Many have spoken about Pope Francis’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with the United States, best epitomized by his offhanded comment earlier this month on the papal plane before his three-nation trip to Africa: “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me.”
He was speaking to La Croix‘s Nicolas Seneze, who had given Francis his new book, How America Wanted to Change the Pope.
Seneze’s book argued that very wealthy and influential conservative Catholics in the United States were actively seeking to undermine the pontificate, especially through rightwing media outlets.
Francis even jokingly referred to the book as “a bomb.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni quickly tried to perform some damage control after the pontiff’s seemingly anti-American comments, saying the pope always “considers criticism an honor,” particularly when it comes from “an important nation.”
Days later, on the flight back to Rome, Francis also downplayed the remark, noting, “Criticism comes not only from the Americans, they’re coming from all over, including the Curia.”
But still, many American Catholics – and not just the anti-Francis clique – felt the sting of the seeming papal backhand.
After the kerfuffle, Crux’s John Allen noted, “as a Latin American, as a social justice-minded Catholic from outside the U.S., and as a someone who sees himself as a tribune of the developing world, there’s just part of Francis who doesn’t cotton to what he sees as American arrogance and privilege.”
But a newly released conversation Francis held with Jesuits in Mozambique paints the pope’s main problem with America as theological, as opposed to political.
The first Jesuit pope has made a habit of visiting with local Jesuit communities during his trips abroad, and his trip to Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius was no different.
These meetings are private but are usually later published in the Rome-based Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, whose director is papal confidante Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro.
The transcript of his Sept. 5 meeting with Jesuits in Madagascar was made available on Thursday, and during the encounter Francis reignited the debate about his understanding of the United States.
Asked about the Evangelical sects that preach a “Health and Wealth Gospel,” which promises adherents riches in this life as well as a guarantee of heaven in the next, the pope said these groups may preach Christ, “but their message is not Christian.”
He then endorsed two articles published in 2017 and 2018 in La Civiltà Cattolica, both of which view the United States’ intrinsic self-identity in a negative light.
The 2017 article was Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A surprising ecumenism, by Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, and Argentinian Presbyterian pastor and longtime friend of Francis.
The article said fundamentalist groups in the United States think that their nation is blessed by God, and in recent years have “demonized” their enemies. It then argued they had formed an alliance with conservative Catholic groups in an “ecumenism of hate.”
The article was well-received by the Catholic left in America, but was pilloried by Catholic conservatives, who accused the authors of a caricatured and simplistic understanding of American Evangelicals and their relationship with the Catholic Church. Evangelical leaders were also upset with the article, and Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, wrote the pope requesting a meeting.
The 2018 article, The Prosperity Gospel: Dangerous and Different, written by Spadaro, explicitly tied the “Health and Wealth” theology to the American Dream of bettering oneself through self-improvement.
“The prosperity gospel mechanically translates this vision [the American Dream] into religious terms, as though opulence and well-being were the true signs of divine delight to be conquered magically by faith,” Spadaro writes.
The Jesuit later claims the theology has political consequences.
“One of the conclusions made by exponents of this theological tradition is geopolitical and economic in nature, and tied to the place of origin of the prosperity gospel. It leads to the conclusion that the United States has grown as a nation under the blessing of the providential God of the Evangelical movement. Meanwhile, those who dwell south of the Rio Grande are sinking in poverty because the Catholic Church has a different, opposed vision exalting poverty. From political connotations, it is even possible to verify the link between these positions and the integralist and fundamentalist temptations.”
Both articles were overtly political, tying the theological tendencies they were describing to the administration of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
Now Francis has specifically endorsed their views. Unfair or not, for anyone wanting to understand the pope’s view of America, take the advice he gave the Jesuits in Mozambique about the two articles: “Read them and study them.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
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