So earlier this week, there was an outburst of Bravely Defiant Traditional Catholicism on the interwebs. In posting the image below, EWTN gave us all the general tenor of the tale of Courage in the Face of Vicious Liberal Persecution as they heroically mocked evil Lib Media Fiends who are, they assured one another, “coming for our Rosaries”:
A ton of Leading Right Wing Catholic Social Media influencers followed suit, teaching the Flock that Thinks for Itself and Doesn’t Listen to Liberal Liars Like the Pope what they were all to think about the sudden mysterious liberal pogrom against the Rosary they were all told was happening.
It was the latest in an endless series of Right Wing Panics du Jour commanded, not by the bishops or the pope, but by the real authority to whom Reactionary Catholics look for their moral formation: FOX and the GOP Gun Cult of Christian Nationalism:
Now, I love the Rosary and pray it frequently. And because I do, I detest the attempt to hijack it by the Right Wing Lie Machine.
Here’s what actually happened: a writer for the Atlantic wrote a piece on the perfectly real phenomenon of an “extremist fringe” of Reactionary Catholics weaponizing the Rosary as a sacramental, not of meditation on the gospel, nor even as a tool of spiritual warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil, but as an emblem of violent, gun-obsessed, sullen, self-pitying, and deeply dangerous right wing MAGA culture war and Christian nationalism:
Just as the AR-15 rifle has become a sacred object for Christian nationalists in general, the rosary has acquired a militaristic meaning for radical-traditional (or “rad trad”) Catholics. On this extremist fringe, rosary beads have been woven into a conspiratorial politics and absolutist gun culture. These armed radical traditionalists have taken up a spiritual notion that the rosary can be a weapon in the fight against evil and turned it into something dangerously literal.
Their social-media pages are saturated with images of rosaries draped over firearms, warriors in prayer, Deus Vult (“God wills it”) crusader memes, and exhortations for men to rise up and become Church Militants.Influencers on platforms such as Instagram share posts referencing “everyday carry” and “gat check” (gat is slang for “firearm”) that include soldiers’ “battle beads,” handguns, and assault rifles. One artist posts illustrations of his favorite Catholic saints, clergy, and influencers toting AR-15-style rifles labeled sanctum rosarium alongside violently homophobic screeds that are celebrated by social-media accounts with thousands of followers.
The theologian and historian Massimo Faggioli has described a network of conservative Catholic bloggers and commentary organizations as a “Catholic cyber-militia” that actively campaigns against LGBTQ acceptance in the Church. These rad-trad rosary-as-weapon memes represent a social-media diffusion of such messaging, and they work to integrate ultraconservative Catholicism with other aspects of online far-right culture. The phenomenon might be tempting to dismiss as mere trolling or merchandising, and ironical provocations based on traditionalist Catholic symbols do exist, but the far right’s constellations of violent, racist, and homophobic online milieus are well documented for providing a pathway to radicalization and real-world terrorist attacks.
The rosary—in these hands—is anything but holy.
Now the idea of spiritual warfare–and of prayer as its principal weapon–is something that goes back to the roots of the Faith.
For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Co 10:3–5)
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Co 6:4–10)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. ¶ Stand therefore, having fastened the belt of truth around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, ¶ and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the Evil One. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. (Eph 6:10–18)
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. ¶ And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. ¶ And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Re 12:7–11)
(Note that the conception of spiritual warfare for the apostolic Church is prayerful martyrdom, not destroying culture war enemies, and that the way the warrior wins is by sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, not by killing somebody else in his name. The enemy, for Paul, is “powers and principalities”, not flesh and blood. Just war theory and the tradition of tolerating violence in the defense of innocents or the defense of a Christian state is not something that will arise until the Christianization of Rome changes the equation in the fifth century and the duty of a Christian emperor to his subjects in a deadly world begins to be discussed. That’s a span of time separating Shakespeare from us. In the first century, Peter’s sole counsel to a Church facing the flames of Nero is to be sure to die well (cf. 1 Peter 4:12-19).)
