We all know LifeSiteNews. Their articles are shrill, sensationalistic, highly biased, and frequently display the marks of a fanatical Catholic traditionalism. The titles of the regular blog posts of their editor-in-chief capture the obsessions that underlie their reporting:
They launch endless petitions expressing outrage and disgust over what are often innocuous developments in the Church or society that they have interpreted according to their hermeneutic of fear. Pope Francis is often the focus of their discontent, and they have become one of Archbishop Viganò’s online publications of choice.
But how did they become such an online presence, and why are they the way they are? As a Canadian Catholic I’m sorry to say that LifeSiteNews is at least in part our fault. Although their reach is now international, they are at root the product of the dysfunctional Canadian pro-life movement.
LifeSiteNews started as LifeSite, and was founded in Canada in 1997 with a staff that included Steve Jalsevac and John-Henry Westen. One can use the Wayback Machine to see what it looked like in 1998. It seems innocuous enough. The links are focused on Canadian federal and provincial politics, along with information on typical pro-life issues. On the right-hand side, there are links to its founding organizations: the Canadian pro-life newspaper The Interim and the Campaign Life Coalition political lobby. By 2002, it hadn’t changed much. They are advertising a show from conservative Catholic firebrand Michael Coren (now a liberal Anglican clergyman and no longer pro-life), but “life issues” are still the overwhelming focus. So how do we get from here to the LifeSiteNews we know now—the one with coronavirus conspiracy theories, traditionalist condemnations of communion in the hand, declarations of the beginning of the end-times, and gratuitous attacks on the Holy Father? Jalsevac and Westen are still running the show, so there has been no major change in leadership. Is it because of Pope Francis? Trump? The answer is that everything we see now was always lurking under the surface, and has been part of the Canadian pro-life movement since the 1970s.
The pre-history of LifeSiteNews can be found in a 1988 dissertation (later published as a book) by Michael Cuneo, the author of The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism (1997) and American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (2001). Cuneo’s analytical approach, even in his purely academic work, combines Weberian sociology with qualitative and almost journalistic on-the-ground research, and he displays a remarkable understanding of the factional dynamics within Catholicism. In his dissertation, titled “Catholics Against the Church: Anti-Abortion Protest in Toronto, 1969-1985,” Cuneo surveys the history of the Canadian pro-life movement, from shortly before the legalization of abortion in 1969 to a few years before the 1988 Supreme Court ruling that struck down abortion law in Canada altogether. His focus is on Campaign Life, the organization that would later become Campaign Life Coalition and spawn LifeSiteNews.
The general history of the Canadian pro-life movement goes as follows. The first large and cohesive pro-life organization in Canada was the Alliance for Life, which represented a national alliance of smaller pro-life groups. In 1973, the Alliance for Life formed a separate and explicitly political arm, the Coalition for Life. Conflict eventually started brewing within the Coalition for Life between factions that Cuneo describes as the “pragmatists” and the “purists” (29). The leaders of the Coalition for Life, who were mainly “urban professionals” (27), were in the pragmatist camp. They sought to take a gradualist approach to the abortion issue. The “grassroots sector” of the Coalition were in the purist camp. They refused to compromise with half-measures regarding abortion, even if their efforts were unlikely to succeed. The “purists” eventually broke away, and in 1978 they formed Campaign Life. As Campaign Life came to dominate the pro-life movement, the Coalition for Life weakened. In 1983, Campaign Life began publishing The Interim, which still exists today. By 1987, two years after the end of the scope of Cuneo’s study, there were few pragmatists left even in the Coalition for Life, and the two groups merged to form Campaign Life Coalition. In 1997, Campaign Life Coalition, along with Interim Publishing, launched LifeSite as a source for pro-life news on the Internet. LifeSite eventually developed into LifeSiteNews, which is no longer directly associated with Campaign Life Coalition and now consists of two separate non-profit entities—one in Canada and one in the US. Campaign Life Coalition is still a dominant pro-life organization in Canada today, and they play a central role in organizing the National March for Life in Ottawa. Thus, any Canadian Catholic interested in pro-life issues will enter a world in which both LifeSiteNews and Campaign Life Coalition loom large.
