“We have expressed our opinion on a phenomenon,” that of “a strange form of ecumenism” uniting “fringe groups of Catholic integralists and some groups of evangelical fundamentalists” in the political field. That is what Antonio Spadaro, S.J., one of the co-authors of “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism,” an article that has sparked much discussion in the United States and elsewhere, told America in an exclusive interview in Rome, the day after its publication.
The article describing “an ecumenism of hate” was published in La Civiltà Cattolica, the authoritative Italian Jesuit bi-monthly review, on July 13, after its approval by the Vatican. It took on particular significance because it was written by two persons who are close to Pope Francis: Father Spadaro, the editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian layman and editor of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily.
To better understand the background and aim of the article, and how it is to be interpreted, America interviewed Father Spadaro in Rome. The following is a full transcript of the interview.
Why did you and your fellow author, Marcelo Figueroa, decide to focus on this subject? What is the background to the decision to write about it?
I meet Marcelo Figueroa sometimes when he comes to Rome and, in general, we talk about many subjects, and exchange views on the situation in the church and the political situation in the world. The last time we met we discussed the theme of the situation that is being created between some integralist Catholic groups with a certain type of evangelical fundamentalism, and we found we agreed on the perspective from his point of view as a Protestant and mine as a Catholic. He’s Presbyterian, and some Presbyterian pastors developed this fundamentalist approach.
We discussed this question and decided to write this article together, he from his Protestant perspective and me from the Catholic one.
What is the central question you wish to raise with this article?
The central question is the mutual manipulation between politics and religion, which is a risk that is not exclusive to the United States, it’s a constant risk. Often this fundamentalism is born from the perception of a threat, of a world that is threatened, a world that is collapsing, and so it responds with a religion from a reading of the Bible transformed into an ideological message of fear. It’s a manipulation of anxiety and insecurity. And the church is therefore transformed into a kind of sect, a sect of the pure, the option of the pure, even though numerically small, which then seeks to impose its vision on society, prescinding any form of dialogue. It’s a way of dropping out of what is perceived as a “barbaric” mainstream culture. Some call this “authentic Christianity.” Intolerance thus becomes the mark of purism, while evangelical values like mercy do not form part of this vision—which is very conflictive, belligerent [and] seeks to impose itself in political ways.
Today, unfortunately, a warlike and militant approach seems most attractive and evocative to certain sectors in society. We see the risk of a convergence of approach between fringe groups of Catholic integralists and some groups of evangelical fundamentalists in a strange form of ecumenism that tends to impose itself even through their way of communicating in the public square.
Some call this “authentic Christianity.” Intolerance thus becomes the mark of purism.
Would it be true to say that your analysis of the situation of the Catholic Church in the United States is that of a church in danger of a fundamentalist approach to the faith? Upon what were you basing your reflections?
As I said before, there is this risk both in the Catholic environment and in the Protestant one. We based our analysis of this risk on what we read and observed.
Do you think your analysis relates mainly to the Catholic commentators—in other words, to the media—or to the hierarchy or to the “people in the pews”?
Our analysis is transversal. It does not refer to a specific category of the People of God. But, certainly, we see the multiplication of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts that tend to move public opinion and react in lively and often in a violent and fundamentalist way. These realities create a bubble within themselves. Clearly, we are not referring in a global way to the hierarchy or to the commentators but rather to something that goes transversally across the People of God. It is found everywhere. I do not say it is a majority phenomenon, but it is something that is present in the life of the People of God today.
Is this kind of Catholic-evangelical fundamentalism something that pervades the church and politics in other countries?
Yes. This is a risk that is not just confined to the United States, it is valid in other countries too.... It is the way of looking in an almost nostalgic way to theocratic states or, in any case, it is a way that looks at religion to consolidate itself, and it invokes walls and deportations that wound. The fundamental theopolitical plan is to set up a kingdom of the divinity here and now. And that divinity is obviously the projection of the power that has been built. In Europe, this risk is known as Constantinism, whereby the church finds support in politics and, vice versa, politics finds its justification in a religious theory. This is a risk that is present in various places in the world. Today, more than ever, power needs to be removed from its faded confessional dress.
