Last January, a Catholic asked a priest for spiritual guidance. Upset by the progressive direction Pope Francis has taken the church since his election in 2013, the person wondered whether it was a sin to pray for the pontiff to abdicate, or even, to die.
“No,” the priest, Father John Zuhlsdorf, replied. “It is not necessarily sinful to pray for the end of a pontificate, one way or another ... Popes come and go. In our prayers, we can, without sinning, discuss with God about His time table.”
It’s no secret that the Jesuit pope has angered conservative Catholics with his criticism of the church’s fixation on abortion, same-sex marriage, and birth control; and with his promotion of progressive pastors. But still, it was a shocking answer — an ordained Catholic priest sanctioning prayer for the untimely death of Christ’s earthly representative.
What was even more shocking: This conversation didn’t happen in a confession booth or a rectory. Fr. Z, as he’s known, posted the exchange on his blog to a devoted readership of many thousands. He had pulled the question from his email. He chose to answer it publicly.
And though he would later apologize for angering readers, a year later, he hasn’t changed his answer.
“Frankly,” Fr. Z told BuzzFeed News, “It’s not a sin.”
The 58-year-old, Madison, Wisconsin–based Fr. Z is a leader in the thriving online community of conservative American Catholics who have used the Trump era to ratchet up their criticism of what they perceive to be a liberal Church establishment, and liberal culture in general. Fr. Z, who has over 40,000 Twitter followers, considers the 12-year-old blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say, his ministry. The site, which Fr. Z told BuzzFeed News is the largest English language Catholic blog run by an individual, has received more than 85 million visits since 2006, per Statcounter. According to Father Z, What Does the Prayer Really Say gets more than a million unique visitors a year.
And it draws just as much from the gospel of Roger Ailes as it does Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — a pro-Trump, anti-Francis hybrid of personal blog, Latin translation, Christian scholarship, scriptural interpretation, and Fox News. (A sidebar on the blog describes it as “a fusion of the Baroque ‘salon’ with its well-tuned harpsichord around which polite society gathered for entertainment and edification and, on the other hand, a Wild West “saloon” with its out-of-tune piano and swinging doors, where everyone has a gun and something to say.”) Together with sites like Church Militant, a kind of Catholic-themed Breitbart that the Church has officially distanced itself from, Fr. Z is waging an online culture war that is deeply informed by the greater American political context.
“They think the liberal Catholic establishment must be dismantled,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University. “And anything that can get to that goal is fine.”
Indeed, the sometimes shockingly antagonistic attitude of Fr. Z and his ilk toward the Vatican and liberal culture has invited comparisons to the alt-right, another group obsessed with waging a culture war against a supposedly liberal bureaucracy. Fr. Z, for his part, says he’s part of a “brutal” polemical tradition in the Catholic church that dates back millenia. More broadly, the popularity of Fr. Z’s blog and the power of his online following suggests that in 2018, even the longest-lasting institution in the Western world isn’t immune to the strains of the social internet.
“Thanks in no small part to the online world, the degree of open criticism of the Pope and church hierarchy is far greater than ever before,” said Mark Silk, the director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. “It would have astonished people 50 years ago.”
The comparisons with the alt-right are loose. There’s no direct connection between Fr. Z and that movement, which he told BuzzFeed News he had to Google when it was first applied to him. The alt-right, which draws on the reflexive atheism of message board culture and dabbles in the forms of neo-paganism associated with white nationalism, has no coherent stance on religion. Much of the alt-right is ambivalent, if not supportive, of homosexuality, which Fr. Z has called “unnatural” and “disordered.” Fr. Z has explicitly condemned anti-Semitism, which has dogged various factions of the alt-right (as well as the schismatic Catholic right.) And the comments under his blog posts are far from a Breitbartian vortex of invective; there are often long and thoughtful — albeit extremely conservative — discussions of faith, ritual, history, and bourbon.
But Fr. Z’s tone, politics, and tactics bring to mind the online mobs of Trump supporters who helped turn the current moment so divisive. Rhetorically, he’s a creature as much of the comment section as the canon, having honed his blogging style since the early 1990s, when he moderated CompuServe’s Catholic forum. He regularly rails against “libs,” “edgy social justice figures” and the “homosexualist agenda.” He has coined Trumpian epithets for his adversaries, referring to the progressive National Catholic Reporter as “fishwrap” and the “National Sodomitical Reporter” and liberal Catholics as the “Red Guard.” He casts himself as a defender of Western civilization and culture; In a recent post, he encouraged followers to buy Defeating Jihad, by the far-right former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka. And his blog links to a webstore where he sells mugs and T-shirts reading “Holy Mass: Turn Towards the Lord Again” in the ubiquitous #MAGA font and color scheme.
Also, his critics say, he has rallied his followers to carry out harassment and no-platforming campaigns that directly recall the alt-right. In September 2017, in a post entitled “Should a seminary headline a homosexualist activist as a speaker?” Fr. Z alerted his audience to an upcoming speech by the progressive Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin at Catholic University, shortly after the publication of a new book by Martin urging dialogue between the Church and LGBT Catholics. Following Fr. Z’s post, and denunciations by other popular conservative Catholic and schismatic websites, Martin became the target of an online harassment campaign, including threats of violence. And two days after Fr. Z’s post, Catholic withdrew its invitation to Martin, citing “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites.”
