Note: This essay will discuss the political takes of figures to whom I don’t particularly want to direct web traffic. Google “[figure’s name] putin” and most of it will come up.
Conservative Catholicism has a long history of receptivity to certain kinds of right-wing authoritarian politics. Whether democratic forms of government are morally imperative or not is a question on which Catholic theology is customarily agnostic, and especially in Continental Europe there have been centuries worth of cases of right-wing regimes and established churches–be they Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant–trading favors and acknowledgements of legitimacy. In the interwar period the Catholic Church was notoriously willing to seek modi vivendi with reactionary or fascist regimes and unwilling to do so with communist or socialist ones; this is a point that George Orwell’s nonfiction writing stresses again and again, just to name one contemporary writer who covered it. That period was a generally shameful one in Church history, and the conscious efforts to reject it after World War II are commendable; however, this history seems to be repeating itself among today’s Catholic ultraconservatives and traditionalists, in the form of some deeply worrying attitudes towards the ostensibly “conservative” Russian dictatorship of Vladimir Putin and his recent war on the relatively more “liberal” and Western-oriented nation of Ukraine.
At the moment, the Catholic ultraconservative and trad world seems split regarding whether Putin’s invasion is based or cringe. The traditionalist blog Rorate Coeli condemned the invasion on the reasonable historical basis that Ukraine being dominated by Moscow-based polities has historically been much worse for the country’s Catholics than phases when it has been Western-oriented instead. Taylor Marshall, meanwhile, has taken advantage of the situation to plug the longstanding trad hobbyhorse of consecrating Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, but this plug itself necessitates taking a pro-Ukraine position, because the Ukrainian bishops have asked Francis to do so (and to consecrate Ukraine to her Immaculate Heart as well). The former Trump White House figure Sean Spicer, who isn’t a Traditionalist Catholic personality per se but who is Catholic and hosts a show on the very right-wing Newsmax network, hosted the legendary Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul on said show to talk about what’s being done to her country.
Rorate Coeli, Marshall, and Spicer are thus perhaps comparable to people like Georges Bernanos, very conservative Catholics who were not necessarily averse in principle to authoritarian politics but who saw the brutality of the various interwar right-wing regimes for what it was and found themselves unable to support those regimes. Drawing a moral red line here is commendable. These figures and outlets, assuming they are sincere in doing so, deserve our acknowledgement of that.
My “assuming they are sincere” caveat isn’t meant to be snide but is in some cases a genuine question. Marshall in particular, given his ulterior motives, might fit better into another category, that occupied also by, for instance, Eric Sammons of Crisis Magazine. These are people who haven’t been making excuses for Putin–it’s not their wheelhouse; dastardly Freemasonic infiltration of the BugniniChurch isn’t a game in which Putin has any skin–but haven’t exactly been framing themselves as principled champions of human rights, or even the rights of Ukrainian Catholics, either. This is, regrettably, probably close to the “median” position on the Catholic far right as of this writing.
Unfortunately, however, just as other interwar Catholics (even generally anti-authoritarian ones like J.R.R. Tolkien) could be suckered, during the Spanish Civil War, into supporting Francisco Franco as a “lesser evil” compared to the anticlerical and Marxist-leaning Republicans, there are some in the ultraconservative/trad ecosystem today who appear to be tacitly sympathetic toward Putin or at least unsympathetic toward Ukraine because they perceive Ukraine’s Western posture as unacceptably liberal, internationalist, “globo-homo,” or whatever other terms they’re using for it. Carlo Maria Viganò is probably the highest-profile example of a trad guru who’s come out and blamed the invasion on the democratic world for not allying with Russia against “the transhuman and medical-technical globalist monster.” Viganò is, of course, a raving loon who never met an antiliberal and antidemocratic conspiracy theory he didn’t love, so he’s perhaps not the most representative example here, but it’s still striking just how fully a once-widely-respected trad trendsetter has bought into Putin’s look-what-you-made-me-do DARVO framing of being forced to invade a neighbor by the mean old West. Of Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Viganò writes “[t]he image of Zelenskyy is an artificial product, a mediatic fiction, an operation to manipulate consensus that was nonetheless able to create a political character in the Ukrainian collective imagination”—which is true, but one wonders if he would say it about, say, Winston Churchill, another leader with a patchy and inept peacetime record who turned out to be an inspiring symbol of wartime resistance.
