Rick Heilman, Posting Pastor
The online alt-right poisons a Midwestern priest.
[Content note: this piece contains discussion about the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church, as well as some pretty awful homophobia.]
I had never heard of a "combat rosary" before this year, but was thrilled that somebody finally made a product for people who don't want to pray the rosary on normal civilian beads, like a pussy. If you want to buy one, you can go to a website called romancatholicgear.com, pick the bronze, silver, or gunmetal color, and pay $49.99, which seems expensive considering that you can find a rosary for free if you know literally anyone who works in a Catholic school. The creator of the combat rosary and proprietor of the romancatholicgear.com site is Rick Heilman, who based the combat rosary on an old dog-tag rosary that was once issued to American soldiers in the first world war. As he put it in one of several very long YouTube interviews, “I wanted to design a rosary that was tough, you know? Masculine...all rosaries to me look like women’s jewelry or children’s toys or whatever, it didn’t really do much for me.”
Heilman is a priest in the diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, and a self-described “avid user of new media for faith formation, finding his inspiration in St. Maximilian Kolbe who mastered the use of new media in his day”. Because he has a connection at the Vatican, those combat rosaries are now used as the official rosaries of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s personal bodyguards. He also uses the romancatholicgear.com site to sell rosary "concealed carry" licenses, various prayer books, and, of course, red baseball caps that say “Make America Holy Again”. The blog that accompanies romancatholicgear.com is romancatholicman.com, which touts itself as “the sixteenth highest-ranked Catholic blog in the world”. When he launched the site in 2015, Heilman sounded the alarm that “there is a serious ‘man-crisis’ in the church", which is definitely the funniest possible way to word that sentence. Today, the blog details all of the fronts in the worldwide war for souls, which, in Heilman's mind, springs directly from the erosion of traditional masculinity.
Because romancatholicman.com started in 2015 and continues today, the blog archives serve as this incredible time capsule of what it meant to be a hard-right cultural conservative, and what it meant to be a hard-right Catholic conservative, during a period when both groups melted down and hardened into something else entirely. And I am fascinated by the kind of person that would feel called to the priesthood, go to seminary, get a divinity degree, and then end up selling merch to Trump fans and blogging about how Brett Kavanaugh got railroaded. I really went into writing this thinking Heilman was going to be a villain, and someone I could make fun of for a few thousand words, but the story turned out to be more complicated than that.
I had planned to get into the guy’s career history and roasting a few of his funnier blog posts and merch items. But in researching all of that, I stumbled across a whole ecosystem of hard-right Catholic web content, mainly on YouTube but extending into other sites, podcasts, and personal blogs, including Heilman’s. Like the political Internet, the Catholic Internet has plenty of places where conservatives can find opinions and videos from professional writers and producers, places that try to maintain some sort of respectability. But, also like the political Internet, the Catholic Internet also has a ton of jank-ass amateur content out there, content that dives into wild reactionary conspiracy theories about the Catholic church, content where people don’t care about production budgets or tethers to reality. Heilman lives in this part of the Internet, and he wrote down pretty much every thought that has crossed his mind over the past four years, so we could track how living in that part of the Internet affected him over time. He is not someone we should be making fun of; he is someone who we should worry about, and we should especially be worrying about the trend in the church that he reflects.
CHAPTER ONE - THE ONLY TOPLESS JUICE BAR IN SOUTH CENTRAL WISCONSIN
Fr. Heilman’s first brush with notoriety came in 2005, when he was starting out as pastor at St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff (he is still pastor there today). 2005 was the year that a strip joint, originally called “Kitt’s Korner” and later “Hot Rods”, opened up down the street from Fr. Heilman’s parish. He was, as you might expect, not a huge fan of the idea. He organized a protest action with his parishoners called the “prayer mile”; he set up a Stations of the Cross devotion spanning the mile between Hot Rods and his parish. 200 people showed up to walk the prayer mile the first day, and then they set up little prayer cards and ribbons and crosses for people to continue praying later. Did it work? In Fr. Heilman’s words:
“The miracle mile was, indeed, miraculous. Even though many say that the porn industry is more protected (under First Amendment rights) than are the babies in their mothers’ wombs, within six months the strip club was chased out of town. Little Pine Bluff was overjoyed, and a victory was won for Our Lord.”
As is the case with all of the subjects of Grift of the Holy Spirit, I am impressed with Father Heilman’s ability to turn a conversation, unprompted, to the topic of abortion. Now, it’s unclear to me if Hot Rods was driven out solely by the power of prayer, although it seems very clear that the community really didn’t want them there and was good at organizing themselves and pressuring their town board. Essentially, the board found a technicality that allowed them to revoke Hot Rods' liquor license, which meant that Hot Rods temporarily converted to a topless juice bar in an attempt to stay open, and despite being - I’m pretty sure about this one - the only topless juice bar in south central Wisconsin, the owners eventually said “the hell with this” and closed up shop.
This incident is actually kind of a success story when it comes to organizing your community. They had a direct action, it wasn’t violent, it wasn’t even really disruptive towards the normal operation of Hot Rods’ business, but it brought the community together to get their local government to do what they wanted. I don’t know if running out this strip club was the best use of the parish’s time, but it is a story of a small group of dedicated citizens changing their world. Maybe there are other things they did with that organizing after Hot Rods left; maybe they registered people to vote, or got a new library, or made sure the public school teachers got good benefits and a living wage. All of that would be great.
Here’s what Father Heilman did instead: he took twelve of his parishoners and he formed a club. He wouldn’t call it a club, he would call it a “band of brothers” in interviews, and the formal name was the Knights of Divine Mercy. As Heilman put it in an interview with Regina:
“Our first leadership meeting for the Knights of Divine Mercy was at a round table (Get it? Knights of the Roundtable?), and was held on the very spot the strippers danced in the “former” strip club. We began the meeting by breaking out Holy Water, Blessed Salt, and the prayers of the Church, as we blessed that place and, quite literally “reclaimed surrendered ground.””
