The Vat­i­can’s Amer­ica prob­lem

Catholi­cism in the United States, as with politics, has en­tered an era of con­fu­sion, ob­serves colum­nist

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Forum - ROSS DOUTHAT

In 1892, Pope Leo XIII ad­dressed a let­ter to the Catholics of France. For a cen­tury French politics had been di­vided be­tween mostly Catholic monar­chists and mostly an­ti­cler­i­cal repub­li­cans, and the church had cham­pi­oned roy­al­ists against the sec­u­lar repub­lic. But now the pope urged French Catholics to take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach — to rally to the repub­lic, a strat­egy called “ral­liement,” and work through repub­li­can in­sti­tu­tions to pro­tect the church’s lib­er­ties and pro­mote the com­mon good.

In Euro­pean politics this was a novel gam­bit, but for Amer­i­can Catholics at the time it amounted to a tacit en­dorse­ment of what they were al­ready do­ing. In the United States, there was no an­cien regime to imag­ine restor­ing, no plau­si­ble sce­nario in which the in­te­gra­tion of church and state might be achieved — and Catholics had been try­ing to prove their pa­tri­o­tism in a largely Protes­tant coun­try by ral­ly­ing to the repub­lic since the found­ing era.

So Pope Leo’s let­ter be­gan a long (and com­pli­cated) process of har­mo­niza­tion be­tween Amer­ica and Rome, sealed in the 1960s at the Se­cond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, in which the church’s po­lit­i­cal thought was tac­itly Amer­i­can­ized. No more would the Vat­i­can em­pha­size the ne­ces­sity, for Catholics, of sup­port­ing an “in­te­gral­ist” re­la­tion­ship be­tween their gov­ern­ment and church. In­stead the Amer­i­can way of do­ing re­li­gious politics — in which a sec­u­lar po­lit­i­cal frame­work al­lowed a great deal of room for re­li­giously in­spired ac­tivism — was blessed and ac­cepted as the Catholic way as well.

Over the last decade, how­ever, as Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity has weak­ened and Amer­i­can politics be­come ever-more-po­lar­ized, the Catholic po­si­tion in the United States has be­come more dif­fi­cult and per­plex­ing. The Demo­cratic Party, whose long-ago New Deal was built in part on Catholic so­cial thought, has be­come in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar and ever-more-doc­tri­naire in its so­cial lib­er­al­ism. The Repub­li­can Party, which un­der George W. Bush wrapped the Catholic-

in­flected lan­guage of “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vatism” around its pro-life com­mit­ments, has been pin­balling be­tween an Ayn Rand-ish lib­er­tar­i­an­ism and the white iden­tity politics of the Trump era.

As a re­sult a sense of dis­il­lu­sion­ment and home­less­ness among Catholic thinkers — younger ones, es­pe­cially — has in­creased. It isn’t just that old 20th-cen­tury ap­proaches to Catholic politics — both the eth­nic-Catholic lib­er­al­ism of a Mario Cuomo or a Ted Kennedy and the Catholic neo­con­ser­vatism that shaped fig­ures like Jeb Bush and Marco Ru­bio or Paul Ryan — seem like they’re out of en­ergy and in­flu­ence. It’s also that West­ern lib­er­al­ism writ large seems at once hos­tile to tra­di­tional re­li­gion and be­set by in­ter­nal con­tra­dic­tions, mak­ing the mo­ment ripe for se­ri­ous Catholic re­think­ing, a new and per­haps even post-lib­eral Catholic politics.

So far that new think­ing in­cludes re­vivals of rad­i­cal­ism on the Catholic left, where peo­ple pine for a pro­life Bernie San­ders and flirt anew with bap­tiz­ing Karl Marx. It in­cludes the lively de­bate over Rod Dre­her’s re­cent book “The Bene­dict Op­tion,” with its in­sis­tence that politics can­not save Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity and that some form of cul­tural sep­a­ratism is es­sen­tial for re­li­gious re­newal. And it in­cludes the var­i­ous Catholic re­sponses to Mr. Trump and to the re­vival of Euro­pean na­tion­al­ism — some of which imag­ine that out of the cri­sis of West­ern lib­er­al­ism a new or dif­fer­ent in­te­gral­ism, a more fully Catholic politics, might even­tu­ally be born.

