BRUCE DUNCAN. Curious Vatican article challenges right-wing US Catholics

Jul 21, 2017

Was Pope Francis aware that the Jesuit periodical, La Civita Cattolica was strongly attacking right-wing US Catholics for abandoning Church social teaching by political alliances with very fundamentalist Christian groups?  

A mid-July article in La Civita Cattolica provocatively argued that some right-wing US Catholics have compromised Church social teaching by political alliances with fundamentalist evangelical groups concerned with bioethical issues. The article attacked a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture which depicted the world as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, even looking to a ‘final showdown’ in an Armageddon ushering in a ‘new heaven and new earth’.

The article deplored demonising of opponents and notions of a ‘holy war’, particularly when Islam is equated with ‘Islamic terrorism’. It claimed such fundamentalist views influenced conservatives such as ‘Steve Bannon, currently chief strategist at the White House and supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.’ Bannon is a Catholic and former editor of the right-wing website, Breitbart.

Entitled ‘Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: a surprising ecumenism’, the article would not have attracted such attention except that it appeared in the Vatican newspaper with the authors its editor-in-chief, Antonio Spadaro SJ, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor and editor-in chief of the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Figueroa is a close friend of Pope Francis who chose him for this position, and Spadaro is also well known to the Pope.

Why this article, and why now?

The article lacks the professional scholarship and care of Francis’s own writings, and it seems he had not seen or approved it, especially as he has developed warm relationships with some evangelical groups. Nevertheless, it was approved as usual by the Secretariat of State, and the authors would hardly have published it if they thought it opposed Francis’s thinking. Whatever about that, the article clearly criticised Catholics supporting policies of the Trump Administration that are opposed to views expressed in Church documents like Laudato Si’.

As John L Allen wrote in the Catholic online magazine, Crux, critics have said the article is too sweeping and misreads the history of US Protestants and evangelicals, making a ‘mishmash’ conflating Fundamentalism, the Prosperity Gospel and Dominion Theology,  without noting the strong social justice currents among evangelical movements.

Others warmly welcomed the article. Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter applauded that ‘Finally!’ someone in a semi-official Vatican organ had called out the ‘shocking rhetoric’ of many right-wing Catholic websites, which feed into conservative media like EWTN and National Catholic Register. Fear is whipped up to manipulate people and ‘religion has been distorted for political ends in ways that betray the Gospel’. Winters defended the article as helping heal the Church from this deadly ‘ecumenism of hate’.

The article reflects increasing frustration in sections of the Vatican about the right-wing populism among many US Catholics, half of whom voted for Trump.

Certainly the credibility of the Church has been severely undermined by the sexual abuse crisis, and Pope Francis urgently needs to address this more viorously. But the wider global issues also demand attention, since the fate of millions of people demands purposeful action.

Great global issues

The Cold War is over, but wars continue to rage, and the nuclear threat has not dissipated. The powers of nation states have diminished in the face of the forces of globalisation; yet growing inequality is threatening the stability of even mature democracies, and unprecedented migration and refugee flows fuel xenophobia and tightening of borders. Overshadowing all these issues is the threat from climate change.

As Massimo Faggioli argued recently in Catholicism and Citizenship, rapid globalisation is breaking down cultures and identities. The Church is now truly global, and believes itself called to be ‘prophetic’ in the cause of human wellbeing, though this involves political risk and blowback against the Church.

Despite some critics declaring him a Marxist or socialist, Francis repeatedly rejects extreme free-market versions of economics that favour rich elites. He is buying into a fight against extremely powerful economic and political interests, but he believes that we cannot tolerate such extraordinary inequality, poverty and marginalisation of whole populations. He is trying to mobilise public opinion behind economists, scientists and politicians working for social reform, and to add his voice to global movements for greater equity and social justice.

His punchy one-liners, like ‘This economy kills’, may seem gross overstatements, and he has been accused of hyperbole, but it all depends where you stand. He lived through the devastating financial collapse in Argentina from 2001, and witnessed the even more appalling Global Financial Crisis from 2007, from which many countries have still not recovered. Visit the slums and shanty towns of any major third world city and you can see how the failure in economies can indeed result in needless deaths.

Impact of libertarian ideas

For Francis, the problem of inequality stems from an exaggerated role for the free market without appropriate regulation or adequate sense of social responsibility. In a recent message to Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Francis rejected the libertarian individualism which minimises the notion of the common good and exalts individual autonomy resulting in ‘exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority’.

The editor of the libertarian magazine Reason hit back that Francis was ‘ill-informed’ and shallow in his comments. She wrote that not all libertarians were devotees of Ayn Rand, and reminded readers that popes did not claim to be infallible when talking on social issues.

Nevertheless Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve for two decades, was a fan of Ayn Rand, as was the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, in 2009 sold over half a million copies, and continued to sell astonishing numbers of copies in following years. Such libertarian ideas appear still very influential.

The article in Civilta Cattolica was clumsy and written without intimate knowledge of the US Church and politics. But it highlights the influence of right-wing political ideologies on many Catholics, and the need for US Catholics in collaboration with others to promote social justice concerns more convincingly through the democratic processes.

Bruce Duncan lectures in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union within Melbourne’s University of Divinity.

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