Bishop involved in Catholic-evangelical dialogue responds to ‘ecumenism of hate’ essay
In July’s issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa offer an analysis of a political phenomenon in the United States they call “the surprising ecumenism” of “evangelical fundamentalism and Catholic integralism.” Father Spadaro, the editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit-run, Vatican-vetted semimonthly, and Mr. Figueroa, a Presbyterian minister and editor-in-chief of the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, have prompted morethan a little reaction in the United States as well as in Italy with their rather strong and assertive critique of a trend in American politics that the authors find deeply troubling and, indeed, at odds with the words and example of Pope Francis.
Reactions to date have covered the gamut of opinion. Some have cheered the article, while others have criticized it. This is to be expected and welcomed. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has offered a measured and well-informed corrective with which I would associate myself. Without claiming any special expertise, I would like to add a few comments that stem from the opportunities I have had these past several decades to be involved in ecumenical conversations and issues that include principles of Catholic social teaching at the local, national and global church levels.
First, it must be admitted that the “surprising ecumenism” that the authors describe does exist to some degree. Ours is a vast country in which one can find many points of view, as well as many alliances and coalitions. Yet the authors seriously misrepresent the experience the Catholic Church has had with evangelicals these past 30 or more years. The authors reach back to two people, Lyman Stewart and the Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, whom they identify as important figures in the development of evangelical Protestantism in the United States. Stewart and Rushdoony may be gurus to certain groups of Protestant fundamentalists in the United States, but it is plain wrong to claim that they are the inspiration for some of the most important and positive dialogue between Catholics and evangelical Protestants.
The dialogue between evangelical Protestants and Catholics in this country is found elsewhere. For example, in 1987, a group calling itself Evangelicals and Catholics Together began a dialogue in New York at the Union League Club. Among the participants were the evangelical ministers the Rev. Richard Land and the Rev. Charles Colson, the Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and the neoconservative lay Catholic scholar Michael Novak. As one present and participating, I can assure readers that the inspiration was a critical adherence to the Bible and to the “social gospel” traditions that were harmonious among the respective Christian denominations. Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa’s essay is devoid of any serious engagement with the neoconservatism of authors like the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak. To place them with controversialists like Michael Voris, as the authors do, is ludicrous. We all have benefited from the dialogue that began in 1987, and I am confident that the principals at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity would agree about the positive fruits of this and similar Catholic/evangelical dialogues.
Context is always important to interpretation. In Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa’s essay, the authors rightly seek to find clues to interpretation in some aspects of the American public life. However, they misuse certain terms common to American discourse, like the motto “In God We Trust.” They misunderstand how widespread and how many-faceted is the sense that Americans have that God has blessed us. Americans by and large see such a blessing not as a sense of self-righteousness or superiority, but rather a recognition that God is the source and ultimate end of all the good and positive aspects of life in our country. Are there some who are xenophobic and jingoistic? Some who exaggerate and exploit that sense of blessing? Yes, sadly, there are. However, when Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa use such a broad brush and turn the phrase into a sinister one or proof of nefarious intentions, it might well lead others to see the authors as guilty of the same kind of exaggerations.
The Catholics and evangelicals who engage in dialogue in our country do not qualify as Manicheans.
The authors also comment that “[a]t times this mingling of politics, morals and religion has taken on a Manichaean language.” The misuse of the ancient heresy of Manichaeism is perhaps a commonplace, but such misuse is not to be accepted if one wishes to understand it as it is described in the writings of St. Augustine. The Catholics and evangelicals who engage in dialogue in our country do not qualify as Manicheans. Neither do the “extremist groups” identified by the authors. No person or group guilty of opposing “modernist spirits, the black civil rights movement, the hippie movement, communism, feminist movements” and that also “pushes toward conflicts…and does not take into account the bond between capital and profit and arms sales” can be seriously labeled as “Manichean.” Equally perplexing is how the authors move toward accusing these persons and groups of preparing for an Armageddon because they refuse to see why “natural disasters, dramatic climate change and the global ecological crises” are not as life-threatening and cataclysmic as do the authors.