The development of the pro-life movement in Canada shows not only a consolidation of influence in Campaign Life Coalition and LifeSiteNews, but also a marked progression into antagonism toward the Church at large. This progression, as Cuneo shows, stemmed in part from the Canadian bishops’ hesitancy to get directly involved in pro-life activism, given their desire to preserve ecumenical harmony and the harsh backlash they received from the general public and from some representatives of other religious groups when they did intervene (81-83). The cause was left largely to the laity, and the result was that many in the pro-life movement came to see the Canadian bishops as their ideological opponents. Further, as the “contraceptive mentality” thesis began to take hold in the right wing of the pro-life movement, the Canadian bishops’ reception of Humanae Vitae and their “Winnipeg Statement,” which gave some leeway to conscience regarding the use of contraception, came to be seen retrospectively as foreshadowing their alleged weakness on the abortion issue (52-55). Until the election of Pope Francis in 2013, their only sure allies in the hierarchy (at least in their own minds) were Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. This ultramontanism of convenience was threatened as soon as Pope Francis, in 2013, stated in an interview that “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” At that point, LifeSiteNews began its fall into outright hostility toward the pope. By 2015, Westen was writing that Pope Francis’s “encouragement of airing heresy is severing the Church.” By 2020, he was essentially blaming Pope Francis for the divine “chastisement” of the coronavirus pandemic.
The rhetorical approach of the pro-life movement changed over the decades since 1969, from a relatively ecumenical, sophisticated, and pragmatic approach to one that is heavily traditionalist, fundamentalist, and intolerant. We can trace the characteristics of this change if we look at the three main “types” of pro-life activists (114) that Cuneo identifies. The first are the “civil rights activists,” who frame the abortion issue within the context of human rights for unborn persons and rely almost exclusively on science, rather than moral theology or tradition, to justify their stance. Their activism focuses both on providing legal protection for the unborn and working to change social structures that make women more likely to seek abortions. The second are “family heritage activists,” who see abortion as part of a large-scale attack by liberalism on the family. They view their activism as part of a “moral crusade” (115) for family values. The third are the “revivalist Catholic activists.” They see anti-abortion activism as part of a “sacred crusade” to defend Catholicism from the forces of modernity. These are not exclusive types, and many pro-lifers subscribe to all three positions, but the overwhelming pattern of change with the Canadian pro-life movement has been from a movement dominated by civil rights activists (from the late 1960s to the late 1970s) to one increasingly dominated by revivalist Catholics (from the late 1970s until now). The family heritage activists, who Cuneo also refers to as simply “Parish Catholics” (138), are the large group in the middle. They are the ordinary conservative Catholics who lean one way or the other—toward a civil rights approach or toward a revivalist approach, depending on the balance of influence.
The early LifeSite material shown above would seem to fall somewhere in the family heritage zone of pro-life activism. This was perhaps a tactic to appeal to a wider audience, since LifeSiteNews is now quite openly a revivalist Catholic organization. As Cuneo observes, revivalist Catholicism is marked by a style of reportage that he describes as a “lamentation of crisis” (251). That is certainly how one might describe the journalistic genre of LifeSiteNews. Cuneo’s description of revivalist Catholic literature will sound familiar to anyone who has come across LifeSiteNews articles on social media in recent years (or to anyone who is familiar with similar groups like Church Militant):
Because contemporary Catholicism appears to many Revivalists as a foreign religion, it is fair to suggest that they are suffering an acute case of culture shock. Most Revivalist literature, in fact, is meant as a form of shock therapy. It is a high-voltage jeremiad of rebellious nuns, wayward bishops, apathetic priests, and dishevelled liturgies designed to rouse the faithful to spiritual combat. Its most striking feature, apart from alarmism, is a penchant for ad hominem attack. The Revivalist imagination interprets everything in terms of a dualistic drama of light versus darkness. And in spiritual warfare, where everyone is aligned either on the side of angels or of demons, there is no point in sparing feelings or reputations, in passing over scandal, or in deferring to qualms of civility. The enemy must be exposed and brought to judgment.
