Last week, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said in an interview that she believed Satan was controlling the Catholic Church. It’s not unusual for Greene to make inflammatory comments, but this case was different. Her remark kicked off a fight between her ultraconservative Catholic allies and other deeply conservative Catholics, complete with name-calling: “grifter,” “craven enabler,” “disgrace,” “whore.”
But there’s more to the story than Greene simply saying something offensive. The controversy revealed something bigger about the American Catholic Church. So what’s happening here?
It started on April 21, when Greene spoke with the right-wing Catholic publication Church Militant. (Church Militant is known to be so extreme that the Detroit Archdiocese where it is based has tried to ban it from using the word Catholic.) It was the day before she appeared in court for a lawsuit seeking to disqualify her from reelection because of her role in the Capitol insurrection. She sat down with the site’s founder, Michael Voris, for an hourlong interview discussing her views of Democrats, the media, gender politics, abortion, and other familiar topics.
Voris asked her if it was “two-faced” for the Catholic left to claim to love families but also help undocumented immigrants settle in the country. “What it is is it’s Satan’s controlling the church,” she said. “The church is not doing its job. It’s not adhering to the teachings of Christ.”
She continued her answer by mocking the Catholic charities that support refugees:
What they’re doing by saying, “Oh, we have to love these people and take care of these migrants and love another, what we’re doing is loving one another”—yes, we’re supposed to love one another, but their definition of what love one another means means destroying our laws. It means completely perverting what our Constitution says. It means taking unreal advantage of the American taxpayer, and it means pushing a globalist policy on the American people and forcing America to become something that we are not supposed to be. The true meaning of loving one another and loving others means you also have to uphold the law and uphold the rules.
She went on to talk about her disgust for foreign aid and echoed a Fox News talking point about Catholic Charities, a network of nonprofits operated at the local level under the oversight of a bishop. She blasted the bishops for not being stricter when it came to undocumented immigrants and their financial cost to taxpayers.
Church Militant ran the interview on Monday, under the headline “Marjorie for Pope.” It might have flown under the radar, but later that day, the account Right Wing Watch tweeted out a clip. On Wednesday morning, Salon published an article about the interview.
That afternoon, a third party joined the drama. Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, an ultraconservative organization dedicated to pushing back against perceived attacks on Catholicism, put out a statement condemning Greene’s remarks about Catholic Charities. “She had plenty of opportunities to make rational criticisms of the agency, but instead she slandered the entire Catholic Church,” he said. “Satan is controlling the Catholic Church? She needs to apologize to Catholics immediately. She is a disgrace.”
Less than an hour later, Greene responded with a lengthy statement calling on Donohue to apologize. “He doesn’t know this, but I am a cradle Catholic,” she said. “I stopped attending Catholic Mass when I became a mother, because I realized that I could not trust the Church leadership to protect my children from pedophiles, and that they harbored monsters even in their own ranks.”
She clarified that she had not meant all Catholics were controlled by Satan: “It’s the church leadership I was referring to when I invoked the Devil,” she said. “Just so we’re clear, bishops, when I said ‘controlled by Satan,’ I wasn’t talking about the Catholic Church. I was talking about you.”
She also targeted Donohue personally. “Until the people running the Catholic Church stop abusing children and stop covering up the abuse of children, I will continue to hold them to account,” she said. “And I’ll keep naming and shaming the craven enablers who write their press releases, too.” Donohue, she said, had done nothing to address the problems of the clergy. “If you think I’m exaggerating, Donohue breezily claimed on television recently that the abuse crisis in the church was ‘over,’” she said. (This claim is true. She likely learned this from Church Militant’s outraged coverage of the claim.)
Greene did a second interview with Church Militant on Wednesday night, elaborating on the fear that Catholic parents feel and the frustration untold numbers of Catholics have experienced upon learning their tithes went toward legal defenses of abuser priests. “The story I have to tell is the story of many faithful Catholics,” she said.
The whole ugly saga started with a comment about immigration, but the larger significance came in the later back-and-forth. It shows how the sex abuse crisis has splintered the different Catholic camps—to the point that extremely conservative Catholics are publicly sparring with each other.
Greene’s comments, when separated from the most inflammatory points, make a legitimate claim that many reform-minded Catholics would agree with: that too many Catholics fail to see just how deeply rooted the issues are that created the sex abuse crisis. But her full comments, including a remark that “the faithful deserve … bishops who don’t smear and punish good priests for being ‘too Catholic,’ ” are telling. In them, she signals an alliance with the conservative camp that believes the sex abuse crisis is a result of moral degradation and liberal permissiveness in the church, in addition to structural problems. (More progressive Catholics tend to argue that the crisis is a result of power abuses.)
Voris, the Church Militant founder, seized on these statements to support his own more extreme stance: He falsely blames the sex abuse crisis on the large number of gay priests. For many conservative Catholics, the way to resolve the sex abuse crisis is to purge the church of gay men and lead from the top with a certain moral clarity that they believe Pope Francis is lacking. For them, the sex abuse crisis energizes their campaign to reform the Church into a more militantly conservative institution. And talk of satanic influence isn’t particularly alien to Voris and his online community, either. Many ultraconservative Catholics who chafe under Francis’ papacy have adopted QAnon-style conspiracy theories about church infiltration to explain the actions from the Vatican; to Voris, Greene’s comments about Satan simply support his story of a corrupted church in need of an overhaul.
Donohue represents a different conservative response: defensiveness. He may share Voris’ and Greene’s culture war politics, but he is more old-school in his ideas about persecution and inclined to see the sex abuse claims as an external attack from the liberal media and other progressively minded parties. Donohue is a reliable Trump supporter who thinks that the sex abuse crisis was a “homosexual” problem, but he also insists it’s overblown and that the church has been unfairly maligned. To Donohue, who is 74, any talk of satanic influences in the church is more likely to smack of older bigotries, rather than newer, thrilling conspiracy theories. Greene is not a practicing Catholic, and to Donohue, that makes any criticism from her—especially talk of satanic matters—automatically anti-Catholic prejudice rather than valid criticism.
Greene may not have known what kind of fight she walked into when she sat down with Voris. This feud between an evangelical congresswoman, a conservative Catholic religious rights group, and a fringe Catholic news site was messy—and revealing, when it comes to just how fractured the Catholic right has become.
For more on how Marjorie Taylor Greene’s public statements may be affecting her reelection prospects, listen to this recent episode of What Next.