From Pius XI & Mussolini to Francis & Trump

The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is over. Pope Francis closed the Holy Door in Rome on Sunday, November 20, on the solemnity of Christ King of the Universe, which concluded the liturgical year. The solemnity was instituted by Pope Pius XI with the encyclical Quas Primas, published in the jubilee year of 1925. The encyclical came as fascism was on the rise in Italy, following the “march on Rome” in 1922 and in the midst of its strengthening and violent grip on all aspects of Italian life in 1924 and 1925. In Quas Primas, Pius XI spoke against secularism and anti-clericalism, declaring that real sovereignty over earthly affairs does not belong to humans but to Christ: “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” This view of the kingship of Christ expanded the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the pope in political affairs. But the Concordat signed between the Vatican and Mussolini in 1929 was effectively a blessing of the fascist regime. The delusional plan to tame Mussolini did not help European Catholics avoid moral collapse into the nationalism that led to World War II.

Pope Francis often evokes the image of Christ the King; it stems from his religious upbringing in the 1930s and ’40s. But as an Italian scholar noted recently, he uses the image in the framework of a different ecclesiology of the Church in the modern world, which is not at all liberal in the sense of “distinction” tending to “separation.” Francis has reformulated the ideas of Christ’s kingship and of the Church’s role in the world, retaining the idea of “devotion” but stripping from the image of kingship the anti-democratic component common in pre-World War II and pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Moreover, Francis expresses and embodies a much larger cultural and geographical space, one that does not communicate a theology of the nations or of a particular nation; the global Church he embodies saves his idea of Christ’s kingship from becoming subservient and subjugated to a nationalistic, fascistic, and antidemocratic political culture. In the just-published apostolic letter for the end of the jubilee, Misericordia et misera, Francis decided to schedule the new “World Day of the Poor” the Sunday before the solemnity of Christ the King, thus trying to re-signify for our times a liturgical solemnity that in 1925 was created with a clearly political intent.

We’ll see whether and how Francis’s ecclesiology and social-political message help American Catholics cope with the election of Donald Trump. The contrast between what Francis and Trump stand for is key to understanding Francis’s appeal in the dangerous world of today. But it is not just a choice between Trump’s view and Francis’s view on this or that issue. There is also a challenge to Catholic universalism—or better, to the conviction that Catholic universalism is an ecclesiological way to define the catholicity of our one world, its unity and solidarity. The challenge is ultimately ecclesiological: a nationalistic/identitarian configuration of Christianity versus an ecumenical-universal one. Though American Catholicism won’t go through what the Russian Orthodox Church has during the Putin regime, it’s worth evaluating that situation and its implications in the current context. I believe that in the Trump era there could be genuine shifts in the American Catholic Church.

First is the potential impact on the “Roman” element of Catholicism in the United States, given the tensions in the respective worldviews of Francis and Trump. One of the finest books about Catholicism and fascism is Peter D’Agostino’s Rome in America, which describes how fascism in Italy related to the “Romanism” of American Catholics. Will those American Catholics who resist Trump grow closer to Rome, to Francis, and to what the Vatican now stands for? Were this to happen, it would be an ironic turn, given the long and still fairly recent history of accusations against the Vatican of plotting to destroy American democracy.

The second potential shift could be in the role of the ecclesiastical institution, which in the western world of democracies imperiled by populisms is actually one of the last institutions standing, given the shrinking significance of political parties, labor unions, and other institutions that made possible the inclusion of the popular masses in the democratic process. This is another ironic turn of history, given that the Catholic Church fought against the secular legitimacy of the nation-state until the early- to mid-20th century. Will the crisis of democratic institutions rally Catholics around a church (like the Catholic Church) that, though not democratic in the way it functions, nevertheless remains one of the last defenders of democracy and the idea of politics as a noble vocation? In other words, could Trump’s challenge to civility rejoin Catholic identities that have conflicted for decades over bio-political issues and “non-negotiable values”?

Perhaps an American Catholic resistance to Trump could do what the institutional church has not been able to do: bring about a greater unity. I do not think that American Catholics will completely redefine their identities or realign in order to build a united front against Trump. But I would be surprised if Trump’s presidency were to leave American Catholicism unchanged. A significant part of the Church has been wounded by this election. Necessary and urgent as it is, appointing more bishops of Latino descent or standing up for Latino Catholics will not be all that American Catholics have to do. It is not only a matter of saving American democracy, but also of saving American Catholicism from the illusion of the possibility of a Catholic reconciliation to Trump on the basis of a pragmatic, policy-driven approach. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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