La Civilta Cattolica misses the big picture
The Tablet19 July 2017
Religion in AmericaThe Holy See is deeply puzzled by the United States of America. That could explain why it sanctioned the publication of a speculative piece of sociology in the international Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica which has raised a storm of controversy. Written by the journal’s editor in chief, Antonio Spadaro SJ, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian layman and editor of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano, it offers a critical interpretation of major currents on the right of American culture and religion. Representatives of such tendencies have replied – and with some justice – that they do not recognise themselves as described.
Though the Vatican’s Secretary of State approved the piece before publication, and though Pope Francis is known to be close to both authors, this does not amount to an endorsement. It is more likely that the Vatican felt it was not in a position to know whether this analysis was accurate or not, and that its publication might start a worthwhile debate.
The article argues that right-wing American Catholics and right-wing American Protestants – nowadays called conservative evangelicals – have formed a loose alliance to bolster and promote a sort of “Christian America” that defends traditional moral standards and right-wing economic principles. Since they believe this is evidently the America God wants, those who oppose it – liberals, broadly speaking – are judged bad people. Despite the constitutional separation of Church and state in the US, the authors refer to this position as “Constantinianism”. They describe the partnership between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants as “the ecumenism of hate,” and label its sharp division of the world into good and evil as Manichaean.
It is particularly because of what it says about American Catholicism – and because it is reasonable to assume that Pope Francis is sympathetic to its general line – that the article has generated such heat. A more telling criticism would be that it has missed the wood for the trees. The real problem with Catholicism in the United States is the extent to which it has become deeply divided, almost to the point of schism. The group the authors call “Integralist Catholics” – followers of websites such as Church Militant, mentioned in the article – are a minor part of this overall scene. The real lines of division are plainly visible, among the bishops and between parishes. The two sides could be typified as “pro-life” on the one hand and “pro-social justice” on the other.
Many bishops have led the American Church into the scenario known as the “culture wars” – fighting obsessively over state and federal legislation on abortion, on homosexuality - including gay marriage - and so on. These bishops and church leaders have formed alliances with conservative Protestants, mainly evangelicals, who regard such legislation with equal horror, because it represents a departure from Scripture. Many from each side hailed Donald Trump as a deliverer. It is no coincidence that the Catholic closest to Mr Trump’s way of thinking is Stephen Bannon, head of strategy at the White House, and the evangelical closest to the White House is Paula White, a Pentecostal tele-evangelist. She delivered the invocation at Mr Trump’s inauguration, and chairs his Evangelical Advisory Board. Mr Bannon promotes an almost apocalyptic view of America’s place in the world, that chimes with the strand in Evangelicalism that sees America as a country with a divine mission.
The real question the Vatican must face is why it allowed this division in the Catholic Church in America to fester for many years, why, in particular it appointed a slew of “safe” conservative bishops, eager culture warriors, to replace faithful bishops who saw their mission as including the promotion of social justice and equal rights. This happened largely under Pope St John Paul II, and is all the more mystifying given his strong leadership in the area of Catholic Social Teaching. Typical of this transformation of episcopal style was the appointment of Cardinal Francis George in 1997 to replace Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as Archbishop of Chicago, after he died in office. This change fitted in with the “wedge issue” strategy advanced by President George W. Bush’s strategy adviser, Karl Rove, designed to draw Catholic voters away from their traditional Democratic allegiance. The Civiltà Cattolica authors raise concerns about the intermingling of politics and religion in US public life, but miss the big picture.
They also miss it on the Protestant side. It is not just fringe evangelicals who believe America has a divine destiny. The American journalist Brenda Maddox wrote shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “One of the strongest lessons of my Massachusetts childhood was the purposefulness of the United States. All human history seemed to have been leading to the creation of God’s Own Country, with liberty and justice for all ...” This understanding of American destiny goes back to the first Puritan settlers in New England. They saw themselves as an elect, having God’s blessing. American exceptionalism still exists on both sides of the political divide. And it means, essentially, “America can do whatever it likes.”
Nor is it just Pentecostalists like Paula White who promote a “Gospel of Prosperity” – the belief that God materially rewards those who are faithful to Him – as the Civiltà Cattolica article suggests. It is implicit in the ideology behind US capitalism, and explains why many Americans approve of Donald Trump precisely because he is successful in business. And the ethic of Protestant individualism – which has to an extent crept into the Catholic soul too – may explain some of the right-wing opposition to Barack Obama’s healthcare reform. Among such people solidarity is not regarded as a strong American virtue, though, paradoxically, neighbourliness usually is.
The Catholic hierarchy’s failure to put its full weight behind healthcare reform is deeply troubling, given that those who suffer most from lack of healthcare are the poor. So the question the Civiltà Cattolica authors duck is this: what has seduced Catholic voters away from their traditional concern with social justice issues? Have they, from throne, pulpit and classroom, been fed less than the full Gospel? That would be a useful topic for La Civiltà Cattolica to turn to next.