Questions of CompetenceAugust 5, 2017
The 15 Oldest Catholic Churches in AmericaAugust 7, 2017
Does the American religious right hold a theopolitical outlook similar to that of ISIS? That appears to be one of the insinuations of a recent article published by the Italian Jesuit fortnightly publication La Civiltà Cattolica.
The unexpected attack is causing perplexity and concern to many American Catholics who have fought hard in the trenches of the Culture War with other religious allies. They find it hard to understand why they were the target of a broadside when all they did was hold fast to Catholic social teachings.
It is hard not to be offended. The article titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism” denounces an “ecumenism of hate” between Catholics and evangelicals. Also disconcerting are the highly-placed authors. This strident manifesto is the work of Civiltà’s editor Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ and Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa, editor of L’Osservatore Romano’s Argentinean edition.
The article is surprising for its superficiality and disconnection with the American reality. Its obsession to weave a complex web of hidden connections, influences and characters is more suited to a Da Vinci Code storyline than a scholarly analysis. The jumbled narrative would be explicable (and ignored) if it had appeared in the Huffington Post or similar outlet. However, Civiltà’s history is that of a serious journal that merits attention.
A Misreading of the American Religious Scene
Perhaps the principal defect of the article is its misreading of the American religious scene. Anyone vaguely familiar with religion in America knows that it has long been based on consensus.
Unlike the Europeans who separated politics and religion, the American approach to religion has been pragmatic. It welcomes religions with open arms—as long as they agree to help everyone get along and favor prosperity. Thus, government in America has an unwritten consensus that establishes what many have called a “civil religion.” It consists of a set of working rules in which certain things against God are prohibited. Although legally separate, the State maintains a reverence for a vague Judeo-Christian God in whom it trusts yet leaves undefined.
Religion acts to guarantee good order through a consensual Christian moral code loosely based on the Ten Commandments, which (at least until recently) was adopted by the State, embedded in its laws, and engraved on public buildings. Ideally, this model holds that everyone should have some kind of religion, preferably Biblical, so as to favor prosperity and general well-being.
Dogmatizing a Vague Consensus
Thus, the religious scene in America has always been deliberately left vague and undefined. As the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy once said, there are only two kinds of religion permitted in America: Strong beliefs vaguely expressed, or vague beliefs strongly expressed, all tip-toeing inside the confines of this consensus.
The two authors abolish this consensus, forcing dogmatic definitions on these vague attitudes. They see a confused mixture of religious currents, systems and beliefs and turn them into “a problematic fusion between religion and state, faith and politics, religious values and economy.” They take the friendly links that have always existed between government and religion in America and irksomely label them “theocratic.” They take the affirming of a vague moral code and turn it into “Manichaean language that divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil.” They twist a desire to foster a moral climate that favors private and general prosperity into a Weberian “Prosperity Gospel.” They berate any acceptance of man’s dominant role in history and creation as “dominionism.”
None of this properly describes the American reality. However, through exaggeration, caricaturing and guilt by association, the two authors attack this American consensus because it hinders the advance of more progressive thought. Their tirade makes no effort to disguise a narrative taken from today’s angry left that laments its declining fortunes.
Questioning the Consensus
However, merely criticizing the old American consensus was not the aim of the two authors. Something is happening in America that upsets them greatly, and this irritation permeates the article’s twisted logic and strong emotional overtones.
The three new developments in America are that (a) many American evangelicals and Catholics are being increasingly “mugged by reality,” aghast at the radicalization of liberals of all stripes, including, sadly, progressives in the Catholic Church; (b) the left’s radicalization is making the American consensus collapse; and (c) this is leading many in the religious right to question this vague consensus itself. These two authors find all this very troubling. It seems they expected the religious right to just go along with all the changes, like the caboose on their train chugging toward a new world (dis)order.
Why are these religious conservatives questioning the consensus? Because they realize that while it provided a template for a more prosperous society, it also created a materialistic world that neglected spiritual needs. It represented a compartmentalized world of extreme individualism. This consensus was the flawed product of the Enlightenment that is full of internal contradictions, faulty logic and uncertainties. Under pressure from the radicalizing left, the shoddy foundations of the consensus are crumbling.
Indeed, society is breaking down, and this consensus is no longer providing solutions but anxiety. As it stands now, this consensus is serving as a leaky old umbrella under which Americans of all persuasions search for new solutions.
