Editor’s Note: Paul Moses is a professor emeritus of journalism at Brooklyn College and a former reporter and editor at Newsday. He is a contributing writer at Commonweal and is the author of books including “The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace” and “An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
During the two days before the January 6 riot in the Capitol, numerous far-right websites carried an interview with a Catholic archbishop who warned that the United States would be “wiped out from history” if it failed to expose “now” what his interviewer called “the coordinated theft of our election.”
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, is a renegade cleric best known for calling for Pope Francis’ resignation.
He is the most prominent of a group of Catholic clergymen who joined evangelical Protestant figures in the religious wing of the “Stop the Steal” movement. Given the role of Catholics as a swing vote — and as 30% of the members of Congress — these far-right clerics have played an important role in supporting President Donald Trump’s Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election.
Video messages from Viganò, Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Tyler diocese in east Texas, and the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, were featured in the December 12 “Jericho March” called “to preserve fair and free elections in America.” Viganò’s role is particularly troubling. He invokes his position as an archbishop, “Successor of the Apostles,” and former top Vatican official to claim apostolic authority to indulge in conspiracy.
The claims that Viganò, Strickland and Pavone have made were amplified through their access to a large range of conservative and far-right Catholic media such as the EWTN Global Catholic Network, and many others.
Catholic bishops and other Catholic opinion-makers have mostly been slow to respond to this misuse of their faith to help Trump, in all his pride and wrath, as he tried to lie and bully his way into a second term. Divided by their own intra-church battles, their voices have been absent or tepid.
The Jericho March’s organizers adopted Trump’s falsehood: “We will not let globalists, socialists and communists destroy our beautiful nation by sidestepping our laws and suppressing the will of the American people through their fraudulent and illegal activities in this election,” its website said at the time.
The march’s publicity release listed Viganò as the headliner for that rally, along with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser Trump pardoned. From a jumbo video screen on the National Mall, Viganò said he prayed that “order will triumph over destruction,” telling the crowd, “We are the silent army of the children of light, the humble ranks who overthrow evil by invoking God, the praying army that walks around the walls of lies and betrayal in order to bring them down.”
Bishop Strickland, filmed standing before an altar, was more restrained but still worked some of the rally’s buzzwords into his prayer: “We pray in a special way for our nation in a time of darkness, confusion, this time of too much corruption and doubt.”
Strickland was so agitated over Biden’s victory that after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement with congratulations on his victory, he tweeted on Nov. 10, “A dark cloud has descended on this nation when the USCCB and Planned Parenthood speak in unison in support of a Biden-Harris administration that supports the slaughter of innocents by abortion for all 9 months of pregnancy.” He repeated the false claim that the bishops had somehow acted “in unison” with their arch-foe Planned Parenthood on November 24 in his program on LifesiteNews.
Pavone sounded more like a politician as he pushed Trump’s Big Lie for the December 12 rally: “Lord you have given President Trump victory over all these enemies and we ask you to give him and us victory once again,” he said. “Bless his campaign as it fights voter fraud.”
After that event, the Jericho March organizers put together a five-day “Save the Republic” rally that culminated on the fateful afternoon of January 6 in a Capitol Hill meet-up with the “Stop the Steal” crowd. For further directions, the Jericho March provided a link to wildprotest.com, according to its website at the time. Jericho March’s promotional material featured a picture of Trump, pointing straight on like Uncle Sam, under the header, “Take America Back.” Below, it borrowed from Trump’s infamous tweet, “Be there, will be wild!”
There can be no doubt that the statements of these religious leaders helped to create the violent atmosphere that exploded on Capitol Hill. After the violence, the Jericho March has cleared away the edgy statements from its website, replacing them with a page that says, “Jericho March has a history of totally peaceful marches and we have not, did not, and never will condone violence or destruction.”
As a Catholic, I cringe especially at Viganò’s actions. The “open letters” he issued throughout 2020 are reminiscent of the demagogic radio addresses that Father Charles Coughlin delivered in the late 1930s, filled with apocalyptic warnings about evil forces vying for world domination.
The day after November’s election, Viganò wrote a “Letter to American Catholics and Americans of Good Will.”
“We have seen the deep state organize itself, well in advance, to carry out the most colossal electoral fraud in history, in order to ensure the defeat of the man who has strenuously opposed the establishment of the New World Order that is wanted by the children of darkness,” he wrote. “In this battle, you have not failed, as is your sacred duty, to make your own contribution by taking the side of the Good. Others, enslaved by vices or blinded by infernal hatred against Our Lord, have taken the side of Evil.”
Though he is on the run from papal authority, the archbishop invoked his status as “Successor of the Apostles” to make statements such as this one in an October open letter to Trump: “Around you are gathered with faith and courage those who consider you the final garrison against the world dictatorship.” He also plays on the piety of devout Catholics by frequently invoking the Blessed Mother in support of his fantasies.
Pavone, for his part, showed no regret. At 4:33 p.m. on January 6, he tweeted, “These Democrats are hypocrites. Biden should shut up; he has no authority to talk right now. He is a fraud & he is not the president-elect. The rest of these sanctimonious, self righteous Democrats should stop complaining. They tried to steal the election & want us to accept it!” His organization Priests for Life issued a statement January 13 saying it opposes violence.
Bishop Strickland has hinted that he is examining his conscience, however. He declined to discuss this with me, but he tweeted on January 11, “Let us stop blaming each other, yes I’m a sinner & I can be foolish but I love God & I love this country.”