The theological trajectory of conservative US Catholicism is one of the proofs that Trump’s America is not just a parenthesis.
“I am Catholic and anti-Christian”. That’s how Benito Mussolini described his relationship with the Church.
Despite the many differences between Italy under Fascism and Donald Trump’s presidency, Mussolini’s self-definition could apply to Trump as well, given the shameless way the US president has exploited the religion card as an “instrumentum regni”.
This has been on display since 2015 when he began his first presidential campaign. It has intensified over the last few months, partly thanks to the collaboration of US-based conservative Catholic media organizations, which have found this as a way to make a profit out of their personal contempt for Pope Francis.
Like Mussolini, Donald Trump is only nominally Christian and has zero personal credibility as a person of faith. He is also using religion as a propaganda tool just as the Il Duce did.
Trump is inserting himself in the “culture wars” in the name of “life issues” in America just as Mussolini rallied the support of Catholics against communism in post-World War I Italy.
Catholics in Europe learned the lesson the hard way
But there are also very different dynamics of Italian Catholicism in the 1920s and US Catholicism today.
Catholics in Italy and elsewhere in Europe learned from the tragic experience of two world wars how their Church’s credibility was destroyed by their support of authoritarian regimes.
Thus, Catholicism declared an end to the Constantinian Age and turned the page on centuries of political Augustinianism that, during Christendom, provided theological justification for the Church to claim authority over the state and for anti-democratic, authoritarian leaders to use violence as a political tool.
Towards the end of his pontificate, and shortly before his death, Pius XI raised his voice against Mussolini and Hitler. Pius XII opened the doors to the acceptance of democracy already before the end of World War II with his Christmas speech of 1944.
Fast forward to the 21st century.
European Catholicism noted the crisis of the post-1945 world order, especially visible through the crisis of the European project since, at least, 2005. Both the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchies have criticized some aspects of liberal democracy, but without ever embracing illiberal ideologies.
It’s a different situation for Catholicism in Eastern Europe, where the globalization of the American culture wars has found fertile soil.
The present “illiberal moment” and deepening theological rifts
But nowhere like in the United States has the deepening of ideological rifts within Catholicism paralleled and mirrored the rifts between the two political parties.
The present “illiberal moment”, which is ravaging the elites of American Catholicism, shows the very different roots between the political cultures of Catholics across the Atlantic.
During the Cold War, the anticommunism of Europe’s Catholics was part of their learning experience of having dealt with fascism a few years earlier. It brought about a degree of acceptance of liberal, democratic and constitutional values.
This was especially visible at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.
But on the other side of the Atlantic – and despite the fact that Dignitatis Humanae was the conciliar document most influenced by a US theologian, John Courtney Murray SJ – the political culture of Catholic elites did not absorb, at least to the same extent, the acceptance of liberal, democratic values that are among the casualties of the culture wars.
It is worth asking if the anticommunism of the US Catholic elites remained more similar to the pre-1945, pre-Vatican II ideological stance typical of the societas perfecta.
In a parallel way in US conservatism and in the US Catholic Church, “liberal principles were valued only because they were an effective instrument for destroying communism”.
There are significant differences between the attitude of Catholics supporting Mussolini in the 1920s -1930s and of conservative white Catholics supporting Trump today.
For sure, Italian Catholics were not simply bystanders in Mussolini’s political and ideological project. Some of them were subject to the temptation of authoritarianism and were active in giving moral and religious cover to anti-democratic and anti-liberal impulses.
They were uncompromising when it came to fighting communism, but also the liberal principle of distinguishing between church and state.
And they advocated civil legal effects of theological anti-Judaism (in some prominent cases, even after the collapse of Fascism), as the opening of the Vatican Archives for the pontificate of Pius XII remind us.
Behind the scenes
But at the same time, Italian Catholics also harbored a good deal of cynicism, expediency and cunningness, together with the undisclosed awareness of the incompatibility, in the final analysis, of the Fascist totalitarian project and the Catholic view of the state and society.
Well before the collapse of Fascism between 1943 and 1945, many Italian Catholics and officials in the Vatican understood that Mussolini’s regime was not going to last.
Although it was in a self-serving way, they understood, especially after the racial laws of 1938, the dangers brought to the Church by the ideological convergences between Fascism and Nazism.
While cardinals and bishops in Italy and the Vatican were making deals with the Fascist regime, a generation of young lay Catholics in the 1930s and early 1940s were secretly training and developing ideas – under the watchful eye of the hierarchy – for post-Fascist Europe (not just Italy), as the older generations updated their political culture in light of the experiences of war and ideological clashes with authoritarianism in Europe.
