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Civilta Cattolica essay: Overreaction to a questionable problem

Editor’s Note: In the July issue of the influential Jesuit monthly La Civilta Cattolica, editors Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Marcelo Figueroa wrote a long editorial titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” (See July 13 CNS story, “Journal: Strip religious garb, fundamentalist tones from U.S. political power.”) The authors described what they saw as worrisome convergences between certain apocalyptic forms of American evangelicalism and some contemporary Catholic ideologies, contrasting these tendencies with the teachings and global strategy of Pope Francis. This essay has prompted much discussion. Catholic News Service asked Jesuit Father Drew Christensen and journalist Russell Shaw to comment on the essay from their experience as longtime observers of U.S. religion and politics. Father Christensen’s response appears here. A news article appears here.

Here is Shaw’s response:

July 27, 2017
Russell Shaw

An overreaction to a questionable problem – that was my thought on reading a piece about American politics and the religious right by two men said to be close to Pope Francis.

The article’s authors are Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, and the Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor who is the pope’s hand-picked choice to edit a new, Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Published July 13, their free-swinging analysis – an ecclesiastical variation on anti-Trump themes common to many European media – takes on weight for appearing in La Civilta Cattolica, which is reviewed before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State, and for being cited in the pages of L’Osservatore. The simultaneous online publication of an English translation suggests a desire on somebody’s part to get maximum attention for it.

And if this is how they see America in Rome these days, we’re all in trouble.

The authors say some interesting things about the nonpartisan approach to politics favored by Pope Francis, but when they get to the United States, they paint a nightmarish picture of the political project of something they call the “Christian-Evangelical fundamentalist” movement.

Its elements are said to include an apocalyptic vision of history pointing to the approach of the end times, a Manichean view of world events positing a clash between “absolute good and absolute evil,” and a theocratic hankering for the bad old days of religious domination of the state.

Although this program is the property primarily of some far-right Protestants, the authors believe some Catholics share its goals. That is clear from their article’s title: “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.”

“Integralism” is the name given an ultraconservative movement in late 19th- and early 20th-century French Catholicism and today used by critics as a generic term of disparagement for Catholics of the far right. The “surprising” ecumenism of the Spadaro-Figueroa piece is said to be an “ecumenism of hate” grounded in “xenophobic and Islamophobic” attitudes.

To say the least, there are problems with all this.

One problem is that the view of American evangelicals adopted here conflates evangelicals with fundamentalists. Leaving it to our Protestant brethren to mark out the lines of demarcation, it can at least be said that, both theologically and politically, evangelicals and fundamentalists are not the same thing, and it misrepresents them to suggest otherwise.

Similarly, American Catholics who might fairly be described as integralists are few in number. Catholics in the United States number some 70 million, and in a body that size it’s natural to find every shade of opinion, from ultraconservative to ultraliberal, on everything under the sun. But the genuine integralists among the 70 million American Catholics are a small group.

It follows that Spadaro-Figueroa’s “ecumenism of hate,” even if it exists someplace, is hardly the huge problem the authors seem to imagine and is unrelated to the growing convergence of views among Catholics and evangelicals on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

In a statement that didn’t name the Spadaro-Figueroa piece but, coming a day later, was apparently a response, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an anti-defamation group, traced the start of this interfaith convergence to the 1980s and the founding of the Moral Majority by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Catholic conservative activist Paul Weyrich.

Over the years, Donohue said, it has included such prominent figures as Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert who was founding editor of the Catholic journal, First Things, and Charles Colson, a Watergate conspirator who underwent a religious conversion and became a prominent evangelical.

“There is much to be done. ... We will not be intimidated by anyone,” said Donohue, himself active in this area.

But perhaps the most serious problem with the Spadaro-Figueroa analysis is that, by seeming to equate American Catholic political activity with participation in the political project of some ultraconservative Protestants, it hands a weapon to critics of mainstream Catholic groups.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a case in point. Now, as for many years, the bishops have an advocacy agenda on issues that extend from abortion and same-sex marriage to immigration reform and health care.

But you would never know that from a The Associated Press piece – out of New York rather than Rome – suggesting, for no visible reason, that this salvo from Rome was “aimed in part at America’s Catholic bishops” and their support of religious exemptions from gay marriage laws and mandatory abortion coverage under health care.

Next, perhaps, Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa will enlighten us American Catholics on what moves American media to say things like that.

21 THUMB 7.27.17_shaw.mugRussell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books, including most recently “Catholics in America: Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor.” The former communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops (1967-1987) and the Knights of Columbus (1987-1997), he is a prolific Catholic commentator who has published in a wide variety of periodicals, from Our Sunday Visitor to The Wall Street Journal.

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