Long before romancatholicman.com launched, Heilman was always on with his martial imagery, and carefully calling out already-obvious references to Arthurian legend. Heilman also played football in high school, and he was all-state by the way, that’s still in his bio on his parish website, and after you turn 60 you should really consider taking it off of your bio. But when I learned about Heilman’s high school football career, I imagined the end of this story as a group of middle-aged rotund men, all former high school football players, with their better days behind them, sitting around a table in an empty strip club where, I’m guessing, the power and water has been shut off, convincing themselves that they are brave knights fighting an epic battle. And because it’s one priest and twelve men, I’m sure all of them are thinking to themselves, “this must be exactly how Jesus and the Apostles felt”. As their mission statement puts it:
“The Knights of Divine Mercy apostolate seeks to awaken in men the eager desire for a knight’s true calling: The quest for heroic virtue, to be strong husbands and fathers, and to be powerful men of prayer. Men gather once a month for prayer, inspired teaching and a chance to become a “band of brothers” together pursuing virtue, holiness and chivalry.”
The Madison Catholic Herald, when they originally reported on the formation of the Knights of Divine Mercy, emphasized that Father Heilman really wanted to hammer home “that men and women are "equal in dignity" but they are not the same. He said men must accept responsibility for such evils as abortion, sexually transmitted disease, contraception, and pornography.” Forming the Knights was a key moment in Heilman’s career that helped him get his head around how he perceived his mission; he still references this incident today, and posted on his site about it as recently as last month. The Knights have guest speakers that are experts in demonology, which is exactly what it sounds like, and they use imagery of knights and battle to really drive their mission home and emphasize that men need to be more holy and more manly. Heilman is not the first person to think of this: there's a tradition of what's called "muscular chrstianity", with this emphasis on masculinity and physical prowess as a path to holiness, that dates back to at least the 1850s, can be traced through organizations like the YMCA and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and is also kind of the plot of Fight Club. Now, these views on masculinity could be charitably described as “outdated” in 2005, but by the time we get to 2019, they will have metastasized into something much more toxic.
CHAPTER TWO - SCOTT WALKER, FUCK THAT GUY
"The radical secular cultural elite have done everything they can to own the narrative; to indoctrinate the masses. In their condescension, these cultural elite look down on us as the “useful idiots” who are easily manipulated, as long as we remain engrossed in our televisions, internet, or any other of our many worldly distractions. All the cultural elite need do, they believe, is flash headlines that we catch as we get on with our worldly stuff. This is too easy, these elite seemed to think, until they tangled with a Bishop Morlino."
- Heilman writing for Roman Catholic Man
It’s also worth taking a minute to understand where Heilman works, and who his boss was. From 2003-2018, the bishop of the Madison diocese was a man named Robert Morlino, now deceased. He would have been the one who promoted Heilman from associate pastor to pastor shortly before the Hot Rods dust-up, and he eventually elevated Heilman again to the head of his vicariate, another effective promotion that made Heilman an administrator for a group of parishes. Morlino was absolutely a fan of Heilman, professionally speaking, and Heilman would later write at length about how much he admired Morlino, and how much of an influence Morlino was on his own ministry.
Morlino was very much a conservative culture warrior-type bishop. Six months into his tenure as bishop, he kicked things off by writing an op-ed decrying the lack of public morality of the city of Madison, a pretty liberal city that’s home to a massive university and the statehouse and a lot of friendly Midwestern hipsters. In 2006, he forced all of his pastors to play a pre-recorded message during the homily on the Sunday before election day, telling all of the Catholics in the diocese that voting for anyone who supported abortion rights was committing a mortal sin; several parishoners across the diocese remember walking out or turning their backs to the altar in protest. He brought back more Latin masses to the diocese, and encouraged priests to only use males as altar servers and liturgical ministers. And he was very politically active, it’s easy to find interviews with him talking about church teachings on issues before the Wisconsin state legislature, or speaking at rallies at the statehouse to oppose the legalization of gay marriage, that sort of thing.
So, Morlino’s a very strict Catholic, follows doctrine to the letter, and never shies away from a political fight. If the popes wrote about it, he's read it and will gladly echo it...most of the time. Take a look at the biggest political battle that Wisconsin saw this decade, when newly-elected governor Scott Walker - fuck that guy - introduced the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, often called Act 10, in 2011. This was a bill that basically gutted the power and collective bargaining rights of most public sector unions in the state, and if you lived in the Midwest at the time, you probably remember seeing massive protests at the state capitol building from the teachers unions and other state employees.
The Catholic Church, on paper, is very pro-union. They don’t always act like it, but there is a large body of church teachings, going back 130 years at this point, affirming the rights of those who sell their labor to be treated with dignity. Specifically this body of teaching affirms unions as good institutions that effectively protect the rights of workers. So, while all of this debate and these protests were going on at the statehouse around Act 10, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, put out a statement that expressed the church teachings on unions - albeit using pretty mild language - writing:
"Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers...it is especially in times of crisis that “new forms of cooperation” and open communication become essential. We request that lawmakers carefully consider the implications of this proposal and evaluate it in terms of its impact on the common good.”
In other words, “hey, we’re Catholics, and we believe that unions are a good thing at protecting human dignity, so if we’re going to pass a law to weaken the unions in our state, we should at least think about it for a minute.” The statement quoted the current Pope, Benedict XVI, as well as his predecessor John Paul II, both of whom wrote encyclicals where they specifically affirmed the value of labor unions.
And that’s really all that had to happen. Milwaukee is the only diocese in Wisconsin big enough to be considered an archdiocese, and Listecki is the only Archbishop in the state; it’s not like he was pulling rank on anyone, but he’s the Catholic in the state with the biggest teaching responsibility, he presumably speaks for the clergy of Wisconsin when there’s a statewide issue that the media would talk to a bishop about. If you were an NPR reporter looking for a soundbite from the church during this political brawl, Listecki put out a statement, you’re all set.
