Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro (and Presbyterian minister and co-author Marcelo Figueroa) has already been widely criticized for his July article, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” which was published in the Vatican-based international Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica. He has been called “delusional” and ignorant of the United States and has been characterized as “wrong on Protestant history, ignorant of contemporary Catholic life.” Archbishop Chaput called it a “dumbing down” of the true nature of American Catholic-Evangelical relations.
Yet, on the other hand, it has been argued that Spadaro’s “basic thesis is certainly correct” and that he has identified “pathologies” that need to be cured. Another viewpoint approves of Spadaro’s criticism of “fundamentalism” and gratuitously adds that those fundamentalists whom Spadaro is criticizing are also against evolution. And American Jesuit Thomas Reese agrees with Spadaro’s description of “the unholy alliance between Catholic and evangelical conservatives who have attempted to make their churches the Republican party at prayer.”
Despite these critiques pro-and-con and the publicity surrounding Spadaro’s article, this reviewer thinks that much of the substance of Spadaro’s article has been downplayed and even ignored. For instance, Fr. Spadaro has attacked not only the politics but also the very faith of American Evangelicals – and their Catholic peers. And his accusation that Evangelicals and Catholic are haters, that is, that their social/political alliance is really an “ecumenism of hate” has made headlines, of course, but also been essentially ignored in its substance. We will also deal here with a follow-up interview of Spadaro in America, the American Jesuit magazine.
Spadaro says that some Catholics in this country have become “Integralists”, a term referring to the Catholic movement in Europe mainly in the nineteenth century that advocated the subordination of the state to the Church. What he does not mention and may not understand is that well more than 99 percent of American Catholics have never heard of Integralism, either in its definition or as a social/political movement, and do not subscribe to it, knowingly or unknowingly. Spadaro’s basic accusation is that Catholics Integralists are associating in politics with the wrong people: “evangelical fundamentalists.” This association is not a proper ecumenism; it has become an “ecumenism of hate,” and also an “ecumenism of conflict” because, he alleges, it identifies political allies and political “enemies.” As for his knowledge of the United States and American Christianity, Spadaro does not seem to know that there are important distinctions between Evangelism and fundamentalism.
The essential problem with “evangelical fundamentalism” is its reliance on the Bible, Spadaro argues. He includes at least five separate attacks on evangelical-fundamentalist interpretation of the bible. They employ a “decontextualized reading of the Old Testament.” Their “literalist understanding of the creation in Genesis leads them to “put humanity in a position of dominion over creation” (Spadaro does not mention Gen. 1:28). They read the final figures of the book of Revelation “non-allegorical[ly].” And they have “an apocalyptic hope in a ‘new heaven and a new earth.” Their “unidirectional reading of the biblical texts” about Armageddon leads them to “anesthetize consciences or actively support the most atrocious and dramatic portrayals of a world that is living beyond the frontiers of its own promised land.” They think that “the economic growth of the county” occurred because of a “literalist adherence to the Bible.”
He then proceeds to directly attack the both the existence and the quality of the faith of his opponents; that is, he disparages them as Christians and even compares them to terrorists. They “maintain conflict levels,” instead of relying on “the incisive look, full of love, of Jesus in the Gospels.” They should instead be “reconsider[ing] their dogmas…” “Their logic is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism” as ISIS “is based on the same cult of an apocalypse.” Many televangelists concentrate “more on personal success than on salvation or eternal life.” There are “millionaire pastors” who think that God wants their followers to be “materially rich.” Their theological/political agenda is not “eschatological.” Their “triumphalist, arrogant, and vindictive ethnicism” is “actually the opposite of Christianity.” And overall: “Fundamentalism” is a “poor and abusive perversion” of religious experience.” Their “theopolitical plan” is not “truly Christian.”
What is more, he wonders how Catholics and Evangelical Christians can ever cooperate in ecumenism when they are “paradoxically competitors when it comes to confessional belonging.” And, those Catholics allied with Evangelicals are expressing themselves “in ways that until recently were unknown in their tradition.” Thus, he deliberately drives a theological and ecclesiastical wedge between Catholics and Evangelicals. No ecumenism there. Perhaps Spadaro does not realize that in making this attack, he has eliminated all ecumenism between Catholics and all other Christians, for there is always, of course, an ecclesiastical difference between and among different Christians.
