Move over, Dan Brown; here come Spadaro and Figueroa!

Spadaro and Figueroa attack the “integralist” church, even though it hardly exists in any influential form in the U.S., doing so while apparently embracing (either unwittingly or willingly) the “liberationalist” church approach.

Pope Francis talks with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, and Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, superior general of the Society of Jesus, before a meeting with editors and staff of La Civilta Cattolica at the Vatican Feb. 9. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

My good friend Sandra Miesel, with whom I co-authored The Da Vinci Hoax years ago, was fond of starting out her talks about the mega-selling novel The Da Vinci Code by saying: “Dan Brown does get some things right: London is in England, Paris is in France, and Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter.” That quote came to mind over the weekend, while I was Facebooking with Dr. Chad C. Pecknold, who teaches systematic theology at Catholic University of America, about the recent essay “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism” by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa. Spadaro, who is editor of La Civiltà Cattolica (which published the piece) and is a close confidant and advisor to Pope Francis; Figueroa is “a Protestant and a close friend of Pope Francis” and editor of the Argentinian edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

Dr. Pecknold flatly stated that the two authors “have written an incendiary diatribe against an almost Dan-Brown-level caricature of the kind of politics they disdain.” And he is, I think, quite correct in that assessment. Recall how Brown’s novel was not and is not famous because of great writing or fascinating, current-day characters but because of audacious claims, clumsy but appealing conspiracy theories, and a veneer of sophistication. (For much more on that, see my March 2005 article “The ‘It’s Just Fiction” Doctrine’”.) Spadaro/Figueroa’s essay isn’t fiction, of course—which only makes its errors, dubious claims, hyperbolic criticisms, and hypocritical double standards all the more appalling. While several other authors—including Dr. Samuel Gregg here at CWR—have written some excellent responses, I want to highlight a few points I think are notable and worthy of consideration.

Spadaro/Figueroa’s essay seeks to impress with an air of learnedness, but sloppiness undermines it from the start. For example:

The term “evangelical fundamentalist” can today be assimilated to the “evangelical right” or “theoconservatism” and has its origins in the years 1910-1915. In that period a South Californian millionaire, Lyman Stewart, published the 12-volume work The Fundamentals. The author wanted to respond to the threat of modernist ideas of the time. He summarized the thought of authors whose doctrinal support he appreciated. He exemplified the moral, social, collective and individual aspects of the evangelical faith. His admirers include many politicians and even two recent presidents: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

No, Stewart did not “summarize” the thoughts of authors; he didn’t even edit the 12-volume sets of books. They were edited by A. C. Dixon and Reuben Archer Torrey, and consisted of 90 essays written by 64 authors from across a fairly wide spectrum of Protestantism—Calvinist, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, etc.— including scholars who taught at Ivy League schools. The term “fundamentalist” was coined a few years later, and the break between what we now call “Fundamentalism” and “Evangelicalism” was both protracted and complicated, eluding broad strokes or simple explanations. What is important here, however, is that the “fundamentals” in question consisted of the following: the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin birth of Christ, substitutional atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the authenticity of miracles, and the second coming of Christ. There were also essays against Catholicism, socialism, Mormonism, evolutionism, and other belief systems.

The essays marked a significant line in the cultural and religious sands of the time, which were characterized by a combination of progressive politics, technocratic aspiration, bureaucratic growth, eugenics, racism (not only against blacks, but also Catholic immigrants), the social gospel, forms of Darwinism, and, in the realm of theology, the flood of historical-critical methodologies (mostly coming from Germany). It’s important to note that most of the radical politics and racial eugenics of that time flowed from liberal Protestants or former Protestants; put another way, the “social gospel” of the time reflected a use of religion for a very “this world” type of political project. All this to say that Spadaro/Figueroa don’t seem to understand that politics in the U.S. have always, in many and often bewildering ways, been shot through with forms of Christian rhetoric and appeal, and that seeking to isolate any one form and make it the Rosetta Stone for understanding American politics is doomed to be simplistic and sophistic.

