Over a decade ago, I was one of the co-founders of a small Catholic blog called Vox Nova. The goal of the blog was precisely that—to be a “new voice” for authentic and consistent Catholic social teaching. Most of us on that blog hewed to traditional teaching on social justice and were identified with the Catholic left. But we also tried hard to be consistent—we didn’t disdain Humanae Vitae, ignore abortion, call for women priests, or denigrate Church teachings on sexuality. In doing so, we sought to challenge the presumptions of those who monopolized the mantel of “faithful, orthodox Catholicism.” We were attacked relentlessly for exposing their inconsistency. But in an ocean of right-wing Catholic opinion, Vox Nova was easily drowned out, in the end making only the tiniest of ripples.
The same cannot be said of the forceful essay in La Civiltà Cattolica by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Marcelo Figueroa, which shone a light on the pathologies of a certain brand of American Catholicism. And the extent and vitriol of the pushback from the highest echelons of American right-wing Catholicism only shows that Spadaro and Figueroa have hit a nerve.
Many have criticized this essay for being too sweeping in its generalizations. But this misses the point. It was not intended as a scholarly discourse. The point is that the basic thesis is certainly correct—that a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of right-wing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism. (Commonweal’s editors commented on it here, and contributing editor Massimo Faggioli wrote on it here.) This world is a Calvinist world, manifesting politically in the twin ideas that the United States is God’s chosen country with a unique destiny in the world’s history, which gives rise to a dualistic outlook, and that God bestows material rewards on his favored, which leads to a full-throttled embrace of capitalism. This latter pathology comes in different levels, of course, the nadir being the appalling “prosperity gospel.”
All of this gives rise to a highly distorted vision of Christianity in the public square. It exalts a libertarian ethos predicated on the belief that free market outcomes are just and virtuous, and that people who lose out have only themselves to blame. It exalts individualism and personal responsibility over solidarity and communal obligation. And it bestows quasi-canonical status on the U.S. constitutional order. In doing this, it fails to appreciate that its (Lockean) understanding of freedom differs from the Christian understanding of freedom. It fails to appreciate that the American approach to rights is rooted more in liberal individualism than in the Catholic conception of rights twinned with duties—encompassing rights to the preconditions of human flourishing, such as a living wage, housing, medical care, education, and necessary social services (as enunciated, for example, in Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris). The best that can be said is that the U.S. constitutional order is not incompatible with Catholicism. But the same can be said of the constitutions of most countries.
At the same time, this distorted vision embraces American exceptionalism over Christian notions of “infinite relationality” (to use a term associated with Metropolitan John Zizioulas of the Orthodox Church). It glorifies the military, insists on a maximum military budget, and defends U.S. military adventurism across the globe. It is comfortable with the death penalty and even torture. It denies the existence of climate change, which is partly a reflection of libertarianism, partly a reflection of American exceptionalism, and partly a reflection of the corrupting influence of financial interests.