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Pastors who dislike their sheep

The Pope’s recent resuscitation of a bizarre anti-American article by his associates Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa prompted me to dig out an analysis I wrote at the time that the publication that commissioned it never published:

Two close associates of Pope Francis, Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, recently published an article on conservative Christianity in America that may show more than they intended about attitudes within the current pontificate toward America and toward the Church in the world.

Spadaro is an Italian Jesuit priest who edits La Civiltà Cattolica, a journal whose articles are reviewed and approved before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State. Figueroa is a Presbyterian pastor the Pope appointed editor of the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Their article, entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,“ was published in Spadaro’s journal and summarized the next day by L’Osservatore Romano in an article entitled “An Ecumenism of Hate.”

The piece portrays two radically opposed ways of thought. One is supposedly accepted by conservative American Christians, and stands for opposition and line-drawing, the other by the Pope, and stands for inclusion and bridge-building.

As the title suggests, the first way of thought involves an alliance between “Catholic integralists” and “Evangelical fundamentalists.“ The authors say very little about the former. The only example they mention is Church Militant, a website mostly concerned with faithlessness and corruption in the Church not visibly involved with ecumenism of any sort. It seems, though, that they are thinking of Catholics who accept an “organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church“ that leads to a “mingling of politics, morals and religion,“ all of which Francis is said to reject.

On the Protestant side the piece mentions a hodgepodge of figures: whites from the deep South; climate-change skeptics; apocalyptic thinkers looking for the end times; people, supposedly including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, inspired by Lyman Stewart’s 1915 compilation The Fundamentals; Rousas J. Rushdoony, a Calvinist theologian who proposed applying Old Testament law to modern society, and who the authors believe influences Steve Bannon of all people; and proponents of the Prosperity Gospel—as the authors note, Norman Vincent Peale officiated at Donald Trump’s first wedding.

What do people who think global warming is a fiction, people who think the world will end tomorrow, people who want to build the Kingdom by applying Deuteronomy here and now, and people who think God is going to give them a new Buick have in common? It’s not clear, but they are all at odds with secular liberalism, and that seems enough to lump them together.

Among these people and those they influence the authors see what they call “a well-defined world of ecumenical convergence between sectors that are paradoxically competitors when it comes to confessional belonging“ that tries to attract “electoral mass support“ by appealing to “value voters.“ The offense, it seems, is that they cooperate politically with regard to “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values,“ as well as in a defense of religious liberty that amounts to “a ’religion in total freedom,’ perceived as a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.“

That convergence, the authors tell us, joins conservative Catholics and Evangelicals in “an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state,“ an alliance that sinks to the level of an “ecumenism of hate“ through its acceptance of a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations.“ Such an ecumenism, Spadaro notes in an interview, should be distinguished from “positive partnerships between Catholics and Protestants“ in support of social welfare efforts such as caring for migrants and the environment.

It is entirely unclear who holds the views on religious liberty that bother the authors, or which Catholic and Protestant organizations are jointly lobbying in favor of deportations and border walls. Be that as it may, the authors explain the ecumenism to which they object by reference to a “fundamentalist theopolitical plan“ that distorts the Gospel by trying to “set up a kingdom of the divinity here and now“ that in truth is a kingdom of divinized worldly power based on fear and an attempt to impose order on threatened chaos.

Francis, the authors tell us, doesn’t want any of this. Where “fundamentalists and integralists want to unite the spiritual power and the temporal power, Francis wants to erect a wall of separation between the two.” Through his diplomacy and geopolitics he thus promotes a “truly Christian“ theopolitical plan that “orients current history toward the Kingdom of God“ through “a process of integration“ that remains fluid and takes no sides. Or so the authors say.

The article must be read to be believed, and on its own terms is a complete failure. It says nothing informative about its topic and presents no coherent view of the alternative Francis is said to support. Conservative American Christians have flaws, no less than Italian Jesuits and Argentine pastors, but partisan jibes and a shaky grasp of the facts won’t tell us what they are. In fact, the conservative Christian movement the authors describe is a chimera, a mythical figure conjured up by their fears, fantasies, and ambitions. And it is obscure how a papal vision of the Kingdom that (the authors say) is eschatological and therefore completely separate from political struggles is going to be advanced by geopolitics and diplomacy, or by the Pope’s obvious support for some leaders, movements, and policies over others.

The article nonetheless succeeds in illustrating views that deeply influence the current pontificate. There has been a recent tendency in the Church, as in other Christian bodies with large bureaucracies, to identify the Faith with secular progressivism. The world is evolving on its own toward the Kingdom of God, it is thought, so it would be arrogant for the Church to tell it what to do. Instead, she should listen attentively, help the process along, and otherwise act as a servant.

Such a view is radically at odds with what Jesus says about the world in the Gospels, and quite obviously subordinates the Church to worldly powers. Even so, the categorical language of this article, a considered and intentionally prominent statement from men in responsible positions close to the Pope, show how influential it has become in the current pontificate. Any significant political opposition to secular progressivism—for example, the support for restrictions on abortion, refusal of legal recognition to same-sex marriage, and support for rights of conscientious objection for losers in the culture war that have been the chief points of political cooperation between conservative Catholics and Protestants in the United States—is now viewed by people in the Pope’s inner circle as an illegitimate and implicitly violent attempt to impose theocracy. “The desire for some influence in the political and parliamentary sphere and in the juridical and educational areas so that public norms can be subjected to religious morals“ is, for the authors, enough to place a movement out of bounds.

Such views reflect the aggressively secularist belief that the Catholic understanding of the human good displayed in Catholic moral doctrine, for example with regard to abortion and marriage, is a matter of “religious morals“ that have no proper relevance to politics. As such, they reject not only traditional doctrine but Pope Benedict’s emphasis on the need for secular states to recognize natural law.

However, the nature of this pontificate confuses the implications of the article, with its disdain for rational discussion and the Pope’s evident view that chaos—“making a mess“—is beneficial because it allows the inner tendency of events to proceed without hindrance. So in spite of the prominence and programmatic nature of the piece it is not clear how far any of this goes.

The Pope’s general strategy has been to shake things up, go with the presumed flow of history, and abuse those who differ with him. Rather than respond to criticism, he and his coworkers attack critics’ legitimacy. And that seems the best explanation for this bizarre article. It is not clear whether it accurately reflects the Pope’s thinking, assuming that could be described coherently. What is clear though is that the Pope and his inner circle think that conservative American Christians are in their way, and they would like to make their voices effectively irrelevant.

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