An ignorant, intemperate Vatican assault on American conservatism

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles | 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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