Their essay also includes an argument about “theopolitics” that leaves me perplexed. Their critique of the politicization of one’s faith tradition is seen as a particular characteristic of the “Christian Right” but certainly not of whatever constitutes the “Christian left.” Yet the very critique they make of the “conservatives” is much the same critique made by conservatives of movements in Latin America such as liberation theology and populist interpretations of society. Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa propose the church adopt a kind of neutrality on the part of persons of faith in relation to society and the state, a “neutrality” that does not correspond to the stance of the Catholic Church toward the state and toward international order in modern times.
Even more puzzling is their linking of the “gospel of prosperity with the rhetoric of religious liberty.” May I suggest that the therapeutic Christianity of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, whom the authors mention, is not the same as the prosperity gospel of fundamentalist preachers of today? The sources of Peale’s approach are found in a liberal Protestantism that lost its dogmatic roots some time ago. Prosperity gospel preachers, on the other hand, promise material wealth as a sign of God’s special election, an approach that compromises the transcendent operations of grace. They are found largely in the realms of storefront fundamentalists or televangelist preachers. They do not have a coherent Biblical source or principles of Christian social teaching to back them up. Conflating them into one “movement” is difficult to defend.
That the authors link this “prosperity gospel” to a consideration of “the rhetoric of religious liberty” miscasts the serious discussions and debates about religious liberty taking place in the United States today. I also think it tendentious to use the term “rhetoric” in this context, because the label implies a certain lack of substance to the issues and the debates surrounding issues of religious freedom in our country. With that wisdom that both enlightens and inspires, Pope Francis has spoken often of a kind of “soft persecution” of religious groups in Western societies where religious liberty is under threat, though different from the open and acute forms found in other countries in the Middle East and in other parts of Asia and Africa. In many places in our world today, there is outright, severe persecution of religious minorities of all stripes, including Christians, Muslims and many other religious minorities who face direct persecution of many kinds. Having served on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, I am grateful to Thomas Reese, S.J., the current chairman, and his colleagues for their leadership. But the “soft persecution” of persons and religious groups is not absent from our country or others in the West as well.
Instead, this new century has seen in Western societies a growth of this “soft persecution” that in a variety of ways seeks to marginalize, penalize or impose restrictions on the practice of religious faith as an integral part of human life and social good. For example, the bishops of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops initially supported the Affordable Care Act because it offered what the conference had sought for decades: universal health care. But as chairman at that time of the relevant committee, I worked hard with my staff to seek certain safeguards that reflected our concern for the common good. With our commitment to universal health care, we had three requests: a) immigrants must be covered in some way, so that they too would receive health care; b) federal funds would not be used to provide for elective abortion; and c) provisions would be made for the protection for the rights of conscience or religious freedom of persons and religious groups. One by one, all three were rejected by the majority party. Sadly, at the end, the U.S.C.C.B. had to withdraw its support in face of a secular and ideological insistence on the part of the framers of the law who refused to include three very positive provisions that would have improved the bill as a whole.
But the Affordable Care Act is not the only issue regarding religious freedom. There are courts that infringe on human rights that touch religious freedom, and states that do so as well. Some pressure groups actively seek to enforce such unjust provisions. I commend the authors for stating. “[T]he erosion of religious liberty is clearly a grave threat within a spreading secularism.” I also accept that there can and probably do exist some who would seek a kind of “religion in total freedom” that ignores or even attacks any attempt at placing religious freedom in relation to the common good. But that is not the case with the evangelicals I am speaking about, and certainly not of the Catholics with whom the U.S.C.C.B. and its Standing Committee on Religious Freedom work.
The authors close by expressing their fear of and their opposition to “a strange form of surprising ecumenism” between evangelical fundamentalists and Catholic integralists. The authors identify them by the fact that they are concerned about “themes such as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in school…and promote an ecumenism of conflict….” I would challenge them to justify such a charge.
Unless we are to be “sacristy Catholics,” we have a responsibility to bring our religious truths and values into the public sphere.
The authors’ position here has two parts to it and one suggestion. First is this list: abortion, same-sex marriage [and] religious education in schools (and let’s add religious liberty). Second is the charge that the persons and groups alluded to are xenophobic, anti-Muslim and desirous of bringing “religious influence in the political sphere.” I doubt any Catholics would want to exclude the first group of issues, from abortion to religious liberty, from their concerns. In fact, if one of the faithful of our diocese did, I would feel a responsibility to speak with that person to correct that. I would do the same were he or she endorsing any kind of rampant xenophobia, or any anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish bias or any other religious prejudice. I would have an equal responsibility to speak to those who reject outright the substance of climate change or the need to control and eliminate nuclear weapons, or who would propose we treat immigrants as though they have no rights. Pope Francis time and again has reminded us that our faith is a “both…and”, not an “either…or.”