Interestingly, from the responses we have already received to our article, I note that people have applied this theory to other countries. Some have mentioned European countries, others Latin American ones. I notice that people who have read the article have applied the theory to their own situations.
It is the way of looking in an almost nostalgic way to theocratic states or, in any case, it is a way that looks at religion to consolidate itself, and it invokes walls and deportations that wound.
Is it usual for La Civiltà Cattolica to express its opinion on the Catholic Church in a particular country to such an extent?
Since last February, La Civiltà Cattolica has been an international review published in five languages. It is necessary, therefore, to have an international outlook at both the religious and political levels. We have not expressed our opinion on the Catholic Church in general. We have expressed our opinion on a phenomenon and sought to make our contribution to understanding it.
So you are focusing on the phenomenon rather than the country?
Exactly! But, I should add that it is the tradition of La Civiltà Cattolica to reflect on ecclesial phenomena that can concern various countries in the world. Normally, there is one article in each issue on the various countries in the world from the point of view of international politics and the politics of the church at the international level. This has been part of our tradition since the founding of the review in 1850. In this edition, we wanted to underline a phenomenon and tried to understand it, not to focus on a nation.
I should add that we have encountered in Italy, too, this risk of collusion between church and state. It is important to recognize that we are all citizens, and not divide citizens into believers or nonbelievers, Catholics or Protestants. What is truly important in political life is to recognize that we are all citizens of this country.
It is clear that Catholics and evangelical Protestants are called to collaborate and work together. Our attention focused on...values that seem to be evangelical but in fact are ideological.
There have been church-sanctioned partnerships or alliances between Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders in the United States on religious liberty. Are you calling into question these the kinds of efforts?
We preferred in our article not to refer to any particular situation We hold that the positive partnerships between Catholics and Protestants are always worthwhile whenever they join their efforts together in favor of the poor, the care of the environment, the promotion of integral human development, the care of migrants and refugees, the care of the family and its mission, and the protection and support of human life. It is clear that Catholics and evangelical Protestants are called to collaborate and work together. Our attention focused on the phenomena that have degenerated and are based on values that seem to be evangelical but in fact are ideological. We refer to those that form what we call “the ecumenism of hate” in its various expressions.
It is true to say that this article, like other articles of La Civilian Cattolica, was approved by the Vatican?
Yes. La Civiltà Cattolica is a peer-reviewed magazine. Its articles are always read and approved by the Secretariat of State before they are published. The same was true for this article.
Some early responses to the article have suggested that it conflates mainstream conservative political/religious alliances (around issues like abortion, religious liberty and same-sex marriage) with the extreme fringe positions it describes. Others have suggested that it demonizes anyone who can be connected to these positions even as it calls for a broader spirit of dialogue. How would you respond to these critics?
It was not our intention to demonize anybody. We highlighted the risk in certain situations. We did not wish to demonize the conservatives or the progressives in these situations on which we focused. We highlighted how some religious values are manipulated for political ends. I see this manipulation as very risky, irrespective of whether it’s done by the progressives or by the conservatives. It’s problematic. Today we see the manipulation of religion by parts of the ultra-conservative political forces in various countries. But we hold that in the political field differences of position are not only legitimate but also necessary.
Throughout its history, the United States was unique in its adherence to the doctrine of the “separation of church and state.” In recent decades, the trend has been noticeably going the other way, in which religion and politics have become ever increasingly intertwined. For some—though not all—one’s religious views are seen as the only qualification of fitness for political office. How does the church view this vexing trend in public life? And how does the church maintain a proper balance in engaging with the world and its politics?
Christianity is called to be the leaven in society, and therefore to bring Christian values within the civil life of society together with the other active forces in the society. Christians are called, together with other people, including those who think differently from them, to build a better society. Therefore, the churches are not called to be an instrument of politics, and so politics should avoid manipulating the churches to impose itself in the field of social politics. The church asks politicians to commit themselves in the world to build a better world through dialogue while bringing its own values to this project while respecting the fundamental separation of church and state. Therefore, the church should seek to ensure that God and religion are not manipulated for political purposes.