Teaching American Catholicism on a Green Card

This immigrant came to America in the summer of 2008. I was granted an H-1B visa—the type often targeted by Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. My Italian passport had several visa stamps from Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Egypt, and Algeria, but at the U.S. Consulate in Florence I was not asked many questions; this was still during the presidency of George W. Bush. I waited a couple of years before applying for my green card; there was no rush, under President Obama. But in the last few days, American friends have urged me to apply for citizenship because of the new administration.

I believe and hope their fear for me is unjustified. But there’s no question that Trump’s rise has sparked greater awareness of my own good fortune and privilege: an academic immigrant from Europe, white, coming to America by professional choice, not as a refugee from a war-ravaged country. Coming to America was not an easy decision, but these last eight years made me American to a degree I could not have imagined in 2008. Yet these last eight weeks, and especially the most recent one, have changed my perception of my role and position in this country.

The beginning of the Trump presidency has also changed my perception of my “new” Church, the Catholic Church in the United States. I spent the final weeks of the transition from Obama to Trump in Italy, reconnecting with my first Church, the Catholic Church in Italy. I also happened to be in Rome on January 20 to speak at a conference. It was a strange feeling; I took it as a sign of divine providence, as if I had to be geographically distant to really see what was happening here. There are a few things that I do not particularly miss about the Italian Church: the often sloppy liturgies and bad homilies, the chronically marginal role of lay and women theologians, the aging Catholic population. My American experience opened my eyes to the many problems of the Italian Church and to some recent ills that I assumed could not affect it: liturgical traditionalism, sectarianism, political-ideological turn of some bishops. This is also part of Italian Catholicism today, part of the picture and in a way different from the Church I grew up in between the 1970s and the 1990s.

Now Trump is changing my perception of the Catholic Church in the U.S., as well as the way I see my vocation as a Catholic theologian.

All this has me reconsidering my Italian, American, and Catholic experience. I was thirty-seven when I came to the U.S. and began the process of spiritually and culturally negotiating between my two Catholicisms: Italian and American. This process enriched both parts, helping me reconsider their respective histories and myths, appreciating the differences in liturgical style and visual imagery, comparing their political cultures and worldviews. As a Catholic theologian I perceive myself a citizen of two worlds and two Churches, and most importantly, I want my family and our children to be citizens of two worlds and Catholics of two Churches. Technology helps makes this easier than it used to be; it’s not really possible to completely separate two worlds anymore. The experience of migration now interacts with citizenship in the virtual world of social media. Once, Catholic migrants recreated their Catholicism in a new way, in their new country; now, thanks to social media, you can keep or recreate in a separate, virtual world your Catholicism of your origins. I wonder how the Italian-Catholic experience in the U.S. between the late 19th- and mid-20th centuries (described masterfully by Robert Orsi in The Madonna of 115th Street) would have differed if immigrants had easy and constant access via Skype or Twitter or Facebook with their parishes and coreligionists in southern Italy.

Migrating is a lot about expectations. In the case of a Catholic migrant committed to his/her Church, it’s also about what you expect from your Church and what your Church expects from you. Part of my attraction to American Catholicism had to do with its contributions to the idea of freedom: the rise of Catholics from second-class status into the nation’s political and religious spheres; the roles of American theology and the notion of “the American experience” in the development of the Catholic idea of religious freedom at Vatican II; the prophetic witness of key figures of 20th-century American Catholicism.

This is changing. Ironically, for some pro-Trump Catholics, “discontinuity” with the past is ontologically bad. But somehow they like Trump and his ruptures. There is something that Trump says about America, but there is also something that Trump says about American Catholicism: not only because many Catholics voted for him, but because of what Catholics did (and did not do) after his election. Until last year, before seeing many Catholics (including bishops) capitulating to the idolatry of Trumpism, I used to say that my Catholicism was my best vaccine against the “Americanism” I did not want to be part of my American experience: social Darwinism, quasi-religious consumerism, fascination with violence. Now I am not so sure that that Catholic vaccine is still effective.

What I’m curious to see as an academic (but terrified to think about as a Catholic) is the extent of the “mutation” within some Catholic quarters in the U.S., a mutation that the rise of Trump has made phenotypically visible. The reaction to the “Francis effect” cannot be separated from a change within U.S. Catholicism that began decades before Francis’s election in 2013. This mutation most recently manifested itself in the decision by a prominent U.S. prelate, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, to publically push—practically troll—the University of Notre Dame to honor President Trump with a speaking engagement, ignoring everything that from a Catholic point of view is objectionable about him. (The university’s president, John Jenkins, has since instead issued a statement condemning Trump’s executive order.) I have studied bishops and bishops’ biographies for twenty years, and I never expected to see something like this in the United States or the American Catholic Church.

This semester I am again teaching a course on American Catholicism. It is a course I love because it has served as a kind of initiation for me into my new Church. But this year I cannot guarantee that it will unfold along the usual trajectory toward a conception of the relationship between Catholics and American freedom—a trajectory (theological, but at this point we should acknowledge also naively teleological) in which American Catholics learned from democracy and helped shape not only American democracy, but also the Catholic teaching on religious liberty and the value of the constitutional order. It was not only the contributions of John Courtney Murray, but also those of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers—and yes, of John F. Kennedy. Now I will have to add other names to this pantheon, in a way that reflects what happened to this Church in the past few years.

The problem is that I had taken for granted the commitment of the vast majority of American Catholics to things like democracy, religious freedom (for Catholics and non-Catholics), and a non-isolationist worldview. Now maybe it’s time to reconsider the parameters of this historical trajectory. We must face the fact that the political culture of American Catholicism is one of the problems of American democracy today. It was reassuring to see, in the last few months, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities pledging their support for students attending their schools who are legally protected by DACA, and, in the last few days, statements from the chairman of the Committee on Migration of the USCCB, from Newark, New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and from Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich. But these statements against an executive order with clear anti-Muslim intent were met with silence from many others in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy—notably those who spent the last several years accusing President Obama of curtailing religious liberty. Today it seems clear there’s a significant segment of American Catholicism—including the bishops’ conference—that does not perceive what’s happening to this country under Trump, or does not perceive what Catholics should say and do, given not only the requirements of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also the particular history of the immigrant Church and the fact that this Church belongs to the universal Church. Surely Pope Francis expects something from American Catholics, and it will be interesting to see how the roles of American Catholicism and of the papacy will change during this administration.

I have no plan or dream to go back to Italy. This is my country and my Church. My monastic training taught me, among other things, the value of stabilitas—spiritual and geographical stability. But in the Catholic Church in the U.S. it has become clear, especially during this past week, who is willing to speak about and to Trump, and who is not. (I’m sure there were many Catholics, and probably some ex-Catholics, at airports over the weekend protesting an executive order many legal experts believe unconstitutional.) The American Catholic Church I’d committed myself to is not the same as the one I learned about in my studies of it. Confronting this reality will be a challenge at once spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, whether I carry a green card or a blue passport.

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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