When he has finished purging the inner sanctuary, the tent of meeting and the altar, Aaron shall bring forward the live goat. Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and their trespasses, including all their sins, and so put them on the goat’s head. He shall then have it led into the wilderness by an attendant. The goat will carry off all their iniquities to an isolated region.
— Leviticus 16:20-22
Yesterday, the Twitter account for the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli caused a bit of a stir in the Catholic media world when they posted two threads suggesting that the racist publicity stunt orchestrated by YouTuber Taylor Marshall in October 2019 during the Amazon Synod in Rome sparked a series of events that eventually led to Francis promulgating the apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes, a document that abrogated Pope Benedict’s decision to permit wider use of the antecedent form of the Roman Rite once known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
Rorate’s first tweet in the series was a quote-tweet responding to another user who wrote, “I bet Rome doesn’t know who [Marshall] even is.” Rorate replied, “Unfortunately, not only do they know well [Marshall] in the Vatican — we are free to affirm for sure, from the most reliable sources, that the whole thought process that led to Traditionis Custodes started with Marshall’s pachamama grift stunt.”
Interestingly this wasn’t the first time that I’ve heard a traditionalist say that Marshall’s behavior was one of the key reasons why Pope Francis and the Vatican decided to implement restrictions on the Tridentine rite. About four months ago, the Irish Catholic YouTuber Robert Nugent posted a video in which he cited contacts in Rome who told him that the reason why Traditionis Custodes was issued was “because of American traditionalists. It was a response to what went on in America, and it’s a response, actually, to two people: to Vigano and Taylor Marshall, and you could add in two or three more people onto that.” Nugent goes on to cite their involvement in several incidents related to the 2020 US presidential election, such as Marshall’s involvement in the Trump campaign and Vigano’s open letter to the former president, as well as Trump’s retweeting of both. “It didn’t go unnoticed in Rome,” Nugent said.
Nugent went on to explain that Marshal may have done “great work” in the area of public relations for the traditionalist movement, but he and Vigano also tied the movement closely to the Trump campaign, adding, “he put us all in the same boat then, and remember that there are lots of traditional Catholics outside America.”
Later in the thread, Rorate said that “Francis was not particularly fond of Traditionalists (though he was of the SSPX), but his instinct was to keep a mostly aloof attitude regarding us.” They noted that he had “approved additional optional prefaces and saints’ days for the 1962 Missal.” This official act was a clear sign that Francis foresaw, and was even helping to facilitate, a future for the celebration of the older form of the Mass.
In Rorate’s telling, the pope’s “attitude hardened when he felt personally humiliated by the stunt made up by Taylor Marshall.” As we’ve mentioned before, not only did Marshall break the “news” that the wooden statues brought by Amazonian Catholics to Rome for the Synod on the Amazon had been stolen and thrown into the Tiber River, but he also admitted to planning and funding the theft with Austrian Alexander Tschugguel, who carried it out.
This preplanning was what most bothered the Rorate tweeter, who wrote that if the statues “had been thrown out due to some zealous Roman hothead, in a spur of the moment, that would have been one thing, Unfortunately, it was a premeditated stunt with the intent to generate views, clicks, and MONEY. Marshall was presented to Francis as the prototypical Trad.”
According to Rorate’s sources, “Videos of Marshall were actually shown to [the pope], with all [of Marshall’s] outlandish behavior, and our enemies in Francis’ circle smelled blood. They had the drafts of Traditionis custodes ready and all they needed was for Francis to change from aloofness to hatred. Marshall managed that.” The thread concludes with the statement, “Hope the cash and ‘fame’ [Marshall] got for it were worth it.”
“Francis is very sick with cancer, including the Pancreas.”
— Rorate Caeli (@RorateCaeli) January 19, 2022
On the other hand, they did accurately predict the release of Traditionis Custodes and the subsequent Responsum ad dubia, albeit leaking news of a Vatican document a few days before its release is substantially different from a true inside scoop. Still, at the very least — especially given Robert Nugent’s account — it’s reasonable to believe that in certain traditionalist circles in Rome, the blame for the Latin Mass restrictions is being pinned on Taylor Marshall. Speaking for myself, I do believe that the Marshall-financed act of vandalism at the end of the Amazon Synod in October 2019 represents a clear turning point in the way the Vatican saw the traditionalist movement.
When Pedro Gabriel and I were trying very hard to access information to help us respond to traditionalist accusations during the Amazon Synod, we encountered that the doors of many Church leaders were shut. The conventional wisdom in the Vatican was that if you give oxygen to the “lunatic fringe,” they will receive attention that they otherwise wouldn’t. On the outside looking in, however, we saw how the hysterical narrative dominating the headlines. After the Tschugguel incident, many of those doors opened. People suddenly wanted to understand what was going on. It was clear that the radical traditionalist movement had raised the stakes.
In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis said (emphasis added), “At the Synod on Amazonia in Rome in October 2019 some groups in the Church and their media reported the presence of indigenous people through a continuously distorted lens. What was beautiful in that synod—the deep respect for indigenous culture and the presence of the native people in the prayer services—was twisted by hysterical accusations of paganism and syncretism. Although we were barely aware of it inside the synod hall, there was no shortage of disturbances outside” (p.73).
Until Tschugguel’s actions, the reactionary traditionalist segment of the Church was likely easy to ignore in Rome. Largely confined to the US, the movement spent most of its time criticizing and nitpicking the pope’s teachings, signing open letters, and circulating petitions. They inhabited their own media ecosystem, and few in the global Church took notice. This stunt orchestrated by Marshall, however, was sensational, violent, hateful, and ultimately unavoidable. This wasn’t a minor distraction in Rome’s eyes anymore. It was real a problem.
Various traditionalists have used these new rumors as an opportunity to attack Marshall while others have defended him. They’re all missing the point. There’s certainly no doubt that Taylor Marshall is a dishonest con artist who will have to answer for deceiving countless people into believing conspiracy theories and doctrinal errors. But given the countless egregius attempts to tear the Church apart in the last decade by so many traditionalists, pinning the blame on a solitary scapegoat will do little to atone for so much collective guilt.
Addressing the errors of the traditionalist movement and the disordered ideologies it promotes have become an increasingly important part of Pope Francis’s message. Ultimately, the individuals and actions that unmasked the dangers of this potentially schismatic movement are irrelevant. What is important is the Church’s response.
Image: The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Public Domain.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.