A Hollow Rallying Cry
The religious left at the root of the consensus crisis is doubling down and looking farther left. It seeks to revitalize tired and wasted notions of social justice. As mentioned by the authors, theirs is a world of “inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges.” Ironically it is the well-known regime of dogmatic progressivism that walls off those whose love for Truth makes them question the need for bridges to nowhere. It deplores those who it labels deplorable. It does not tolerate those whom it labels intolerable. Indeed, this progressive dictatorship demonizes those whom it dismisses as “integralists.”
The article of the two authors is as much a vindication of the left as it is a condemnation of the right. It is a hollow rallying cry to the worn-out and discredited political and religious left worldwide urging them to “keep the faith” in the face of the demons on the American right.
A Grand Plot Exposed
To bolster their flagging followers, the authors denounce the American right’s supposed origins as “Christian-Evangelical fundamentalist principles dating from the beginning of the 20th Century that have been gradually radicalized.”
They expose a grand “fundamentalist theopolitical plan.” They believe that the ecumenical union of Catholics and fundamentalists aims to set up a “theocratic,” “eschatological,” and “apocalyptic” Christian kingdom on earth. This resembles the “the theopolitics spread by ISIS [that] is based on the same cult of an apocalypse.” Eventually, the article shipwrecks as the Dan Brown Da Vinci-esque plot thickens with the authors weaving a web of philosophies and conspirators that even include Norman Vincent Peale—who presided over President Trump’s first marriage.
The problem with these musings is that they are as tired and ragged as the rest of the religious left’s empty rhetoric.
Beyond the Enlightenment
What most likely frightens the two authors is the fact that the American Catholic right is not looking rightward as much as upward. They are abandoning Enlightenment premises that those who came before them had shared with the left. They are discovering treasures long forgotten. More disconcerting to the religious left is that these treasures are attracting many evangelicals.
In their search for solutions, these American Catholics and evangelicals are finding and loving, for example, the natural moral law, that serves as a firm foundation for morality and civil society. The reliance on natural law is revitalizing the debate around what the two authors call issues “generally considered moral or tied to values.”
The search for solutions is also leading countless scholars to Thomism. The crystalline logic of Saint Thomas Aquinas is a refreshing contrast to the stagnant uncertainties of postmodernity. It elevates the debate far above that of the two authors.
Notions of Christendom
More interesting is that notions of Christendom are capturing the imagination of many of those searching. Such a vision of society rejects the theocratic caricatures of the two authors. Instead, many are recognizing the Church’s hallowing influence upon the structures of society, culture and economy. Indeed, many Americans are talking of “options,” some misdirected, others not, that include this hallowing influence of the Church. Above all, it is a view that insists upon the true role of the Church in society in promoting the worship and glory of God and in teaching the moral law and truths of the Faith that are necessary for the salvation of souls.
This balanced notion of a respectful cooperation of Church and State is leading to renewed interest in the social encyclicals of Leo XIII. In his Immortale Dei, the pope stated “There was a time when the philosophy of the Gospel governed the states. In that epoch, the influence of Christian wisdom and its divine virtue permeated the laws, institutions, and customs of the peoples, all categories and all relations of civil society.”
Such a vision is far from the vapid fantasies of the two authors. Rather it is part of those Church teachings that are ever ancient, ever new. It is part of Her universal message that is both supranational and supernatural, uniting human and divine. This vision represents a universal message and mission applicable for all times and places.
These new perspectives do not fit within the old dialectic framed by the article of the two authors. More importantly however they do have the capacity to revitalize the debate.
The Fatima Option
Finally, those who are searching, especially Catholics, are finding Fatima—the message for these times. This is the centennial year marking the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917.
The Fatima record is impressive. As far as the past is concerned, everything Our Lady predicted would happen has indeed happened. All that she foresaw for the present times—indifference, blasphemy and the lack of faith—is only too evident. She also told of a future which included the triumph of her Immaculate Heart.
Catholics (and even some curious evangelicals) are finding Fatima to be a key to interpreting what is happening in the world and forming perspectives for the future. Our Lady’s simple message and solutions, long approved by the Church, certainly make more sense than the Civiltà Cattolica’s confusion on “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism.”