic sex abuse crisis.
But this year’s annual fall USCCB gathering in Baltimore, convened Nov. 15-18, is set to host at least two unusually visible demonstrations that showcase the increasingly broad spectrum of American Catholic thought.
Particularly fraught is a planned “prayer rally” by Church Militant, a controversial conservative Catholic media outlet known for espousing incendiary rhetoric that is sometimes condemned by critics as inflammatory, racist and homophobic. The event, which organizers say is designed to express a range of grievances with U.S. bishops, is slated to occur on Tuesday in a pavilion that sits alongside the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott — the hotel hosting the USCCB.
Church Militant, which is based in Detroit but has been rebuked by leaders of the local archdiocese, organized similar protests outside the Marriott during past USCCB meetings. But this year’s effort has drawn additional attention for its speaker lineup — particularly the inclusion of Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right agitator, and Steve Bannon, onetime adviser to former-President Donald Trump.
News of participation from Yiannopoulos and Bannon sparked concern among Baltimore city officials, who sued to stop the protest in September. Lawyers for the city cited safety concerns, noting in their legal filing that violence has erupted at past events headlined by Yiannopoulos and that Bannon has previously called for beheading political opponents — namely, suggesting he would put the heads of infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray “on pikes.”
In addition, lawyers accused Church Militant founder Michael Voris of praising people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. During a broadcast that day, Voris referred to insurrectionists as “American patriots” who were “fed up with the fraudulent election” — a reference to the widely debunked claims of massive voter fraud during the 2020 election.
Church Militant, also known as St. Michael’s Media, rebuffed the city’s arguments and insisted their rally was lawful, citing their First Amendment right to free speech. They ultimately prevailed: A federal judge ruled in their favor last month, paving the way for the protest.
“We are disappointed by the Court’s decision and remain concerned about the potential public safety threat to Baltimore City property posed by the rally,” Cal Harris, the mayor’s communications director, said in a statement. “Protecting Baltimore residents and their property is our top priority, however, we will abide by the direction of the courts.”
A spokesperson for Church Militant told Religion News Service the rally, known as the “Enough Is Enough” gathering, is meant to “provide a venue and voice for 100s of thousands of victims of the bishops’ abuse (physical, financial, spiritual, liturgical and doctrinal).” According to the Associated Press, Yiannopoulos testified that he wanted to speak at the event because he is a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest and wants to encourage others to “confront the enablers and abusers.”
As for unease about potential violence, the spokesperson said Church Militant “has no concern about violence emanating from legitimate attendees of the rally,” adding that the organization is taking “various precautions” to prevent disruptions.
“St. Michael’s Media is a Catholic non-profit completely dedicated to peacefulness and have never condoned violence, despite the City’s fraudulent claims, which were shot down by the Court,” read a statement from the group.
The spokesperson confirmed one speaker recently had a “change in their plans” regarding the event, which is expected to include a number of controversial conservative Catholic figures. The spokesperson did not name which speaker may be dropping out but noted it was “not Bannon.”
Bannon was indicted on contempt of Congress charges Friday (Nov 12) for defying a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan 6 insurrection. It was not immediately how the indictment would impact his apparent attendance at the rally.
A spokesperson for the USCCB declined to comment on the Church Militant rally.
Meanwhile, a coalition of liberal-leaning Catholic groups is planning a separate protest on Monday. Calling their demonstration “Bread, not Stones,” organizers plan to pray outside the hotel to express disapproval with what they describe as efforts by bishops to politicize the Eucharist.
The demonstration is focused on a planned debate at the USCCB meeting over a document on Communion. Although the document is expected to be less political than some critics originally feared, the controversy surrounding its creation drew international attention after some bishops suggested denying the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
Organizations helping to assemble the protest include Catholics for Choice, Women’s Ordination Conference, DignityUSA and FutureChurch.
“We take this action on behalf of the majority of faithful Catholics who believe that there is no place for partisanship, shame, or division at the table of the Eucharist,” read a statement from Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice. “The Eucharist is the central unifying sacrament of our church, and the very idea of using Jesus’s body as a tool of punishment and intimidation against pro-choice Catholics is a grievous betrayal of everything Jesus taught us.”
Manson added: “In bringing this message to the bishops’ doorstep on Monday, we are putting them on notice: you can choose to weaponize the Eucharist, but please don’t do it in the name of our faith.”
Other groups have launched virtual protests ahead of the gathering, such as a petition calling on Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the current USCCB president, to apologize for a recent speech in which he categorized social justice movements as “pseudo-religions.” The petition, which has garnered more than 9,000 signatures, is a joint effort by liberal-leaning groups Faith in Public Life and Faithful America.
“Catholic bishops and other religious leaders should be out in the streets with these movement organizers, not demeaning them with language that only emboldens opponents of racial equity,” the petition reads.
Another Catholic group, Pax Christi USA, also released an open letter to Gomez this week, decrying his remarks as denoting a “negative and misleading stereotype.”