If Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro was not the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, his recent attack on the “ecumenism of hate” he diagnoses in the United States never would have been published in that venerable journal.
Indeed, had such a commentary on the theological roots of contemporary American politics been submitted to the Jesuit magazine America, the authors would have been invited to give it a major re-write, or better, to choose another topic altogether on which they had some expertise.
Wrong on Protestant history, ignorant of contemporary Catholic life, tendentious in its analysis, patronizing in tone and damning with faint praise the very policies of the Holy Father it seeks to defend, it is hard to understand what ambitions were had for a piece that does not even rise to the level of mediocrity.
Pope Francis deserves much better from those he has entrusted to interpret his thought.
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Authored with Marcelo Figueroa, a Protestant pastor personally chosen by Pope Francis last year to be the editor-in-chief of the new Argentinean edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the article argues that what they consider the hate-filled politics of the Trump administration has its roots in an unholy alliance between “Evangelical Fundamentalism” and “Catholic Integralism.”
These “new crusaders” – George W. Bush, went down this path too, they argue, and, to a lesser degree Ronald Reagan before him – are little different in their theological inspiration from the “jihadists” they oppose. The theological inspiration of the current American administration has, they submit, quite a bit in common with the religious thinking of Osama bin Laden.
Spadaro and Figueroa argue that Evangelical fundamentalism subjects politics to a biblical literalism which rejects dialogue and peace in favor of bringing about salvation through apocalyptic wars. Such theology has opposed “the black civil rights movement, the hippy movement, communism, feminist movements,” inter alia, “and now in our day there are the migrants and the Muslims.”
Catholic “integralists” are their allies in this exclusionary and violent approach to politics, hence the emerging “ecumenism of hate.”
Experts in American Protestant history will, soon enough, expose the many errors made by Spadaro and Figueroa, who assemble a mishmash of fundamentalism, the “prosperity gospel,” “Christian reconstructionism,” Norman Vincent Peale, and Rousas John Rushdoony, in presenting their account of American Evangelicalism’s history of hate.
Permit one bit of history to suffice:
“The term ‘evangelical fundamentalist’ can today be assimilated to the ‘evangelical right’ or ‘theoconservatism’ and has its origins in the years 1910-1915. In that period a South Californian millionaire, Lyman Stewart, published the 12-volume work The Fundamentals. The author wanted to respond to the threat of modernist ideas of the time. He summarized the thought of authors whose doctrinal support he appreciated. He exemplified the moral, social, collective and individual aspects of the evangelical faith. His admirers include many politicians and even two recent presidents: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.”
Spadaro and Figueroa appear to think that The Fundamentals is the work of a single “author.” In fact, it consists of some 90 essays by more than five dozen authors, including most of the major Protestant denominations. But that’s a relative quibble compared to the charge they make, patronizingly, that American Evangelical theology, suffering from an incapacity for proper biblical exegesis, is thus hell-bent on precipitating Armageddon. But perhaps it is better that Pastor Figueroa’s fellow Protestants in the United States enter into a fraternal dialogue with him about their “jihadist” theology.
On the Catholic side, Spadaro and Figueroa are alarmed, as they write in this key paragraph:
“Some who profess themselves to be Catholic express themselves in ways that until recently were unknown in their tradition and using tones much closer to Evangelicals. They are defined as value voters as far as attracting electoral mass support is concerned. There is a well-defined world of ecumenical convergence between sectors that are paradoxically competitors when it comes to confessional belonging. This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values. Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state. However, the most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations. The word ‘ecumenism’ transforms into a paradox, into an ‘ecumenism of hate.’ Intolerance is a celestial mark of purism. Reductionism is the exegetical methodology. Ultraliteralism is its hermeneutical key.”
All that would certainly be alarming. But is it happening? Who are “those who profess to be Catholic” who “dream of a theocratic type of state”? What journals expound their thoughts? In what faculties do they teach? What books have they written? What movements does their thought animate?
None of that exists. But there is Michael Voris and his Church Militant site. After their superficial survey of a century of American Protestant thought, Spadaro and Figueroa offer only this on the Catholic side:
“There is a shocking rhetoric used, for example, by the writers of Church Militant, a successful US-based digital platform that is openly in favor of a political ultraconservatism and uses Christian symbols to impose itself. This abuse is called “authentic Christianity.” And to show its own preferences, it has created a close analogy between Donald Trump and Emperor Constantine, and between Hilary Clinton and Diocletian. The American elections in this perspective were seen as a ‘spiritual war’.”
Perhaps Michael Voris is successful, but only a vast ignorance of the American Catholic scene would consider Church Militant to be influential, let alone representative. Voris has been forbidden to use the name “Catholic” in his ventures, and just last week was asked to leave the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, American Catholicism’s largest such recent gathering. Did Spadaro consult his Jesuit colleagues at America, or Figueroa his American colleagues at L’Osservatore Romano, about the relative importance of Voris on the American “theological” scene, as it were?
Selecting such a singular and extreme example fatally undercuts the argument that Spadaro and Figueroa are advancing, and evidences a willingness to think ill of the character of American Catholic discourse.
We might then ask how this is supposed to serve the ministry of Pope Francis.
Surely Spadaro and Figueroa know that they are widely considered papal confidants and authentic interpreters of his thought. That is why attention is duly paid to what they write, edit and tweet. A piece that patronizes Evangelicals and mischaracterizes Catholics would seem to retard the very ecumenism that the Holy Father seeks to advance.
Surely this is not the vision that Pope Francis has of Christian theology in the United States?
Spadaro and Figueroa, having outlined the “ecumenism of hate,” note that there is “an enormous difference between these concepts and the ecumenism employed by Pope Francis.” Well, yes. One expects that the Holy Father has a rather different approach than spreading hate. But that is a rather low bar.
Spadaro and Figueroa have a slightly different aim in bringing Pope Francis into this odd piece. In ramping up the threat of the integralist ecumenism of hate, the authors amplify the supposed danger of being contaminated by them. If condemning “jihadism” for example, might ally you with “crusaders,” perhaps it is better to say nothing at all, or simply insist upon “dialogue,” without specifying its substance. But Pope Francis has not done that, as witness his recent speech to a Muslim audience in Cairo.
Spadaro and Figueroa appear to favor a more neutral approach, and attribute it to the Holy See:
“And this is why the diplomacy of the Holy See wants to establish direct and fluid relations with the superpowers, without entering into pre-constituted networks of alliances and influence. In this sphere, the pope does not want to say who is right or who is wrong for he knows that at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power. So, there is no need to imagine a taking of sides for moral reasons, much worse for spiritual ones.”
La Civiltà Cattolica derives much of its prestige from the fact that its pages are reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication. Do the Holy See’s top diplomats agree with the characterization of their work as not “saying who is right or who is wrong” because all are fighting over power?
Spadaro and Figueroa’s theological assessment of the “ecumenism of hate” does not bear scrutiny. Their charges will dissipate quickly enough for lack of substantive argument. But the claim that the Holy See refrains from distinguishing between right and wrong in a world of tyrants and their victims needs a correction soon.
It would have been opportune for the Secretariat of State to have done so before publication.