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An ignorant, intemperate Vatican assault on American conservatism

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 13, 2017

With a harsh denunciation of American conservatism, published in the semi-official Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, the Vatican has plunged headlong into a partisan debate in a society that it clearly does not understand, potentially alienating (or should I say, further alienating) the Americans most inclined to favor the influence of the Church.

Why? Why this bitter attack on the natural allies of traditional Catholic teachings? Is it because the most influential figures at the Vatican today actually want to move away from those traditional teachings, and form a new alliance with modernity?

The authors of the essay claim to embrace ecumenism, but they have nothing but disdain for the coalition formed by Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States. They scold American conservatives for seeing world events as a struggle of good against evil, yet they clearly convey the impression that they see American conservativism as an evil influence that must be defeated.

While they are quick to pronounce judgment on American politicians, the two authors betray an appalling ignorance of the American scene. The authors toss Presidents Nixon (a Quaker), Reagan, Bush, and Trump into the same religious classification, suggesting that they were all motivated by “fundamentalist” principles. An ordinary American, reading this account, would be surprised to see the authors’ preoccupation with the late Rev. Rousas Rushdoony and the Church Militant web site: hardly major figures in the formation of American public opinion. The essay is written from the perspective of people who draw their information about America from left-wing journals rather than from practical experience.

The central thesis of the Civilta Cattolica essay is that American conservatives have developed an ideology, based on fundamentalist Protestant beliefs, that sees the US as morally righteous, with other people as enemies and thus justifies conflict and exploitation. Again and again the authors describe this attitude as “Manichean;” they insist on the need to “fight against” it. They insist on tolerance, but they have no tolerance for this attitude. Nowhere in the essay does one find a suggestion of the attitude, made popular by Pope Francis, that the Church should “accompany” sinners. No; the sins of American conservatism are unforgivable.

“Triumphalist, arrogant and vindictive ethnicism is actually the opposite of Christianity,” the authors tell us. So this is a heresy, then—the “Manichean” references were purposeful—and it must be condemned? The Vatican today lauds Martin Luther for his desire to reform the faith, but denounces Evangelical Protestants for—for what, exactly? The Civilta Cattolica essay speaks—in typically incendiary terms—of an “ecumenism of hate.” But it is not obvious, frankly, who hates whom.

As the authors round to their conclusion, they tell us that Pope Francis “wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution, and Church.” So the Pontiff intends to detach the Church entirely from public issues, even when moral principles are involved? Yes, the authors reply; in the realm of political affairs, “the Pope does not want to say who is right or who is wrong for he knows that at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power.” So, for fear of becoming mired in a power struggle, should the Church step aside, eschewing involvement in moral debates—and, more than that, condemn those who do frame public issues in moral terms?

The ignorance and intemperance of the Civilta Cattolica essay are doubly troublesome because the authors are so close to Pope Francis. Journalists often overstate the influence of Vatican officials, identifying mid-level staff members as “key advisers” to the Roman Pontiff. Unfortunately the two authors of this essay really are among the closest advisers to Pope Francis. Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of Civilta Cattolica, is a regular visitor to the Pope’s office in the St. Martha residence, described by one seasoned Vatican-watcher as the “mouthpiece of Pope Francis.” Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian minister who was friendly with then-Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina, was hand-picked by the Pontiff to launch a new Argentinean edition of the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. And speaking of official publications, the Spadaro-Figueroa essay appeared in Civilta Cattolica, whose contents are cleared before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that this essay reflects the Pope’s own thinking. That is frightening.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Flavian - Jul. 17, 2017 3:46 PM ET USA

    Father Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa write as if they are experts on the Evangelical-Catholic scene in the United States. Incredibly, they do not mention the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby, or C.I. Scofield. Nor do they mention the tremendous role Darby and Scofield played in propagating premillenial dispensation theology and pre-tribulation rapture theology.

  • Posted by: stellamaris - Jul. 17, 2017 11:32 AM ET USA

    Their rhetoric of history as a power struggle is Marxist. Their tactics are communist. But, unbeknownst to them, there is no power struggle--God wins

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jul. 15, 2017 4:28 PM ET USA

    Someone somewhere sometime might write an article based on facts and experience with the American political culture and the current reality of the Catholic Church in the United States, but this is not it. Any arguments or conclusions based on this article's alarming level of ignorance are utterly null and void.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 15, 2017 1:58 PM ET USA

    Both Pius X & Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have warned against modernism and I'm on their side. Don't those folks understand what the conservatives have been dealing with since Vatican II which was hijacked in some ways by the Liberals .

