The Rome-based Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica is one of the most important sources for understanding the relationship between the Jesuits, the papacy, and the Catholic Church on one side, and the secular, modern world on the other. Since its founding in 1850, its articles have signaled particular positions or shifts on important issues, including religious liberty, Communism, and racism and antisemitism between World War I and World War II. The most recent example is the piece from editor-in-chief Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian theologian from Argentina who since June 2016 has been editor of the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. In a remarkably direct and strongly worded criticism, they argue that efforts to build links between conservative American Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have been more politically than religiously motivated, and have had an impact on the political culture of conservative Catholics in the United States.
The article, though co-authored by the editor, who has also been among the closest allies of Pope Francis since the beginning of his papacy, does not represent the official position of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuits, or the Vatican. There is the tendency sometimes to view in all things Vatican an ideological and intellectual unity that does not exist and never really has. La Civiltà Cattolica is vetted by the Vatican before publication. But relations between the Vatican and the magazine (based in Villa Malta, behind the Spanish steps) has always been complicated (for example, during the pontificate of John Paul II)–no less complicated than relations between the papacy and the Jesuits. It is not only a matter of power relations among the pope, the journal, and the Jesuits. It is also a matter of relations among the Jesuits themselves—within La Civiltà Cattolica and within the Society of Jesus, in Italy and globally.
The article is a must-read, and it is likely to be remembered for several reasons. The first has to do with the role of La Civiltà Cattolica in the pontificate of Francis. What the magazine does is far more important to understanding this pope than what the curia does, especially the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments of prefect Cardinal Robert Sarah and the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith—at least up to the departure of Cardinal Mueller and the arrival of Archbishop Ladaria. It’s not just the articles that the magazine runs, but also all the books originating from the Villa Malta Jesuits and the numerous events they sponsor and host. Earlier this year, the magazine launched French, English, Spanish, and Korean editions.
But such active engagement isn’t new; indeed, it goes back almost sixty years, to the editorship of Fr. Roberto Tucci, like Spadaro an Italian Jesuit familiar with the English-speaking world. During the pontificate of John XXIII, Tucci positioned La Civiltà Cattolica to support his theological message as well as Vatican II, which faced significant opposition both within the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. The shift of La Civiltà Cattolica under Tucci was just the prelude to the shift in the overall theological orientation of the Society of Jesus that came at the end of Vatican II, thanks to its new general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe. In the context of the so-called globalization of Catholicism, La Civiltà Cattolica is not the megaphone of the Vatican. But there has been a meeting of the minds with Francis, and the magazine is reflecting the views of a pontiff who chose from the beginning not to have his own, ideologically aligned Roman Curia in the way John Paul II or Benedict XVI did.