Morlino, in Madison, put out his own statement, rejecting what Listecki wrote and saying that the church was neutral on the issue of unions, which it’s not. Morlino could have said nothing; in fact, the normal thing for him to do would have been to say nothing, because someone else already covered it. His statement didn't cite any anti-union church teachings, because there aren't any. But he was so intent on not being seen as opposed to or even uneasy about Act 10, that he had to put out his own statement. He not only is willing to publicly ignore some very direct Catholic teaching that’s been around for over a century, but he’s willing to just go out and contradict another bishop, one who’s in a higher position than he is, because he likes Scott Walker’s bill. He just likes the culture war and fighting for the side he wants to win, regardless of what side the Catholics are actually on. Also, he published his statement in the Madison Catholic Herald, which, as it turns out, is the newspaper owned by the diocese, and most small diocese don't have newspapers with searchable online archives going back decades. The diocese of Madison, as it turns out, has its own independent communication vehicle that the bishop can use to get a message like this out, separate from the normal communications from the national US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now, when Morlino put his statement out, the USCCB immediately - as in later that afternoon - put out their own statement praising Listecki and essentially saying to Morlino “nah dude, the first guy was right”, which is very funny.
It’s not, however, nearly as funny as the obituary for Bishop Morlino that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal last year, after Morlino passed away from a heart attack. It has the great headline “Catholics Express Mixed Feelings as They Mourn Bishop Robert Morlino”, and the incredible lede “Madison-area Catholics chose their words carefully Sunday as they mourned the death of Bishop Robert Morlino”. There are some really excellent soundbites from Madison parishoners in this piece, who “declined to say whether they thought Morlino was a good fit for Madison.” The parishoners instead responded with things like “You either loved him or hated him,” and “I totally respected what he was trying to do”, and “We’re all individuals, we all have our own thoughts.”
Heilman is also quoted in that same piece, giving the homily at his parish the Sunday after Morlino died:
“He was totally dedicated in helping us to encounter the Lord through sacred, reverent liturgy. This was the truth that was foremost in his mind. He wasn’t forming fringe parishes or a fringe diocese. That wasn’t how we were going to get there. We had to mainstream this. We had to help others to know what this means for us.”
Heilman respected this culture warrior, developed as a priest under him for fifteen years, and saw his own mission as taking the truth of the Gospel, and his personal interest in developing proper Catholic masculinity, from the fringes to a broader audience. So he turned to the Internet, which was a mistake.
CHAPTER THREE - THE LOMBARDI ERA
“One of the important things that you and I must remember is that while we are alive in this world, we are in a constant battle for souls, our souls and the souls of others. Now, if we’re going to be successful in this battle, we need to be trained, we need to be prepared, and we need to engage in this battle with the right weapons, the weapons God has given us through the Catholic church. In this Spiritual Ammo Can, I have four of the most powerful weapons that God has given the world to help us engage in this fight and be victorious.”
- from a promotional video on Romancatholicgear.com
There are a few online outlets that Father Heilman uses to spread his message. He has a 23-part video series on Catholic masculinity called “In The Trenches”, which I did not watch because it’s behind a paywall, and also that site isn’t secure (please do not give your credit card information to “In The Trenches”). He also has plenty of interviews on YouTube with various conservative Catholic streaming shows, and I have to say, Father Heilman is very good on camera. He’s got a friendly Midwestern accent, he’s pretty soft-spoken and doesn’t ever raise his voice, and he very much nails the “Wisconsin Nice” tone. It is very easy for me to imagine him as a pastor that would be very easy to talk to, that would remember your name and the names of all of the members of your family, that would try hard to comfort you if you came to him grieving or in distress. It makes his blog posts that much more jarring, and his story that much more tragic; unfortunately, his story is also the story of thousands of Catholics.
Heilman's main tool for getting his message out into the world is romancatholicman.com, which launched in February 2015. The inaugural post is borrowed from Heilman's book, Church Militant Field Manual. This is how he opened the website:
"I was a kid in the 1960s, or as we like to refer to it in Wisconsin: “The Lombardi Era.” Inspired by Coach Vince Lombardi and the many titles his Green Bay Packers won for our state, I worked very hard in high school and became an all-state lineman. From there, I headed off to college, fully intending to work my way up to become a Green Bay Packer someday, until a neck injury ended my football career in the first year of college. While I never spent one day in the military, I believe those early years on the gridiron sowed the first seeds of a warrior spirit that prepares well for battle."
When I wrote that earlier joke about the former high school football players missing their glory days and gathering in an old strip club, I didn't think Heilman was actually going to launch his website with "yeah, I could have played for the Packers, but I had that damn neck injury, but on the other hand that also basically makes me a Troop." He posted this when he was 57 years old. The lesson that Vince Lombardi taught him, according to the rest of the passage, is that you're not going to fix things by being nice and accommodating, you have to fight and throw elbows and call out the bad guys when you see them and actually try to win. In Fr. Heilman's estimation, masculinity has eroded so much in today's world that men don't know how to fight anymore, and he's going to help them learn how to fight so that order and goodness and morality can return to America. I don’t disagree with Heilman on the broader point that moral fights are actually fights, but Heilman’s idea of fighting used to be organizing the people in his parish to pressure the town government, and now it’s just posting incessantly.
With that in mind, let's do a quick rundown of titles of some of the posts from the first four months of the site:
"Men, dress up for mass!"
"Truth about communion in the hand while standing"
"Pornography destroying our nation"
"Why I am learning the traditional Latin mass"
"We are losing, big time!"
"The essence of our mission - obedience"
"Calling out modern liturgists"
So you're getting a sense of what the vibe is here. This period also includes my favorite post overall on the site, and my favorite post that Heilman has written on any site, and my favorite post written by anybody on any website covering any topic, which is the post where Heilman wrote lyrics to "Roman Catholic Man", a song parody of Johnny Rivers’ "Secret Agent Man". Here’s the first verse (there are many verses):
“There’s a man who leads a life for others/
To everyone he meets, he is their brother/
With every prayer he makes/
Another soul’s at stake/
Odds are you will live to see your Maker/
Roman Catholic Man, Roman Catholic Man/
He’s given you a new heart and taken away your pride.”
