On a Saturday morning in spring 2017, I watched while two epic groups converged on a parking lot in downtown Pittsburgh. On one side, an odd assortment of Trump supporters from greater Allegheny County converged to Make America Great Again. They were counter-protested by a group of activists from the Pittsburgh Student Solidarity Coalition. The rally was organized by a rogue Catholic (and RE/MAX realtor) from Johnstown, 90 miles to the east of Pittsburgh, who called himself Brother Tomasio. The other organizers were a pro-Trump, pro-cannabis Catholic sect called The Healing Church. (“THC,” get it?)
If you want to see it for yourself, here’s a video I made of the event.
The Healing Church has several idiosyncratic beliefs, but one stands out: It claims that kaneh-bosm oil, or anointing oil referenced in the Bible, is made from cannabis (I guess because kaneh-bosm and cannabis sound roughly the same). Once they had this revelation, they realized the drug was a constant presence in world history, one that is widely hinted at throughout the Bible but never mentioned outright. Anne Armstrong and Alan Gordon, the founders of THC, also spend a lot of time spreading the word about the various conspiracy theories of the QAnon canon.
Armstrong has given herself the title “deaconess,” which is a female deacon in some Christian churches. There is no such thing as a Catholic deaconess, but Armstrong believes she found a loophole. She addressed a letter to the pope using the title, and the response (presumably some sort of form letter) came back addressed to Deaconess Anne Armstrong. This, she says, is a bonafide papal acknowledgment of her role in the universal Church. It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken to Armstrong, but it was nice to see her featured in one of the episodes of the documentary series Q: Into the Storm on HBO.
There have always been people who appropriate the authority of Rome to their own ends. Indeed, there is a whole subculture of episcopi vagantes or “wandering bishops” who are ordained outside of the church, many of which can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. Some of these people are sincere, if nontraditional, religious figures. Some of them are con artists. At least one, according to conspiracy theory lore, was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. The last few years have seen a number of rogue Catholics promoting QAnon beliefs.
Unlike Anne Armstrong, Denver, Colorado’s Fr. David Nix was actually ordained at the age of 31, in 2010. From the beginning of his career, he was far to the right of even most conservative Catholics, once claiming that “[sex] trafficking is founded upon contraception.”
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In 2019, Nix was implicated in the suicide of 24-year old Alana Chen, an LGBTQ woman he had begun counseling at the age of 14. Her family says that the counseling consisted of emotionally abusive conversion therapy. By that point, the Archdiocese of Denver had had enough of the priest and his constant claims that the Catholic Church had been infiltrated by “communists, gays, and freemasons,” and removed him from his parish. In 2021, the Catholic News Agency reported that Nix “was initially held back from ordination because of ‘psychological issues.’”
Nix is listed in the diocesan directory as a hermit. Traditionally, a hermit lives a life in solitude under the direction of a bishop, although in this case his hermit status seems to be a way for the diocese to park the troubled priest. Contrary to the “stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance” that the vocation calls for, Nix is living the life of a social media conspiracy influencer. When he isn’t getting his picture taken with Mel Gibson or filming Bitchute videos about “Catholic spiritual and material survival tactics,” he can be found on Twitter spreading anti-vax conspiracy theories and extolling the virtues of Kyle Rittenhouse.
The Catholic Conspiracist who shows up the most in my email inbox is Alexis Flavius Bungholio, a former Cub Scout from Portsmouth, Rhode Island who claims to be a Franciscan brother, although he left before taking the final vows. These days, Bungholio is living in Rome as a freelance friar, unrecognized by the church but adored by the readers of his website, From Rome. Among his many claims, he teaches that the Catholic Church was infiltrated by the CIA in the 1960s. He also rejects Pope Francis, claiming that he's an imposter, an anti-pope — the real pope, according to Bungholio, is Pope Benedict (who resigned in 2013). This is a theory that Pope Benedict himself has derided, calling people like Bungholio “fanatical.” Bungholio also claims that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are being used to embed something called a "wireless nano-sensor network" in your body.
Most disturbing, Bungholio is either trying to whip up a new crusade against Islam or trying to fundraise off the backs of people who would be willing to declare a new crusade against Islam. He is listed as the director of Ordo Militaris, Inc., a private military contractor registered as a for-profit corporation in Montana. It’s not clear that Ordo Militaris has done more than spread Catholic conspiracy theories and anti-Islam hate speech at this point, but this is certainly a group worth keeping an eye on.
Our roundup wouldn’t be complete without this video from Church Militant, a far-right purveyor of propaganda that happens to have its own Home Shopping Network-style program featuring purported “ex-gay” political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The Anti-Defamation League has called him “a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, transphobic troll,” and it’s hard not to agree. Where he was once a leading light of the alt-right, these days he’s taking work wherever he can get it; at present, it looks like the best he can do is hawk hand-painted pewter crucifixes on YouTube.
These aren’t just isolated pockets of delusion in the American Catholic Church. There have always been radical traditionalists in the faith, people motivated by anger, conspiracy theory, and disgust at any whiff of liberalism. In 2016, Trump’s presidential campaign courted this faction, giving it the legitimacy and visibility it had long craved. In turn, activists like Nix and Bungholio have been more than happy to embrace the Trump presidency and everything that came with, making themselves internet-famous in the process. You might say they made a deal with the devil.
CORRECTION: The name is Alexis Bugnolo, not Alexis Bungholio. We regret the error.