Reading the blockbuster Civilta Cattolica article “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A surprising ecumenism” (to say nothing of fielding the flurry of phone calls that came hot and fast yesterday morning before I had even had a chance to read the piece) brought many adjectives and adverbs to mind, but the one I kept coming back to is: Finally!
Finally, someone in authority recognized that the effort to link conservative Catholics and evangelicals was always more about politics than about religion and that it was bound to alienate many churchgoers, distorting the faith with a political outlook that was, as the authors note, rooted in a divisive and anti-intellectual worldview that should be anathema to a Catholic. Indeed this alliance entailed, of necessity, the reduction of religion to ethics, a kind of default stance for the church in the public square, that has been a source of concern for Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and, now, Pope Francis, even while it has been the operating premise of a host of conservative, neo-conservative and crazy-conservative Catholics for decades. That the rise of the alliance coincided with the rise of the “nones,” those identifying with no religion, should surprise no one.
Finally, someone within a semi-official organ of the Holy See stated that there is something unchristian about the Manichaean worldview adopted by too many political leaders of the United States, a worldview that places the American government in the role of world savior and that invites endless conflict with someone (anyone?) in order to justify large Pentagon budgets and continuing arms sales. I do not deny for a minute that there are things that are genuinely “evil” about the Iranian regime or the North Korean regime. I do not deny that our American form of government is preferable for a host of reasons. I do not advocate moral equivalence in this, or other, regards. But, we in the U.S have perpetrated evil too, in Central America by supporting death squads, in Africa today by colluding with corrupt politicians to get countries to sell off their natural assets and adopt pro-abortion policies, in Japan when we dropped the atomic bomb not once but twice. And it is a mark of our political immaturity that it is impossible for any of our politicians to admit the evil we have done and do.
Finally, someone pointed out that the writings of Norman Vincent Peale were as pathetically superficial (“If you believe in something, you get it!”) as they were (and are) popular and that they were a hop, skip and a jump from the shallow “prosperity Gospel” nonsense that turns the actual Gospel on its head. Funny that the authors, Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, did not make mention of Peale’s vicious anti-Catholicism, which led him to oppose the candidacy of Jack Kennedy, saying, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” That attack prompted one of the best political quips of all time, from Sen. Adlai Stevenson: “Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the apostle Peale appalling.” The fact that Peale performed the first of Donald J. Trump’s three weddings tells you rather a lot about both.
Read: “Italian Jesuit magazine criticizes political attitudes of some US Catholics“ (July 13, 2017)
Finally, someone in authority recognized that there is a limit to what concern for religious liberty can justify, that a proper concern for religious liberty does not permit religious believers to absent themselves from other concerns proper to a citizen, still less to challenge the secularity of the state. I would have given my eye teeth to have seen the looks on the faces of the USCCB’s fifth floor staff when they read that paragraph!
Finally, someone took on Church Militant by name and called it out for its “shocking rhetoric.” I am tired of those in positions of authority hiding behind the rationale that they don’t want to “elevate” a fringe group like Church Militant by even calling attention to it, when they really just do not want the flak that will now descend upon Fr. Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa. Hundreds of thousands of people watch that garbage, and it is not just them: Yesterday morning, Fr. Zuhlsdorf had an article with the headline “ASK FATHER: Can I wear a Rosary like warriors wear weapons?” That kind of militaristic, and profane, language is not uncommon at right-wing Catholic websites, all of which feed into the mainstream through less outrageous, but decidedly conservative, media outlets like EWTN and the National Catholic Register. EWTN is a kind of gateway drug for conservative Catholics: You may start by watching Raymond Arroyo interview Sebastian Gorka for the umpteenth time or reading Fr. de Souza explain how Trump’s speech in Poland was “faith-filled” and go no further, just as some people smoke weed and that is enough. But for others, EWTN or the Register lead you into the snake pit of truly whacky conservative Catholic media. Don’t believe me? Look at yesterday’s “The Best in Catholic Blogging,” a daily feature at the Register.
Finally, someone in authority said that fear is being whipped up to manipulate people and cultures, that a Christian church should have no part in that, and, indeed, that insofar as a fight over power is at the root of so many political conflicts, the church needs to be wary of even choosing sides. The final paragraphs of this story need some expansion, but the authors are definitely on to some key insights about how religion has been distorted for political ends in ways that betray the Gospel.
There will be, and already are, critics of this piece. Some wonder why the authors did not engage an American co-author, though plenty of conservative Catholic American writers criticize other countries without giving it a second thought. Some will complain that the writers’ treatment of evangelical Protestantism is too sweeping, that it lacks nuance and misses complications; for example, perhaps they leave an impression that Rousas Rushdoony was more influential than he was. This criticism has more merit, but as someone who writes a daily column, I can attest to the difficulty: A newspaper essay is not a dissertation, and you can’t bog an argument down with endless qualifications. What matters is that your argument is not wrong, perhaps not exhaustive, but not wrong, and I do not think Spadaro and Figueroa are wrong on any key point.
The question about whether they speak for the pope or not has been raised mostly by those who don’t like the argument and those who once had access to the higher precincts of the Vatican hierarchy and don’t anymore. The issue does not interest me and has no bearing on the truth of what the authors write.
So, bravo to Fr. Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa. They have blown the lid off the pot, and it needed to happen. Despite the criticism, the diagnosis is not the problem, the ailment is, and in lancing the boil they have taken a first, necessary, and necessarily painful, step in healing the church from this ugly and spiritually deadly “ecumenism of hate.”
[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]