From 1989 until roughly 1996, I was formally involved in the ecumenical movement, jetting off to regional and World Council of Churches meetings on five different continents. By 1991 in Canberra, Australia, I came to dread the ritual of opening sessions in which, grouped together by continent, I and my Canadian compatriots were expected to say something witty and intelligent that would reveal hitherto hidden facets of “Canadian identity.” Those introductions began brightly with people predictably chirping, “Well, we’re not Americans!” before they came quickly to an inglorious halt in the struggle to find something—anything—else to say.
For Canadians or Australians—or Argentinians or Jesuits—to say “we’re not Americans” before criticizing them is totally uninteresting. It is also false.
It is false because there is no escaping America. One cannot escape not because America’s president owns hotels around the world, or because her military has bases around the world, or because of her economic reach and her often obscene exploitation of the hidden structures of global capitalism to American advantage. There is no escaping America because as an idea America has managed to penetrate and colonize the imaginations of most people on the planet, in ways both positive and negative. Whether you like it or not, America gets inside your head even if you don’t want it to and—like those military bases in Germany and Japan—never leaves.
America clearly got into the heads of Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa in their now-infamous essay, which has occasioned so much comment. I will limit my comments to two, both on a broad level. First, in reading that essay, another memory, also from the 1990s when I was writing a Master’s thesis on Alasdair MacIntyre, quickly rushed in: MacIntyre’s 1980 essay “The American Idea”. Himself an immigrant to the United States from the United Kingdom, MacIntyre captured well the dilemma faced by those of us in that conference room in the Australian capital in 1991: there’s no escaping America for, as MacIntyre has rightly noted, “America is…not just a country, but a metaphysical entity, an intangible abstraction always imperfectly embodied in natural reality.”
It is that lack of perfect embodiment that seems to have occasioned much of the jejune pique in the Spadaro-Figueroa essay. That essay can and should be criticized on a second front: its sly trafficking on the bloated eminence of papal authority. We hear far more than we need to, and at far greater length than is necessary, from this pope without being forced to endure yet further barrages from his underlings purporting to speak for him.
This latest stunt calls to mind a passage from Evelyn Waugh in the 1930s when he was forced to respond to a similarly obtuse editorial in a Catholic journal—in this case the Tablet—whose editor, verbosely traducing Waugh’s satirical novel, liked covertly to give the impression that his criticisms were shared by, and expressed with, the authority of the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster. Waugh splenetically dismissed the editor as “a valet masquerading in his master’s clothes” whose “long employment by a Prince of the Church has tempted him to ape his superiors and, naturally enough, he gives an uncouth and impudent performance.”
Back now to the first problem with the Spadaro-Fugueroa essay: it drips, as MacIntyre goes on to say, with “the kind of anti-Americanism which seeks to make the United States the scapegoat for the sins of Western modernity, …for everything that goes wrong.” In Spadaro and Fugueroa, there are in fact multiple scapegoats: not merely America as such—though it provides the metaphysical framework—but also certain types of Christians: evangelicals, fundamentalists (a word, like “fascist,” now so widely abused I think it should be retired immediately for saying nothing meaningful), and “integralist” Catholics. That latter phrase will, I have no doubt, evoke much head-scratching among Catholics, only a tiny few of whom will begin to understand what the authorial duo were describing; fewer still will care.
Anti-American scapegoating, as MacIntyre goes on to say (writing nearly four decades ago now), “is one of the luxuries of certain kinds of European politicians,” including Frenchmen of the de Gaulle generation and, more recently, “the right wing of the British Conservative party and the left wing of the British Labour party.”
And now, in 2017, we can apparently add “Jesuit churchmen” to that list.
What, as a high-school student in 1991, I found frustrating about Canadian anti-Americanism is well-described by MacIntyre in his essay. Though he doesn’t name Freud, nonetheless what MacIntyre is describing is a classic instance of something the Viennese master of suspicion understood well: projection and negative transference on the part of all those who engage in cheap, unreflecting scapegoating.
MacIntyre concludes his essay with a characteristically ringing peroration that Spadaro-Figueroa have totally failed to grasp, noting that when anti-Americanism appears, it does so among those insufficiently self-aware to understand their own internal relationship to America. Such anti-Americanism is
always a sign of failure to recognize that in the democracies of the West you cannot reject America because in the end, if you are honest, America is you. Every American has two nationalities, his own and that from which his ancestors originally sprang, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or in North America itself. But the counterpart to this is that free persons anywhere also have two nations, whether they like it or not – their own and the United States.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!