The presence of four particular men wearing particular clothing and VIP passes at a President Trump rally in Great Falls, Montana last week has triggered "furor" and "firestorms" and some official Facebook rebukes.
"The attendance of four Roman Catholic priests from Montana at President Donald Trump's political rally in Great Falls Thursday has created a social media firestorm and apparently incurred the displeasure of the priests' superiors in the church," the Montana Standard reports.
The priests, wearing clerical garb and VIP passes, were seated near the front. To add fuel to the firestorm, they were also carrying MAGA signs and were allegedly seen clapping when Trump mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The four priests have been identified as Fathers Garrett Nelson, Ryan Erlenbush, Kevin Christofferson, and Christopher Lebsock. Nelson and Erlenbush serve in the diocese of Great Falls-Billings; Christofferson and Lebsock serve in the diocese of Helena.
The Standard highlights some of the fallout online over the presence of the priests, including conspiracy theories that they'd been photoshopped into images or were hired actors:
Mary Moe of Great Falls, a prominent Democrat and former legislator, posted on Facebook: "Our Catholic priests clapped, there in the front row allowing themselves and the Church to be exploited for political purposes, as President Trump, that exemplar of Catholic teachings, said of Hillary, 'she got her ass kicked.' They laughed at his jokes about immigration and laughed again when he used language that they used to beat boys for back when America was great. And Jesus wept."
Her post generated more than 1,000 comments, predictably mixed.
Many praised the priests and defended their right to be there.
Dave Galt, a prominent Montana Republican and longtime executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, responded to Moe on Facebook: "I was there. I talked to those priests. Hillary did get her ass kicked. Perhaps they really care about the number of babies killed in this country under our abortion laws. I saw their support for the President's comments about late-term abortion votes. Good for them and damn good for President Trump."
In response to the viral photos of the four priests, some posted online the Montana Catholic guidelines on political participation: "Religious leaders should avoid taking positions on candidates or participating in political party matters even while acting in their individual capacity. Although not prohibited, it may be difficult to separate their personal activity from their public role as a Church leader."
The bishop of the Great Falls-Billings diocese responded to the incident in a Facebook post. "I was not aware that these priests would be in attendance at the rally at which President Trump spoke," he wrote. "Two were from the diocese of Great Falls-Billings and two were from the Diocese of Helena. I will be contacting the two priests from this diocese. While they are free to support a political candidate — and I believe they were there in support of Matt Rosendale, who is running for the Senate seat from Montana — they should not have been attired in clerical garb and seated in such a prominent location. I myself had been invited to attend the rally but declined. It has been my experience that people can be manipulated and used unwittingly. I judge that it was an imprudent decision on their parts to allow themselves to be used in such a way though I suspect they had not thought of this. In Christ, Bishop Warfel."
The administrator of the Diocese of Helena issued a statement Saturday noting that a letter had been sent to all diocesan personnel requesting that they adhere to political participation guidelines.
H/T Andrew Malcolm