Reply to 'A View From Abroad' by Massimo Faggioli

We are the people Massimo Faggioli warned you about. In his article seeking an end to the political polarization of Catholics in the United States, Faggioli mentions us by name as representing the road not to follow. We are accused of “withdrawal from the nation-state,” “withdrawal” and “retreat” from the polis, and so on. Our approach is divisive, sectarian and, if implemented in Europe, even “risks a return to the wars of religion that ravaged Europe for at least a century”—quite a feat on a continent where the percentage of the population who are regular churchgoers has plummeted into the single digits in many places.

The idea that we advocate or practice withdrawal strikes us as rather odd. We work at DePaul, the largest Catholic university in the country, with two campuses and 24,000 students, many of whom are working class, commuters and “non-traditional.” When we are not teaching, we are involved in the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul, a forum for connecting Catholics from the global South with those from the North. We sponsor lectures, conferences, scholars-in-residence programs and so on. A few weeks ago, visiting research fellow Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., gave a paper that highlighted the challenges facing the churches in East Africa. The following week another fellow, Maria Clara Bingemer from Brazil, gave a paper comparing the communal life and apostolic work of two communities: the monks of Notre Dame d’Atlas of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were killed in 1996, and the Jesuit community of San Salvador, murdered in 1989. These are the martyrs of our time, Maria Clara urged, and their deaths are a gift from God to teach us how to live and what to live for. Both communities rejected the politics of their governments. Were they sectarian?

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Our point is that there is a big world out there, and it is much larger than the world of Republican versus Democrat, First Things versus Commonweal. Faggioli wants Catholics to insert themselves into U.S. politics as the particular into the universal, but it is the Church Catholic that is universal, worldwide. When compared with the global embrace of the Body of Christ, the nation-state appears as a truncated and “sectarian” attempt to draw borders around a particular territory.

Are we advocating a Catholic “withdrawal from the nation-state”? Not any more than we could advocate withdrawal from the weather. At this point in history, nation-states are a fact of life; they are there, like the sun and the rain. We drive on the roads, pay taxes, use the postal service, obtain passports, etc. Faggioli is absolutely right when he says “The question for Catholics is not whether to engage with the state and one another, but what defines this engagement.”

What we advocate in our work is that Christians be more realistic about what the nation-state is and how it works. The United States in particular is a great place to live in many ways. It is also the nation that spends more on its military than all other nations combined; promotes a muscular and often idolatrous civil religion; erodes the autonomy of faith-based institutions; has spent over a thousand billion dollars over the last decade on a secretive security apparatus that tortures, assassinates by drone strikes and conducts massive spying on its own citizens; and is run by two corporate-sponsored parties who respond almost exclusively to the interests of those with money. Half of the eligible electorate already does not bother to vote even in major national elections, without any encouragement from us.

We acknowledge that voting and lobbying—or, better, “witnessing”—can make a difference, even if it usually doesn’t make much. But we do not think it is adequate simply to encourage Catholics and other Christians to pick one of the two parties and get back in the game. A Catholic especially is right to feel a sense of homelessness in the political process, both because her loyalty transcends national borders and because neither of the two parties comes close to representing what Catholic teaching sees as a just and peaceful world.

This homelessness, however, should not drive Catholics out of the world but more deeply into it. We advocate for experiments in local, face-to-face community where democracy is not an empty slogan—unions, buying cooperatives, houses of hospitality, credit unions, alternative schools, farmers’ markets, projects in community-supported agriculture, sanctuary for immigrants, micro-lending, restorative justice, and so on. We do not think that community is restored simply by cutting people off from government aid and leaving them at the mercy of the market. Nor do we think the only thing people need is a check from the government. Those who seem to have withdrawn from society, or have been cast out, need to be cared for personally. If anyone should be doing this, Catholics should. Moreover, thinking and acting catholically should mean resisting the unlimited pretensions of the limited nation-state in which we find ourselves. Refusing to fight in unjust wars is the opposite of sectarian. To treat the foreigner as oneself is the opposite of closing in on one’s own community.

Faggioli thinks that our approach would exacerbate divides in the Catholic Church in America.  He writes “The quest for a new common ground in the church serves as the best possible response to Catholics tempted to retreat from the polis.” This strikes us as a non sequitur. Given Faggioli’s own analysis of the divides in the church—“In simple terms, the existence of a two-party political and electoral system has given birth in these last few decades (among other factors) to something resembling a two-party Catholic Church”—it seems obvious to us that encouraging Catholics not to invest all their political energies in party politics would go a long way toward healing rather than worsening divides among Catholics. Faggioli is right to notice that Catholics have assimilated to the American two-party system and imported that system into the church. Recognizing that both parties represent the Gospel in only fragmentary and distorted ways would help diminish the animosity between Catholics who vote Republican and those who vote Democratic.

Faggioli seems to propose the renewal of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative as an alternative to what we propose. We are also very much in favor of Catholics across the ideological spectra meeting to find common ground and common projects. What that cannot mean, however, is a simple declaration that, under Pope Francis, the culture wars are over and the concerns of conservative Catholics over abortion and religious freedom no longer count. What it can and should mean is that conservatives worried about state-sponsored attacks on religious freedom and liberals worried about state-sponsored torture and surveillance in the “war on terrorism” can unite in recognizing that the United States is often unfriendly territory for the Gospel and that we should consider ourselves Catholics before considering ourselves Americans. The “social radicalism” that Faggioli identifies with Pope Francis would seem to demand this shift from identifying with the centers of political power and toward identifying with the marginalized and oppressed.

Our next conference at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology is on Catholics in diaspora, that is, Catholic migrants. Some speakers will address the fact that 40 percent of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is Latino, many of them recent arrivals. And Latinos have not simply followed the same pattern as European immigrants. Their faith, according to Latino commentators, is more performative, graphic and communal, than doctrinal, and so they have largely avoided easy characterization into either side of the liberal/conservative polarity in the Catholic Church. Politically as well, Latinos tend to defy easy characterization; they are often depicted as conservative on family issues but liberal on economic issues, in an attempt to force them into pre-determined categories.

Put more positively, Latinos in the U.S. have a sense for mestizaje, mixedness, a sense that they can be both American and Mexican, for example. Mexican-Americans love their U.S. home but stay in close touch with their communities in Mexico. And they have built a remarkable network of care for the needy. Here we see an important signpost about being Catholic in this country today. Not just Latinos but all Catholics can embrace the reality of mestizaje, because it characterizes Jesus, who is both God and man, who forged a community from both Jew and gentile, who embraces all peoples regardless of—and indeed in spite of—the politics of nation-states, and who is gathering the nations from all earthly cities into a vast pilgrimage to our true home.

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