“For me the saddest thing about Father Z’s blog is how cruel it is,” Martin told BuzzFeed News. “It’s astonishing to me that a priest could traffic in such cruelty and hatred.”
Fr. Z told BuzzFeed News that it was not his intention to sic the Zedheads — as he affectionately calls his readers — on Martin, and added that though he did not think it was appropriate for Martin to speak, he, too, had been disinvited from similar engagements for his views.
“I don’t whine about it though,” said Fr. Z. “This isn’t bean bag.”
Indeed, Fr. Z’s response to liberal priests who object to his rhetoric is, more or less, Snowflake! In 2014, he told the Jesuit magazine America, “No one forces anyone else to get involved online. If we are going to descend onto the sands of the arena, we had better buckle it on … the notion that everyone has to play verbal patty cake all the time is a rather new idea, both in the church and in the public square.”
And Fr. Z buckles it on in the public square with astonishing frequency. In December 2017, Fr. Z posted 141 times, an average of 4.5 posts a day. His detractors are quick to point out the irregularity of his priestly circumstances. Though Fr. Z lives in and blogs from Madison, he was incardinated — basically, given the right to perform the duties of a priest — in an Italian diocese. That, according to several church sources, is highly unusual. Though Fr. Z has faculties in the Madison diocese, his blog comprises the vast majority of his ministry.
All of this has given Fr. Z the image of a rogue blogger-priest, accountable to an obscure authority, firing red pills from his digital pulpit at a hidebound institution that is unprepared to deal with the new age of online dissent.
“Our assumption used to be that [the internet] was a new community, a new way of becoming connected,” said Faggioli, who added that the Church has no regulations to deal with internet priests. “We now know that it has fostered new kinds of divisions. These Catholic blogs play a very important role in this. They tend to speak to a particular kind of audience, against a particular kind of church.”
And thanks to the reach of the internet and social media, the message of what Mark Silk called “religious entrepreneurs,” like Fr. Z, can find and consolidate a politically and culturally homogenous audience in a way a parish priest never could.
It’s a point not lost on Fr. Z, who sees himself in a tradition of Christian leaders evangelizing through technology. (A tradition that includes Martin Luther, who could not have spread the seeds of Protestantism without the printing press, but also Father Coughlin, who used the radio in the 1930s to spread his fascist political beliefs to tens of millions of listeners from the tower of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Detroit.)
“The church has always made use of the best means of communication,” Fr. Z told BuzzFeed News. “I’m one little guy, but this blog is my force amplifier.”
That force multiplier has allowed Fr. Z to turn What Does the Prayer Really Say into an enterprise. For the spiritual and cultural succor on offer, many of the blog’s readers donate money — on both one-off and monthly subscription bases — and Fr. Z invites them to lavish him with gifts. In exchange for a monthly subscription, Fr. Z wrote in 2015, “you wind up regularly on my list of benefactors for whom I pray.” And the second widget from the top on the blog’s sidebar, below only a search box, is a plea for readers to do their Amazon shopping through his affiliate link.
The practice has drawn critics, who say that soliciting money directly from his readers inappropriately insulates Fr. Z from Church pressure. But in the context of internet publishing, even on Fr. Z’s low-tech blog, it’s on trend. From YouTube stars to writers crowdfunding projects, content creators across a range of internet media are finding that a devoted audience can support a subscription model. And who is more devoted than a group of parishioners?
“I’m a free market guy,” Fr. Z told BuzzFeed News. “If I put something out there and people want to drop money in my hat, so be it.” He added that he’s not paid a salary by the church: “I kill what I eat.”
The subscriber model produces a fascinating question in the clerical context: If Fr. Z relies on the generosity of his audience, rather than the support of the Church, how much does he have to tell them what they want to hear?
Perhaps that explains his shifting perspective on Donald Trump. Though Fr. Z told BuzzFeed news that he’s not interested in politics, he blogs about national affairs regularly. In January 2016, during Republican primary debate season, Fr. Z approvingly reposted a blog by the conservative priest and cultural commentator Robert Sirico that compared Trump to a laxative and concluded that “I cannot figure out the alleged white-evangelical attraction to Trump.” As the general election got underway, Fr. Z found more and more to like about the GOP candidate, specifically that he recorded a video message for Catholics and was not Hillary Clinton, who he called “treasonous” and “the criminal candidate for the Part of Death.”
Since the election, Fr. Z has gathered signatures to thank President Trump for defunding “Big Business Abortion” — Planned Parenthood — contrasted Trump flatteringly with President Obama, whom he called “arrogance incarnate,” and most recently, posted President Trump’s remarks at January’s March for Life.
More surprisingly, Fr. Z seemed to endorse President Trump’s travel ban, a decision the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called “un-Catholic” and protested with an amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court. It was a position that seemed to hew closer to Steve Bannon, the President’s former chief adviser, who has claimed that the Church favors illegal immigration because it has an economic interest, than to Church leadership. Indeed, in 2016, Pope Francis said that Trump’s position on immigration made him “not Christian.” And so Fr. Z found himself, a Catholic priest, warning his audience about the perils of letting immigrants into America, three days after he wrote that it wasn’t a sin to pray for the Pope to die.
Said Faggioli, “Fr. Z is much more convinced about the Christian character of Donald Trump than of Pope Francis. That’s remarkable.” ●