Among these Catholics were the rebuilders of Europe and the founders of what later became the European Union.
Maybe in a few decades from now we will read the diaries of prominent US Catholic prelates and the letters exchanged between themselves to find out what they are really saying today about Donald Trump.
But it will be too late to redeem them. What can be understood, even though not forgiven, about the reluctance of the political culture of Catholics to engage with democracy and anti-fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, is much harder to understand in 2020.
It’s not just a problem affecting the hierarchical Church, but also the Catholic intellectual and business elites in the United States.
There is deeper polarization that is not only among white Catholic voters, but also among those with a voice in shaping the institutional and intellectual future of Catholicism.
These include academics and writers, as well as younger clergy and the intellectual elites of one of the most militant Catholic Churches in the world.
There is a convergence and an alignment between the instinctive Trumpism found in sectors of the Catholic electorate and the calculated effort of members of the elites to give cover to Trump through the rallying cry of anti-liberalism.
One way to see this Catholic anti-liberalism in support of Trump is the response of the alt-right to the present moment, their reaction to the crisis of the project of modern Catholicism.
But for those familiar with history, there is another way to look at this. Their resorting to anti-democratic instincts runs in the vein of the ideological family of Catholics. It’s in the photo album of 20th-century Catholicism in the Western hemisphere.
Vatican and US Catholicism reverse roles on democracy
The public alignment – an endorsement, actually – of the Catholic hierarchy to one political party is always problematic; it is even more problematic in a two-party system given the divisions that it creates at the ecclesial level. In this case of Trump’s Republican Party, is even more dangerous.
This is a problem destined to last longer than Trump, whatever happens on November 3.
It’s not just a matter of political expediency; that is, some prelates aligning with the party in power in order to get support for Catholic schools and on life issues. There is also a theological alignment between anti-liberal Catholics and Trumpian conservative politics in the United States.
Between 1945 and the post-Vatican II period, the Church abandoned imperial Catholicism, rejected nationalism and took the first steps towards a post-colonial and global Catholicism.
But if one looks at the arguments made by US anti-liberal Catholics today, one can see the attempt to deny the legitimacy of that trajectory – not only by post-Vatican II Catholic theology, but also by the official Catholic magisterium towards the acceptance of liberal and constitutional democracy.
Historically, the US Catholic Church was at the forefront of Catholicism dealing with democracy while the Vatican represented the intransigent refusal to accept modern political ideas. What we are seeing today is a dangerous reversal of roles.
But this is not due to a radicalization of the Vatican’s political agenda. On the contrary! It is due to the attempt of the Catholic thurifers of Trumpism to give theological clearance to ideas and practices that no longer represent Catholic teaching.
Undermining the Vatican II theology on religious liberty
For example, the US bishops’ have made an astonishing alignment with Trump on the issue of religious liberty.
They’ve done so even as the president continues to threaten the religious rights of Muslims in this country, all the while being cavalier about the religious liberty of Christians living in countries run by autocrats Trump admires.
This involution of the theology of religious liberty, which they conservative Catholics no longer consider to be a right for all individuals, resembles more closely the medieval doctrine of the “libertas Ecclesiae”, the freedom of the Church.
This is not a bug, but a feature of their attempt to subvert post-Vatican II official Catholic teaching.
This is not something that can be found only in the often embarrassing and involuntarily clownish social media accounts of prominent Catholics, both lay and clergy. It has found its way in the institutional life of the Church.
It’s enough to look at the way the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has framed the argument for religious freedom over the past ten years: a legal strategy subtly undermining the theology of religious liberty of Vatican II.
In the last several days pro-Trump Christian “maître à penser” have issued more and more calls to violence in defense of “law and order”.
One might expect the bishops to say something about violence. But they probably won’t, and that’s not because of political expediency.
There is a theological crisis in US Catholicism that is not likely to go away when Trump does, whenever that may be. This theological crisis will not be solved by the ballot box.
The US Catholic conservative elites have unlearned democratic culture.
And this is not just a problem for the Catholic Church. It’s a problem for the whole country, where the moral and theological deviations of important sectors of white evangelicalism are being followed by this kind of Catholic deviation that is not just political but also theological.
The theological trajectory of conservative US Catholicism is one of the proofs that Trump’s America is not just a parenthesis, and it’s not destined to end with the election of a new president, as urgent and necessary as that is.