Ecumenism, influence-envy, etc.

George Weigel

Defending the indefensible is never pretty. Or so we’re reminded by recent attempts from the portside of the Catholic commentariat to defend the madcap analysis of America’s alleged “ecumenism of hate” that appeared last month in the Italian Catholic journal, La Civiltà Cattolica (edited by the Jesuits of Rome and published after vetting by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See). The more sober-minded defenders admit that the article, jointly authored by Fr. Anthony Spadaro, SJ, and Pastor Marcelo Figueroa, contains errors of fact and tendentious interpretations of recent history – but then go on to suggest that it raises important questions. How, though, are serious questions raised, much less clarified or answered, by falsifications of both history and contemporary reality?   

Other defenders of the Spadaro/Figueroa article, less chastened by the self-evident fact that the article would receive a thumping “F” in a freshman religious studies course at any reputable college, have taken the occasion of the article to scrape their various boils and indulge in the very Manichean division of the ecclesial world into children of light and children of darkness the article condemns. One of these boils involves a project I helped launch and in which I’ve been engaged for over two decades: the study group known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

A post Spadaro-Figueroa editorial in the National Catholic Reporter charged that ECT, as it’s widely known, is a prominent example of “Catholic complicity in the politicization of faith;” that the participants in the original ECT statement, from which the study group takes its name, were on the “outer conservative edges” of their communities “before the landscape fades to irrational extremes;” and that the original statement “ill-served” Catholics, evangelical Protestants, the cause of the Gospel, and the health of American public life. Moreover, the NCR grimly warns “bishops and those who staff their offices” against conceding to “the visions of ideologues in think-tanks and institutes with an absolutist and narrow agenda.” For in doing so (by, presumably, embracing the ECT agenda) these bishops and staff “have squandered their standing and credibility in the wider culture.” 

Oh, dear. Where to begin?

ECT is an ongoing project, which has now produced nine joint statements, with a tenth, an explanation of Christianity to its contemporary cultured despisers, coming soon. Five of the first nine – on justification, Scripture, the communion of saints, the universal call to holiness, and the Blessed Virgin Mary – were entirely theological in character and had nothing to do with political controversies. Those that touched on contested issues – the statements on the sanctity of life, on religious freedom, and on marriage – set the discussion of public policy in an explicitly biblical and theological context (as, indeed, did the initial ECT statement the Reporter editorial deplores).

The five theological statements measure up well against similar documents from other ecumenical dialogues of the past half-century; an honest Catholic liberal, Notre Dame’s Lawrence Cunningham, recommended all the ECT statements for “the pertinence of their concerns and the sophistication of their theological argument.”  From the very outset of our joint work, ECT participants have made it clear that we speak from and to our various Churches and ecclesial communities, not for them. We have also scrupulously described our differences, with a concern for expressing the “other’s” views accurately.

But don’t just take my word for it. Get the book that collects the first nine ECT documents and explains both the genesis of the project and of each statement: Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Issues, edited by Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino (Brazos Press). Read it. Then compare what you read with the NCR editorial.

In his June address to the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, appealed for a Church that listens more, “even to those with whom we disagree,” because the honest engagement of differences helps us all “propose the…Gospel in a more persuasive, life-changing way.” True enough. The honest engagement of differences in service to evangelical vigor is not advanced, however, by the systematic misrepresentation of others’ views, by the puerile bullying of bishops, or by indulging in spasms of influence-envy. Moreover, the Nuncio’s welcome appeal to become a Church of missionary disciples – Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission” – will only be answered if we see today’s challenging, but evangelically exciting, situation clearly; and such clarity of vision requires something other than lenses ground in the 1970s.  

Featured image by Antoniospadaro – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16153443

COMING UP: Questions of competence

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It’s a safe bet that 99.95% of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics have never heard of La Civiltà Cattolica [Catholic Civilization], a journal founded in 1850 by the Jesuits of Rome to combat the evils of the age (then taken to be secularist liberalism and freemasonry). Its current circulation is perhaps half that of First Things, and while it has recently made attempts to broaden its readership by publishing English, Spanish, French, and Korean editions, it’s also a safe bet that Civiltà Cattolica will remain a small-circulation magazine with a readership confined to what we might call “Catholic professionals:” clergy of various ranks; papal diplomats; officials of the Roman Curia; academics and pundits.

And the vast majority of them will read (or at least scan) it, not for scintillating content, but because its articles are vetted by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, and are thus assumed to have some sort of quasi-official status: which means that those articles are taken to reflect the cast of mind of the current pontificate. So if you want to be in the know, you read (or at least scan) Civiltà Cattolica.

On occasion, however, that can be a journey through the looking glass and into Wonderland.

Last month, Civiltà Cattolia featured an article co-authored by its editor-in-chief, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Pastor Marcelo Figueroa, who edits the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. The article purported to analyze a startling “ecumenism of hate” in the United States, forged by ultra-conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants, and creepy-dangerous for its indulgence in a new Manicheanism that distorts the Gospel and divides everything in the world into rigid and narrowly-defined categories of good and evil. This bizarre screed generated weeks of controversy in the blogosphere, during which Father Spadaro tweeted that the article’s critics were “haters” whose vitriol confirmed the article’s hypothesis – a Trumpian outburst ill-becoming a paladin of “dialogue.”

My friends and colleagues R.R. Reno, Robert Royal, and Fr. Raymond de Souza have ably replied to the comprehensive inanities of the Spadaro/Figueroa article: its ill-informed misrepresentation of American religious history; its surreal descriptions of 21st-century American Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism; its obsessions with marginal figures in contemporary American religious life like R.J. Rushdoony and Michael Voris; its misreading of the dynamics of religiously-informed public moral argument in American politics; and its weird description of the premises of current Vatican diplomacy, which will give comfort to the likes of Vladimir Putin, Raul Castro, and Nicolas Maduro. Those who care to sift through this intellectual dumpster can consult Dr. Reno’s article, Dr. Royal’s, and Fr. De Souza’s. The questions I’d like to raise here involve Civiltà Cattolica’s relationship to its putative overseers in the Vatican Secretariat of State.

What kind of vetting did this misbegotten article get? Were any knowledgeable experts on U.S. Catholicism or American evangelical Protestantism consulted on what the overseers must have known would be an incendiary piece? Does the Spadaro/Figueroa article really represent the views of the Secretariat of State about today’s debates at the intersection of religion and politics in the United States? If the answer to the last is “Yes,” then what does the Secretariat of State make of the American situation as described by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, in his addresses to the U.S. bishops – a description that bears no resemblance to the wasteland of madcap pseudo-theology and hatred described by Spadaro and Figueroa? If the answer is “No,” then why was the Spadaro/Figueroa article cleared for publication?

Does the Secretariat of State share the authors’ seeming view that murderous jihadists rightly think of those who oppose them as “crusaders”? And can it be true that the Holy See’s approach to conflict situations in the world has abandoned the notions of “right” and “wrong,” as the Spadaro/Figueroa article suggests?

Because of its relationship to the Secretariat of State, Civiltà Cattolica has long been read, not in the way serious readers read serious journals, but like ancient augurs read the entrails of sacrificial animals. Perhaps both the future of this venerable journal and the credibility of the Secretariat of State would be better served by severing the connection. For at the moment, the auguries raise deeply disturbing questions about the competence of both parties.

Featured image by Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2065989