Mis­di­rected at­tacks on Trumpery

Rome, and specif­i­cally the men around Pope Fran­cis, seem to both mis­un­der­stand and fear this new fer­ment. Both re­ac­tions, fear and ig­no­rance, in­form a re­cent es­say in the Je­suit mag­a­zine La Civilta Cat­tolica, writ­ten by two pa­pal con­fi­dantes, the Je­suit Rev. An­to­nio Spadaro and the Protes­tant jour­nal­ist Marcelo Figueroa, which has gen­er­ated thou­sands of words of in­tra- Catholic ar­gu­ment in the last few weeks.

Their es­say is bad but im­por­tant. Its seems to in­tend, rea­son­ably enough, to warn against Catholic sup­port for the darker ten­den­cies in Trump­ism — the xeno­pho­bia and iden­tity politics, the “stigma­ti­za­tion of en­e­mies,” the crude view of Is­lam and a wider “panorama of threats,” the pros­per­ity-gospel-in­flected wor­ship of suc­cess.

But the au­thors’ un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can re­li­gion seems to start and end with Google searches and anti-evan­gel­i­cal tracts, and their in­tended at­tack on Trumpery ex­pands and ex­pands, con­flat­ing very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious ten­den­cies, in­dulging in para­noia about ob­scure theo­cratic Protes­tants and fringe Catholic web­sites, and ul­ti­mately cri­tiquing ev­ery kind of Amer­i­can re­li­gious con­ser­vatism — in­clud­ing the largely anti-po­lit­i­cal Bene­dict Op­tion and the pro-life ac­tivism ful­somely sup­ported by Fran­cis’ pa­pal pre­de­ces­sors — as dan­ger­ously il­lib­eral, “theopo­lit­i­cal,” Is­lamic State-es­que, “Manichaean,” a re­turn to the old in­te­gral­ism that the church no­longer sup­ports.

None of this makes sense. The post-1970s evan­gel­i­cal-Catholic al­liance has been flawed in var­i­ous ways, but it is nei­ther theo­cratic nor il­lib­eral; if Charles Col­son and Richard John Neuhaus were in­te­gral­ists, I am a lemur. The re­li­gious right stands in a com­plex con­ti­nu­ity with pre­vi­ous re­li­gious re­form move­ments in Amer­i­can his­tory, from abo­li­tion to the So­cial Gospel to Pro­hi­bi­tion to civil rights and peace move­ments in the 1960s. And in its specif­i­cally Catholic form, re­li­gious con­ser­vatism has as­pired to ex­actly the kind of Catholic en­gage­ment in lib­eral-demo­cratic politics an­tic­i­pated by Leo XIII’s “ral­liement” and en­dorsed by the Se­cond Vat­i­can Coun­cil.

What Rev. Spadaro and Mr. Figueroa do not grasp is that the ten­den­cies that they see at work in Amer­i­can Catholi­cism, the re­li­gious votes for the cheer­fully pa­gan Don­ald Trump and the grow­ing in­ter­est in tra­di­tion­al­ism, rad­i­cal­ism and sep­a­ratism, are not the cul­mi­na­tion of the Catholic-evan­gel­i­cal al­liance but rather a re­ac­tion to its po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural fail­ures — and the fail­ures of lib­eral re­li­gious politics as well.