Perhaps even further beyond the pale than Viganò’s intervention is that of Patrick Coffin, who in the most recent episode of his podcast hosted noted antisemite E. Michael Jones to answer questions like “Why no one in the western media is interested in seeing the Ukraine conflict through Russian’s (sic) national interest” and “Why do so many of the manipulators of the official narrative happen to be Jewish?” (Zelenskyy is himself Jewish, as for that matter is Oksana Baiul, a fact that Viganò flirts with making something out of as well, but Coffin and Jones are evidently more willing to commit to the bit.) Apparently beneath Coffin’s and Jones’s notice is the fact that, in addition to events in Ukraine being relevant to Russia’s national interest, they are also relevant to Ukraine’s national interest. Say what you will about pro-Franco interwar Catholics, at least they understood that the Spanish Civil War was an issue primarily of relevance to Spain, rather than countries that happened to be near it. (“Their participation dishonoured the cause of Spain,” Evelyn Waugh writes of Nazi German support for Franco in his World War II epic Sword of Honour. Not for Waugh, a serious man and a serious thinker, to wonder why nobody was interested in seeing the Spanish Civil War through the Third Reich’s national interest.)
Timothy Gordon, the former associate of Marshall who now hosts the Rules for Retrogrades podcast, has so far contented himself with asking why George Soros “love[s] Ukraine so much,” claiming that the invasion is a “psyop” just like COVID, and going back to complaining about feminism. One almost has to respect him for staying in his self-appointed lane, relatively speaking.
Those in the orbit of Catholic Integralism have for their part, at least on Twitter, chosen to strike a posture of sneering anti-liberal contrarianism, echoing the current rhetoric of figures like Glenn Greenwald or Tucker Carlson. For example, on March 1, Sohrab Ahmari tweeted, “If you’ve seamlessly transitioned from pushing masks and lockdowns to braying for war with Russia, chances are you’re stuck in a media-created Information trap.” The general idea appears to be that all the anti-Russia sentiment we’re seeing in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine is hysteria generated by the media and the powers-that-be who are wishing for global conflict; this is what Timothy Gordon is suggesting as well. It’s standard-issue populist isolationism, drawing from both the political hard right and hard left. (Indeed, I wonder how these sorts of personalities feel about being in the company of luminaries like Jeremy Corbyn and Ilhan Omar in implying that NATO is the real villain here.)
So while there may not be all that much explicit Putin-love in the Catholic ultraconservative and trad world, there is at the same time a noticeable reluctance by some to simply accept that Ukraine is the victim in this situation, probably because doing so would mean giving in to what they see as the latest Democrat or liberal trend. Such a thing would be as ideologically questionable, in their universe, as getting a booster shot, wearing a mask, or liking a Father Martin tweet. This is tragic, because what so many of them fail to see is that Ukraine and the Ukrainian people retain much of the very rootedness–in tradition, custom, material culture, and location–that they so desperately crave as an antidote to rootless liberalism. And as Ukrainians are brutalized by a deluded strongman who is trying to re-establish lost empires, they are hiding from reality. As a living, breathing traditional culture is murdered in broad daylight, they are squabbling amongst themselves or seeking privileged perches from which they can sneer at the liberal sheep. Who, we must ask ourselves, are the ones who have really fallen into an “Information trap”?
Image: A steppe in Ukraine. The country’s blue-over-yellow flag is an abstract representation of this feature of the Ukrainian landscape. From Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.