Antonio Spadaro, SJ, is the editor of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which under this pontificate has come to be seen as perhaps the main mouthpiece for the pope’s views. In the current issue, he co-authored a nasty piece on American politics, denouncing collaboration between “Catholic integralists” — his term for conservative Catholics, apparently — and “fundamentalist” Protestants. I read it yesterday, but the magazine’s website is down as I write this, so I can’t quote from it here. Phil Lawler, though, takes accurate measure of it. Excerpt:
Why this bitter attack on the natural allies of traditional Catholic teachings? Is it because the most influential figures at the Vatican today actually want to move away from those traditional teachings, and form a new alliance with modernity?
The authors of the essay claim to embrace ecumenism, but they have nothing but disdain for the coalition formed by Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States. They scold American conservatives for seeing world events as a struggle of good against evil, yet they clearly convey the impression that they see American conservatism as an evil influence that must be defeated.
While they are quick to pronounce judgment on American politicians, the two authors betray an appalling ignorance of the American scene. The authors toss Presidents Nixon (a Quaker), Reagan, Bush, and Trump into the same religious classification, suggesting that they were all motivated by “fundamentalist” principles. An ordinary American, reading this account, would be surprised to see the authors’ preoccupation with the late Rev. Rousas Rushdoony and the Church Militant web site: hardly major figures in the formation of American public opinion. The essay is written from the perspective of people who draw their information about America from left-wing journals rather than from practical experience.
He’s right. There’s plenty to criticize conservative Catholics and Evangelicals for, but this Civiltà Cattolica essay reads like deaf men criticizing a chamber music performance. They have very little idea what they’re talking about. Many American watchers of the Vatican know that Father Spadaro is very close to Francis, but many others — including me — did not know who Marcelo Figueroa, the co-author, is. Turns out he’s an Argentine Presbyterian and personal friend of Pope Francis hand-picked by the pontiff to launch an Argentine edition of the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
And speaking of official publications, the Spadaro-Figueroa essay appeared in Civilta Cattolica, whose contents are cleared before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that this essay reflects the Pope’s own thinking. That is frightening.
Indeed it is. The essay really is bonkers. Again, there are many smart critical things one could say about conservative politics and the American religious scene, but not one of them is said in this weird piece (which, for example, takes a far-right fringe Catholic website and treats it as if it has actual influence in US politics). Here’s an interview with Spadaro in the Jesuit magazine America, in which he talks about his essay. Excerpts:
The central question is the mutual manipulation between politics and religion, which is a risk that is not exclusive to the United States, it’s a constant risk. Often this fundamentalism is born from the perception of a threat, of a world that is threatened, a world that is collapsing, and so it responds with a religion from a reading of the Bible transformed into an ideological message of fear. It’s a manipulation of anxiety and insecurity. And the church is therefore transformed into a kind of sect, a sect of the pure, the option of the pure, even though numerically small, which then seeks to impose its vision on society, prescinding any form of dialogue. It’s a way of dropping out of what is perceived as a “barbaric” mainstream culture. Some call this “authentic Christianity.” Intolerance thus becomes the mark of purism, while evangelical values like mercy do not form part of this vision—which is very conflictive, belligerent [and] seeks to impose itself in political ways.
Emphasis on “option” in the original. Gee, I wonder what kind of “option” Father Spadaro has in mind? So, I write a book calling on Christians of all kinds to read the signs of the post-Christian times, and return to a more intensive study and practice of traditional Christianity, as a way to hold onto the faith, and to thrive in it, in a post-Christian world — and specifically, to quit focusing on politics at the expense of building up the church … and Father Spadaro bizarrely accuses me and people like me of trying to mastermind political control of society.
Yeah, Father Spadaro, mainstream culture is barbaric. What do you call a culture in which a mainstream magazine for teenage girls offers an illustrated how-to guide to sodomy? But you don’t see this because you wish for the Church to assimilate itself to this kind of thing. To you, “mercy” means capitulation to the world. You find conservative Catholics working with Evangelicals on causes of mutual concern to be an “ecumenism of hate.” Perhaps Catholics would be better off holding friendly meetings with abortion advocates, yes?
It is the way of looking in an almost nostalgic way to theocratic states or, in any case, it is a way that looks at religion to consolidate itself, and it invokes walls and deportations that wound. The fundamental theopolitical plan is to set up a kingdom of the divinity here and now. And that divinity is obviously the projection of the power that has been built.
Like I said, left-wing crackpottery on stilts. He doesn’t know enough about the situation even to criticize it from an informed leftist point of view. It’s like asking Franklin Graham to give an incisive analysis of the Swedish political and religious scene.
It was not our intention to demonize anybody.