And despite the sneers of his Right Wing critics, the author of the Atlantic piece gets that distinction between spiritual warfare and culture war and has no problem with the idea that, as the Catechism puts it, prayer is a “battle”. Nor is he blind to the perfectly legit use of the Rosary as a venerated weapon in such warfare:
But for millions of believers, the beads, which provide an aide-mémoire for a sequence of devotional prayers, are a widely recognized symbol of Catholicism and a source of strength. And many take genuine sustenance from Catholic theology’s concept of the Church Militant and the tradition of regarding the rosary as a weapon against Satan. As Pope Francis said in a 2020 address, “There is no path to holiness … without spiritual combat,” and Francis is only one of many Church officials who have endorsed the idea of the rosary as an armament in that fight.
What he is warning against, rather, is the perversion of the Rosary into an emblem of intensely politicized, menacing, threatening, and violent culture war that glorifies violence and toxic masculinity:
Militia culture, a fetishism of Western civilization, and masculinist anxieties have become mainstays of the far right in the U.S.—and rad-trad Catholics have now taken up residence in this company. Their social-media accounts commonly promote accelerationist and survivalist content, along with combat-medical and tactical training, as well as memes depicting balaclava-clad gunmen that draw on the “terrorwave” or “warcore” aesthetic that is popular in far-right circles.
Like such networks, radical-traditional Catholics sustain their own cottage industry of goods and services that reinforces the radicalization. Rosaries are common among the merchandise on offer—some made of cartridge casings, and complete with gun-metal-finish crucifixes. One Catholic online store, which describes itself as “dedicated to offering battle-ready products and manuals to ‘stand firm against the tactics of the devil’” (a New Testament reference), sells replicas of the rosaries issued to American soldiers during the First World War as “combat rosaries.” Discerning consumers can also buy a “concealed carry” permit for their combat rosary and a sacramental storage box resembling an ammunition can. In 2016, the pontifical Swiss Guard accepted a donation of combat rosaries; during a ceremony at the Vatican, their commander described the gift as “the most powerful weapon that exists on the market.”
The militarism also glorifies a warrior mentality and notions of manliness and male strength. This conflation of the masculine and the military is rooted in wider anxieties about Catholic manhood—the idea that it is in crisis has some currency among senior Church figures and lay organizations. In 2015, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued an apostolic exhortation calling for a renewal of traditional conceptions of Catholic masculinity titled “Into the Breach,” which led the Knights of Columbus, an influential fraternal order, to produce a video series promoting Olmsted’s ideas. But among radical-traditional Catholic men, such concerns take an extremist turn, rooted in fantasies of violently defending one’s family and church from marauders.
The rosary-as-weapon also gives rad-trad Catholic men both a distinctive signifier within Christian nationalism and a sort of membership pass to the movement. As the sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry note in Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Catholics used to be regarded as enemies by Christian nationalists, and anti-Catholic nativism runs deep in American history. Today, Catholics are a growing contingent of Christian nationalism.
Helping unite these former rivals is a quasi-theological doctrine of what Perry and another sociologist, Philip S. Gorski, have called “righteous violence” against political enemies regarded as demonic or satanic, be they secularists, progressives, or Jews.
This is really not that hard to grasp–if you are a) even mildly informed about the actual Atlantic piece and b) anything like an honest person. One need look no further than intensely MAGAfied priest Fr. Richard Heilman, disciplined by his bishop for defending the Big Lie about the “stolen election” and raising money to support violent and deadly insurrectionists and his massive, years-long grift where he hawks precisely the militarized gun nut piety the Atlantic piece talks about–at exorbitant prices:
But as the ginned-up #RosaryExtremist campaign quickly demonstrated, the easily stampeded MAGA Catholic is often neither informed nor honest. Indeed, lots and lots of them, in the very act of condemning the piece as “hysteria”, simultaneously spread the falsehood that the author hated the Rosary itself (not its perversion) even as they went out of their way to demonstrate precisely the perverted, gun-obsessed, threatening, self-pitying, paranoid, sneering, and bullying culture of MAGA Catholicism the article was actually warning about.
And so, led by people like Taylor Marshall and Alexander Tschugguel–who famously ginned up the “Pope is a heretic!!!” crowd, spat in the faces of innocent Amazonian Catholics and declared them pagans, and did all in their power to gin up schism in the Church–shocked and offended MAGA zealots immediately cried “What MAGA Reactionary Catholic Gun Fetishism?”
