Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa have a recent item in the Italian Jesuit review La Civiltà Cattolica, complaining of the “surprising ecumenism” between Catholic integralists and evangelical fundamentalists in America. The piece has caused quite a stir. Progressive Catholics have received it with delight, viewing it as a diagnosis of the sickness at the heart of American Catholicism. Conservative Catholics have received it as an attack on them. But it seems questionable whether anyone would have taken any notice of the essay at all, were its authors not perceived as close collaborators of Pope Francis. (Spadaro, a Jesuit, edits La Civiltà Cattolica. Figueroa, an Argentine Presbyterian, has been a friend of Jorge Bergoglio for years.) The argument is full of tired clichés about American religion and politics. Worse, the authors evince little knowledge even of what is close to home: the Catholic tradition, and the thought of Pope Francis.
Spadaro and Figueroa have written the standard left-liberal piece about politics and religion in America. This piece was very popular during the presidency of George W. Bush, and every educated American has read it a thousand times over. Spadaro is known as a voracious consumer of pop culture, with an interest in the United States. Yet he appears to have no insight into the American character that could not have been gained from Salon, Slate, or the Atlantic circa 2003.
Spadaro and Figueroa’s ignorance concerning American culture shows itself in their box-checking approach. They begin with a potted history of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. They meander into dominionism and apocalypticism. Next, they turn to the prosperity gospel, and bizarrely discuss Norman Vincent Peale but not Joel Osteen. They discuss the ecumenism between these Protestants and some Catholics on the hot-button social questions of abortion and same-sex marriage. They omit to discuss the history of this relationship or certain of its central figures, such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. They launch into a long discourse on spiritual war, the thrust of which seems to be that Michael Voris’s obscure website Church Militant is very bad.
Spadaro and Figueroa’s main contribution is to suggest that Donald Trump—who manifestly is not very interested in religion, nor even particularly good at pretending to be religious—somehow fits into the supposed collusion between fundamentalism and integralism. They mention Steve Bannon, suggesting that he shares the fundamentalist, integralist worldview. And this is the primary problem with the essay: Spadaro and Figueroa plainly have no insight into the American political and religious scenes. They make up for it by trying to hit the highlights.
Their aimless analysis makes some notable omissions. Spadaro and Figueroa never get around to discussing the Church’s historical position on integralism. In fact, they never define integralism. All that matters for them is that integralism is extremely bad. They also fail to acknowledge the liberal tradition within American Catholicism, exemplified by the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. This omission is important, since some of the major political activities of the American Church—for example, the religious freedom activities the bishops have prioritized in recent years—stem from this liberal thought.
Even had Spadaro and Figueroa made their argument well, taking account of the liberal tradition in American Catholicism, they would find themselves in opposition to the tradition of the Church, and to the pope they want to vindicate. The crux of their essay is this:
The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the “final clash.” Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need.
Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere.
In other words, Spadaro and Figueroa see Pope Francis as contradicting the fundamentalist, integralist views they critique. Whereas the fundamentalists and integralists want to unite the spiritual power and the temporal power, Francis wants to erect a wall of separation between the two. According to Spadaro and Figueroa, Francis wants to extend this separation to all aspects of life. There are, however, two big problems with this.
First, Spadaro and Figueroa are squarely against the Church’s tradition. They apparently intend to deny the integralist doctrines contained in Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum, Immortale Dei, and Diuturnum illud, to say nothing of St. Pius X’s Fin dalla prima nostra and Notre charge apostolique. They also seem to deny the authority of the Church to pronounce on matters of political economy, set forth by Leo XIII in Rerum novarum, Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno, and Pius XII in La solennità della Pentecoste. They also apparently intend generally to deny the condemnations of liberalism contained in Gregory XVI’s Mirari vos and Bl. Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus. No doubt they see in the Second Vatican Council, particularly Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, Nostra aetate, and Unitatis redintegratio, the rejection of such tedious anti-liberal doctrines. Spadaro and Figueroa oppose, therefore, not only the popes who wrote these documents, but also Benedict XVI, who taught that the Council could not be read in opposition to those who came before it. This is a clear consequence of their failure to define their terms in the context of the Church’s teaching.
Spadaro and Figueroa set themselves against Pope Francis himself when they articulate a bizarre liberal atomization of man. According to Spadaro and Figueroa, in church, man is a believer; in the council hall, he is a politician; at the movie theater, he is a critic; and he is apparently supposed to keep all of these roles separate. The believer and the politician can never communicate, nor the critic and the believer, nor the politician and the critic. However, in April of this year, Francis addressed a conference in Rome on the topic of Paul VI’s Populorum progressio and integral human development. In this address, Francis described human life as “an orchestra that performs well if the various instruments are in harmony and follow a score shared by all.” This is not the rhetoric of a pope who “wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church,” as Spadaro and Figueroa contend. This is the rhetoric of a pope who understands the vital importance of this organic link and wishes to foster it.
Indeed, the liberal atomization that Spadaro and Figueroa want to exalt is one of the central problems with modernity that Francis dissects brilliantly in Laudato si’. Francis teaches us in that encyclical that “it cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.” Indeed, one of Francis’s key views, first articulated in Evangelii gaudium, is that the whole is greater than the parts. Based upon this understanding, Francis warns us that “the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.” The response to this ignorance is “a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge … in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.” The failure to acknowledge these links leads to the misguided lifestyle Francis addresses at great length in Laudato si’.
Francis sees what Spadaro and Figueroa do not: that “the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church” is necessary. Indeed, the Francis who wrote Laudato si’ would no doubt describe the vision of Spadaro and Figueroa as a vision of ignorance. It rejects the interconnectedness of the world and the conviction that the whole is greater than the part, in favor of isolation and separation. In Francis’s terms, Spadaro and Figueroa seek to write a symphony of discord and dissonance. So far from expressing the mind of Francis, they commend the misguided lifestyle Francis warns us about.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.