Embedded in that post is a YouTube video of the karaoke track for "Secret Agent Man", so young men can sing it alone in their bedrooms in between practice runs of kneeling for Communion.
Here's one more post title, from June 2015: "Is this the last straw for God?" That title refers to the Obergefell v. Hodges supreme court decision that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, and it’s one of Heilman's first posts explicitly dedicated to American politics. Heilman, as you’d expect, is no fan of gay marriage being legalized, and he feels very strongly about it, writing an exceptionally long post that gets progressively stranger as it goes on. About seven paragraphs and three block quotes into the piece, he writes:
"Beyond these prophecies, some point to “signs in the sky,” which God has a long history of using to “get our attention.” I find it more than interesting, for example, that within 20 days of the 100th anniversary of the “sign in the sky” at Fatima (October 13, 1917), the Revelations 12 “sign in the Sky” will appear (just google … Sept. 23, 2017). It is said that things accelerate toward the conclusion. Could it be possible that the ticking clock of 100 years given to Satan in Pope Leo’s vision (October 13, 1884 … exactly 33 years earlier, to the day), began with the sign in the sky on October 13, 1917? That means we are in the final couple of years, and few would deny that evil is ramping up at an incredible rate in our days."
So by this point in the piece he has moved away completely from the Supreme Court decision and into full and borderline-incoherent apocalyptic imagery. At the end of the piece, he embeds a YouTube video titled “MOST IMPORTANT MOVIE ON AMERICA EVER. PERIOD. which, Dinesh D'Souza style, rambles incoherently about evil leftists executing a decades-long operation to overtake American democracy. The thumbnail is a complex, Glenn Beck-like flowchart linking Barack Obama to Karl Marx:
In that thumbnail, by the way, one of the organizations linking the communist party to Obama is the Democratic Socialists of America, and if you’ve ever been to a DSA meeting, you know that all they talk about is how much they love Obama and agreed with all of his policies, especially his economic policies.
The point is that Father Heilman is watching conspiracy theory videos on YouTube, he's in the prime Fox News age demo, and he works in a diocese that has its own newspaper where the conservative bishop can put out his own statements if he doesn't think his colleagues are Catholic enough. So he’s very receptive to information from sources that aren’t exactly mainstream. More importantly, he clearly feels powerless, especially powerless from a culture war standpoint, as the Obama presidency heads towards its eighth year and gay marriage, something that Heilman knows is wrong, it’s what he’s believed his whole life and it’s what his mentor Bishop Morlino believes, is now legal everywhere. He’s exactly the type of person that would soak up wilder and wilder theories explaining that the reason things haven’t happened the way he hoped is because of a secret cabal of evil people - George Soros, Antifa, The Deep State, Hollywood executives, whatever you want - are carrying out nefarious interconnected plans behind the scenes.
Here’s where it gets even weirder: you’ve heard about conspiracy theories on YouTube, but there is a whole separate pool of YouTube conspiracy theory videos specific to the Catholic church. Is there a secret cabal of gay bishops enabling the child abuse scandal? Was Pope Benedict forced to retire for some insidious reason? Are Protestants planting sleeper agents to finally bring down Rome once and for all? Is that one bishop we don’t like part of “the swamp”? Is Pope Francis actually a pagan? Is Satan executing a deacdes-long plan to overtake American democracy? All of the hallmarks of right-wing conspiracy YouTube are duplicated in this very specific corner of the Internet: apocalyptic imagery, dismissal of "fake news" from the mainstream, an algorithm that recommends more and more extreme theories, and the fundamental inability of creators to understand that podcasts are an audio medium and you do not need to post video of two people staring at a camera and talking into a mic.
As an example, here's a screenshot of some of the videos on the innocuously named “HolyFaithMedia” channel with 23,000 subscribers. Yes, those are thumbnails of George Soros and Hillary Clinton, and not pictured are more videos titled things like "Climate Cult Exposed!", which I assume is some sort of devotional prayer I missed in school:
23,000 subscribers is not huge, but it is enough to, like, run ads before the videos and monetize the channel. They also carry the classic right-wing genre of “guy in car talking to himself about Colin Kaepernick”, but inexplicably on this channel the camera faces out through the windshield instead of at the speaker:
The HolyFaithMedia channel, as it turns out, also regularly runs Father Heilman's homilies from his parish in Pine Bluff. He is very much at home in this scene, and the content he’s creating on romancatholicman.com gets cross-pollinated through interviews and guest appearances elsewhere in this network.
After Obergefell, things on romancatholicman.com don't get better. At this point in 2015, we were in the middle of a presidential primary contest, and a video had just been released that appeared to show a Planned Parenthood staffer negotiating the sale of fetal organs. The video was deceptively edited and generally made up - as I wrote this piece, the group that released the videos were found liable for $2M in damages to Planned Parenthood - but it broke Father Heilman’s brain, and he kept posting through it during this period, conspiracy videos, hysterical warnings, he just kept saying that we needed to pull out our combat rosaries and fight this evil together. As election season was ramping up, there was actually a pretty large pool of Catholic candidates in the Republican primary: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, the highest number of Catholics that have ever run for president. And I’m sure at this point, Father Heilman was praying that one of them would become the nominee, defeat Hillary Clinton, become president, and restore some semblance of good Catholic orthodoxy and morality to our country. So we all know where this is going.
CHAPTER FOUR - WE ALL KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING
“Things were not looking good, right? The whole country was saying it was a shoo-in for Hillary, right? So, let’s do lost causes, right? Who is that? St. Jude. So we did a nine-day novena up to the feast of St. Jude, and on the ninth day, on the feast of St. Jude, Comey gets up and reopens the emails from Hillary. And that was just days before the election started. So, God is the God of miracles, in my estimation.”