Anyhow, it seems clear that Spadaro/Figueroa have not read The Fundamentals. Did Reagan or the younger Bush ever do so? Perhaps, but it’s doubtful. Even if they did, it’s a curious stretch, to put it nicely, to say that presidential language about “good” and “evil”—whether by Bush or Trump (mentioned) or Carter or Obama (not mentioned)—reflects “a Manichaean language” that is “based on Christian-Evangelical fundamentalist principles dating from the beginning of the 20th Century that have been gradually radicalized.” Actually, such an analysis (to use that term loosely) reflects a one-sided—and thus quite skewed—vision both deeply ideological and historically shallow. If we are going to talk about gradual radicalization, why don’t we also talk about rapid radicalization and look at the era of, say, 1958-1973 (that is, “The Sixties”)? Or, we can simply ask: do essential cultural indicators—marriage and divorce, births out of wedlock, church attendance, belief in God and Jesus Christ—suggest that the U.S. is more or less Christian then it was a century ago?

When Spadaro/Figueroa state, “These have moved on from a rejection of all that is mundane – as politics was considered – to bringing a strong and determined religious-moral influence to bear on democratic processes and their results,” I can only conclude they know almost nothing about American history or politics, as (again) there has always been a number of religious-moral influences on the political process in this country. And I would suggest that the strongest such influence in recent decades has been a secularism which is just as deeply religious as any form of premillennial dispensationalism, Christian reconstructionism, or mainline Protestant goodism.

Robert Royal, in an excellent response at The Catholic Thing, notes that the Spadaro/Figueroa polemic about an “ecumenism of hate” is “so delusional that a Catholic must feel embarrassed that a journal supposedly reviewed and authorized by the Vatican would run such slanderous nonsense. The authors would have done better to get out and see some of America rather than, it seems, spending so much time with left-wing sociologists of religion.” And if they cannot come to America, they might want to read a bit of the historical studies by fine scholars such as Mark Noll and George Marsden (both Evangelicals; both have taught at Notre Dame) or cultural and theological studies by Glenn W. Olsen and David L. Schindler (both Catholics), just to mention a few. Noll is, arguably, the finest living historian of North American Christianity writing today, and it’s worthwhile to point out how his much discussed 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans), contains some scathing indictments of forms of Manichaeism and Gnosticism found in various Evangelical circles. But, rather than being political in nature (although that aspect certainly exists), these perennial errors are found in an other-wordly focus that is anti-intellectual, anti-sacramental, and anti-incarnational. Fundamentalism has often, in fact, given itself over to the temptation of thinking that “in order to be spiritual, one must no longer pay attention to the world.” In a similar fashion, the Presbyterian theologian Philip J. Lee, in his 1987 book Against the Protestant Gnostics, makes a strong and cogent argument that the effect of a gnostic perspective within North American Evangelicalism can be seen in the hyper-individuality, low ecclesiology, and vaguely syncretistic Christology found in many churches and groups.

Thirty years after Lee’s book, the growth of the Church of Secularism is accelerating, due to the sentimental but heavy-handed Reign of Gay, the complete collapse of mainline Protestantism, the continued flattening out of the cultural and social landscape through crass entertainment and lacking education, and the unraveling of familial ties and immediate communities. We have, as Ross Douthat has argued, become a “nation of heretics”. And so, as Royal rightly asserts, we do live in a theocracy—but not the one Spadaro/Figueroa imagine:

There is something like an emerging theocracy in the United States, with a Manichean vision. But it’s the theocracy of sexual absolutism that cannot tolerate pluralism or dissent. The Little Sisters of the Poor, Hobby Lobby, evangelical bakers, anyone who stands up to the contraception-abortion-“gay-marriage” (and now) “transgender” juggernaut risks legal jeopardy and accusations of being a “hate group.” (Spadaro and Figueroa echo this claim, saying the Evangelical-Catholic alliance represents a xenophobic, Islamophobic, purist vision that is really an “ecumenism of hate.”)

That remark was in response to Spadaro/Figueroa’s central assertion:

This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values. Both 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.

Much could be said here. It’s enough to note, first, as Olsen observes in his brilliant book On the Road to Emmaus: The Catholic Dialogue with America & Modernity (CUA, 2012), in “America there has never been an integralism of the European form…” However, Olsen notes, there is in fact a sort of integralism at work in America: a liberal form beholden to Enlightenment beliefs and assumptions:

American integralism is not neutral, but favors liberty against other possible ordering values, such as goodness, and has the effect of privatizing whatever in religion goes beyond the Enlightenment heritage. … Virtually no one wants the inconvenience of actually reordering individual or institutional life by subjecting it in some way to God, of seriously questioning at the personal level a life of money-making or at the social level the designation of institutions as forever “secular.” In Protestant and American fashion, many will allow religion an edifying or moral impact on government, but not a substantive role aimed at the transformation of institutions, along with all creation. In sum, the American way of life is an integralism both cultural and institutional, the building of a shared life on a shared valuation of liberty.

