This summer, an article appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica, the English title of which is “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” Founded in 1850, La Civiltà Cattolica is a semi-official publication of the Holy See, the articles of which often reflect the thinking of the reigning pontiff or his chief advisors. The article in question, which has received considerable attention even outside Catholic circles, was written by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of the journal, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Protestant minister and editor of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano.
Spadaro and Figueroa’s thesis is that a type of evangelical Protestant theology has emerged in the U.S. that has resulted in a “problematic fusion between religion and state, faith and politics, religious values and economy.” It has “taken on a Manichaean language that divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil.” The authors instance as an example former President George W. Bush’s call for the U.S. to “free the world from evil.” This outlook, they say, is “based on Christian-Evangelical fundamentalist principles dating from the beginning of the 20th Century that have been gradually radicalized” and “can today be assimilated to the ‘evangelical right’ or “theo-conservatism.’” Such groups regard the U.S. as a nation chosen by God, the “economic growth” of which is tied to “a literal adherence to the Bible.” These groups have historically perceived the civil-rights movement, the hippie counterculture, communism, feminism, and Muslim immigration as “threats to their understanding of the American way of life.” These evangelicals, or theoconservatives, Spadaro and Figueroa aver, are pro-capitalist and pro-war, hostile to environmentalism, and advocate the “prosperity gospel” as well as the “dominionist” political theology associated with the late R.J. Rushdoony.
Moreover, say Spadaro and Figueroa, certain Catholics, whom they label “Integralists,” have joined these evangelical Protestants in “a strange form of surprising ecumenism,” on account of their shared concerns about such matters as abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious education in public schools. The Catholics whom Spadaro and Figueroa are targeting are those who supported the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. They even mention his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, by name. Spadaro and Figueroa contrast these Catholics’ concerns and efforts with the teachings and policies of Pope Francis, of which more later.
Spadaro and Figueroa’s sloppy and confused presentation of American religious history leaves them open to easy contravening and even ridicule. For example, the dominionism of the Calvinist and post-millennialist Rushdoony is not the same as the ordinary fundamentalist pre-millennialism of the “Left Behind” variety, and Rushdoony’s desire to enact the Pentateuch as a civil code has been explicitly criticized by some Baptists in view of their historic advocacy of religious liberty. But Spadaro and Figueroa lump all of them together indiscriminately. Moreover, the term “fundamentalist” derives from a set of volumes published between 1910 and 1915 titled The Fundamentals. This series of essays by various authors deals mostly with questions of biblical criticism; today, they have mainly historical interest. There is little in the utterances of contemporary fundamentalists that indicates awareness of, much less familiarity with, the actual contents of these volumes. Yet Spadaro and Figueroa, after they misidentify California millionaire Lyman Stewart, who funded publication of The Fundamentals, as their author, tell us that Stewart’s admirers “include many politicians and even two recent presidents: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.” One smiles to think of any recent president studiously poring over articles such as “The Tabernacle in the Wilderness: Did It Exist?” or “Three Peculiarities of the Pentateuch.” In these and other instances, Spadaro and Figueroa have done themselves no favors with their uninformed presentation of American evangelicalism.
Who are these Catholic “Integralists” anyway? Here we have more confusion. A perceptive reader might wonder about the term “integralist” (intégristes in the French translation of the article). It is a term more common in European, and especially French, Catholic history than that of the U.S. The term is usually used to identify a movement of Catholics around the time of World War I who not only championed the rights and cause of the Church but embraced the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and his successors on the need for a Catholic social order, even a Catholic confessional state. Especially in France, many integralists insisted on restoration of the monarchy, going beyond what Leo XIII had taught—e.g., that “no one of the several forms of government is in itself condemned” (Immortale Dei, no. 36)—so long as the rights of the Church and the common good were respected. They urged French Catholics to work within the structures of the Third Republic.
