Italian Jesuit magazine criticizes political attitudes of some US Catholics

A peace activist holds a sign saying "Resist Islamophobia!" during a prayer service in early March outside the White House in Washington. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Rome — An Italian Jesuit magazine has criticized the political attitudes of some in the U.S. Catholic church, decrying in an article released July 13 a "strange form of surprising ecumenism" that it says is promoting societal conflict in pursuit of a dream of a future theocratic state.

The article in La Civiltà Cattolica, which is reviewed by the Vatican before publication, says some Catholic conservatives in the U.S. have built ties with fundamentalist evangelicals for political purposes that evince "enormous differences" with Pope Francis.

The authors — editor-in-chief Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentine Presbyterian pastor who leads his country's edition of Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano — call such Catholics "integralists" and say they "express themselves in ways that until recently were unknown in their tradition."

"Evangelical and Catholic integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state," write Spadaro and Figueroa.

"The most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations," they continue, nodding towards President Donald Trump's campaign promises. "The word 'ecumenism' transforms into a paradox, into an 'ecumenism of hate.' "

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"Clearly there is an enormous difference between these concepts and the ecumenism employed by Pope Francis with various Christian bodies and other religious confessions," the authors continue. "His is an ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges."

Spadaro and Figueroa write in the July 15 issue of the Jesuit magazine (available online July 13). While their article is being published in Italian, the magazine is also making available an English translation. The article carries the title: "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A surprising ecumenism."

Spadaro is known to be a close associate of Francis. The two had a wide-ranging interview shortly after Francis' election, which was published in Jesuit magazines around the world.

Figueroa is likewise known to be close to the pope. The two previously took part in a TV program together for the Buenos Aires Archdiocese, where Francis had previously served as archbishop, with Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

The article appears to be an unusually sharp critique of Catholics in a specific country by a Vatican-backed publication. Before decrying the alliance between fundamentalist evangelicals and conservative Catholics in the U.S., Spadaro and Figueroa also criticize what they call a "political Manichaeism" and "a particular form of proclamation of the defense of 'religious liberty' " in the country.

On the first point, the authors say that like the third-century Manicheans, who saw the world as a dualistic fight between forces of light and darkness, U.S. politics "divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil."

As evidence, they point to both former President George W. Bush's description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" and Trump's describing U.S. adversaries as "bad" or "very bad."

On the religious liberty front, Spadaro and Figueroa say that while the erosion of religious liberty is "clearly a grave threat" that "we must avoid its defense coming in the fundamentalist terms of a 'religion in total freedom,' perceived as a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state."

The authors conclude their article by drawing more comparisons between conservative U.S. Catholics' vision for public engagement and the pope's own vision.

"Today, more than ever, power needs to be removed from its faded confessional dress, from its armor, its rusty breastplate," state Spadaro and Figueroa.

"This is why the diplomacy of the Holy See wants to establish direct and fluid relations with the superpowers, without entering into pre-constituted networks of alliances and influence," they continue.

"In this sphere, the pope does not want to say who is right or who is wrong for he knows that at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power," they say. "So, there is no need to imagine a taking of sides for moral reasons, much worse for spiritual ones."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

This story appeared in the July 28-August 10, 2017 print issue.

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