Olsen later observes that it is “sometimes hard for Europeans to understand the centrality of the Enlightenment to America … They fail to see that in America the Enlightenment is virtually the national religion …” Suffice to say there is more to that discussion, but it highlights how badly Spadaro/Figueroa misread the current situation. Put bluntly, they write as if they are stuck in the Fifties (although even then their reading would fail on essential points). Helpful here, for the sake of simplifying a complicated topic, is a paragraph from Schindler’s book Heart of the World, Center of the Church (Eerdmans, 1996):

[A]n “integralist” church seeks a relationship with the world, but does so through coersive means. A “liberationist” church seeks a relationship with the world, but does so through reductively, on the world’s terms. A “dualist” church seeks a relationship with the world, but in the form of what looks more like a contract: the church continues to define itself—and the world—too much in terms of the self-understanding each might have had prior to or outside of the relationship.

Spadaro/Figueroa attack the “integralist” church, even though it hardly exists in any influential form in the U.S., doing so while apparently embracing (either unwittingly or willingly) the “liberationalist” church approach. Meanwhile, the “dualist” church approach most likely still holds the center, so to speak—but that is starting to crumble. (Olsen and Schindler argue for a communio approach, which is in keeping with both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.) The Spadaro/Figueroa essay, far from being helpful, is a sad demonstration of a deficient, even embarrassing, perspective that is most hypocritical in being so blatantly political while denouncing the role of certain Catholics in the political sphere. (And, by the way, why is it that papal pronouncements about immigration, global warming, and economics not viewed as “political”?) As Dr. Pecknold told me:

And towards the end of the piece, the authors claim that Christian conservatives—Catholics and evangelicals especially—are on the wrong side of Pope Francis. In fact, the authors themselves sound quite Manichaean in their absolute opposition to their caricature of Christian conservatives in America. The authors make a great number of errors, both historically, descriptively, and in their diagnosis of what ails America, and Christian conservatives more specifically. It should go without saying that Fr. Spadaro does not speak for the Successor of St. Peter. If the principle of subsidiarity calls for intervention in the American Church, then the Holy Father has the gift to intervene. If not, I think we can regard Fr. Spadaro and Rev Figueroa’s complaints as ill-thought, petty and partisan.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown regurgitated laughable, lacking theories to explain away the divinity of Christ and the nature of the Catholic Church. Spadaro/Figueroa seem intent on using shallow, sensational assertions to vilify and ostracize certain Christians—both Catholic and Protestant—in the United States. It used to be that anti-Catholic Fundamentalism presented the Jesuits as nefarious, brilliant agents of the antiChrist seeking to bring the world under papal control; now we have a Jesuit and a Presbyterian arguing that conservative Evangelicals and Catholics are warlike agents of hate seeking to destroy the “systematic counter-narration” of Pope Francis. Where art thou, Jack Chick?

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. It is good to see that despite the discouraging times in which we live, Carl’s sense of humor is neither lost nor warped.

  2. great article what scares me is to what extent, if any, Spadaro/Figueroa have pipe francis’ ear. to what extent do they influence him?

  3. A short while ago, various newspapers called Pope Francis the leader of the left. Beccause this Pope is such a political, rather than religious, animal, he probably assumed that he was, in fact, the political leader of the left in the world. No doubt leftist the world over have been urging the pope to step up and publicly become the mouthpiece of the political left. They are urging him to oppose Trump. Hence this article by Spadaro and friend. This is their sad mishmash attempt at explaining to the world the trump phenomena. It just shows how incredibly stupid the people now inhabiting the Vatican are. Presumably this mishmash of pseudo intellectualism reflects exactly the Pope’s idea of the world. We have a very weird set of men in very high places, none of whom knows anything about the world. The sad thing is they have no idea of the monumental ignorance they exhibit. We are in for a very bumpy ride.

