In a peculiar, rambling essay, papal adviser Father Antonio Spadaro SJ has caricatured white southern evangelicals as well as conservative American Catholics as ignorant, theocratic, Manichean, war-mongering fanatics anxiously awaiting the apocalypse.
It is “these religious groups that are composed mainly of whites from the deep American South” that push conflicts and justify belligerence, while favoring the Old Testament “rather than be guided by the incisive look, full of love, of Jesus in the Gospels.”
The article appeared in both Italian and English in the Vatican-vetted journal La Civiltà Cattolica, of which Father Spadaro is editor-in-chief. In it, the Jesuit priest says that U.S. Evangelicals and Catholics have engaged in “an ecumenism of conflict” that seeks to advance “a theocratic type of state.”
Spadaro, a friend and counselor of Pope Francis, was assisted in drafting the essay by an Argentinian Presbyterian minister, Marcelo Figueroa, an old friend of the Pope’s who was hand-picked by the pontiff as editor-in-chief of the Argentinean edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
Conservative Christians, the article warns, are ultimately driven by “the desire for some influence in the political and parliamentary sphere and in the juridical and educational areas so that public norms can be subjected to religious morals.”
But is this really so? The story that has dominated religious liberty discussions in the U.S. since 2011 has been that of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns that was harassed by the Obama administration under the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act and made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Do Spadaro and Figueroa really believe that the good sisters were fighting for “some influence in the political and parliamentary sphere” rather than simply asking to live according to their religious beliefs?
The sweeping generalizations of Spadaro and Figueroa and their evident lack of familiarity with the complex religious landscape in the United States prompts concern about the quality of advice that Pope Francis is receiving from close advisers.
In point of fact, the United States is one of the most religiously diverse and pluralistic countries in the world, far more than any European nation, a fact of which the authors seem woefully ignorant. Christians make up over 70 percent of the population, and while the largest single group is the Roman Catholic Church, there are literally hundreds of other Christian denominations as well as the vast world of non-denominational Christianity.
Moreover, while Spadaro and Figueroa describe the influence of religion in American public life as a recent phenomenon, nothing could be further from the truth. They write that the American tendency to view the world in terms of good and evil and to mingle “politics, morals and religion” dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, with the publication of Lyman Stewart’s 12-volume work, The Fundamentals. While this work did give the name to Christian fundamentalism in America, it was not nearly as influential as the authors seem to think.
It was the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the greatest commentator on religion in America of all time, who in the first half of the 19th century marveled at the unique role that religion played in the young United States—so different from that in his native Europe. Despite the age of the work, it aptly describes the historical place of religion in American society and its vibrant and permanent interaction with politics and public morality.
In his monumental 1835 classic, Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.”
And in one of the most famous passages of that same work, the Frenchman described what he believed to be the source of America’s “greatness” (his term).
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
The reason for this, Tocqueville argued, stems from the close interaction between moral principles and religious faith, and the need for a virtuous citizenry in a democratic state. “Lovers of liberty,” he said, “should hasten to call religion to their aid, for they must know that one cannot establish the reign of liberty without that of mores, and mores cannot be firmly founded without beliefs.”
Americans’ willingness to bring their faith to bear on their moral decision-making should not be confused with the straw men drawn by Spadaro and Figueroa who long for a confessional, theocratic state. It is precisely the healthy secularism in the United States and the refusal of the founders to establish a state religion that has allowed faith to play such an important role in public life.
En route to Washington DC in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI told journalists that he was “fascinated” by the fact that the American Founders had intentionally created a secular state, not out of hostility toward religion, but out of respect for it and because they understood that religion can be lived authentically only under conditions of freedom.
Later in his trip, Benedict noted approvingly that, historically, Americans “do not hesitate to bring moral arguments rooted in Biblical faith into their public discourse.” And upon his return to Italy, the Pope spoke of America as a model of “healthy secularism.” He described it as a society “where the religious dimension, with the diversity of its expressions, is not only tolerated but appreciated as the nation’s ‘soul’ and as a fundamental guarantee of human rights and duties.”
To take issue with this singularly religious self-understanding, as Spadaro and Figueroa do, is to take issue with the United States itself. While the two men are of course free to do this, they should be aware that such blatant anti-Americanism will win them few friends and besmirches whatever other good work they may choose to do. While they obviously sought to harness their partisan critique to attack President Donald Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon, they have ended up attacking America itself.
After insulting American evangelicals, in fact, Spadaro and Figueroa go on to assail those “who profess themselves to be Catholic” but express themselves in ways “much closer to Evangelicals.”
“They are defined as value voters as far as attracting electoral mass support is concerned,” the authors continue, and share a dangerous “ecumenical convergence” with evangelicals over shared objectives “around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.”
One can only wonder what the authors were thinking on penning these expressions, since Pope Francis himself has weighed in repeatedly on each of these very issues, insisting that the right to life and the nature of man-woman marriage are not merely religious issues, but should be enshrined in law.
“So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life,” he said last year in a teaching letter on marriage and the family, called Amoris Laetitia.
In a bizarre irony, the authors rail against confusing the political and religious realms in the midst of their undeniably political—and indeed deeply partisan—screed.
How they could get away with publishing something so puerile, bigoted and tendentious in what was once considered a very serious academic journal is a mystery.
If by so doing the authors think they are acting like bridge-builders, to use one of the Pope’s favorite images, they are sorely mistaken. They have erected a wall of prejudice and partisan narrow-mindedness that is all but impossible to scale.