Of course not. Ecumenists of hate need mercy too. Who is Fr. Spadaro to judge? (/sarcasm)
By the way, he compares these Catholic and Evangelical ecumenists of hate to Islamic jihadists — even as he condemns them (including, I guess, us Orthodox fellow travelers) as aiding and abetting “Islamophobia”.
Until the Civiltà Cattolica site comes back up, you can read a summary of the Spadaro-Figueroa piece here.
Again, it is perfectly reasonable to assume this article reflects Francis’s thinking. Even Spadaro, in his interview with America, confirms that the Vatican approved its publication:
It is true to say that this article, like other articles of La Civilian Cattolica, was approved by the Vatican?
Yes. La Civiltà Cattolica is a peer-reviewed magazine. Its articles are always read and approved by the Secretariat of State before they are published. The same was true for this article.
We can’t say for sure, though, that the Pope is advised by a man who is dangerously, maliciously ignorant in at least some areas. Insofar as Spadaro is putting down the Benedict Option (and it’s hard to understand his use of the word “option” in this context otherwise), it is clear he doesn’t have the slightest clue what he’s talking about. But I suspect he’s correct to assume that the Benedict Option is a form of faithful resistance to his liberal, assimilationist, modernist view of Catholicism and of Christianity in general. In the Civiltà Cattolica essay, Spadaro and Figueroa write:
There is a well-defined world of ecumenical convergence between sectors that are paradoxically competitors when it comes to confessional belonging. This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values. Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.
However, the most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations. The word “ecumenism” transforms into a paradox, into an “ecumenism of hate.” Intolerance is a celestial mark of purism. Reductionism is the exegetical methodology. Ultra-literalism is its hermeneutical key.
Clearly there is an enormous difference between these concepts and the ecumenism employed by Pope Francis with various Christian bodies and other religious confessions. His is an ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges.
Says a Catholic friend about this passage:
It’s like we live in different dimensions. I think Fr Spadaro has been watching the film “V for Vendetta” too many times.
Thus the Benedict Option. At this point we can’t simply reason or argue with the Zeitgeist.
Yes. The most meaningful division within Western Christianity today is not between churches and confessions, but that which runs within the churches and confessions. Father Spadaro’s “ecumenism of hate” is actually an ecumenism among Christian believers who, whatever their differences, prefer the Holy Spirit to the Zeitgeist. It is very strange that a conservative Evangelical and a conservative Catholic find that they have a lot more in common with each other than either do with liberals within their own churches, but that’s where we are.
When a popular liberal Evangelical can take the side of a militantly anti-Christian gay atheist over her fellow Christians, you know that there are millions of Evangelicals who have far more in common with Archbishop Chaput than with her:
Sounds good. We need each other! So grateful for your work.
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) July 14, 2017
When it comes to sexuality and the Gospel, Rachel Held Evans, Zack Ford, and their Catholic fellow travelers are bound by an ecumenism of hatred of Christian Scripture, holy tradition, and its defenders. I prefer to think of we Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox united to defend the Christian faith and tradition as bound by an ecumenism of love of what we have been given, not an ecumenism of shared spite for our religious patrimony.
Sexuality is not the only issue, of course, but it’s the most salient one, not least because it cuts to the heart of the Christian view of what it means to be human. On economics, for example, my own Christian politics are more conventionally Catholic than Evangelical Protestant, in that they tend to be more liberal on economics, and less nationalistic, than most white conservative Evangelicals. Still, when it comes to doing the Benedict Option, this Orthodox Christian knows who his friends are in other churches. And they know I’m with them too, despite our ecclesial divisions.
I suppose I should be grateful to Father Spadaro for reminding us all of the stakes. It is a great shame that a senior adviser to Pope Francis would characterize an effort to urge Catholics to return to orthodox Catholic teaching and traditional Catholic practices, and to reach out to make friends with Protestants and Orthodox Christians who seek to do the same thing, as an “ecumenism of hate.” But let’s at least appreciate his candor. If it’s good to know who your friends are, it is also good to know the names of those on the other side.
UPDATE: A commenter says that Fr. Spadaro may have been making a pun on the liberation theology slogan “preferential option for the poor.” That makes sense to me. I thought it might be a reference to my book because of his talking about “barbarism,” which is a key concept in TBO, and because last week there appeared a big interview with me in Tempi, an Italian Catholic newsmagazine. But as ever, I could be wrong.
UPDATE: James C. said that Pope Benedict XVI released this statement today marking the death of Cardinal Meisner, his friend and one of the signers of the dubia:
We know that this passionate pastor and shepherd found it particularly difficult to leave his post, especially at a time in which the Church stands in particularly pressing need of convincing shepherds who can resist the dictatorship of the spirit of the age and who live and think the faith with determination. However, what moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon his church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.