- Heilman speaking on Taylor Marshall’s YouTube show
July 23, 2016 was immediately after the Republican National Convention, and it was when Father Heilman posted “It’s My Fault”, which does not mention Donald Trump by name but is clearly about him:
“As we look at this horrible, horrible 2016 Presidential election, I believe the problem is not the Party. The problem is us. Better yet, the problem is me. I am not going to get into what I believe all of us priests and bishops have done or have not done … I leave that up to their own personal discernment. I can only speak for myself. I am a weak spiritual leader who has led us to a place where “conservatives” cannot get elected or stay in office without making horrible compromises. I take the blame on this one.”
It is such a relief to finally have a conservative man take the blame for Trump being the Republican nominee. But then the post goes on and gets a little bit stranger:
“I sat by and allowed sappy, effeminate, profane liturgies demoralize and deaden the hearts of our Catholic men (and many Catholic women). I remained mostly silent as feminists stripped our men of their dignity as husbands and fathers and spiritual heads of their households.”
This guy’s whole brand is Catholic masculinity, so I get that he has to make an effort to tie it back to that, but I don’t think the couples voting for Trump are the ones where women wouldn’t let their husbands be “spiritual heads of their households”. Trump isn’t getting elected because the church is too effeminate, that’s a very strange choice of words, and it’s not the only time he’s going to do this, as we’ll see later. To Heilman, any time something goes wrong in the world, it’s because the church, which still doesn’t let any non-men or married men or openly gay men serve as clergy or in any meaningful leadership role, has become too feminine and too effete; this is the explanation he keeps coming back to. He quotes plenty of other folks in the piece about society becoming unmoored from morality and from institutions like the Catholic church, but he’s the only one assigning gender to it.
As a side note, another post from the same week was “Brett and Deanna Favre’s Faith Carries Them to the Hall of Fame” because this guy cannot get away from talking about the Packers.
So how does Heilman square the circle and come around to full-throated support of Trump? I've asked this question of a lot of people of faith who endorsed Trump during the election. You were brought up in a religious tradition that taught you that the poor and vulnerable have dignity and deserve protection. Your guy started his campaign by calling an entire race of people rapists, proposed banning an entire religion from the country, bragged about repeatedly sexually assaulting women, you all know, I don’t have to recap it for you. How do you reconcile that in your head?
We’ve seen a couple of different ways to answer this question. There are some Christian traditions that believe you’re rich because you’re good and you’re good because you’re rich, so they have no problem supporting Trump. There are Christians and Catholics with a persecution complex, who believe that their religion doesn’t have enough power to influence our government, the government where the entire Supreme Court majority, the past three Speakers of the House, and multiple cabinet-level members of the executive branch are all practicing Catholics. They think Trump will do a better job fighting for their rights. There are folks who say “well, he says he’s going to nominate the Supreme Court justices we want, and that gets us closer to overturning Roe and Casey, so I guess he’s our guy,” and that’s a pretty cynical understanding of power and a pretty awful trade-off to make, but it’s also proven to be an accurate one so far. And there are folks watching conspiracy videos who think Hillary Clinton eats babies and is constructing the globalist new world order, so they'll vote for whoever is running against her.
Rick Heilman finds a way to build off of all of these ideas in his November 11 2016 post (right after the election) titled “Is Trump the new Constantine?” As a Catholic priest, Heilman has presumably learned about a God who has lifted up the lowly, who has filled the hungry with good things, who hears the cry of the poor, who has heard the laborers calling out in the field, who has welcomed the stranger. Here’s what he writes:
“Consider the example of illegal immigration. Trump is tapping into the understandable tendency for ordinary citizens to be skeptical of high levels of immigration, especially when there is little or no order to the immigration program. For many years, this was a no-go-zone, as those who raised the issue were shouted down by calls of “racist” and allegations of offending immigrants, Mexicans, etc. Trump, however, in less than a year, has managed to kick-start a proper debate on the topic.”
Here’s something from the next paragraph:
“Take the issue of terrorism. Unlike many other Christian leaders, Trump calls out the evil of Islamic terrorism and extremism for what it is; and seeks to sensibly scrutinise [sic] the policy of mass Islamic immigration in order to protect national security. In doing so, he has again overcome the slogans of “Islamophobia” and “racism” to actually discuss an important, sensitive issue.”
Since the election, Trump's ability to discuss important issues with the right sensitivity has, we'll say, remained the same.
Heilman’s argument is that Trump’s true power is in enabling Christians to build the world they want by finally breaking the fetters of political correctness, just as the emperor Constantine, a late convert to Christianity who made it the state religion of the Roman empire, may not have been the best exemplar for the faith but overall enabled Christianity to spread through the world more quickly. He acknowledges the critiques of Trump’s, you know, complete insincerity, love of grift, and potential early-onset dementia, but considers the potential rewards to be worth the risk. He eventually starts selling “Make America Holy Again” hats, presumably because his new hero-emperor is also into branding.
The thing about “Make America Holy Again”, and the slogan it rips off, “Make America Great Again”, and the slogan that rips off, “Let’s Make America Great Again”, from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, is that they all are nostalgic for the same period of time, which is the immediate post-World-War-II economic boom, before the social upheaval of the 1960s. For Reagan and Trump, it’s before racial integration, it’s before women really entered the workforce, it's before immigration trends shifted to include more countries with nonwhite residents, it’s before the Voting Rights Act, it’s before the sexual revolution. For Heilman, it’s before Vatican II, the church council that re-oriented Catholic liturgy and make several other big changes intended to enable and empower the laity to take a greater role in the mission of the church. He's not alone in his nostalgia: Pope Benedict XVI recently put out a (widely criticized and generally bizarre) letter blaming the church’s sexual abuse crisis on the countercultural movements of 1968; the sexual abuse crisis includes countless crimes from the 1950s and earlier.
