Way back when, you’d find Catholic newspapers distributed at the rear of your parish church, with articles that took a middle-of-the road approach to church issues and rarely made an aggressive challenge to the hierarchy.
But news this week that Catholic journalists were involved in editing and distributing a Vatican diplomat’s explosive and largely unverified letter calling for the pope’s resignation reveals an influential and tightly knit conservative Catholic digital media network that’s been particularly active during the tenure of its nemesis, Pope Francis.
Like much of the media in our hyper-polarized, digital era, Catholic news sites have become deeply split between left and right. And these days, the dividing line is almost always what Francis says or does on almost anything, from global warming and tax cuts to the death penalty and increased acceptance of LGBT Catholics and others whose personal lives don’t comply with Catholic orthodoxy’s ideal.
So when Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wanted to make a first-in-history public attack by a member of the Vatican on a sitting pope, he turned, naturally, to conservative sites such as LifeSiteNews.com and the National Catholic Register in the United States, as well as prominent conservative journalists in Italy who in recent years launched opinionated blogs on which they can vent about Francis.
Much like the way in which Breitbart News and Drudge Report have served as media conduits for the brand of conservative American populism led by President Trump, conservative Catholic media outlets have become power players by conveying the anti-Francis point of view, this time becoming part of the story, as well.
“My wife points out: ‘Should you publish it, they will think that, by this very fact, you’re on his side. Are you fine with that?’ Yes I am,” Italian journalist Aldo Maria Valli wrote on his blog Tuesday about his decision to meet Viganò and advise him on whether to publish his accusation that Francis and some of his allies knew about sexual misconduct by a cardinal, former D.C. archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Valli says he shares Viganò’s view that the people at the top of the church “do not work to bring Jesus’ Gospel to the men and women of our time, but to bring chaos and to give into the world’s logic.”
Valli was only one star in the constellation of conservative Catholic media who reportedly were part of the process of getting out the 11-page letter. The Associated Press reported that conservative Italian journalist Marco Tosatti sat at a wooden table in his living room for three hours Aug. 22 as he and Viganò rewrote and edited the letter together, even collaborating on the timing — for impact.
“I think that if you want to say something, now is the moment because everything is going upside-down in the United States. He said ‘OK.,’ ” Tosatti said he told Viganò.
Viganò ultimately distributed his letter through a handful of conservative Catholic sites, including the Register, which is owned by the Alabama-based conglomerate EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network. EWTN runs 11 round-the-clock networks that reach 270 million homes in 145 countries, according to its website. EWTN was launched in the early 1980s by nun-magnate Mother Angelica, who was a media visionary committed to promoting traditional social values.
This week, the New York Times reported that, two weeks ago, Viganò shared his plan with Timothy Busch, a Koch Brothers-like figure in conservative Catholic circles who sits on the board of EWTN. Busch said leaders of the Register had personally assured him that Pope Benedict, a favorite of conservatives, had confirmed Viganò’s account.
Benedict’s secretary Msgr Georg Gaenswein told Italian media outlet ANSA on Thursday that the ex-pope has not confirmed the content of Vigano’s letter, calling a report Benedict had backed Viganò “fake news, a lie.” On Tuesday a German outlet published similar comments from Ganswein.
The Washington Post’s phone calls to Tosatti were not returned, but he tweeted that his role was being overstated and that he’d merely edited the letter. A phone message left with Busch’s office was not returned.
Valli told The Post on Wednesday that he met three times with Viganò after they had initially connected at a conference for conservatives. The first time, in March, Viganò detailed a long list of internal Vatican problems. The third and final time, Aug. 21, Viganò, wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses, handed Valli a memory card with a draft, the journalist said. The two outlined a plan to distribute the letter during Francis’s trip to Ireland, when the pope would be surrounded by reporters.
Viganò was motivated by much more than the McCarrick case, Valli said.
“McCarrick was more like the trigger. [Viganò] had a wider vision,” he said. “What he really cared about [is that] since the end of John Paul II’s pontificate, the problem of homosexuality within the church was widely known. But it was covered up.”
Yet while Catholics of all political persuasions suspect there is a coverup among their leadership on the topic of abuse — and of McCarrick’s case specifically — even many conservatives say they want Viganò’s letter independently confirmed in part due to its connections with right-leaning Catholic media. U.S. Catholics’ general faith in their media, like Americans overall, seems to have decreased in recent decades, some longtime journalists in that field say, as the Web has spawned endless opinionated blogs that run on anonymous tips, which then influence the bigger Catholic news sites.
