Given that our discourse is dominated by news stories and opinion pieces that generally refuse to float too far away from the theo-political corners in which they originate, it is a rare article indeed which gets broadly read in the U.S. Catholic world. But that’s precisely what has happened to a recent piece written by Father Antonio Spadaro and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa in La Civiltà Cattolica titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism.”
Likely because this particular journal tends to serve as an unofficial mouthpiece for the Vatican, and also because the critical views offered in the piece were so scathing, it has prompted responses from many different corners of U.S. Catholicism.
There are so many different thoughts packed into their piece that it would be impossible to address them in a brief Crux commentary. But let me draw attention to one line of critique: the view of Spadaro and Figueroa that alliances between conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Evangelicals in the United States are constituted by a dualistic “Manichean vision.”
Such a vision divides between “absolute Good and absolute Evil”; between “sworn enemies” and “eternal friends.”
This “strange ecumenism,” the authors tell us, is based on “hate.” It is to be distinguished from the ecumenism offered by Pope Francis which “moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges.”
Let us not miss the irony present in this kind of critique. In drawing the distinction this way—between the ‘good’ ecumenism of inclusion and peace, and bridges and the ‘evil’ ecumenism of hate—Spadaro and Figueroa perform the very thing they attempt to criticize.
This was not lost on Rusty Reno, whose response to their article pointed out that the La Civiltà Cattolica commentary is itself “laced with dualistic caricatures” and expressions of hate for evil figures such as Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and George W. Bush.
I’d add that, in not a few cases, the hatred from some on the Catholic left is so strong that it is transferred even to those who merely voted for one of the evil ones. Pew recently found, for instance, that close to half of liberals, if they discovered that a friend of theirs had voted for Trump, say it would actually put a strain on the friendship. A high percentage also claimed that they simply couldn’t stand to be in the same room as a Trump voter.
The evil Catholics who express doubts about climate change, or even about what the best kind of response is to climate change, are regularly put into the untouchable category of “climate denier.” Some, especially in the context of Laudato Si’, are explicitly put into the “dissenter” category.
As someone who did not vote for Trump, and is enthusiastic about Laudato Si’ and climate change activism, I obviously don’t have personal experience with how being on the receiving end of such hate makes one feel. But as an active member of the pro-life movement, I’m regularly confronted with a special kind of vitriol from those in the left, including Catholics, who accuse me of everything from being “pro-birth” to having a “fetus fetish.”
To understate the point: this doesn’t feel good.
It does not follow, of course, that merely because Spadaro and Figueroa have this blind spot their critique does not land. Though it is a bad mistake to paint either liberal Catholics or conservative Catholics with too broad a brush, it is fair to say that many in the conservative Catholic/Evangelical ecumenical camp they criticize also see the world in dualistic ways that are at times quite hateful.
The attempts of Father James Martin to build a bridge to the LGBT community, for instance, have been met with an astonishing level of vitriol by many Catholics in this camp. I hesitate to use the word homophobia in most contexts, but it is difficult to avoid the word when Crisis Magazine bends over backwards to lambast even celibate LGBT Catholics who follow the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
Obama derangement syndrome, which has manifested itself in multiple ways in this camp, is also supported by a profoundly Manichean vision. Notre Dame’s inviting someone so (ostensibly) evil to give their 2009 commencement address, for instance, led many to conclude that the school had prostituted its Catholic identity. Obamacare is viewed as so horrendous that absolutely nothing good must be said about it, even if it likely resulted in fewer abortions. And if the polls are to be believed, an astonishingly high percentage of conservatives have come to the remarkable conclusion that Obama is a secret Muslim.
From where does such dualism and hatred come? I propose that it has two primary sources.
The first is pain. Many of the people who espouse this Manichean vision are filled with anger and even rage born of a deep pain. Something they hold to be foundational is being lampooned, threatened, or has already been taken from them. They are regularly subjected to stinging and even barbaric attacks on the most fundamental parts of who they are. In such a pained state it becomes that much easier to adopt a hateful “us/good vs. them/evil” way of being in the world.
Keeping this fact in the front of our minds is quite important. One of the first thoughts we should have when confronted with someone who lashes out with Manichean-style assumptions is that this person is likely in a great deal of pain. Starting here may soften our reaction and dial down polarization.
The second source is the inherent dualism present in a liberal/conservative secular vision of politics. Instead of seeing our common baptism and tradition as the primary ties that bind, many Catholics have idolatrously made either liberal or conservative politics their foundational source of concern. Their identity, at its very foundation, is therefore bound up by opposition to “the other side” of this lazy political binary. What could “that side” be but hateful and evil?
Keeping this in the front of our minds is also quite important. Any time we can marshal the resources of the tradition in resisting the idols present in adherence to left/right secular politics, we ought to do so. Happily, authentic engagement with the tradition naturally pushes in precisely this direction.
Perhaps being aware of and working to mitigate these two sources of the problem can lead us to the most important practice of all: actual charitable engagement with those with whom we have profound disagreements. Engagement which involves getting to know them personally and authentically listening to their actual views. Engagement which refuses to put them into easily dismissible boxes.
It is through this kind of genuine engagement that we will discover the antidote to the Manichean poison which has so profoundly damaged the Body of Christ.
Let’s get it going.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham Univeristy and co-editor of Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church.