It wasn’t a better time, but for people like Heilman, it was certainly a much simpler time. It bears mentioning that there are real evils happening in the country as he’s writing these posts - immigrant families being separated, the government sending soldiers to kill people overseas, entire countries banned from sending immigrants to the States, the nightmare of a for-profit healthcare system ruining and killing people - but Heilman breezes right past them in his posts, or possibly doesn’t even notice them. The “evils” he’s worried about, according to his blog, are the cultural “evils” he hears about all the time from his colleagues on the Internet: transgender people are slightly more welcome in American culture, women have more power in their households and the workforce, that one football player won’t stand for the national anthem, and too many people are hearing Mass in their own language. He wants to Make America Holy Again to fight these pressing evils, and he thinks Trump can help us get back to that era when they weren’t running rampant.
Heilman longs for the days of women wearing veils and priests speaking Latin, and I know that because he posted an old photo of exactly that when he explained his reasoning behind coining “Make America Holy Again”. It’s unclear from the photo he posted whether the church depicted was racially or economically diverse, or whether women felt welcome there and empowered to live out their faith, or whether a person with a queer sexual orientation could ever feel at all home there, or whether the clergy felt integrated into the community instead of above it all and literally chosen by God to be better than their congregation. I have some educated guesses.
One other notable feature in the photo, which Father Heilman explicitly points out, is the American flag draped over the hands of the statue of the Virgin Mary. “Notice the flag in the Blessed Mother’s hands. The recovery of Faith and Patriotism will save our country so many fought and died to protect from evil invaders.”
So Father Heilman leans into the MAGA (or, I guess, MAHA) thing, and now Trump is his guy. Now the country is facing evil invaders, who presumably don’t look or talk like us. Now the people attacking Trump are part of a deep state conspiracy to keep the invasion going. Now this Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is being slandered because the radical leftists need to further their agenda of murdering as many babies as possible. Now all of his readers are urged to “vote Kingdom” for the midterm elections, while the actual “vote Republican” TV spot, which also references evil invaders, is getting pulled from stations for being too blatantly racist. We don't win by being accommodating, we win by fighting so the church doesn't fall apart. And then, in summer 2018, the church fell apart anyway.
CHAPTER 5 - EVERYTHING IS SECRET AND EVERYTHING IS GAY
“We’ve seen just all kinds of ways in which God has answered our prayers, but I think that we hit a pivotal moment in the centennial year of Fatima [in 2017]...Faustina’s diary said that our Lord said a spark would come from Poland to reignite the world, and here on October 5th, what happened that day? A lot of people might have missed this connection, but that was when Harvey Weinstein was exposed. And that triggered all of these exposes, and the MeToo movement...what I saw is the beginning of exposes, not only in Hollywood, in government, all over, and now in our church…[Satan’s] greatest tactic is using the cover of darkness, so what did God do in answer to our prayers? He illuminated.”
- Heilman speaking on the U.S. Grace Force YouTube channel
You already know how horrifying the Pennsylvania grand jury report was for members of the church. More than the terrible cases of abuse detailed in the report, however, what truly drained Catholics nationwide of hope or respect or trust they still had in the church was that everyone involved in covering up the abuse, everyone who moved priests around and continued hiding records long after the scandal first broke in the early 2000s, still had a job. Many of them are still bishops.
The church is still reeling from this, and it's important to note that the church hasn't yet settled on a definitive explanation for how this could be so widespread, or how we are to address it. Nobody knows what to do for sure; Catholics everywhere are all just kind of…waiting to see how this is all going to resolve. At least some of the crisis comes from a church that’s structured to give bishops zero accountability to anyone that they serve, and the ability to continue doing this for decades without any real consequences. Some of it comes from the absence of the laity in the power structure and governance of the church, which also means that anyone who’s not an ordained man doesn’t have a meaningful say in how the church is run.
Bishop Morlino of Madison - remember him? He’s in the story again, and he's pretty sure he can explain everything. In fact, this was one of final public statements before he died; had he been my bishop during 2018, I would not be in the church today. Morlino chalked up the crisis to a secret gay subculture within the church, and that because the church had become so okay with gayness, rampant sexual abuse of children was the natural extension of that, and was in fact of a piece with it:
“To fall into the trap of parsing problems according to what society might find acceptable or unacceptable is ignoring the fact that the Church has never held ANY of it to be acceptable — neither the abuse of children, nor any use of one’s sexuality outside of the marital relationship, nor the sin of sodomy…to be clear, in the specific situations at hand, we are talking about deviant sexual – almost exclusively homosexual – acts by clerics. It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord…Such wickedness should be hated with a perfect hatred.”
This is an extremely vile thing to say, and also it’s a crock of shit. Any links between sexual orientation and instances of abuse have been empirically disproven; the most notable study to disprove any link between the two was the John Jay College study, which took seven years to conduct and was eventually published in 2011 as a 152-page report. The report covers a lot of ground in understanding the history of the church’s abuse scandal and all of the potential causes, as well as recommendations for corrective actions from the church. Here’s one notable bullet point from towards the end:
“The clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity or those who committed same-sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior.”
