Donald Trump shows his signed Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty in May 2017 / CNS photo

Having enjoyed the ear and favor of popes for much of the past forty years, conservative American Catholics are taken aback when criticized by the current pope or his acolytes. They should learn to roll with the punches, no matter how below the belt. That’s what many of their more liberal coreligionists did during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, and it was a useful exercise in both faithful dissent and spiritual tenacity.  

High on the list of such annoyances at the moment is the article “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism,” published in the Rome-based Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica. The article was written by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor of that magazine, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian theologian from Argentina, appointed by Pope Francis to edit the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Both men are close to Pope Francis, and articles in La Civiltà Cattolica are often a reliable reflection of this Jesuit pope’s views.

Pope Francis has expressed skepticism about the way the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has entangled itself in the culture wars, siding with the Republican Party when it comes to such issues as the legal status of abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage, but also joining in opposition to the Affordable Care Act because of its contraception mandate. Presumably the pope is aware of the many studies showing that the rejection of institutional religion in the United States by younger people can be linked to the politicization of religion by conservative Protestants and Catholics. A third of those under thirty describe themselves as “Nones,” refusing to be affiliated with any religion.

Spadaro and Figueroa’s legitimate argument is undone by erroneous claims made in an almost impenetrable style

Unfortunately, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA” takes this important issue and runs all over the place with it. It expresses legitimate concerns about the exploitation of religion in partisan politics, warning against the temptation to see the United States or any particular president as the agent of God’s plan. It chastises American politicians for inflaming xenophobia and Islamophobia. Perhaps most important, it reminds us that the church serves society as a whole, not just its own institutional ends. The article also clearly reflects the alarm with which much of the rest of the world sees a certain kind of American arrogance and self-righteousness. The authors view the belligerence and incoherence of the Trump presidency with disdain, and implicitly lament the sort of superpower hubris that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the calamitous destabilization of the region that followed, and the subsequent flood of refugees into Europe.

But it is not just what you argue that matters; how you argue is equally important. On that score, Spadaro and Figueroa’s article is a mishmash of wild and erroneous claims, made in a disjointed, almost impenetrable style. They seem woefully ignorant of American religious history, conflating “Fundamentalism” with “Evangelicalism,” and lumping together a host of contentious and varied conservative Catholics under the alien category “integralists.” They seem to be unaware, for example, of the heated disagreements between, on the one side, neoconservative Catholics associated with the journal First Things, who vigorously embraced the Second Vatican Council, and, on the other, traditionalists who more or less rejected it. They also seem to think that bizarre, self-parodying Catholic outliers such as the website Church Militant are representative of Catholic conservatives more generally. The political alliance between conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelicals is lazily labeled an “ecumenism of hate,” ignoring what has often been a quite sophisticated theological collaboration. In the effort to disentangle the knot of religion and politics, the authors go so far as to suggest that it is not the pope’s role to say “who is right or wrong” when it comes to political conflict. But that is hardly a moral modesty the world can afford.

“Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA” is a lost opportunity, for the partisan use of religion bears a good deal of responsibility for bringing this nation to its current cultural and political impasse. A majority of Evangelicals and white Catholics voted for Donald Trump, many claiming that his promise to nominate opponents of Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court justified supporting someone manifestly unfit to be president, and who now threatens to put constitutional democracy at risk out of ignorance, insecurity, and spite. But the hope of seeing Roe overturned is no excuse for voting for such a man, let alone for turning politics into a zero-sum game where each side sees little more than the devil in the other. “The religious element should not be confused with the political one,” write Spadaro and Figueroa. Amen to that. Too bad they didn’t say it in a way that might engage and give pause to those who do not yet have ears to hear.

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