The graphic expose is the literary genre to which most Revivalist literature conforms. Thus, the indignant reader is brought face-to-face with nuns participating in pagan goddess ceremonial, theologians defying the Vatican condemnation of non-celibate homosexuality, and bishops shrugging their shoulders at the latest disfigurement of Catholic liturgy. (251)
The revivalists possess a starkly dualistic worldview, in which they stand as representatives of true Catholicism in the face of indifference or apostasy. All of their literature serves to bolster this worldview, within which pro-life activism is situated as what Cuneo calls “a virtuoso expression of anti-worldly spirituality” (100). I would venture to say that the revivalist Catholic goal, which is one of the complete elimination of abortion through the restoration of true Catholicism and the conversion of society, functions as a “myth” akin to that of George Sorel’s idea of the socialist myth of the apocalyptic general strike. Whether or not it will ever happen, or has any chance of happening, is ultimately irrelevant to those who embrace it. It’s purpose is to shape the believer into a new type of person: the militant crusader. Pro-life activism in this context is a means of identity formation and social bonding within a subculture of believers, and not a practical political program. Indeed, it might actually be disadvantageous to revivalist Catholics if they were to achieve any of their goals, since their identity is based on the way they perceive themselves as a pure but persecuted remnant.
It is interesting to note that during the time that Cuneo was writing, revivalist Catholicism was still largely centred in the post-Vatican II tradition, even if it tended to hark back to pre-conciliar attitudes. He finds radical traditionalism largely among revivalists of an older age group, who came to adulthood before Vatican II. Here he describes this element within the larger revivalist faction:
The underbelly of popular Catholicism on the far right of the politico-theological spectrum is a shadowy melange of heterodox Marian apparitions, secret prophecy, and doomsday reckoning. A common strand through all of this is the theory that holds all change post-conciliar Catholicism to be a sinister Communist plot to destroy the church. While none of the older Revivalists from the sample completely swallow this “Communist conspiracy” theory, it is nevertheless a peripheral element of their religious culture and thus something to be nibbled at whenever they are confronted by disquieting developments within the church. (237-238)
Today, this “underbelly” is still apparent, although it has much more appeal among the young than in the past, thanks to the influence of the Internet and social media. The presence of such ideas on LifeSiteNews in recent years is notable.
LifeSiteNews, then, is in many ways the end-product of the deterioration of the pro-life movement in Canada. Indeed, one might be forgiven, given the nature of the articles they produce these days, for thinking that they had little connection to the pro-life movement at all. Their history provides a lesson about a danger that threatens the international pro-life movement as a whole. Many Catholic and Evangelical pro-lifers would consider themselves to be situated somewhere between the civil rights camp and the family heritage camp of pro-life activism, but there is a tendency toward revivalist excess and traditionalism that we can’t ignore—witness pro-life celebrity Abby Johnson’s recent appearance on LifeSiteNews praising the Traditional Latin Mass and denigrating communion in the hand. By following this trajectory, the pro-life movement could easily end up becoming an institution that has no appreciable influence on the outside world but only functions as a means of boosting the enthusiasm and religiosity of the faithful. Further, groups like LifeSiteNews risk staining the pro-life cause by associating it exclusively with fundamentalism, sensationalism, and hostility to the institutional Church including the pope. Practical efforts to make a real difference in the world by helping to protect unborn life would effectively be replaced by apocalyptic fantasies, dualistic thinking, and tactics that are meant to provoke antagonism. Such a movement would only function for the benefit of its adherents, rather than the benefit of the unborn.
Cuneo, Michael W. “Catholics Against the Church: Anti-Abortion Protest in Toronto, 1969-1985.” Doctoral dissertation. University of Toronto, 1988.