Antonio Spadaro S.J. on Wednesday retweeted The New York Times‘ article on the recent essay under his and Marcelo Figueroa’s by-line in La Civiltà Cattolica, quoting this line: “The main point of the article was the pope’s argument that religion in the service of politics or power is ideology…”
Perhaps that was the main point of their piece. If it was, it is good to know: their essay was perplexing, to say the least, and that piece of clarification is most welcome.
That Spadaro did not merely retweet the NYT article, but also quoted that line, tells us that he did indeed purport to speak the Pope’s mind in his and Figueroa’s essay. This puzzle piece does move the story forward in significant ways, for whether – and if so, to what extent – Spadaro and Figueroa spoke for the Pope in their piece has been a question from the moment of their essay’s first appearance.
Does Pope Francis really believe that there is a powerful, nominally Christian but really Manichaean cabal calling the shots in the White House?
Does Pope Francis really believe that there is a large, organized, and powerful group of U.S. Catholic political conservatives committed to establishing theocratic government in the United States and spreading its sway by the sword over the whole world?
I find the notion that he does believe such nonsense a hard pill to swallow, but I do not have the Pope’s ear – and Spadaro does, to hear him tell it.
In any case, the cooperation between politically and socially conservative Catholics and evangelical fundamentalist Protestants in the public square is generally in defense of life, marriage and the family, and religious liberty – all causes in favor of which Pope Francis himself has called on Catholics to advocate tirelessly. Indeed, he has called on Christians to cross confessional lines in defense of them, precisely with a view to progress on the road to full, visible unity through effective public witness:
As we move towards full communion, we can already develop many forms of collaboration, to go together and collaborate in order to foster the spread of the Gospel. By walking and working together, we realize that we are already united in the name of the Lord. Unity is achieved on the journey. (Homily of Pope Francis at Vespers on the vigil of the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul, 2016)
Spadaro and Figueroa also decry American conservatives’ “condemn[ation of] traditional ecumenism…” Leave aside for the moment that the modern ecumenical movement began just over 100 years ago, and that the Catholic commitment to ecumenism is only a half-century old at best – a few minutes ago in ecclesiastical time – and consider what Pope Francis had to say about the ecumenical context in 2014:
In our day, ecumenism and relationships between Christians are changing significantly. This is due above all to the fact that we profess our faith within a society and a culture increasingly less concerned with God and all that involves the transcendental dimension of life. (Address to a Finnish ecumenical delegation on the Feast of St Henry, 2014)
Has the ecumenical landscape changed so radically in the past three and a half years, as to render his observations obsolete?
Spadaro and Figueroa acknowledge the threat to religious liberty, writing, “The erosion of religious liberty is clearly a grave threat within a spreading secularism.” Nevertheless, they declare, “[W]e 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.”
Here, please ignore for a moment the literary infelicity of the phrase, “direct virtual challenge,” and consider that they mean, in essence, a direct challenge to the “secularity of the state” that disguises itself as something else, or couches itself in ostensibly reasonable terms.
Sadly, their breathless warning reads more like a straw man.
Religious liberty in America has never been absolute and unqualified, nor has it ever been construed to exempt churches from basic rules of participation in civil society. Church buildings – including worship venues, schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages, and hospices, inter alia, must be built to specific safety regulations such as occupancy ordinances, and fire codes apply to churches as much as they do to everyone else.
The only thing that Christians – and not only Christians – in the United States ask, is that their fellows in society and the government recognize that the First Amendment to the Constitution says what it says, and means it.
That Christians, together with other religiously committed fellows in citizenship and a not insignificant number of their fellow citizens of good faith but no religious conviction of which to speak, ask this after the manner of people who are used to speaking in the language of truth, and divested of those expressions of servility which would persuade both their fellows and the guardians of their rights in government that they are asking favors, rather than rights, should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the American way of engaging in public controversy and addressing political leaders.
Perhaps Spadaro and Figueroa are unaware of the nature and scope of the threat to religious liberty that comes from the radical secular left in the United States. Perhaps they missed the news that the Supreme Court of the United States truncated a vigorous national debate and imposed same-sex marriage on all fifty states in the union, and that two days did not pass from the time of their imposition before fresh calls for revocation of churches’ tax-exempt status began coming. Or that, as recently as last month – the same week in which their essay appeared – the fabulously wealthy, powerful, well-connected and motivated tech millionaire and LGBTQ activist, Tim Gill, enthusiastically proclaimed his intention, “[To go] into the hardest states in the country,” and, “punish the wicked” who dare to assert their right not to be forced to participate in same-sex marriages, or seek other reasonable protections of their rights to order their own affairs according to their religious convictions.
In any case, if Spadaro and Figueroa want a powerful, organized, motivated cabal, filled with all the zeal of perverted religion, and bent on imposing its worldview on the nation and using American power to spread its convictions throughout the globe, I know where they should look.