Now, one might wonder what all this has to do with the U.S. during the administration of Donald Trump. What, indeed? If the term “integralist” has any meaning for the Church in America at this time, it would seem to apply, and sometimes is applied, to the subset of Catholics broadly called “traditionalists,” those who not only favor the traditional Latin liturgy of the Roman rite but who support what is often called “the social reign of Christ the King,” the establishment (where appropriate) of an explicitly Catholic political and social order. For it was as much the seeming rejection by Vatican II of Catholic doctrine on the desirability of a Catholic political order as changes in the liturgy that drove Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre into a disobedient stance toward Bl. Paul VI.
Yet Spadaro and Figueroa appear to lump together as integralists all varieties of American Catholics who, in one way or another, do not support Pope Francis’s program. Obviously, this is an error. Those who are known as, and often label themselves, “conservative” Catholics don’t necessarily have any special affection for the traditional liturgy, and they are generally hostile to the idea of a Catholic political regime. Indeed, they have, by and large, embraced the Lockean tradition of liberal democracy and capitalism. Although some Catholic traditionalists share these views, the more well-read among them understand that if they truly support the historic teachings of the Church, they must recognize the deep chasm that separates the Church’s traditional ideal of a social order and the Enlightenment project so fully realized in the United States.
So, who exactly are Spadaro and Figueroa attacking? If they want to criticize the tendency of American Catholics to embrace political principles that are foreign to Catholic tradition, including those derived from Protestant evangelicals, then they would do well to make the proper distinctions among the various relevant groups. Some Catholics who supported Trump’s candidacy did so, in whole or in part, because they hoped he would bring an end to deceptive free-trade agreements, endless foreign wars, and all the other policies that sought not the common good but the enrichment of the already rich—policies that both Democratic and Republican administrations have enthusiastically implemented. Certainly, some Trump supporters do espouse a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations,” as Spadaro and Figueroa say, but even here distinctions are in order. Many conservative Catholic pundits are as opposed to “walls and purifying deportations” as is Pope Francis because their free-market ideology favors the movement of workers in the interests of capital and has little patience with concerns for cultural preservation. Moreover, it is unfair to fail to distinguish among those who, in varying ways and degrees, raise questions about immigration. Not all of them have a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations.” That the views of some in the immigration debate are frankly racist and thus unworthy of a Catholic must be admitted, but there are others who raise entirely reasonable concerns about the desirability of large-scale Muslim immigration. Some Catholics are perspicacious enough to distinguish between immigration by Muslims and immigration by Spanish-speaking Catholics. It is not inconsistent or irrational to oppose the former and welcome the latter.
Among the many responses to Spadaro and Figueroa’s article, one that has something of special value to offer appeared in a rather unlikely place: Commonweal magazine. Titled “A Forceful Essay Hits a Nerve” (July 28), it is much superior to the original Civiltà Cattolica article. Author Anthony Annett’s knowledge of the American religious scene is much more informed. (Do not think that I am recommending Commonweal in general as a reliable source of Catholic opinion–I am not.) Annett says that Spadaro and Figueroa’s thesis “is certainly correct—that a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of rightwing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism.” But he makes an important distinction. “This world is a Calvinist world,” he writes, “manifesting politically in the twin ideas that United States is God’s chosen country with a unique destiny in the world’s history … and that God bestows material rewards on his favored, which leads to a full-throttled embrace of capitalism.” Hence, Annett writes, “when these people herald orthodoxy, they are not talking about theology. They are talking about politics. They are talking about to a cohesive yet inconsistent ideology that centers on the modem Republican party.”
Annett acknowledges that “it would be one thing for these folks to claim that Christian discernment leads them to hold their noses and vote Republican. This is a perfectly acceptable, even respectable, position—especially in light of the increasing abortion absolutism and left-wing libertarianism of the Democratic Party.” But that is generally not what motivates such people. “It’s not just that they prioritize issues like abortion, marriage, and religious liberty and then hold their noses on the stuff. They don’t believe the other stuff stinks at all. They actually think it emits a pleasant odor!”