This is also towards the beginning of the report, and multiple times in the body; one of the main takeaways from the exhaustive John Jay study was that there wasn’t any meaningful link between sexual orientation and likelihood of abusing children. Maybe Morlino just didn’t happen to read this report. That seems awfully unlikely, though, since the study was commissioned by the USCCB, and Morlino was a member of the USCCB in 2005, when the study got commissioned, and was still a member in 2011, when the study got delivered. Chances are good he was well aware of this work and, as he did in the Act 10 fight, ignored what the church told him because it didn’t support the reactionary story he preferred to tell instead. When he did it with Act 10, he was just being a dipshit Republican; when he did it here, he explicitly encouraged hatred and intolerance in a time when it was critical for him, as a bishop, to provide answers and pastoral leadership. I said up top that Heilman is not a villain, but Morlino definitely was; he tried to rationalize the abuse scandal by using a dumb conspiracy theory that had no evidence behind it to scapegoat a group of people he already hated, he responded to his parishoners seeking answers with nothing but bile, and then he died, and then the newspaper couldn’t find anyone to say anything nice about him. Even HolyFaithMedia eventually turned on him, as Morlino wouldn’t go so far as to say that Pope Francis was involved in a secret gay child abuse ring, which made Morlino part of “the swamp”:
Do we know if Heilman agreed with Morlino’s statement, or even saw it? Yes. He posted the statement on romancatholicman.com, with his own effusive commentary, which went to a weird place:
“Unlike virtually every saint and pope before them, our modern leadership have surrendered to the militant feminists and obnoxious politically correct. As I have said before, we, very possibly, are witnessing the weakest, most effete leaders in Church history...I long for the day when our Lord will raise up masculine leaders, like Bishop Morlino, who are willing to stand against the tactics of the devil (Eph. 6:10), rather than scold anyone who uses “militaristic” language, or shines a light on evil in the world. This is the Church Militant, not the Girl Scouts.”
Heilman had another post in this period that got picked up by Church Militant, which is a different terrible blog that shares some of its audience with romancatholicman:
“I blamed you, bishops! It was your effete, weak compromising with the world "leadership"...You are the ones that guarded your gay, radical priests, while you chastised anyone who dared to actually love the rich treasury of our Catholic faith or challenged our people to strive to become saints.”
This weird gendered language, this criticizing the church leadership as “effete”, returns from earlier; it reveals Heilman’s inability, at least in his writing, to divorce leadership from physical strength or an outdated idea of masculinity, which certainly explains why he’s a fan of the president. His calling out the bishops for being “effete” might be a dog whistle for something more explicitly homophobic, but if so, it’s a bad dog whistle because it’s awkwardly worded, and it’s also a bad dog whistle because he says the actual homophobic thing in the next sentence. It’s like saying “I think the Civil War was fought over states rights...like slavery.”
But this post is also illustrative of how the hard-right, conspiracy-theory-consuming members of the Catholic church, react to the abuse crisis. To this audience, the Catholic church is the one good and true moral authority in the world, directly steered by God, and that’s why we have to do things like rail against gay marriage and abortion and divorced people receiving Communion, and why it’s so horrifying when the Pope suggests wild ideas, like that gay people might be human beings worthy of dignity and love. But then, when the church publicly loses all of its moral authority, for the second time in two decades, this audience can’t fathom critiquing the church, but they’ve been watching a lot of videos explaining how the reason things haven’t happened the way they hoped is because of a secret cabal of evil people are carrying out nefarious interconnected plans behind the scenes. Instead of George Soros, though, it’s all of the priests that are secretly gay and spreading their secret gayness throughout the church, all the way up to the Vatican. To the extreme right wing of Catholicism, everything is secret and everything is gay, and the reason everything is wrong is because of all the secret gay stuff.
The church isn’t anything that Father Heilman recognizes anymore, trust in the institutions of the church is wiped out by the scandal, and his mentor is dead. So he crawls further into his YouTube hole, and keeps posting through it. The blog that started with posts like "The Age of Lombardi" and "Why I'm Learning the Traditional Latin Mass" is today regularly posting stuff like "Astroturfing: How the Media is Brainwashing Us" and "St. Michael and U.S. Grace Force Declare War Against the Swamp". Heilman is posting about the increasingly hysterical trends he sees in the world, pointing to Satan desperate to extend his reign:
“We are watching as we are told that “what we feel we are” overrides what God created us to be (gender dysphoria normalized)
We are watching the MSM and Hollywood move from left-leaning to psychotic in their efforts to gain power
We watched two years of minute-by-minute coverage of lies by the radicalized mainstream media accusing a sitting President of treason, or anything else they could drum up
We watched German bishops propose Communion for Protestants"
I absolutely love that he put those items in that order.
He also is praying for some sort of massive expose that will finally clear out the evil in the church, often drawing an allegory to Harvey Weinstein being outed as a sex criminal or patriots exposing the deep state. Given that widespread sexual abuse and the institutional coverup is already common knowledge, and returning to the "everything is secret and everything is gay" well, it’s possible that he is hoping for someone to expose the secret gay Masonic subculture that is running rampant in the church and has infected every office in the Vatican, including the papacy. One man who dares to expose it is Taylor Marshall, a former professor turned YouTuber (the steepest professional decline imaginable) who in 2019 published Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Catholic Church from Within, an ostensibly nonfiction work that begins like this:
“Why did Pope Benedict XVI resign the papacy on 28 February 2013? And why did lightning strike the Vatican on the night he announced it? Was it prompted by scandal at the Vatican Bank? Was it a sex scandal tainting the highest cardinals? Was it a doctrinal crisis? All these questions and doubts coalesce when we acknowledge a substantiated and corroborated fact: Satan uniquely entered the Catholic Church at some point over the last century, or even before that. For over a century, the organizers of Freemasonry, Liberalism, and Modernism infiltrated the Catholic Church in order to change her doctrine, her liturgy, and her mission from something supernatural to something secular.”
Sadly, even with that banger of an opening, the rest of the book is extremely dry; Marshall also includes a throwaway sentence in the first chapter, presumably for legal reasons, stating that parts of this book are going to be wild conjecture since the Vatican won't let him in to the secret archives to research the secret gay murder of John Paul I. Still, the book appears to be doing well in the Amazon rankings and has almost 1,400 reviews, most of which are positive, so this guy isn’t alone in his thinking; Marshall has a sizeable online following, and he got a bishop to write the forward to his book. I suppose I can’t just take the opening paragraph of Infiltration and assume that Heilman also believes it or has even read it. However, Heilman guests on Marshall's show frequently as they talk about these topics, so he’s buying at least part of what Marshall is selling, and is imagining a cache of Vatican emails somewhere that will vindicate him and read “time to do more sex crimes! I love being a SECRET GAY MASON!”
