A controversial article in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Vatican-approved publication, by editor-in-chief Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentine Presbyterian pastor who leads his country’s edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has attacked the American Christians who supported Donald Trump for the American presidency.
Singled out for special opposition are the so-called “conservative” Catholics and the evangelical Christians and their alleged representative in the White House, Steve Bannon. Mr. Bannon is accused of advocating an “apocalyptic geopolitics.”
Taken by itself, the article is long, confusing, wildly inaccurate in its interpretation of American Christianity, and an unremarkable critique by uninformed foreigners of a “straw man,” that is, an opponent created by the authors for the purpose of attacking it (not unlike the “fake news” of America’s media stories).
What gives the article importance is the presumed association with Pope Francis I. Although the Pope has not commented publicly on the article, the publication is published by the Jesuits, the Pope’s religious order, sponsored by the Vatican, and the authors are well-known associates of the Pope. At several points in the text, Pope Francis‘ positions are cited as differing from those of the supposed opposition. This context strongly suggests that this article speaks for the Pope. If so, it speaks poorly for the Pope.
In summary, the essence of the piece seems to be that conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants have formed a political alliance in the United States to create a theocracy, based on an Old Testament-oriented, fundamentalist ideology, which seeks to establish the literal interpretation of the Bible as the basis of American law. Adherents to this view are called “value voters.” As their means of promoting this view, they are full of “gloom and doom” scenarios about threats to the “American way of life.” The need for drastic changes is therefore urgent. It is not surprising that the authors liken this movement to the jihad of radical Islam. To top off their point of view, they describe the vehicle for this domination of American life as the Trump administration.
They contrast this terrifying threat of apocalypse with traditional Catholic (and biblical) belief that the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Here they are a little ambiguous (to say the least) because the Bible clearly sequences the Last Judgement as part of the apocalypse. Nevertheless, the authors accuse their opponents of seeking a “heaven on earth” which can only be achieved by winning the “war of religions.” The true Christian message is to treat everyone with love as preached by Pope Francis, “Love not war!” How all this ties together is not clear.
What to make of all this? My first suggestion is simply to dismiss the whole essay as irrelevant, unless the Pope comes out and owns it. (One would hope that he has better sense.) Obviously, the American press has hyped what is really an obscure article in a foreign language journal for one reason: to proclaim that the Pope has discredited the American president. This would not be the first time Francis has indicated disagreement with Mr. Trump. As a strong advocate of climate change, for example, Francis does not agree with the president’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord. It seems also evident that the Pope started with the view of Mr. Trump’s populism shared by many European intellectuals, that his positions were immoral, laughable and dangerous to world trade if not world peace. Whether he has nuanced his views since meeting the man in person is unknown.
In the broader view, Pope Francis I is known to be shaking up the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. Some would say he is letting in a breath of fresh air. He is reforming the Roman Curia - which operates like the cabinet of an American president, i.e. makes and enforces all the international positions of the church. He is also appointing younger and reportedly more “liberal” bishops worldwide, as well as completing the clean-up of the notorious Vatican Bank, and, perhaps most significantly, setting a personal and public example of openness and personal kindness. Much like President Trump, Pope Francis is faced with a government which is outdated and led by subordinates who cling to their power with ruthlessness and extraordinary tenacity. Though not nearly as large as the American bureaucracy, the Vatican bureaucracy has held its nearly supreme authority for centuries, rather than a generation.
In these matters, most American Catholics find much to approve of. Some disapprove of some of Francis‘ initiatives and/or positions. For example, I have defended democratic capitalism against the socialist model favored by the papacy since Leo XIIII’s Rerum Novarum (Of New Issues) in 1891, which signaled the movement of the papacy away from the monarchical model of government.
Some American Catholics disapprove of everything Francis does - these are the ones Messrs. Spadaro and Figueroa are really trying to discredit. But they are a tiny minority. Most of us think the Catholic Church can stand a little fresh air!
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