Let us consider how many American Christians Spadaro is criticizing. According to the Pew Research Center, Evangelical Christians, the largest American religious group, are 25.4 percent of all Americans, religious and not religious. Catholics are second, with 20.8 percent, while mainline Protestants now are only 14.7 percent of all Americans, with the religious “nones” now 22.8 percent of all Americans. Of the 52 percent of American Catholics who voted for Trump, let’s say that only half of them, maybe, are Intergralists (even though they don’t know it). So, with the Evangelical 25.4 percent of all Americans and the roughly one-quarter of American Catholics of all Americans, that makes about 30 percent of the entire American public who deserve the wrath of Spadaro and close to half of all American Christians.
Spadaro says that Evangelicals, those Catholic Integralists, and and the American Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush II, and Trump have displayed a kind of Manichaeanism in that they have divided politics and even “reality” between “absolute Good and absolute Evil.” He says that Vatican diplomacy does not do that because “the pope does not want to say who is right and who is wrong . . .” Thus, according to Spadaro, “there is no reason for taking of sides for moral reasons, much worse for spiritual ones.” Those people who do take sides make “enemies” whom they then “demonize.”
But Spadaro himself seems to get a little Manichaean when he refers to his own preferred political issues, that is, the “dramatic” change in climate and the “crisis” in global ecology.” And what about former vice-president and climate-change alarmist Al Gore? Was he being Manichaen when he recently demonized “the large carbon polluters” and accused them of being as bad as the “tobacco companies” in the fight over cigarettes? And what about Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign when she famously demonized half of the supporters of Donald Trump as a “basket of deplorables.” Of course, neither Gore nor Clinton are Republicans.
The Catholic Integralists-Evangelical coalition, Spadaro claims, has a wrong understanding of the significance of “natural disasters, dramatic climate change, and the global economic crisis”. He directly criticizes Evangelicals and conservative Catholics for concentrating on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious education in schools, while they have “anesthetiz[ed]” themselves about the importance of ecology and climate change. However, it may be informative for Spadaro to learn that Evangelical Christians are in fact concerned with climate change, and 28 percent of them say that human activity is the cause. While that is below other Christian groups, it represents a lot – millions – of American Evangelical Christians.
In a July 14, 2017, followup “exclusive” interview with Gerard O’Connell, the Vatican correspondent for the American Jesuit magazine America, Spadaro makes a meager and deceptive effort to do some backpedaling. He states that Catholic-Evangelical fundamentalism “is a risk that is not just confined to the United States, it is valid in other countries too.” But he mentions no such other country. Nor is he asked to do so by O’Connell. He states that his La Civiltà Cattolica article was describing an international “phenomenon,” and that he was merely trying to “understand” the phenomenon, “not focus on a nation.” Of course, this is demonstrably false since in an article that analyzes American Evangelicalism and American Catholic “Integralism,” and criticizes four American Republican presidents, there is no direct or implied reference whatsoever to any other country.
In America, Spadaro piously mentions ways in which Catholics and “Protestants” can engage in “positive partnerships” on certain issues, which issues include “the care of the family” and “the protection and support of human life,” although he does not use the word “abortion.” But that is a direct contradiction of the explicit terms in the La Civiltà Cattolica article where the constant theme and purpose is to divide American Evangelicals from American Catholics and in which abortion and marriage were set in opposition to preferred issues such as climate change.
He says to American interviewer O’Connell that “it was not our intention to demonize anybody.” However, in light of his accusation of the “ecumenism of hate,” his comparison of American fundamentalism to “Islamic fundamentalism,” his demeaning of evangelicalism and fundamentalism as “a poor and abusive perversion” of Christianity, and his locating of this perversion “mainly” among “whites from the deep American South,” Spadaro has gone well beyond making a false statement about his clear intent to demonize his opponents and has moved on to insulting the intelligence of the readers of the two articles.
According to his biography on Wikipedia, the Italian Jesuit Spadoro, the international editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, has apparently spent almost all of his priesthood as a scribe in the Vatican. Could that be the source of his ignorance of the world? To be understood, ecumenism needs to be practiced. What Fr. Spadoro should do, perhaps, is leave the power and privilege of the Vatican and go to rural Catholic parishes in the south of the United States. There he would not only have to interact with American evangelical Christians, he could also fill in for hardworking Catholics pastors and give them some time off. As Pope Francis (to whom Spadoro is a close confidant) has said in Evangelii Gaudium, sometimes “realities are more important than ideas.”
Spadaro has pioneered a new kind of ecumenism: denouncing the content and quality of other Christians’ faith and slamming the Church doors in their faces. He has likely done great harm to relations between American Catholics and Evangelicals. He has also blackened the image of the American Catholic Church across the world. In falsely calling them “haters,” he has slandered, defamed, and calumniated both American Evangelical Christians and a large portion of American Catholics.