Questions of competence

George Weigel

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

COMING UP: Are jihadis “losers”?

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When I first visited Israel in 1988, my friend Professor Menahem Milson, a distinguished Arabist at Hebrew University who was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s military aide during Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, told me that “you have to meet my friend, Colonel Yigal Carmon.” Carmon worked in the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv; I had a very busy schedule in Jerusalem and around Galilee; so I tried to decline. Menahem insisted and I finally agreed to spend a morning in Tel Aviv. It was one of the most fruitful surrenders of my life.

It turned out that Yigal was the advisor on counter-terrorism to the Israeli Prime Minister, and when I went to his office in what I remember as the basement of the Ministry of Defense, he was handling three telephones simultaneously; on each of them, he made life-and-death decisions, daily, sometimes even hourly, about reported terrorist plots: Was the report reliable? What could be done about the threat? Who was to be put in harm’s way? We talked for over an hour, during which the phones interrupted us several times. I left deeply impressed by his remarkable calm, his fluent Arabic (a trait he shared with Milson), and the extraordinary nature of his job, to which, in that pre-9/11 world, there was no real analogue, save perhaps in an MI-5 office dealing with Northern Ireland.

Two years later, I was in town for what turned out to be the last meeting of the Jerusalem Committee, an international advisory panel to Mayor Teddy Kollek. Our meetings ended and, as Yigal had a rare day off, he invited me to go with him to Masada, Herod the Great’s massive fortress.

It was September 1, 1990, and tourists had fled Israel in droves, Saddam Hussein having helped himself to Kuwait a month previously. When we got to Masada, the parking lot was empty, save for a bus carrying tourists from American evangelicaldom. We rode up the funicular to the top of the great plateau together and then went our separate ways. Yigal, unfamiliar with the ways of some goys, asked me in a puzzled voice, “What are they doing here? Everyone else has left.” I explained that these good folk probably thought that, with war imminent, they’d lucked into a front-row seat at the Battle of Armageddon. So they were staying put.

Over some three decades of friendship and collaboration, I’ve come to think of Yigal Carmon as the contemporary reincarnation of an ancient Stoic. He is completely tone-deaf religiously: not hostile to religious belief, perhaps even admiring it in others, but incapable of it himself. Yet he is a man of the utmost moral seriousness, determined to see things as they are and to live in an ethically rigorous way, according to the norms of justice we can know by reason. So in a world increasingly dominated by irrationalism, he is very much worth listening to.

Since 1998, Yigal has been the driving force behind MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose self-defined goal is to “bridge the language gap between the Middle East and the West” by providing translations of materials originally appearing in the Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Pashto, Turkish, and Russian media into English, French, Polish, Japanese, Spanish, and Hebrew. In a recent MEMRI Daily Brief, Yigal, taking exception to one of President Trump’s bombastic characterizations of terrorists, wrote that “the jihadis who perpetrate these horrific crimes are neither losers nor nihilists….these perpetrators, by the standards of their own belief, are virtuous people…” That means that the only long-term answer to the bloody borders between “Islam and the rest” – borders than now reach deeply into Western societies – is for Islam to undertake a far-reaching internal reform, which purifies the faith and leads Islam to develop, from within its own resources, a case for religious tolerance and political pluralism: “a Muslim aggiornamento…along the lines of the reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII.”

Thus informed by both his Stoic ethic and his long experience in trying to thwart terrorist violence while helping the West understand it, my friend Yigal Carmon has come to precisely the same conclusion as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – Islam must develop and propagate an Islamic case against terrorist violence. It won’t be easy. But it must be done.