May I suggest by way of conclusion that we need to discuss together the importance of the proper kind of religious influence in the secular sphere? I would propose the authors need to be more nuanced. We have the resources and the teaching of the church to inform us and bring us together for the good of our church and the common good of all. Unless we are to be “sacristy Catholics,” we have a responsibility to bring our religious truths and values into the public sphere. We are justly proud that the popes for more than 100 years have given us a rich tradition of principles based on the Gospel, the lived tradition of the church and truths that are both intelligent and intelligible to all persons of good will, through both encyclicals and constant preaching. May I suggest with great respect that we need to move beyond discussion about “theopolitics?” We need to renew our understanding of and support a coherent vision of the church’s proper role in public life. The Second Vatican Council set the conditions in “Dignitatis Humanae”that have guided us these past 50 years and remain valid today. The Council set out the teaching on the legitimacy of the secular constitutional state and affirms the context in which religious liberty is rightly exercised and contributes to the common good.
If we seek privilege or refuse to collaborate in a pluralistic and secular society with no respect for others, we marginalize ourselves and become a cult, and are guilty of being unfaithful to the teaching of the church. All of us have specific responsibilities in this sphere. Above all, we bishops must respect the proper role of the laity in secular society, as was asserted so clearly in “Lumen Gentium”and “Apostolicam Actuositatem”during Vatican II.
Finally, I note that in several places the authors offer a “vision inspired by Pope Francis” that is the absolute opposite of what they call an “ecumenism of hate.” In one place they propose that we be “guided by the incisive look, full of love, of Jesus in the Gospels.” They remind us that for Pope Francis, ecumenism “moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges….Here we can understand why the Pontiff is so committed to working against ‘walls’ and any kind of ‘war of religion’.”
With that we all are in agreement. We do not simply applaud the pope. We look to him for inspiration. We seek to let his word and his example shape our positions and our actions. He shows us the importance of confronting those persons and issues that are truly important. Yet, by the end of Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa’s argument, I was convinced that the authors are fighting a straw man whom I too oppose. While they clearly support the Holy Father, the way they present Pope Francis’ approach and his teaching seems to me to be weaker than the dynamic and robust approach we have come to recognize as Pope Francis at his most vibrant and inspiring.
Pope Francis has provided a lovely image from John 13:11-17, wherein the Lord washes the feet of his disciples, an image the authors propose as the model for the church to serve secular society and thus refrain from being seen in opposition to society at large. But, as in the Gospel, the footwashing should make way for the hearing of the Word of God, as found in Jesus’ powerful “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Word and example go together. If the pope and bishops and lay faithful are limited to gestures devoid of content that applies Catholic social teaching to the specifics of an issue, we can be accused of pieties that refuse to speak the truth to power.
Pope Francis is the protagonist for the church of the 21st century. He also is the inheritor of the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.Should the pope not have spoken in defense of Charlie Gard and his parents because he did not wish to enter into the decision of some European Court? Should we not have had the leadership of the church in Italy, aided by the wisdom of Professor Francesco Margiotta Broglio, when the European Union decreed that Italy had to take the crucifixes off the classroom walls of Italian schools? Should we eliminate all concordats, even when they help protect men and women of faith, all faiths, when they are under attack?
On the weekend of July 4, 2017, the church in the United States celebrated a convocation in Orlando, Fla. Over 3,500 laity, religious, deacons, priests and bishops came together to celebrate their commitment to be true missionary disciples in our church and our nation. Reaffirming our faith, sharing ideas and initiatives to make us ever more authentic witnesses, we experienced all that is good in our church and pledged ourselves to collaborate with all people of good will to affirm all that is good in our society as well as all that needs to be pursued to better the common good of all. We are not “Catholic integralists.” We are Catholics. We will go forth to preach and witness the message of the Gospel, that it is Jesus Christ who saves and sets us free.
There is no reason for fear. Pope Francis shows us that every day. But do we avoid our responsibility if we are afraid to speak the truth in love, reject the extremes of all ideologies and offer a service to the world that mediates by word and deed the Gospel message of God’s love and Christ’s redemption of all humankind?