Il Tevere è più largo. Students of Italian history are familiar with the metaphoric expression describing the ever-growing distance between the Vatican and Italian politics: “The Tiber has become wider.” The distance between the papacy and the country it once ruled has been recalculated under every pontificate since the kingdom of Italy came into being in 1861. And under Pope Francis, the Tiber is perhaps the widest it’s been, thanks to his papacy’s hands-off attitude towards Italian politics.
But the widening of the Tiber is little compared to the spreading of the world’s oceans. The “Catholic Pangea” itself is breaking up, undergoing a kind of continental drift. The expanding gap between Rome and the world is perhaps best symbolized by the growing distance between Rome and the U.S. Catholic church, itself owing to the uncomfortable relationship between Francis and many American bishops—among other things.
First, there’s a gap in time between American Catholicism and the pontificate of Francis—not just the six- or nine-hour differences in time zones but what seems like a six- or nine-century difference in historical time. Institutional American Catholicism is longing for a relationship to a political power that is more medieval than modern or postmodern, hoping for protection from the persecution it feels in having lost cultural hegemony. This can be seen in the medieval understanding of religious liberty that has obtained since the beginning of the legal fight against certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act eight years ago. It resembles libertas Ecclesiae, the “freedom of the Church” to rule on the faithful as subjects, more than it does the concept of religious liberty laid out in Dignitatis Humanae, which is based on the freedom of conscience of the individual believer. It is an example of the “interrupted reception” of Vatican II in the U.S. Church. Vatican II tried to deal with the end of Tridentinism; its rejection brings us back not to Trent but even earlier, to a medieval Christendom as the past to which Roman Catholics ought to refer as the golden age.
Second, there is a “space gap,” a change in the spatial relations between the most Christian nation in the world and the Rome of the pope. Catholics are not immune to the political-ideological split between nationalism and globalism. It is a rift that will have a deep impact on the political, cultural, and spiritual imagination of Catholics worldwide, because of the difference between Catholicism, with its double local-universal vision, and other religious traditions. During these last seventy years, Catholicism and Americanism have been two different but mostly friendly—at the institutional level at least—forms of universalism. The election of Donald Trump is more a sign of the crisis in the relationship between Catholic universalism and Americanism than the cause. Consider the trajectory of white American evangelicalism: does the “evangelicalization” of U.S. Catholicism signal a more nationalist American Catholicism? (The upcoming meeting between Trump and Francis is taking place against the backdrop of a relationship between American Catholicism and the Vatican that was already changing before the election of the president.)
But beyond the “Christian America vs. secularized Europe” narrative there is a larger reality: both the U.S. and Europe are becoming more marginal, politically and in terms of global Christianity. This is even more true for Italy, and for Rome. Despite all-Francis, all-the-time media coverage of the pope, the role of Rome has changed for Catholics. The connection is now more emotional than intellectual, more spiritual and mystical than theological. What Francis does in Rome, what happens at the Vatican today, has less of an institutional impact on the lives of Catholics worldwide, including (if not especially) American Catholics. This has to do with the papally induced standstill of the Roman Curia. We’re still waiting for reform; it’s become the Godot of Francis’s pontificate. But it also has to do with the fragmentation of theological higher education in Rome. The canon of the “Roman theology” or “curial theology”—in the sense of a theology delivering the message of the pope in office or the theology expressed by the Roman Curia—was much more easily identifiable until just a few years ago. This is no longer true.
On the one hand, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s distance from academic theology and the beginning of the post-Ratzinger Church liberated energies for a long time repressed; Catholic theologians today live in an academic environment that is clearly much more free than before. On the other hand, Catholic theology taught in pontifical universities in Rome is no longer hegemonic. Rome is still an indispensable hub for many kinds of Catholic business (career, fund-raising, media, politics, etc.), but it has lost much of its power to attract, shape, and project Catholic thought worldwide. One reason is the post-Vatican II globalization of theology; Latin America, Africa, and Asia are now themselves sources of new scholarship. Another reason is that militant and strong, identity-shaping Catholic doctrine is taught today not in pontifical universities, but in the new seminaries of Catholic movements like Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, and Neo-Catechumenal Way. If these new universities have to be in some way physically present in Rome, it is not for the same reasons and in the same way the pontifical universities and the colleges of the religious orders have been there for centuries. The most important reason, however, is that the well-endowed centers for theological research are very close to the centers of political and economic power, which have no interest in sponsoring research on the theology of this particular pope (especially Laudato si’). These centers (such as the Acton Institute, as well as some of the business schools in Catholic universities) are more like political think tanks than universities, and they might replace the role of Catholic universities, in Rome and elsewhere. This would not be a step forward.
On all three of these issues, American Catholicism plays an important role, more than any other church worldwide. The magisterial intervention in what Leo XIII called the “Americanist crisis” of 1899—a growing alignment between the theological and political culture of liberal American Catholics and American democracy—strengthened the ultramontanist stream within U.S. Catholicism. Looking at this new Americanism today, it is clear that papal Rome has far less control and influence than it did then, and committed Catholics no longer look to Rome with the same eyes. While this is something many liberal American Catholics wanted and hoped for, especially under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the diminished voice of the pope in local churches also means greater, perhaps more dangerous exposure to the winds of nationalism—both political and theological.