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.)