Moreover, in the content they create, Marshall and Heilman both share an emphasis on the supernatural actions of God in the world today. That is, God is literally still directly working miracles, preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming president, striking the Vatican with lightning when the Bad Pope is elected, or outing Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator because a prophecy from 100 years ago predicted that “a spark from Poland would reignite the world”. There is actual evil in the world - there is actual evil just in the Catholic church! - there are things we can organize and fight against, and that priests could even help us fight against. Heilman actually did organize his parish, he actually did create a community with Knights of Divine Mercy, and strange as the Knights look on paper, he actually did make a difference for the people he ministered to and allowed them to find something spiritually that they couldn’t elsewhere. But he’s in danger of abandoning all of that for a series of increasingly incoherent blogs posts and YouTube rants, and he links to romancatholicman.com on his parish’s website so his community can see it too. We have all posted stupid stuff online - I certainly have - but to see someone whose job it is to be a trusted spiritual advisor to his community in Wisconsin be so unhinged, all of the time, in the name of my faith, turns my blood to ice.
I don’t want to call out Father Heilman as some sort of especially villainous figure in the church; he’s not. He just seems like an old man who doesn’t know what he’s watching, and he definitely posts too much. But I wrote the story because there are thousands of people like Father Heilman; the reason I wrote about Heilman and not somebody else is just because he's written down every thought he’s had over the past four years. And I know that he's not the only person you've heard of that watched too many YouTube videos and started posting crazy, hateful shit all the time. This is not a story of one man, it's a story of way more men than we should be okay with.
And if I were making up this story from scratch, and if I had to create a main character who was susceptible to this sort of thing and whose decline would be awful and tragic, I'd write someone exactly like Rick Heilman. I'd make him a high school football star, and make him unable to pursue a career in that but willing to bring it up at every opportunity. I'd make him a practicing Catholic who grew up in the 60s so he'd unconsciously connect the pre-Vatican II church with this seemingly perfect and innocent time in his life and American history that wasn't ever really perfect or innocent. I'd have nothing interesting happen to him until he was in his forties, and then I'd give him a small success in organizing his community. I'd get him obsessed with traditional masculinity at a time when there was a growing backlash against the harmful effects of toxic masculinity. I'd have him eventually start a website to take his message to the world, and then I'd keep breaking his brain. I'd have a new conspiracy theory about abortion surface every day. I'd have every Catholic running for president lose to a game show host. I'd write in the biggest blow to the church's moral authority in decades, and I'd have his mentor die and leave nobody behind to say anything nice about him. And I'd make this character a parish priest, because a parish priest is an important job in Catholicism, but it's definitely a job. You're spending your time looking at spreadsheets to manage the parish budget, and finding a plumber to fix the sink in the rectory, and sitting in interminable PTA meetings for the school. It's tedious and mundane, so are you going to go back to that? Or are you going to be a strong masculine warrior, are you going to uncover secret evil gay plots, are you going to try and keep posting to save the world, save the institution of marriage, save the babies, save the one true church?
If it seems far-fetched that a priest, who went to divinity school, who reads his Bible regularly, could get sucked down a YouTube hole, remember that every priest is still a man, and just like any other man, he can find garbage on the internet, fall for it, and double down. And there's a whole patch of that garbage tailored specifically to conservative Catholics that makes them feel important, moral, and infallible, and they carry that garbage with them when they counsel married couples, write homilies, baptize children, and hire teachers. Plenty of good reporting has been done already on YouTube radicalizing people through it's terrible recommendation algorithms and deepening well of hard-right content. You can find stories about it dividing families, inspiring violence, and swinging elections around the world. Rick Heilman’s story is the story of how it’s hurting our priests and our church.
Grift of the Holy Spirit is a series by Tony Ginocchio detailing stories of the weirdest, dumbest, and saddest members of the Catholic church. You can subscribe via Substack to get notified of future installments.
Sources used for this piece include the YouTube channels of Taylor Marshall, HolyFaithMedia, and U.S. Grace Force. They are not linked here because they are all terrible. The following sources were also used:
Taylor Marshall, Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Catholic Church from Within (2019)
St. Mary of Pine Bluff Catholic Church - “Fr. Richard Heilman” (2018)
Madison Catholic Herald - “Knights of Divine Mercy: Calling Men to Be Spiritual Warriors” (2006)
Regina - “A Catholic Band of Brothers” (date not listed)
Madison.com - “Hot Rods Strip Club Closes Temporarily…” (2005)
National Catholic Reporter - “Wisconsin Exposes Bishops’ Split on Unions” (2011)
Madison Catholic Herald - “Clarifying the Fairness Issue” (2011)
Archdiocese of Milwaukee - “Statement Regarding the Rights of Workers and the Value of Unions” (2011)
Wisconsin State Journal - “Catholics Express Mixed Feelings as They Mourn Bishop Robert Morlino” (2018)
Roman Catholic Man - “The Heart of Vince Lombardi” (2015)
Roman Catholic Man - “Roman Catholic Man (Song and Lyrics” (2015)
Roman Catholic Man - “Is This the Last Straw For God?” (2015)
Roman Catholic Man - “It’s My Fault” (2016)
Roman Catholic Man - “Is Trump The New Constantine?” (2016)
Roman Catholic Man - “MAHA - Make America Holy Again - Why We Need to Be Passionate About This” (2019)
Roman Catholic Man - “Bishop Morlino Does Not Skirt Issue in Abuse Scandal - ‘Almost Exclusively Homosexual’” (2018)
America Magazine - “What Caused the Crisis? Key Findings of the John Jay College Study on Clergy Sexual Abuse” (2011)
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops - “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” [The John Jay Study] (2011)
Church Militant - “The Depth of My Anger at Decades of Effete Bishops” (2018)
Roman Catholic Man - “Satan’s Self-Destruction: My Take on What is Happening in Our Times” (2019)