Catholic Twitter debates Trump’s handling of coronavirus pandemic

May 8, 2020

President Donald Trump wants the Catholic vote. Recently, Trump was on a conference call with several hundred Catholic educators — and many prominent bishops.

Trump reportedly described himself as the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church.” 

In reality, though, there’s a growing rift within the church on support for the president. A number of prominent Catholics are criticizing Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic — and many have been vocal on Twitter.

Related: Coronavirus postponed Russia’s Victory Day. That could be a problem for Putin.

Rev. Robert Ballecer, an American priest stationed in the Vatican, has been particularly outspoken.

Before he moved to Rome, Ballecer had been living at St. Ignatius College Prep, a Jesuit high school in San Francisco. The Jesuits allowed Ballecer to pursue his Catholic ministry as a host at “TWiT,” a podcast network focused on technology. It seemed like a good fit, as Ballecer is a self-described mechanic, engineer and electrician who grew up in Silicon Valley dumpster diving for discarded computers as a teenager.

Ballecer’s technical prowess is widely admired in the world of tech journalism. He has been a regular at the hacker conventions in Las Vegas over the years. The priest has branded himself the “Digital Jesuit.” He set up three video studios at the Jesuit General Curia inside the Vatican and plays a key role in the order’s social media efforts. He even built a bot to block hostile visitors to his Twitter feed, which has more than 25,000 followers, most of whom, he said, know him from his podcasting career.

“There are a lot of people out there who do not think that a priest should do X or should believe Y or should support candidate A, B or C. I get it, but at the same time, I will not shy away from it.”

Rev. Robert Ballecer

“There are a lot of people out there who do not think that a priest should do X or should believe Y or should support candidate A, B or C,” Ballecer told The World. “I get it, but at the same time, I will not shy away from it.”

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If you read through the priest’s tweets during the pandemic, it is apparent that Ballecer is no fan of the Trump administration. In an April 23 tweet, he wrote: “Trump has been wrong about COVID-19. ... repeatedly. And yet the MAGA folk continue to believe his ‘gut feeling’ over what medical experts have been telling him for months. He is not trying to get us killed... he just doesn't care if we get sick.”

On April 22, in a classic display of social media snark, he berated the Wisconsin Republican Party for making people stand in line to vote during the pandemic. “They still lost,” he tweeted. “Now they're suing @GovEvers from keeping people safe at home. ... Tell me again that the @GOP is the party of life.”

Ballecer says he’s not afraid his superiors will chastise him for being politically outspoken.

“Not because they share the same convictions as I do, because they don't always,” he explained. “But because they know that if I am posting something, I have something to back it up. That's why I've been given such a free hand ... I don’t engage in rumor mills. So, they trust me.”

Related: Ugandan archbishop breaks with tradition to promote birth control during pandemic

Rev. Bill Dailey, an American priest who serves as the spiritual leader of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Dublin, Ireland, says he became aware of Robert Ballecer’s Twitter feed in the last couple of months, but decided not to follow him.

“My sense is his feed is pretty unabashedly looking to elect a Democrat this fall,” said Dailey, who is also a lawyer and the director of the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith & Reason in Dublin.

“I believe that a priest, wearing his Roman collar in public, has an obligation not to endorse candidates or parties one way or another. And I think that when it comes to that, you risk alienating people from your ministry by looking like a partisan. I don’t think bishops should look like partisans; I don’t think priests should look like partisans.”

Rev. Bill Dailey

“I believe that a priest, wearing his Roman collar in public, has an obligation not to endorse candidates or parties one way or another. And I think that when it comes to that, you risk alienating people from your ministry by looking like a partisan. I don’t think bishops should look like partisans; I don’t think priests should look like partisans.”

Dailey said there is a long history of fringe people in the Catholic Church, and in recent times, they can seem to be “less fringe” because they have a loud voice on Twitter.

“Those people have always existed and been around in the church, but you didn’t pay much attention to them,” Dailey said. “Now, they can gain a Twitter following, and people who don’t believe those things for some reason like to react to them rather than just ignore them.”

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One of the larger followings on Catholic Twitter belongs to James Martin, a Jesuit priest who is known for his outreach to the LGBTQ community. With more than a quarter-million followers, Martin is seen by some as being part of the tradition of itinerant preachers, offering comfort to his virtual flock, 280 characters at a time.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, follows close to 1,000 people on Twitter, many of them Catholics. She describes herself as a religious Catholic feminist. Imperatori-Lee waited until she was awarded tenure before starting to tweet. She said she has the sense that people on Catholic Twitter segregate into echo-chamber camps.

“It does tend to be a bit tribal on Catholic Twitter,” Imperatori-Lee said. “In fact, Catholic Twitter can be very mean and very uncharitable. A lot of what goes on is people saying, 'That’s not Catholic.’”

Imperatori-Lee recently tweeted a link to an op-ed in the New York Daily News about a conference call that Trump had with hundreds of Catholic educators and several prominent bishops. The piece warned of the “dangers that come with cozying up to a president who consistently makes a mockery of Christian values.”

An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter called Trump a man with “an uncontrollable propensity for lying, continuously and about everything.”

Ballecer defends his unrelenting criticism of the president by stating flatly, “I don’t make stuff up.” And Imperatori-Lee, who was only recently made aware of Ballecer’s Twitter feed, said she didn’t find it offensive in any way.

“I think a lot of the things he is advocating for in terms of holding government accountable is attuned to the church’s priorities of looking at marginalized communities, the least among us. That’s something Pope Francis is always talking about. Who is paying the most and shouldn’t the church be accompanying the people who are suffering the most.”

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, professor of religious studies, Manhattan College

“I think a lot of the things he is advocating for in terms of holding government accountable is attuned to the church’s priorities of looking at marginalized communities, the least among us,” she said. “That’s something Pope Francis is always talking about. Who is paying the most and shouldn’t the church be accompanying the people who are suffering the most.”

From his post at the Vatican in Rome, Ballecer is frank about his hope that the pandemic will trigger a political transformation around the globe.

“Normal is not going to come back for a very, very long time,” Ballecer said in an interview conducted in one of three recording studios he built in the Vatican.

“So, this is a good time to ask what is it that we want our societies to do …  Some people want economic reforms, some people want social change, some people want health care reform, some people want to change how it is that we work," he added. "And I think the pandemic is going to enable that. I think that is a unique time for us right now. I think this might be something that ends up changing us for the better. At least I have to hope that. I have to believe that.”


From The World ©2019