Two views on Rome essay on American politics and religion

An issue of the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica is seen at the Vatican in this 2013 file photo. (CNS/Paul Haring)

An issue of the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica is seen at the Vatican in this 2013 file photo. (CNS/Paul Haring)

In the July issue of the influential Jesuit monthly La Civilta Cattolica, editors Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa wrote a long editorial titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” (See “Journal: Strip religious garb, fundamentalist tones from U.S. political power.”) The authors described what they saw as worrisome convergences between certain apocalyptic forms of American evangelicalism and some contemporary Catholic ideologies, contrasting these tendencies with the teachings and global strategy of Pope Francis.

Since the essay prompted much discussion, Catholic News Service asked Jesuit Father Drew Christensen and journalist Russell Shaw to comment on the essay from their experience as longtime observers of U.S. religion and politics.

Civilta Cattolica misses richness of Catholic-evangelical relations

By Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Catholic News Service

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen is former editor in chief of America magazine. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen is former editor in chief of America magazine. (CNS/Paul Haring)

In a recent editorial, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” Civilta Cattolica identified cooperation between Protestant fundamentalists and conservative American Catholics as “a problematic fusion between religion and state, faith and politics, religious values and economy.” Civilta particularly attacked the Prosperity Gospel as a stream of popular theology opposed to Catholic social teaching as advanced by Pope Francis.

Catholic-evangelical relations in the United States, however, are richer and more nuanced than the fearsome conspiracies Civilta described. Take, for example, the Evangelical Environmental Network.

EEN is a nimble coalition of some 700 congregations. Whatever the issue, it has been quick out of the blocks with arresting public relations campaigns. Were gas-guzzling autos a threat to clean air? EEN offered America “WWJD,” the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign. Were animal species threatened with extinction? Then an EEN spokesman would appear on late-night TV a wildcat draped across his shoulders.

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which, besides EEN, included the National Council of Churches and the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life, was one of the many places where, as a staffer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990s and early 2000s, I got to know evangelicals close up. When Cliff Benzel, representing EEN, led the partnership in prayer, I never failed to feel deeply united in prayer across denominational lines.

In those years, Evangelicals for Social Action, led by Ron Sider, also fostered relations with Catholics. Its Crossroads programs, for example, partnered senior scholars with graduate students and invited Catholic scholars to help develop a body of evangelical social thought, which drew some of its inspiration from Catholic social teaching.

World Vision, the international charity, was a bastion of evangelical life that invited Catholic input. World Vision’s president, Bob Seiple, invited me to speak to his board and his benefactors. Andrew Natsios, vice president for policy, asked for collaboration in teaching staff on how to shape policy statements along theological grounds. When Bob Seiple opened an international religious liberty lobby, the Institute for Global Engagement, I was there.

IGE continues to work for religious liberty in some the most difficult and remote situations in the world. It also sponsors The Review of Faith in International Affairs, a respected journal for which I serve as a consulting editor.

Evangelicals have helped the Catholic Church at the highest levels. After St. John Paul II’s 1987 visit, the Billy Graham Association was the Vatican’s backdoor conduit to the Catholics in North Korea. Pope Francis’ meeting this year with U.S. President Donald Trump was made possible by American evangelicals after they met Catholic officials at the National Prayer Breakfast.

The 2015 Poverty Summit at Georgetown University, in which President Barack Obama asked to be included, demonstrated the great potential for future evangelical-Catholic collaboration for the common good.

I like to think that my encounters with evangelicals are akin to those of Pope Francis, who asked a blessing of Pentecostals in his native Argentina and forgiveness for persecution from the 800-year-old Waldensian Church. Evangelicals are fellow Christians with whom we are companions on the way. We enjoy relations of mutual esteem, collaboration and even, as I remember Cliff Benzel, Bob Seiple and Andrew Natsios, of deep Christian fellowship.

Of course, Catholic-evangelical relations are not always or uniformly characterized by the kind of professionalism and Christian amity I have described. In some places most of the time and in others from time to time, there are troubled relations. For some years, for example, local World Vision policies in Latin America and Ireland were obstacles to smooth relations. Some Latin Catholics are still suspicious of “las sectas” and vice versa. U.S. bishops have sometimes had to remind evangelicals of Catholic sensitivities and Catholic parishioners of their ties to the local dioceses or Catholic Relief Services.

I myself confess to having felt constrained when I testified to the United Nations on “Christianophobia,” because, while proselytism is central to evangelical life, I had to note that in majority Muslim countries it can become an occasion for persecution of historic Christian communities.