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 14, 2017 8:32 PM ET USA

    I think the article is a typical liberal smear campaign. When a liberal cannot win an argument using the facts and truth they resort to name calling and character attacks. This article simply points out that the Pope and his advisors are liberals. Pray for the Church.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jul. 14, 2017 4:52 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis is subtly but surely undermining Pope John Paul II and his minions are not so subtly but just surely undermining President Regan. Thus, the two key figures in one of history's golden moments are to be buried by this papal administration. History will haunt them... big time.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 14, 2017 4:02 PM ET USA

    I don't think this was a random "ignorant, intemperate Vatican assault on American conservatism." It looks to me a good old-fashioned "wagging of the dog" after the homosexual orgy scandal in the heart of the Vatican. Including Voris in their criticism actually, and ironically, gives it away. The Good Lord has a sense of humor giving the world Pope Francis and President Trump.

  • Posted by: danflaherty210701793 - Jul. 14, 2017 12:10 PM ET USA

    The Civilta article was unfortunate, because it initially raised a valid question--has Catholic culture in America been overly influenced by right-wing Protestantism? But the article descends into what Phil rightly calls "intemperance." It examines none of the root causes of the Catholic-Evangelical alliance (the secular leftist assault on cultural norms) and the jabs at Church Militant were dumb--ironically the equivalent of Trump picking a Twitter fight with someone he should be above.

  • Posted by: randal.agostini8563 - Jul. 14, 2017 7:13 AM ET USA

    This is disappointing if it begins to alienate Christians in America at a time when we should be acting with one voice to fight against anti religion movements. All people suffer from the sin of "self," but America still brings more people to recognize that there is a God.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Jul. 13, 2017 11:20 PM ET USA

    So I guess we can expect the Pope to be appointing personnel from the National Catholic Reporter and CNN to edit Civilta Catholica and the Obervatore Romano.

  • Posted by: padrebill - Jul. 13, 2017 11:17 PM ET USA

    Phil, thank you for so rightly summarizing the article. It is not only "conservative" Catholics they paint badly but your everyday-struggling-to-be-a-saint and do-some-good-in the-world types. You know: Vatican II types. This is so outrageous I don't even know what to say anymore. And, to tell the truth, in the context of so much in the upper levels of the Church these days it is scary. Lord, have mercy!

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Jul. 13, 2017 11:07 PM ET USA

    "The essay is written from the perspective of people who draw their information about America from left-wing journals rather than from practical experience."--That pretty much sums it up. I doubt these authors have even spent time in the United States, much less the "deep South" that they rant against. I think Shrink has a good point, too: Michael Voris's remarks have apparently gotten a little too close to home for Spadaro. At any rate, great article, Phil.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 13, 2017 9:55 PM ET USA

    "It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that this essay reflects the Pope’s own thinking. That is frightening." Frightening though it may be, it is what we have come to expect from this pontificate. Day by day it becomes more difficult to take Francis seriously. Some want him to just go away. But it seems he will be around for how many more years? 10? 20? 30? To tolerate the former U.S. president was tantamount to tolerating a proximate threat to one's existence. Here to the faith of many.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 13, 2017 7:34 PM ET USA

    This is the reality that we face. It is not uncharitable to use words like intemperate and frightening. Neither is it untruthful. What's been happening for 50 years? Are these isolated tactical losses? Is secularism to blame? Is the assault an external one? Why is the Church in 2017 the Church in 2017? We can celebrate the Magisterium and Infallibility all we want. But at the end of the day, what Catholics who care are saying more loudly with each passing day is "Say it isn't so."

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jul. 13, 2017 6:39 PM ET USA

    The attacks are ignorant, but they are consistent. Pray daily and fervently for divine intervention, because that is the only thing that can save us now. Christ said that the Church would prevail, and we have survived all attempts by bad popes and evil clergy to destroy her in the past, but how many souls will be lost before the correction is made--and how terrible will be that correction for those living to endure it??