  4. I would surmise this is Francis speaking through his advisors in the publication closest to him.
    This pope has a huge chip on his shoulder for the United States, Americans and the American President.
    This amateur hour, undergraduate level hit-piece on our country clearly shows the Vatican’s cards.
    This pope, his Vatican and so many Jesuits are an embarrassment to the Catholic Church.
    They will all be held accountable.

  5. Things are so dire that comic relief is therapeutic. First we had Fake News. Then the Nothing Burger. Now it’s Fake Rant.

  6. On a serious note I quote Robert Royal. “There is something like an emerging theocracy in the United States, with a Manichean vision. But it’s the theocracy of sexual absolutism that cannot tolerate pluralism or dissent. The Little Sisters of the Poor, Hobby Lobby, evangelical bakers, anyone who stands up to the contraception-abortion-‘gay-marriage’ (and now) ‘transgender’ juggernaut risks legal jeopardy and accusations of being a ‘hate group.’ (Spadaro and Figueroa echo this claim, saying the Evangelical-Catholic alliance represents a xenophobic, Islamophobic, purist vision that is really an ‘ecumenism of hate.’)”. Royal identifies the danger for Catholicism in America. Despite Pres Trump’s inadequacies he has a positive agenda regarding religious liberty, the rights of the unborn and like matters. Democrats are in relentless attack including the media. Morning Joe is a constant anti Trump rant at times hysterical. And what he stands for. If Republicans fail and the Dem Party takes the White House and Congress we’re in for it. Fr Spadaro, Rev Figueroa I’m convinced are representative of the Pontiff’s views. A secular humanist world order devoid of a challenging antithetical Church. If Catholicism is splitting over AL, progressive v conservative it will likely end in real schism, or irreconcilable polarity if you wish. Taken that Am Hierarchy is increasingly aligned with the policies of Spadaro, Figueroa, and likely the Pontiff real persecution for those of us who adhere to Apostolic Tradition is it would seem in store. As much as many of us abhor aspects of Trump’s behavior it’s what the Rep Party stands for. Win or lose Catholics are in the same ‘boat’ as the Rep Party. The good from a spiritual perspective, if they lose will be the call to practice our faith heroically.

    • Father, I would be interested in your answer to this question. Should Pope Benedict be speaking up more? Surely he sees and understands what is happening better than just about anybody else.

      • Yes. Initially I strongly hoped he would speak directly and forcefully to the issues. Others felt he’s too old. I’m not sure. I believe he’s still the good soldier. Not wanting to abrogate his abdication. Perhaps from his perspective as it seems was that of former Prefect CDF Mueller’s concern not wanting to exacerbate the schism, or split. Because the division is growing wider and many more souls are increasingly at risk following a policy that repudiates the Deposit of the Faith I’m convinced he must. Propriety, protocol, how it will be received is besides the point now. The split is real. Everyone who remains loyal to the faith must have the courage to address the issues directly and with conviction. This laying back and wait attitude on the part of many, Hierarchy, priests, Laity included is detrimental and a false hope. We are called now to witness to the faith and the time is well past waiting. This Pontiff has proposed policies by premise, suggestion, manipulation, political maneuver, encouraging heterodoxy and viciously chastising the faithful that cannot possibly come from God. His actions must be opposed. I’m now convinced for the salvation of others who are confused. And especially for those ordained, possessing Holy Orders to witness to the truth and to Christ.

        • Thank you. I very much agree.The split/schism is becoming more apparent every day. The longer that the doctrinal faithful wait, before speaking up, the more entrenched the other side will be.I can’t help but think of the quote from Jesus in the Gospel ” When the Son-Of-Man returns will He find any faith upon the earth?”

  7. Spadaro and Figueroa (and the Pope) disgrace the historical intellectual standard of Jesuit life. They should be collectively ashamed.

  8. Amazing how Jesus’ Gospel of Love was opposed by the Temple-State cosy compromisers. The struggle continues as various ideologues wrap themselves up in systems that try to include the Church as institution in their web. Francis is doing a great work in calling us to follow Jesus by shedding worldly trappings and human vanity at the core to reveal the Mystery of the God-Man who hid his Divinity in our humanity so we could be made Divine by adoption and jettison the power and venality of our human Eden temptation to become equal to God. We can pray that his successors can follow through and give us a stripped-down Poor Man Church that was the Council’s Vision in the 60s. ..

