Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
It’s been a couple of weeks since La Civiltà Cattolica published “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism”, basically attacking American religious conservatives for practicing an “ecumenism of hate.” It drew immediate criticism from many on the right, including our own Sam Gregg, Fr. Raymond de Souza, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and the praise of those on the left, such as Sean Michael Winters.
The article is so shoddy in tone and substance that it really should not be taken seriously. It’s as if it were written just to add fuel to an already raging partisan fire in the Catholic Church in the United States. The only reasons it has drawn so much attention are that its authors are known to be close friends of Pope Francis and that La Civiltà Cattolica is essentially vetted by, and therefore unofficially representative of the views of, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
So rather than debate whether American conservatives are caught in “a complicated political and religious web that would make them forget they are at the service of the world” or if the Church Militant website speaks for anyone I know (it doesn’t but I’m sure it has benefited from the increased traffic), I’d like to ask how and why such views exist in the Vatican at all.
I spent five years working at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace during the pontificate of John Paul II. (It has since become part of the newly-formed Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development because justice and peace weren’t difficult enough to achieve!) It was generally known as the Vatican office where lefties could feel like good Catholics. We avoided talking about the Church’s retrograde sexual teachings and focused on trendy issues like the environment and disarmament and how wonderful the United Nations would be if only....
For an American conservative, it was a deeply penitential experience that I hope will merit reduced time in Purgatory. Early on, at a plenary assembly of bishops and others from around the world, I worked up the gall to say that the Church shouldn’t presume that business and profit-making are inherently evil; I could hear the gasps ricocheting around the salmon-colored room. No one wanted to engage or discuss the matter any further, however. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I had to convince my colleagues that it was useless to plead the United States from going to war because the war had already started. And I did my best to explain that supporting the Kyoto Protocol was not evidence of moral virtue, let alone holiness. I would have mentioned that the death penalty may be justified in some cases, but that was a bridge too far even for me.
I knew I was on my own but somehow enjoyed the devious nature of it all. No one expected that a young dark-skinned fellow with an Indian name could actually be an American conservative and agreeable at the same time. If a colleague or, God forbid, one of my superiors agreed with me, they would have to come and tell me privately, sotto voce. Due to the international nature of the issues we dealt with, we often collaborated with the second section, which covered foreign affairs, of the Secretariat of State and the diplomatic corps, where there would also be a secret conservative or two. The few of us knew each other and formed a little club of heretics among the prevailing left-wing Eurocentric political culture of the Roman Curia.
You may be asking yourself: Maybe this is possible under Pope Francis, but how could it be under John Paul II, who knew what communists and socialists were up to in Poland? How could anyone be left-wing and Catholic in those days? The answer I got from colleagues at the Secretariat of State was that the Church’s strict teachings on marriage and family issues aligned it with the right, so in order to avoid being partisan, the Church had to align itself with the left on other issues. In fact, I was once chastised for creating tensions on family issues with the European Union at a UN conference on housing. Fair enough, if one is thinking about the diplomatic need for ideological balance. But it comes across as a hedge rather than anything having to do with the way things actually are. Unfortunately for social-justice Catholics, there is only one form of marriage and the family, while there are many ways of helping the poor, protecting the environment, promoting justice, etc.
It is understandable why the Church does not align itself with a single political party (especially if you happen of a different one), despite that fact that a party may, at certain times, be friendlier to the Church as an institution. For example, the Democratic Party used to be the natural home for many Catholics, so much so that voting Republican may well have been material for confession. Christian Democratic parties in post-WWII Europe were opposed to the Socialist and Communist parties on the left but seem to have lost their reason for being since the end of the Cold War. (Did La Civiltà Cattolica warn its readers about the Manichean theocracy of Andreotti’s Italy?) As much as we would like to keep religion and politics separate, they always find ways of becoming intertwined.
This fact should be obvious to an august publication like La Civiltà Cattolica, which is what makes its recent article so absurd. Are its authors surprised by the existence of Evangelical fundamentalists or Catholic integralists (i.e. true believers) or that they would form alliances when necessary? Religion should have a public, political element to it; otherwise, it would be merely a matter of individual preference, like having a favorite ice cream flavor. Modern politics, with its ideologically-driven parties, is also a matter of public debate of deeply-held beliefs about society. Politics is not simply a matter of holding to certain principles but also of adapting to changing realities and allegiances. If everyone held the same beliefs about God and politics, we wouldn’t have much to live or die for, and the world would be a much less interesting place.
Ultimately, denying religious and political differences is a cowardly retreat from the world, born of a desire to avoid messy and sometime violent conflicts, of which Europe has seen its share. America is both a result of and a reaction to this European way of thinking. On the one hand, many Americans are proud of their European heritage and continue to come here for educational and cultural reasons; on the other, they left their old countries in search of a better life with more opportunities for advancement and growth. Americans are therefore much more willing to express their differences openly and work together in spite of them. This often strikes Europeans as uncivilized if not dangerous to the common good, but it accounts for much of the misunderstanding I’ve witnessed both personally and professionally.
The misunderstanding applies to everything from religion and politics to crime and punishment and economics. Americans embrace pluralism while Europeans first ignore, then placate before becoming alarmed and finally destroy each other over their differences. At least they eat, drink and dress well and leave behind some very impressive works of art. Vive la différence!