And the targeted enemy of this Looney Tunes Culture War Hate was emphatically not “powers and principalities” but flesh and blood:
(Zmirak, notably, is already on record hungering not for “spiritual warfare” but for human blood):
Also, there’s longing to kill Muslims:
And there is likewise this sort of blasphemous right wing secular messianism that insists, in defiance of St. Paul, that the struggle is absolutely with flesh and blood Democrats–and all in the service of the one true god, Donald Trump:
Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are defenses of violent insurrection cloaked in “Libs Fear My Piety” baloney:
And there was, running through the whole thread of thousands of “You’ll never get my Rosary, you damned Lib persecutors!!!” the omnipresent MAGA propagandist Jack Posobiec, who, in between ginning up the MAGA Catholic troops with a completely unfounded sense of butthurt persecution…
…also somehow suffused the #RosaryExtremist posts on Twitter with a ton of Trump agitprop utterly irrelevant to the gospel but emblematic of the toxic masculinity the Atlantic piece warned of, such as this deeply pious encomium to GOP “Big Dick Energy”:
Indeed, Posobiec is the living incarnation of everything the Atlantic piece is warning about, because there is indeed a sect of Reactionary MAGA Culture Warriors who are trying to pervert the Rosary from a prayer to an emblem of violent, hateful, political rage against those they hate.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The Atlantic writer, in fact, made the perfectly true observation, not that the Rosary is bad, nor even that Catholics who pray it are all extremists, but that an extremist fringe (who helpfully came out of the woodwork in droves to bear out exactly what he was saying and marinate themselves in self-pity and a bogus claim of “liberal persecution”) is perverting the Rosary into an emblem of ugly right wing culture war and Christian nationalism instead allowing it to remain the beautiful and powerful instrument of prayer it is supposed to be.
Portraying this filth as Resistance to some Great Persecution while celebrating gun violence, Big Dick Energy, and falling down in adoration of a violent traitorous mobster is a particularly sickening act of blasphemy. It is a stain on the Church’s witness and an ugly example of the way in which right wing politics, alloyed with false piety that has entirely lost the thread of Catholic morals, punches down at the victims of gun violence, foments hatred of neighbor, and covers the gospel in scandal in its self-absorbed sense of threatened privilege.
Unlike MAGA antichrist religion, which constantly tries to gin up terror among its adherents of The Coming Persecution, the Great Reset, the Vast Conspiracy, the Great Infiltration, the Heretic Dictator Pope, the COVID Plot to Kill Us All and all the other bogeyman they are arming themselves to shoot and kill, Jesus never tells his disciples to fear persecution. On the contrary, what he tells them to fear is seduction:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28)
Only you, by your own sin, can destroy yourself in hell. Nobody can do it to you. And MAGA Catholics are among the most seduced Christians on planet Earth, as this ugly episode abundantly showed. Christ teaches his disciples to fear, not suffering, but sin. MAGA antichrist religion teaches its followers to do anything, even commit grave sin, in order save their terrified skins from suffering. That is why they are such passionate lovers of torture and why they passionately supported cruelty to refugee children. It’s why they love and admire a man like Alex Jones who sadistically tortured the parents of Sandy Hook for years in defense of their gun fetish. It’s why they continue to defend a traitorous mob boss who promised them “All this will I give you if you bow down and worship me.” Such false religion controls its flock by filling them with imaginary terrors of persecution in order to gin them into fleeing bogeymen who don’t even exist and slander honest people telling the truth.
So. Here’s reality: Nobody, but nobody, cares if you pray the Rosary and nobody is “coming for” our Rosaries. If you buy the hogwash of the #RosaryExtremist Panic du Jour and join in spreading it, you aren’t a hero defying imaginary liberal persecutors who hate you for praying it, just as you aren’t brave for, yet again, saying “Fuck Joe Biden” under the exhausted sophomore wheeze “Let’s go, Brandon.” You are a coward cosplaying at martyrdom while slandering an honest person who made a perfectly valid observation about right wing perversion of a beautiful sacramental. You are, in fact, bearing false witness against your neighbor.
The objection of the Atlantic piece, borne out abundantly by the responses above and thousands more like it, is to the ugly, militant, violent, anti-Christian combination of gun fetishism, threats of domestic terror, bullying, Trumpolatry and self-pity with Catholic aesthetics. That piece is a defense of, not an attack on, the goodness and holiness of the Holy Rosary.
God’s Name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of junk like the #RosaryExtremist Panic du Jour.