Catholics seek a new path

In in­creas­ing num­bers, Amer­i­can Catholics (and Protes­tants) feel that their lead­ers and thinkers have spent decades ral­ly­ing to the repub­lic, try­ing to bring about its moral and po­lit­i­cal re­newal … only to see repub­li­can virtues de­cay­ing, lib­er­al­ism turn­ing hos­tile to re­li­gious faith, and demo­cratic cap­i­tal­ism de­liv­er­ing dis­ap­point­ment and dis­lo­ca­tion. So some of them are reach­ing back­ward and side­ways or ahead, try­ing to claim Trump­ism or so­cial­ism or grasp some as-yet-un­known idea, be­cause they sense that the present or­der might some­day soon be it­self an an­cien regime from which their re­li­gion must slip free.

They may be wrong about this, but their sense of things is shared in cer­tain ways by Pope Fran­cis him­self, who has a Trump­ish, pop­ulist streak in his own right, and whose cri­tiques of the West’s tech­no­cratic or­der are no­table and pun­gent. Which is the other bizarre thing about Rev. Spadaro and Mr. Figueroa’s broad brush: As the Amer­i­can Catholic writer Pa­trick Smith points out, by warn­ing against a Catholi­cism that takes po­lit­i­cal sides or in­dulges in moral­is­tic rhetoric or oth­er­wise de­claims on “who is right and who is wrong” in con­tem­po­rary de­bates, the pope’s men are ef­fec­tively con­demn­ing not only Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tive Catholics but also the pope’s own writ­ings on poverty and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, his sup­port for grass-roots “popular move­ments” in the de­vel­op­ing world and his stress on the or­ganic link be­tween fam­ily, so­ci­ety, re­li­gion and the state.

This they surely do not mean to do. But it is pre­cisely this ten­sion, be­tween the Spadaro-Figueroa cri­tique of Amer­i­can re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives and Pope Fran­cis’ some­times harsh as­sess­ment of the lib­eral West, that makes the es­say im­por­tant as well as in­co­her­ent — be­cause it re­veals some­thing sig­nif­i­cant about the dilem­mas of the Vat­i­can in a pop­ulist mo­ment, in which the fu­ture of West­ern politics seems un­usu­ally un­cer­tain.

Be­tween Pope Leo XIII and the Se­cond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, Rome grad­u­ally made its peace with sec­u­lar and lib­eral gov­ern­ment, and em­braced a style of Catholic politics that worked com­fort­ably within the lib­eral or­der, rather than against its grain. And the church has good pru­den­tial rea­sons not to lean in too far to any kind of pop­ulism or post-lib­er­al­ism, lest it lead to­ward au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism or sim­ple dis­as­ter.

At the same time the church is sup­posed to be larger than any par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, ready to out­last any par­tic­u­lar or­der and ca­pa­ble of speak­ing prophet­i­cally in pe­ri­ods of tran­si­tion. It could not re­main bound to French monar­chists for­ever; there may come a mo­ment when it can­not re­main with what­ever lib­er­al­ism might be­come.

Again, in the rhetoric of Fran­cis as well as the dis­com­fort of Amer­i­can Catholics you can see hints that such a mo­ment may be on its way. But in his ad­vis­ers’ es­say, in their ev­i­dent para­noia about what the Amer­i­cans are up to, you see a dif­fer­ent spirit: a fear of nov­elty and dis­rup­tion, and a de­sire for a church that’s pri­mar­ily a stew­ard of so­cial peace, a mild and ec­u­meni­cal pres­ence, a mod­er­ate pil­lar of the es­tab­lish­ment in a sta­ble and per­ma­nently lib­eral age.

At the very least the men in the Vat­i­can who yearn for such a church need to do a bet­ter job grasp­ing why so many of their flock, in Europe and the United States, find this vi­sion in­suf­fi­cient to the times.

And then, be­yond that, they might con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that, as in the 19th cen­tury, Amer­i­can Catholics, in all their present con­fu­sion and oc­ca­sional ex­trem­ism, might be closer to grasp­ing what our strange fu­ture holds for Catholic politics than Rome.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Pope Leo XIII, in 1892, opened the way for Amer­i­can-like think­ing in the Catholic hi­er­ar­chy that came to be re­flected in the Vat­i­can II re­forms of the 1960s.

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