Our real pandemic is the loss of Christian identity
Antonio Spadaro SJ is quite the card. At the very beginning of 2017, he tweeted: “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people….” Then a month later, it was Spadaro who raised questions about St. John Paul II’s definitive restriction of ordination to males, where the Jesuit clearly believed that 2 + 2 should not equal 4. Last September it was Spadaro again who tweeted that journalists can no longer “keep quiet about the fact that there is a campaign of disinformation against Pope Francis which links American and Russian interests.”
And now, the influential editor of the quasi-official Vatican Jesuit Journal La Civiltà Cattolica is back to compare the widespread fear of the coronavirus to the widespread fears that leads—wait for it—to nationalism. In this new article, Spadaro cobbles together a mishmash of strained analogies to argue that, just as we draw back from potential contact with those who carry a virus, widespread European insecurities are leading to that most dangerous of all diseases—a renewed focus on national identity. Therefore we must deploy all our Catholic antibodies against this pandemic menace.
Spadaro was born in 1966, which means that, other than the East-West tensions during the Cold War, which were not really nationalistic, he has personally witnessed nothing of national identity except its rapid erosion following World War II. Yet Spadaro represents a line of thought common among a certain kind of clergy in today’s Church. It is the line of thought which harps continually on one isolated idea. I mean the idea that the great danger to Life As We Know It is the rise of non-inclusive attitudes in families, neighborhoods, churches, and—where it is easiest to denounce based on historical referents—nations. But is that really the great danger today?
In exploring this question, I find it highly suspicious that Spadaro and his fellow-travelers never seem to spare any concern for self-evidently far greater and more widespread dangers like sexual license, divorce, the breakdown of the family, the redefinition of gender, the loss of reverence for both God and human life, the implosion of all sense of community (which requires a shared view of reality), and the universal condemnation of all moral judgment beyond the privileged platitudes of our dominant secular culture. We are in the midst of one of the greatest epidemics of amorality and loss of meaning the world has ever seen, and all the editor of La Civilta Cattolica can find to warn us against is a resurgent interest in national identity—set against the constant insistence on welcoming everyone, both inside and outside of our respective commonwealths, no matter what their background, their purposes, their goals, and their values.
Now, I freely grant that even some Catholics have unchristian attitudes toward immigrants, and that some among us also cling too tightly to our own economic well-being and sense of privilege (have I mentioned our need for donations lately?). Obviously, such concerns must not be struck from the manual for either the Beatitudes or the day of Judgment. But when the never-ending gospel of our alleged spiritual leaders is either complicit in, or culpably blind toward, the incessant modern smashing of all positive identity—ethnic, national, cultural, religious and moral—then the very first question that must be asked is depressingly obvious: Really?
To answer the question
To ask the question, of course, is to answer it. But to explore the answer a little beyond a single interrogative word, I will undertake to make three specific points. The discerning reader will realize immediately that these three points indicate a set of priorities that expressly contradict the priorities of the kinds of Catholic leaders for whom I have selected Fr. Spadaro as an example. Moreover, by a happy “coincidence”, these will be the same three points St. Paul makes in nearly every one of the letters he sent to the various Catholic communities throughout the Church:
- The priority of sound doctrine: “I appeal to you, brethren,” wrote St. Paul to the Romans, “to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught” (Rom 16:17). And to the Ephesians he insisted that the gifts of Christ are “that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints…so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Eph 4:11-14).
To the bishop Timothy, Paul wrote that he must charge “certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim 1:30), while to the bishop Titus, he insisted that “a bishop…must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instructions in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it” (Tit 1:7-9), and “as for you, teach what befits sound doctrine” (Tit 2:1).
Yet so often the kind of cleric and/or theologian I have in mind here is constantly casting doubt on the teachings of Christ in the hope of pleasing the surrounding secular culture.
- The necessity of sound morals: Again writing to Timothy, Paul insisted “that the law is not laid down for the just but for…the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers…, immoral persons, sodomites…, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim:9-11).
And he reminded the Corinthians: “I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality [the word in Paul’s letters always refers specifically to sexual immorality] or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:11). And again: “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18). Once more: “I fear that when I come again…I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned before and have not repented of the impurity, immorality, and licentiousness which they have practiced” (2 Cor 12:21).
Paul lists behavior to be cultivated and avoided in many of his letters, all with the same emphasis. Yet, again, those I have in mind in this argument are constantly devaluing the purity Christ preached, and seeking to win approval for the opposite.
- The need to focus first on the members of the Church: After Paul insisted, as quoted above, that he had written to the Corinthians not to associate with those guilty of immorality, he made a further point about Christian community: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’” (1 Cor 5:12-13). His point here is that the first priority of Christians is to secure the Christian way of life in their own communities. It is not really the Christian’s business to judge and condemn those who have not received the Gospel.
This final point is telling for two reasons. First, the importance of the purity of the Christian community: Catholic communities are not to tolerate within themselves manifest chronic unrepentant rejections of the Gospel, or the faith and manner of life it entails. The leaders of Catholic communities are to be zealous in rooting this out, not zealous for including it while denying the justice of the serious concerns of the faithful about it.
Second, the priority of the Catholic community: It is not the Christian’s task to judge those outside the community, who do not have the benefit of the gospel at all, or at least not in its fullness. It is the Christian’s task to evangelize and draw into the Church those who will receive the gospel with joy and make the commitment to the renewed life of moral purity and spiritual growth which the Gospel demands. This is extraordinarily difficult when the Christian community has no clear spiritual character, no clear identity. In other words, it is not the priority of Catholic leaders constantly to attempt to influence the surrounding secular community by speaking directly to it about policies and programs, or by tailoring the Christian message so that it is tolerated because it does not contrast strongly with dominant cultural values. Nor is it their task to condition faith and morals within the Church so that the faithful can live comfortably with the false morality that surrounds them, or so that the Church can somehow remain a “player” in the larger world.
So when Antonio Spadaro SJ strains logic and credulity to turn the coronavirus into a lesson in inclusivity, in yet another elite denunciation of those who seek a stronger sense of identity, I say in reply that Antonio Spadaro SJ neither understands Christ, nor the Church, nor the Catholic community, nor the world to which Christians are called to be light and salt. Sure, he may have a minor and very fashionable point on his side here or there, and it is true that not everyone who wants a stronger sense of community wants it in a perfect way. But Spadaro does not grasp that many of those, whom he so slyly chides for all their “fears”, actually understand far better than he what it means to find their identity in the the Body of Christ.
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Posted by: deblynn7331 -
Mar. 05, 2020 12:36 PM ET USA
So true. This so clearly expresses the thoughts of many faithful who endure (for their love of God through faith in His Son and our Lord Jesus) "types" of Spadaro's who lead even in their own diocese and parish churches. May God grant each of us this very needed gift of clear and confident spiritual discernment and keep us safe during this time of great trial.
Posted by: mclom -
Mar. 04, 2020 10:59 AM ET USA
Really enjoyed reading my thoughts being expressed far more articulately than I could! Thank you.
Posted by: Catholic in Seattle -
Mar. 03, 2020 8:51 PM ET USA
Amen! Your comments are spot on!