Just as the AR-15 rifle has become a sacred object for Christian nationalists in general, the rosary has taken on militaristic significance for radical-traditional (or “rad trad”) Catholics. In this extremist fringe, the rosaries have been woven into conspiratorial politics and an absolutist gun culture. These armed radical traditionalists took a spiritual notion that the rosary can be a weapon in the fight against evil and turned it into something dangerously literal.
Their social media pages are saturated with images of rosaries draped over guns, warriors praying, Deus Vult (“God wills it”) cross memes and exhortations for men to rise up and become Church activists. Influencers on platforms such as Instagram share posts referring to “daily carry” and “gat check” (gun is slang for “gun”) which includes soldiers’ “battle beads”, handguns and assault rifles. Artist Posts Illustrations of His Favorite Catholic Saints, Clergy and Influencers Carrying Labeled AR-15 Style Rifles SANCTUM ROSARIUM alongside violently homophobic screeds that are celebrated by social media accounts with thousands of followers.
Theologian and historian Massimo Faggioli has described a network of conservative Catholic bloggers and commentary organizations as a “Catholic cyber-militia” that actively campaigns against LGBTQ acceptance in the Church. These rad-trad rosary-as-weapon memes represent a social media spread of these messages, and they strive to integrate ultra-conservative Catholicism with other aspects of far-right culture online. The phenomenon might be tempting to dismiss as mere trolling or merchandising, and ironic provocations based on traditionalist Catholic symbols do exist, but far-right constellations of violent, racist and homophobic online milieus are well documented to provide an avenue for radicalization and reality. global terrorist attacks.
The rosary – in these hands – is anything but sacred. But for millions of believers, beads, which provide a reminder for a sequence of devotional prayers, are a widely recognized symbol of Catholicism and a source of strength. And many truly feed off the concept of Catholic Church Militant theology and tradition of seeing the Rosary as a weapon against Satan. As Pope Francis said in a 2020 address, “There is no path to holiness…without spiritual warfare,” and Francis is just one of many leaders in the Church. who endorsed the idea of the rosary as a weapon in this fight.
In traditional Catholicism, the rosary as a weapon is not an inherently harmful interpretation of the sacramental, and this symbolism has a long history. In the 1930s and 1940s, the ultramontane Catholic student publication Catholic Student Youth have regularly used the concept to rally the faithful. But the modern radical-traditionalist Catholic movement — which generally rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — is well outside of mainstream opinion in the Roman Catholic Church in America. Many prominent American Catholic bishops advocate for gun control, and after the Uvalde school shooting, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, lamented the way some Americans “sanctify the instruments of the death”.
Militia culture, a fetish of Western civilization, and masculinist anxieties have become mainstays of the far right in the United States – and rad-trad Catholics have now taken up residence in this society. Their social media accounts typically promote accelerationist and survivalist content, as well as medical and tactical combat training, as well as memes depicting gunmen in balaclavas that draw inspiration from “terrorwave” or ” warcore” which is popular in far-right circles. .
Like these networks, radical-traditional Catholics maintain their own cottage industry of goods and services that reinforces radicalization. Rosaries are common among the wares on offer – some made from cartridge cases and complemented by metallic-finish crucifixes. A Catholic online store, which describes itself as “dedicated to offering battle-ready products and manuals to ‘stand firm against the devil’s tactics'” (a New Testament reference), sells replica rosaries issued to American soldiers during the World War One. World War as “battle beads”. Savvy consumers can also purchase a “hidden carry” permit for their battle beads and a sacramental storage box resembling an ammo box. In 2016, the Pontifical Swiss Guard accepted a donation of combat beads; during a ceremony in the Vatican, their commander described the gift as “the most powerful weapon that exists on the market”.
Militarism also glorifies a warrior mentality and notions of virility and masculine strength. This confusion between masculine and military is rooted in broader concerns about Catholic manhood – the idea that it is in crisis has some currency among senior Church officials and secular organizations. In 2015, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued an apostolic exhortation calling for a renewal of traditional conceptions of Catholic masculinity titled “Into the Breach,” which led the Knights of Columbus, an influential fraternal order, to produce a series videos promoting Olmsted’s ideas. But among radical-mainstream Catholic men, these concerns take on an extremist twist, rooted in fantasies of violently defending his family and church against marauders.
The rosary-as-a-weapon also gives Catholic men of the rad-trad both a distinctive signifier within Christian nationalism and a sort of membership card for the movement. As sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry note in Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Catholics were once viewed as enemies by Christian nationalists, and anti-Catholic nativism runs deep in American history. Today, Catholics constitute a growing contingent of Christian nationalism.
Helping to unite these former rivals is a quasi-theological doctrine of what Perry and another sociologist, Philip S. Gorski, called “virtuous violence” against political enemies seen as demonic or satanic, whether secular, progressive or Jews. Hostility to liberalism and the secularism inherent in traditionalist Catholicism is also pronounced within Christian nationalist circles. No longer stigmatized by evangelical nationalists, Catholic imagery now mixes freely with alt-right memes that idealize ancient Rome or idealize the traditional patriarchal family.
Some doctrinal differences and divisions remain. Many radical-mainstream Catholic men maintain the hardline position that other forms of Christianity are heretical and maintain that only Catholics adhere to the one true Church. The nativism of Christian nationalism and its predilection for the “great replacement” theory alienates some radical-traditional Catholics who are not white or born in the United States, and deep veins of anti-Catholicism persist among the far-right Protestants.
Yet the convergence within Christian nationalism is cemented in common causes such as hostility toward abortion rights advocates. The pro-choice protests that followed the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationwho knocked down Roe vs. Wade, has led to a flurry of far-right social media posts fantasizing about murdering activists, and these forums responded to Pride Month this year with extremist homophobic and transphobic “groomer” discourse. Rad-trad networks are also involved in organizing Rosary-branded events that involve weapons training.
Catholics learn to love and forgive their enemies, that to do otherwise is a sin. But the extremist understanding of spiritual warfare trumps this commandment. To fight Satan – whose influence in the world is, according to Catholic demonology, real and threatening – is to use violence for deliverance and redemption. The culture of the “battle beads” of spiritual warfare allows radical-mainstream Catholics to literally demonize their political opponents and to regard the use of armed force against them as sanctified. The sacramental rosary is not only a spiritual weapon, but a physical weapon.