[Dr. Massimo Faggioli is a professor in the department of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, and contributing writer for Commonweal and La Croix International. His most recent book published in English is Catholicism and Citizenship. Political Cultures of the Church in the 21st Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). The Italian-born theologian spoke to Charles Camosy about the state of the Church in the U.S. and the recent Vatican intervention stopping the USCCB from voting on new standards for bishops when it comes to abuse cases.]

Camosy: Dramatic times in the U.S. and Global Catholic Church at the moment. Can you give us some historical perspective about where we are as a Church right now? What would you say to despairing Catholics? 

Faggioli: As I wrote in Foreign Affairs, this could be the worst crisis since the Reformation, and the Catholic Church could be facing its most serious crisis in 500 years. It is a church in need of institutional reform and facing growing political, theological, and geopolitical rifts that go beyond a simplistic ideological rift between liberals and conservatives. It is the end of a world in which there was a parallelism between Church and State with the church in charge of religion and the state of politics. But it is also a very vital church, a very important point of reference in the global world, with an intellectual tradition that is being rediscovered and re-inculturated, and not at all forgotten.

The good news in the present moment of the abuse crisis is that nobody thinks that this crisis is induced by the media, or a conspiracy. There is a lot to do: the work done on policies and procedures has already a history and a track record. What still needs to happen is a theological reflection on the abuse crisis: what this crisis means for our understanding of the Church, of the sacraments, of the liturgy, of the relations between Church and State.

How should the abuse crisis change the way we teach theology, and in my field, Church history? This kind of reflection has barely started, and this is the task especially for the younger generation of Catholics. There is no systemic change without a theological reflection on the crisis – a reflection that changes the culture of the Church.

What do you make of how the Vatican is responding to the U.S. bishops and their desire to vote on a code of conduct and a lay investigative and review board? How much do you think Pope Francis has to do with this delay?

I think it is a decision Francis made after hearing and reading the memos and documents on the issue. It is a bold decision and also an unpopular one, given the frustration of American Catholics. But on the horizon there is also the preparation of the February meeting of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences in the Vatican, and I think the decision communicated at the beginning of the USCCB meeting has to be read in that context. As it has been said by others, this decision raises the stakes of the February meeting and the responsibility of the Vatican in dealing with this crisis.

Clearly, the relationship between Francis and the U.S. Church started with some tensions from the very beginning, had a brief interlude with his trip to the USA in September 2015, and it has become more tumultuous since then and especially in 2018. This is a key element that makes the abuse crisis in the Church today very different from 2002: now the mutual roles of the Vatican and of the U.S. bishops are constantly shifting and it is more difficult to frame the situation ideologically as “liberals vs. conservatives” or “reformers vs. status quo.”

We need Church reform, but some lay-run plans for reform announced recently in the manner of political opposition research – like for example the “Red Hat Report” – are clearly a threat to religious liberty and the freedom of the Church. And this is something Rome pays attention to, especially since the 11th and 12th centuries when a certain pattern of distinction between the Church and the “empire” – and freedom of the Church especially when it is about the election of the pope – came to be.

You are fun to follow on Twitter, especially as you offer Italian takes on American (Catholic) culture. What has been the most difficult thing to get used to in the U.S. Church vs. your native Italian Church?

My family and I love our parish and our parish school in the Philadelphia area: that was the easy part of adapting to American Catholicism. It is more difficult to get used to the two-party system that seems to rule in the U.S. Church today, because sometimes we get the impression that this has become a two-party Church. In this sense, the overlap between political polarization and theological rifts within U.S. Catholicism is something unique in the global Catholic Church and that changes also your lived experience as a Catholic, it is not only part of my professional and intellectual interests. Other significant differences between Italian and U.S. Catholicism are about the role money plays in the U.S. Church: U.S. Catholics are much more generous than Italians with their donations, and the Italian Church receives taxpayers’ money thanks to the Concordat (like many other Catholics Churches in the world).

One other thing is the patriotism of U.S. Catholics: European Catholics are much more suspicious, given the problematic relations between the Church and fascism in the 20th century. Overall, U.S. Catholicism is much more “militant” especially on the life issues – which is something that plays a different role in Italy and Europe generally: the way European countries legislated on abortion, for example –was very different from the USA with Roe v. Wade, not just procedurally but also for the content of the law and its goals. But pro-life culture plays in Italian Catholicism a marginal role and there is something European Catholics should learn – and I have personally learned myself – from U.S. Catholicism.

I’ve noticed something important of which you’ve tried to convince primarily liberal U.S. Catholic academic theologians: namely, that we need to stop thinking in terms of an outdated debate over the role of ecclesial authority vs. academic freedom. Personally, I believe the dominant views of those who hold actual authority in many Catholic colleges and universities put the very discipline of theology at risk. Even a place like Notre Dame saw a challenge to requiring two theology courses a couple years ago. Can you say more about your views on these matters?

I think that Catholic colleges and universities in the USA still see themselves bearing the scars of a period that they saw as a threat to their academic freedom: Ecclesial authority vs. academic freedom. This had an effect also on the shift from “theology” to “religious studies” and on their ways of coexisting in Catholic higher education. I believe we live now in a different time. I tend to see the relationship between the Church and academia today less in terms of threat and more as a challenge to take the Catholic mission never for granted and never for defined once and for all.

Catholic colleges and universities are today strong and independent enough to protect academic freedom from the Church. Freedom from the market forces and the business model – that is a different problem which is threating small Catholic colleges, and this should be treated as an emergency by the U.S. Church. On the other hand, I think it is a problem that sometimes the study of theology and religion at Catholic colleges and universities seems to be moving toward something like a “post-ecclesial” or “post-Church” age. As I wrote in Commonweal I think this would be a great loss intellectually, something that does not meet the needs of an important part of young Catholic students in their college experience, and it would put at risk the long-term survival of theology in academia and of Catholic academia tout court. All academic departments should take seriously the challenge of Catholic identity and mission: but if theologians and religious studies scholars do not do it, it is hard to imagine that other departments will do it.

Moreover, I think it is a very serious mistake that today in most Catholic institutions, undergraduate requirements in theology and in philosophy have been drastically reduced. This decision does not come, I think, from the fear of the institutional Church but from the pressures coming from a certain “technocratic paradigm” – as pope Francis calls it in Laudato Si’. The problem is in part numerical – how many Catholic colleges require more than two such courses – but also a matter of content that should be open to religious studies but without totally replacing theology.

This has become not only a problem for higher education, for the formation of students which should not be only professional. It has become also an ecclesial problem, a problem for the Church. Students have questions that are not conservative or liberal; they are simply questions about religion and the Church, and if we are not willing to address them, then we could expect to find them going to find answers somewhere else – for example, Catholic blogs. This is not healthy for the ecclesial community, nor for the Catholic intellectual tradition.

You have a generous and refreshing habit of engaging those who disagree with you–even when that disagreement has been pretty hot, as it was with Ross Douthat. What would you say has come from these engagements? Have they provided you with any insights about how to address the deep divides in the U.S. Church? 

I confess I have had my moments of intemperance on social media, like most of us, with those who disagree with me. But on social media I have known and met Catholics with opinions and experiences very different from mine, and this is very important. It is even more important when you get to meet them in person, because we need to meet in person, in a real physical space. The most important thing I have learned is about what debates on social media cannot do to address the divides in the U.S. Church.