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?