Problems arise when those on either side, or both, force their partisan issues into social ecumenism or apply their political infighting skills to it. Activists need to be reminded of Blessed Paul VI’s counsel, “From Christians who at first sight seem to be in opposition, as a result of starting from differing options, (the church) asks … an attitude of more profound charity which, while recognizing the differences, believes nonetheless in the possibility of convergence and unity.”

– – –

Drew Christiansen, S.J., former editor of America, is distinguished professor of ethics and global human development at Georgetown University. He serves on the seventh round of the United Methodist-USCCB dialogue.

Civilta Cattolica essay: overreaction to a questionable problem

By Russell Shaw
Catholic News Service

Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books and a prolific commentator in both Catholic and secular periodicals. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books and a prolific commentator in both Catholic and secular periodicals. (CNS/Bob Roller)

An overreaction to a questionable problem — that was my thought on reading a piece about American politics and the religious right by two men said to be close to Pope Francis.

The article’s authors are Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, and the Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor who is the pope’s hand-picked choice to edit a new, Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Published July 13, their free-swinging analysis — an ecclesiastical variation on anti-Trump themes common to many European media — takes on weight for appearing in La Civilta Cattolica, which is reviewed before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State, and for being cited in the pages of L’Osservatore. The simultaneous online publication of an English translation suggests a desire on somebody’s part to get maximum attention for it.

And if this is how they see America in Rome these days, we’re all in trouble.

The authors say some interesting things about the nonpartisan approach to politics favored by Pope Francis, but when they get to the United States, they paint a nightmarish picture of the political project of something they call the “Christian-Evangelical fundamentalist” movement.

Its elements are said to include an apocalyptic vision of history pointing to the approach of the end times, a Manichean view of world events positing a clash between “absolute good and absolute evil,” and a theocratic hankering for the bad old days of religious domination of the state.

Although this program is the property primarily of some far-right Protestants, the authors believe some Catholics share its goals. That is clear from their article’s title: “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.”

“Integralism” is the name given an ultraconservative movement in late 19th- and early 20th-century French Catholicism and today used by critics as a generic term of disparagement for Catholics of the far right. The “surprising” ecumenism of the Spadaro-Figueroa piece is said to be an “ecumenism of hate” grounded in “xenophobic and Islamophobic” attitudes.

To say the least, there are problems with all this.

One problem is that the view of American evangelicals adopted here conflates evangelicals with fundamentalists. Leaving it to our Protestant brethren to mark out the lines of demarcation, it can at least be said that, both theologically and politically, evangelicals and fundamentalists are not the same thing, and it misrepresents them to suggest otherwise.

Similarly, American Catholics who might fairly be described as integralists are few in number. Catholics in the United States number some 70 million, and in a body that size it’s natural to find every shade of opinion, from ultraconservative to ultraliberal, on everything under the sun. But the genuine integralists among the 70 million American Catholics are a small group.

It follows that Spadaro-Figueroa’s “ecumenism of hate,” even if it exists someplace, is hardly the huge problem the authors seem to imagine and is unrelated to the growing convergence of views among Catholics and evangelicals on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

In a statement that didn’t name the Spadaro-Figueroa piece but, coming a day later, was apparently a response, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an anti-defamation group, traced the start of this interfaith convergence to the 1980s and the founding of the Moral Majority by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Catholic conservative activist Paul Weyrich.

Over the years, Donohue said, it has included such prominent figures as Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert who was founding editor of the Catholic journal, First Things, and Charles Colson, a Watergate conspirator who underwent a religious conversion and became a prominent evangelical.

“There is much to be done. … We will not be intimidated by anyone,” said Donohue, himself active in this area.

But perhaps the most serious problem with the Spadaro-Figueroa analysis is that, by seeming to equate American Catholic political activity with participation in the political project of some ultraconservative Protestants, it hands a weapon to critics of mainstream Catholic groups.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a case in point. Now, as for many years, the bishops have an advocacy agenda on issues that extend from abortion and same-sex marriage to immigration reform and health care.

But you would never know that from an Associated Press piece — out of New York rather than Rome — suggesting, for no visible reason, that this salvo from Rome was “aimed in part at America’s Catholic bishops” and their support of religious exemptions from gay marriage laws and mandatory abortion coverage under health care.

Next, perhaps, Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa will enlighten us American Catholics on what moves American media to say things like that.

– – –

      Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books, including most recently “Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor.” The former communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops (1967-1987) and the Knights of Columbus (1987-1997), he is a prolific Catholic commentator who has published in a wide variety of periodicals, from Our Sunday Visitor to the Wall Street Journal.

This entry was posted in CNS columns, U.S.. Bookmark the permalink.