MASSIMO FAGGIOLI. Are US Catholics too American to stand up to Trump?

It also reveals a much more complex issue – the deep-seated fear of the state within American Catholicism and of the gap between US Catholicism and the global Catholic Church’s view on the state and of political authority. This creates a complicated situation for the Catholic Church in the United States and its role to be one of the voices that questions the trajectories of the nation under Donald Trump. 

There is an expectation that an important part of the resistance to US President Donald Trump will come from the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis is doing his part in the midst of an international situation full of unknowns. But the role of American Catholics is more complicated.

That is not only because the Church in the country is greatly polarized, but also because the Trump administration is casting a light on how complex the relationship is between being American and being a Catholic in the United States.

Already in itself, there is a clear rift within the new administration. The first two months of Mr. Trump’s presidency have offered contradictory signals about the political philosophy of this administration. There is a populist, deficit spending and big government message that got Trump elected.

And then there is a balance-the-budget-at-all-costs, small-government and socially ruthless message, evident in the plans to repeal and change the health care system created by the Obama administration.

But there is a common thread linking these two souls of the Trump-GOP administration, and it was made clear by the appearance of the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, at the Conservative Political Action Conference convention a few weeks ago.

Bannon identified “the deconstruction of the administrative state” as one of the main goals of the Trump administration. There are experts on American conservative culture who can explore what Bannon really meant by this.

But his language reminded me of the radical criticism of the liberally construed nation-state by Alasdair MacIntyre, William Cavanaugh, Stanley Hauerwas and other thinkers who influenced the social and political culture of American Catholicism during these last couple of decades.

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money,” McIntyre said in 1995.

“And on the other [hand] as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company,” he declared.

Let me be clear. I am not equating Bannon and Trump with important thinkers like MacIntyre, Cavanaugh, and Hauerwas.

On economic nationalism and sovereignty, for example, there is simply no overlap. In fact, it’s intriguing how an American Catholic like Steve Bannon can so deeply detest an originally Catholic project like the European Union.

This is not just Bannon’s problem or a condition of conservative American Catholics. It is a genuine intellectual issue that concerns the relationship such Catholics have with their country when it comes to notions about the doctrine of the state.

For instance, there is a strain of radical criticism of the idea of the nation-state. This is more American Catholic than Roman Catholic. The magisterium of the Catholic Church may not specifically endorse the liberal nation-state, but it does not condemn it either.

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) official Church teaching has actually expressed clear acceptance of the nation-state as the fundamental (at least for the time being) structure for the development of a political dimension of human life directed towards the promotion of the common good.

The conciliar declaration on religious liberty Dignitatis humanae (nos. 8,11) and the constitution on the Church in the world Gaudium et spes (nos. 65, 70–71, 73–75, 78) speak of a “legitimate public authority”; that is, the state. But they also emphasize the value of the individual and of social groups.

In the aftermath World War II and in the middle of the process of decolonization, the nation-state was at the center of the political view of the Church fathers, and there it has remained. Though aware of the current crisis of the nation-state, the Church also understands that there is not yet a viable substitute.

Pope Francis has not proposed getting rid of the nation-state, but has instead suggested a renewed version of 20th-century Catholic internationalism where the Holy See and the local Churches play an active role in bringing about peace and reconciliation. The pope made this clear in his speech to the diplomatic corps last January.

This is but one facet of the “transatlantic God gap” between Europe and the United States, the major difference being that Catholics on the Old Continent tend to be less afraid of the state.

Consider the rebuilding of European nation-states after World War II. Catholics played a crucial role in this effort, especially in Germany, France, and Italy. Catholic thought was foundational guiding the implementation of new governing philosophies, pointing out the threats of both communism and an unbridled free-market economy.

This tells us something about the Catholic foundations of what would become the European Union, as well as about the sense of “ownership” European Catholics had for their new nation-states and constitutions. And it helps explains the difference between American Catholicism and European Catholicism in terms of how the nation-state is regarded.

Consider, for example, the Italian constitution. On issues such as internationalism, war and peace, workers’ unions, and especially private property, it is much closer to post-World War II Catholic social teaching than it is to the American Constitution.

Article 42 of the Italian Constitution talks about private property only and always in terms of its compatibility with the “social function” of property.

American Catholics don’t have the same sense of ownership of their constitution, or of the United States. The American Constitution has many fathers, but Catholicism was not there at the moment of its conception.

American Catholics did not contribute to the constitution in the same way or to the extent that German, French or Italian Catholics did in the creation of their post-war constitutions.

Of course, the US Constitution helped Catholic immigrants become full citizens, but there is no American Catholic father (or mother) of constitutionalism like those who helped give birth to European constitutionalism in the 1940s and ’50s.

The Catholic Supreme Court justices of the last few decades don’t count. They became part of the history of the interpretation of the Constitution much later than the foundational moment for the United States.

This is relevant not only in order to understand the fascination some Catholics have for the “deconstructionist project” Trump and Bannon want to implement, but it also helps understand the gap that divides Catholics in America from those in other parts of the world concerning views on several fundamental issues.

For example, the blindness of the US bishops to the full meaning of “religious liberty” – which apparently they can frame only in terms of “freedom of the Church” https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/bishops-statement-religious-liberty-misses-mark – is not just indicative of the political culture of men appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

It also reveals a much more complex issue – the deep-seated fear of the state within American Catholicism and of the gap between US Catholicism and the global Catholic Church’s view on the state and of political authority.

This creates a complicated situation for the Catholic Church in the United States and its role to be one of the voices that questions the trajectories of the nation under Donald Trump.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Rising Laity.  Ecclesial Movements Since Vatican II (Paulist Press. 2016).  This article first appeared in La Croix International on March 20, 2017.

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2 Responses to MASSIMO FAGGIOLI. Are US Catholics too American to stand up to Trump?

  1. Joan Seymour says:

    Great article, and very necessary. Thank you for publishing it.

  2. One other observation I would make having been a priest and student in America is that the average Catholic was remarkably ill informed about his/her church. Their practice was more pious than informed and their attitude more gullible than other Catholics I have known here in Australia or other places. I well remember a Jesuit at Boston College enthusiastically telling me about apparitions of Our Lady of the Flagpole in Upper State New York in 1973. His devotion outweighed all common sense and defied logic.
    As in Australia most American Catholics I met were conducting their lives on the teachings received at school, whenever that ended. The other factor I found quite shocking was the rank materialism of the Jesuits at Boston College and the neighbouring church where students were unable to afford to get married because of the size of the stipend required.
    How anyone can seriously expect the remnant clergy and hierarchy to reform the Catholic church is beyond me.

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