John Thavis, who covered the Vatican in Rome for decades and was bureau chief of the Catholic News Service before retiring recently, said the digital boom after 2000 greatly increased the number of Catholic media voices.
“A lot of the smaller Catholic organizations take a conservative line, perhaps reflecting the church politics of their financial backers,” he said. Vatican journalists launched their own blogs, on which they could be more opinionated about papal politics — and usually on the conservative side, Thavis said.
In the early 2000s, the center-right Catholic News Agency was founded in Denver. CNA is owned now by EWTN, as is the Register, whose website Wednesday was populated with pieces about Viganò, homosexuality and transgender issues.
A top priority of Valli, Tosatti and other Italian conservative journalists, Thavis said, are “their warnings about homosexuality.” The powerful Italian conservatives in the media, he said, are focused on preserving church practices in particular, especially after the liberalizing changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when the empowered left began pushing for more changes, such as allowing women to become priests. Conservatives have been particularly focused on sex and family as topics and were enraged by Francis’s encouragement of dialogue and debate about whether divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the church should receive Communion.
After decades of rule by the traditional John Paul II, Thavis said, the Vatican press corps was invested in John Paul’s view of the church. He recalls a loud cheer in the press room when the cardinals in 2005 selected the like-minded Benedict as his successor. He also recalls the loud complaints in 2013 when the newly elected Francis said in his first meeting with journalists that he wouldn’t offer the traditional blessing his predecessors had because there were non-Christians in the corps and he wanted to show respect.
“It was revelatory for me to see how conservative [some of the media were] to certain church teachings and practices. I don’t want to say they were more Catholic than the pope,” Thavis said, but to the conservative reporters, Francis’s efforts to reduce the pomp and royalty of the office were not only nontraditional but also a gimmick.
The priorities of the rising new network of conservative Catholic media aren’t limited to issues around sex and ritual. Busch not only sits on the board of EWTN and many other Catholic organizations but is also the namesake for the business school at Catholic University, a graduate school known for working to reconcile free markets and capitalism and Catholic teaching. Francis, on the other hand, is more in the socialist model of Catholicism.
In 2011, Busch co-founded the Napa Institute, a swanky TED-Talk-like conference in Napa, Calif., for conservative Catholics, to prepare the faith “for the Next America,” its site says. The term is adopted from a book by conservative Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput that warns about a secularized America hostile to traditional religion.
When he was in the United States, a prominent lay conservative leader said, Viganò traveled in conservative media circles, which sometimes spanned the ocean, such as when Tosatti would write for the influential U.S. conservative journal First Things. The U.S. and Italian conservative Catholic media are “all part of one world,” said the leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Viganò case is so divisive and this person didn’t want to be seen as adding to that.
The National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency and EWTN represent the center core of conservative Catholic media, with LifeSiteNews.com viewed as leaning more toward advocacy than journalism and ChurchMilitant.com even more so. ChurchMilitant is run by Michael Voris, a journalist who “carries a message of the need for a stalwart defense … of Catholic truth,” the site says. LifeSite was launched in the 1970s by a Canadian organization devoted to fighting “abortion, euthanasia, cloning, homosexuality” and other issues, its site says.
Conservative Catholic outlets have stirred the pot before Viganò. A year ago, Catholic University’s Theological College seminary canceled an appearance by the liberal Jesuit James Martin, a prominent advocate for the acceptance of LGBT people, citing “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites.” The next day, the university issued a counter-statement, saying the cancellation was a decision of the seminary only — not the full university — and reflects “the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations,” wrote President John Garvey.
Even as some conservative Catholics are inspired by what they hope is the letter’s potential to reduce Francis’s sway, they are skeptical of the way in which it was shared.
“This whole episode seems like total Fake News,” said the conservative lay leader. The allegations of sexual abuse coverup “have to be investigated, wherever they lead. But the way this came out, it really struck me: ‘They’re really out to get Francis.’ ”
But people who are part of the right-leaning news sphere don’t see it that way, any more than Catholic journalists on the left see their work holding up the pope’s efforts at reform as a vendetta against another part of the church. However, one commentator in the conservative Catholic media sphere, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there’s no question the journalists who published Viganò’s full letter without reporting on it had a mission.
“I think they would all look at it like: They’re not trying to be objective,” the person said. “They are trying to evangelize; they’re trying to spread the good news, spread the message as they understand it. They are activists.”
Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this report.
This story has been updated with new information about Pope Bendict’s response to Vigano’s letter.