We should note that Annett is speaking not of “integralist” Catholics, whoever they may be, but of those I labeled “conservative” Catholics. And Annett is largely correct. A huge portion of active Catholics in the U.S. have come to support Republican candidates and conservative issues, not just from a feeling that right now an unfortunate necessity compels this course of action, but because they have come, over the course of approximately the past 40 years, to accept the American conservative positions as correct. Due in great part to their general ignorance of traditional papal teachings on social questions, many American Catholics now view these conservative political positions, which were once routinely scorned by informed Catholics of our grandparents’ generation, as acceptable or even necessary if one is to call oneself an “orthodox” Catholic. The thinking goes like this: The Church condemns abortion, conservatives oppose abortion; conservatives support free-market capitalism, therefore Catholics do so as well. But this is as faulty in logic as it is in theology and history.
Up to this point, Annett is correct. But like Spadaro and Figueroa, he presents his readers with an unfortunate choice: You can support either Pope Francis and his program or conservative American Catholicism. Speaking for myself, I say, no thank you. When Pope Francis emphasizes the Church’s historic condemnation of market forces as the controlling principle of the economy, Catholics must agree with him, for this is the consistent teaching of his predecessors as well. But even if his statements on the economy or on the environment are in line with the mind of the Church, it does not follow that we must uncritically support all of his policies. Conservative Catholics, says Annett, “seize upon language in Amoris Laetitia related to communion for the divorced and remarried to one-up Pope Francis—audaciously claiming they are more Catholic than the pope.” This is an unfortunate argument. No pope has the authority to change what the Catholic Church has authoritatively taught. This is why the claims of men like Michael Novak and George Weigel, decades ago, that Pope St. John Paul II had undone centuries of Catholic teaching on the social order with his encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991) were so absurd.
But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I do not see how anyone can deny that some of Pope Francis’s utterances—on marriage and divorce, for example—have lent support to positions at odds with settled Catholic teaching. I imagine that if some newly elected pope were to champion market forces as the only solution to the world’s economic ills, Annett would be among the first to highlight the clear language of Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI, and, yes, John Paul II, in opposition. And he would be right to do so. Would he thereby be “more Catholic than the pope”?
Annett clearly sees the false position of so many American Catholics. But it does not follow that our only alternative to this false position is to embrace and defend everything Pope Francis says and does, even when it appears to contradict authentic Catholic teaching, or when he merely expresses his opinion, such as about the desirability of Muslim immigration into Europe.
And what is it that Francis is advocating? According to Spadaro and Figueroa, “Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church,” and he “radically rejects the idea of activating a Kingdom of God on earth as was at the basis of the Holy Roman Empire and similar political and institutional forms.” One wonders what it means when a pontiff who speaks continually on political and social matters, as Francis does, is said to desire the rupture of “the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church,” or that he rejects the idea of making the City of Man as much like the City of God as possible. While there certainly can be, and have been, examples of toxic relationships between the Church and political powers, the historic Catholic order erected in Europe and Latin America, despite its many faults, was an honest attempt to create a world where it was easier to be good, as Peter Maurin put it, and where there was no radical separation between one’s private life as a Catholic and the public life of society. I fail to see how we can, or ought to, reject that goal, even in these times.
Catholics in the U.S. have long suffered from an inferiority complex and labored to gain the esteem of the Protestant majority; hence their tendency to adopt Protestant modes of thinking and acting. Prior to Vatican II, an innate sense of orthodoxy and respect for ecclesial authority helped keep most Catholics from embracing the worst excesses of Protestant and secularist ideas. In the Council’s aftermath, however, the majority of both liberal and conservative Catholics have found their standard for belief and conduct not in the teachings of the Church but in shifting political ideologies. This tendency is endemic among Catholics today, and it is fatal to any genuine renewal of the Catholic faith and a Catholic life.
Every Catholic is bound to believe all that the Church teaches. This is the standard by which to judge the utterances of any Catholic, whether he be a pundit or even a pope. If Francis’s vagaries contradict this standard, then they can hardly be accepted, even at the risk of appearing to be “more Catholic than the pope.” Even more so, a Catholic cannot accept political ideologies that have their origin in Protestant and Enlightenment doctrines. A Catholic’s fundamental allegiance must always be to God’s Church. There is no other standard we can depend on in this fallen and increasingly chaotic world.
Originally published in New Oxford Review.