    • It sounds like you pray more to Francis than you do to God. The heretical notion that the right way to run a church has just only been discovered the Magical Mystery Pope Francis is rather silly. We do not idolize our Popes, we appreciate them when they advance the work of Christ through his church, which is the same always. There is no such thing as a “new vision” of the church. Francis was supposed to be Pope of the Church of Christ that we have always had. Now, if you think Francis is some magical man who suddenly invents a new church, then you are far off the Mark.

    • Correction to quote earlier:

      “The God who sits enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offense to Man.” (Walter Kasper, God in History, 1967)

      A theology of arrogance for the man who would be worshiped.

  9. Conservatives, traditionalists and evangelicals, oh my!
    Lions & tigers and bears, oh my!

    What a fearful thought, that truth is truth and that good is good and evil is evil. Why just imagine what would happen if all this got out of hand. You might not be able to have children living in same sex families, or transgendered bathrooms… or perish the thought, restrictions on abortion.

    Are there any Catholics left in the Vatican? Are there any Christians left in the Vatican?

  10. “It seems clear that Spadaro/Figueroa have not read The Fundamentals.”

    Hey but they read Wikipedia and one newspaper other than their own (which is the one and only one that the Pope also reads).

  11. The Supreme Pontiff Francis and the “Rev.” Spadaro are now parading their insanity like a float in the Rose Parade.

    Mentality like this is what results from having your head cooked-over in a Jesuit Seminary.

    They are like a chubby kid occupying the “left-end” of the insanity see-saw, pursuing detente with their fellow-chubs in the Marxist/SOGI/Islamophiliac elite, counter-balanced by a skinny kid on the “right-end” who insists that it is not enough to have Jesus as our King, we insist on a Catholic monarchy.

    Meanwhile – reality beckons…

  12. This text came after Trump speech in Warsaw. And thats answer for mr President remarks. Thats shape of new frontline. One side family God and fatherland and the other LGBTQWERTY, climate jihad, socialism

  13. “Spadaro & Figueroa’ – Sounds like a soft-shoe/comedy team from the heyday of Vaudeville.

    No disrespect intended.

  14. Online Pushback for the Spadaro “Ecumenism of Hate” article at Civiltà Cattolica:

    Tim Stanley:
    “Why is Civiltà Cattolica attacking American Christians? I have a theory”

    Fr. John Zuhlsdorf:
    “Jesuit @AntonioSpadaro, Jesuit-run Civiltà Cattolica attacks Americans”

    Dr. Samuel Gregg:
    “On that strange, disturbing, and anti-American “Civiltà Cattolica” article”

    Fr. Dwight Longenecker:
    “On European Ignorance and Arrogance”

    Rod Dreher:
    “Top Papal Adviser Denounces ‘Ecumenism Of Hate’”

    Phil Lawler:
    “An ignorant, intemperate Vatican assault on American conservatism>

    Thomas Williams:
    “Papal Advisers Bash American Christians in Bigoted Screed”

    Fr. Dwight Longnecker
    Spadaro, Straw Men and Scapegoats

    Father Raymond J. de Souza
    Article by pope’s confidantes adds little to understanding Trump’s America

    John Zmirak
    Leading Jesuit Condemns Pro-Life Movement, Trump Voters and Conservatives

    Robert Royal
    Are Americans from Mars?

    Mark Silk
    Catholicism’s Two-Party System

    Maureen Mullarkey
    In God They Don’t Trust: Anti-American Syllabus in Vatican journal Maureen Mullarkey’t-trust-anti-american.html

    Kathryn Jean Lopez
    Evangelicals are potential allies for the good, not partners in hate

    Matt Hadro
    What Civilta Cattolica’s analysis of US Christianity missed

    Carl E. Olson
    Move over, Dan Brown; here come Spadaro and Figueroa!

    Deborah Gyapong
    That La Civilta Cattolica article!

  15. Over at NCReporter there is now an editorial, incredibly, lamenting the prosperity gospel of The Napa Institute and the slippery prose of the late Fr. Neuhaus. Hey, what fake news? Really, I am glad Benedict XVI said the Lord wins in the end, cuz I give up!

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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  3. That La Civilta Cattolica article! | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog
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