Dispute and threats of legal action over a theologian's article

Media dispute: When a bishop threatens legal action

Bonn/New York - An article by theologian Massimo Faggioli linked the prominent US bishop Robert Barron and his media organisation with Donald Trump. This did not go down well at all: legal action was announced against the magazine. Is freedom of the press under pressure?

Published  on 09.06.2024 at 12:00  – by Mario Trifunovic

Since the beginning of May, a dispute has flared up in the USA between the Catholic magazine "Commonweal", which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and the media organisation "Word on Fire", founded by the prominent US bishop Robert Barron. The cause was a column by the Italian theologian and church historian Massimo Faggioli, who teaches in the USA, in which he linked parts of American Catholicism with the former US president and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response, the bishop's organisation threatened to take legal action. But what exactly had happened?

Faggioli's article, entitled "Will Trumpism spare Catholicism?", drew a connection between Donald Trump and various Catholic figures and hinted at a possible link between Trump and Bishop Joseph Strickland, who was dismissed from his diocese after his rebellious behaviour and frequent criticism of Pope Francis' pontificate. Faggioli described overlaps between Trump's controversial right-wing nationalism and the conservative Catholicism represented by figures such as Strickland and the former Apostolic Nuncio to the USA, Archbishop Vigano. Strickland in particular has repeatedly accused Francis of spreading schismatic ideas with the declaration of blessing "Fiducia supplicans". After the presidential elections in December 2020, the former chief pastor of the small Texan diocese of Tyler also took part in a demonstration of Trump supporters who did not want to recognise Joe Biden's election victory with a prayer via video message.

Criticism of the Catholic cultural establishment

Faggioli's thesis is therefore based on such events, but above all the "Catholic Prayer for Trump", which took place on 19 March in Mar-a-Logo - the former US president's place of residence. There, Trump was presented as the "only Catholic option". Six months before the presidential elections in the USA, the theologian spoke of an "ahistorical fundamentalism of militant Catholicism" that is "mixed with nationalist impulses". This disguises itself as concern for the "forgotten ordinary American (white) man". In the original version of the article, Faggioli spoke of an "emerging Catholic cultural establishment" in the United States, dominated by intellectual figures of traditional, apologetic Catholicism. According to Faggioli, they may be theologically educated, but they are hostile to modernity and are "on Trump's side" with such a view.

Joseph E. Strickland, Bishop of Tyler, Texas, speaks during the Fall General Assembly of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, USA, 11 November 2019.
Bild: ©Bob Roller/CNS photo/KNA

Faggioli described overlaps between Trump's controversial right-wing nationalism and the conservative Catholicism represented by figures such as Strickland.

Faggioli was referring to the Barron Media Group's new theological magazine entitled "The New Ressourcement", according to a report in the "National Catholic Reporter". Among conservative Catholics, Faggioli said, there is "no shortage of academic and intellectual initiatives, with various references to Trumpism", but which are "all intent on orthodoxy". Barron has been repeatedly criticised by Catholics, especially for his collaboration with right-wing thinkers and influencers. These include names such as Ben Shapiro, former editor of the right-wing internet portal "Breitbart News" and the psychologist, YouTube influencer and author of self-help books Jordan Peterson.

Over the past few years, Barron has responded to his critics by accepting invitations to events organised by companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook in order to rebut criticism that he is only dealing with "conservative culture warriors". At the end of January of this year, however, the senior pastor was once again a guest of Peterson to discuss the fallacy of self-deification. Most recently, however, Barron published a guest post on the internet portal of the television channel "CNN", in which he praised the talk show host and comedian Bill Maher for no longer criticising religions, especially Catholicism, but "woke" thinking. He therefore sees Maher as an "unlikely ally" in the ongoing and bitter culture wars.

Two cease-and-desist letters to the editors

The publishers of "Commonweal Magazine" reported to the Catholic portal "National Catholic Reporter" that the bishop's media organisation had sent a "cease and desist letter" to Faggioli. After consultation, the decision was made to withdraw the "controversial" paragraph. The editors' note reads: "With the author's permission, the editors have removed a paragraph that originally appeared here because Bishop Robert Barron's media office, Word on Fire, has informed us that they consider it defamatory to be associated in any way with Donald Trump and Trumpism." But even that was apparently not enough for the Bishop of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota: In a second cease-and-desist letter, "Word on Fire" took an even firmer stance against the editors' note. Once again, dissatisfaction was expressed at being associated in any way with Donald Trump. Repeated threats of legal action were made against Commonweal, and both the article and the editor's note continued to be labelled "libelous and defamatory".

Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Bild: ©Word on Fire

Barron has been repeatedly criticised by Catholics, particularly for his collaboration with right-wing thinkers and influencers.

The editorial team responded with an article entitled "Silencing the press". In it, the editorial team expressed surprise at Barron's actions: "Public figures must expect journalistic criticism precisely because they are public figures. This also includes those who bring their faith into the public eye." It is their right to complain about criticism, but they are not exempt from it. "They enjoy no special protection from opinions about their intentions, their statements or the political society in which they live. Moreover, no one is entitled to deference or special treatment simply because they speak from a position of religious authority," it says. And further: "This includes American bishops, including or especially those who maintain a highly visible public presence through interviews, social media and popular media services." The editorial team emphasises that a different agreement could have been reached. A letter would have been "an obvious place to start if Word on Fire believes that we and Faggioli need a fraternal rebuke". A letter would also have led to a constructive or at least clarifying exchange and saved Word on Fire from being "perceived as another well-funded organisation that wants to silence its critics through litigation".

Debate culture suffers the most

Two weeks after this dispute, Barron took part in a panel discussion in mid-May with Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas - both "Commonweal" authors. There, Barron spoke about the value of productive disagreement and "lively and intelligent dialogue". He criticised the fact that Catholics are "at each other's throats". This lack of or even invisible culture of debate was also criticised by several Catholic personalities, including the US theologian Phyllis Zagano. She described Bishop Barron's behaviour as "Catholic bullying", reminiscent of schoolyard fights. In a guest article for the "National Catholic Reporter", she wrote that the bullying of a 100-year-old liberal Catholic opinion magazine emphasised Barron's conservative tendencies. This reeks of the "conservatism" that Pope Francis recently labelled a "suicidal attitude" in an interview with the US television station CBS. Zagano believes that bishops who think this way are damaging the faith of Catholics because they are unable to "think outside the box". It is good that Barron and his organisation are distancing themselves from Trumpism, as many of their supporters still believe Trump is OK. But bullying is the wrong approach.

Another point of criticism in the Catholic media was that the cease-and-desist declaration made Barron "look like a bully" who wanted to intimidate with his organisation. The culture of debate is suffering because a public figure can write a response to such an article with which they disagree. That would be the kind of debate and discussion that advances the culture of debate. It remains to be seen whether the media dispute between theologian Faggioli and Bishop Barron will have any repercussions. As far as the legal side is concerned, various lawyers in the Catholic media agree: Barron's media organisation is likely to have difficulties naming any specific damage that has allegedly been caused to the bishop or his organisation. In any case, the greatest damage has probably been done to the culture of debate in the Catholic Church in the USA.

by Mario Trifunovic