A prominent Catholic journal’s critique of American religion and politics got quite a bit wrong, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said yesterday.
Archbishop Chaput said the article was “an exercise in dumbing down and inadequately presenting the nature of Catholic/Evangelical cooperation on religious freedom and other key issues.”
Writing in a July 18 column at CatholicPhilly.com, he noted that Catholic-Evangelical cooperation was “quite rare” when he was a young priest.
“The divide between Catholic and other faith communities has often run deep. Only real and present danger could draw them together,” the archbishop said. “Their current mutual aid, the ecumenism that seems to so worry La Civilta Cattolica, is a function of shared concerns and principles, not ambition for political power.”
Prominent Jesuit-run journal La Civilta Cattolica on July 13 published an analysis piece co-authored by its editor, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor who is editor-in-chief of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of Vatican City.
The piece, titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism” made a number of claims, alleging that many conservative Christians have united to promote an “ecumenism of hate” in policies that contradict Pope Francis’ message of mercy.
The piece’s analysis of American Christianity noted various influences like Christian fundamentalism, the “dominionism” of Presbyterian thinker Pastor Rousas John Rushdoony, the Prosperity Gospel, inspirational writer Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, and the polemical lay Catholic site Church Militant. It attempted to link these figures and trends with political trends and figures like Republican strategist Steve Bannon and Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Fr. Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa acknowledged that the erosion of religious liberty is “clearly a grave threat within a spreading secularism,” but said religious freedom should not be defended “in the fundamentalist terms of a ‘religion in total freedom,’ perceived as a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.”
They claimed that “Evangelical fundamentalists” and “Catholic Integralists” are being brought together in a “surprising ecumenism” by “the same desire for religious influence in the political sphere.”
Their article noted the American trend of “values voters” whose political decisions prioritize abortion, same-sex marriage, religion in schools and other matters. Both of these Catholic and Evangelical factions, they claimed, “condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.” They charged that this collaboration also advances a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations” and thus an “ecumenism of hate.” These religious and political trends, they said, were based on “fear of the breakup of a constructed order and the fear of chaos” and “painting worrying scenarios beyond any realism.”
In Archbishop Chaput’s view, the article’s description of attacks on religious liberty as a “narrative of fear” might have made sense 25 years ago, but now sounds “willfully ignorant.” He charged that the article ignored the fact that “America’s culture wars weren’t wanted, and weren’t started, by people faithful to constant Christian belief.”
“So it’s an especially odd kind of surprise when believers are attacked by their co-religionists merely for fighting for what their Churches have always held to be true,” the archbishop said.
Without mentioning him by name, Archbishop Chaput cited the words of Tim Gill, a Colorado-based multi-millionaire businessman and political strategist who has poured millions of dollars into LGBT activism. Gill was a major funder behind the successful effort to recognize same-sex unions as marriages, while in recent years his grant-making has focused on limiting religious freedom protections he considers discriminatory.
Gill told Rolling Stone magazine that he now aimed to “punish the wicked.”
“In other words, to punish those who oppose the LGBT cultural agenda,” added Archbishop Chaput, saying that conflicts over sexual freedom and identity involve “an almost perfect inversion of what we once meant by right and wrong.”
The archbishop said Catholics must treat all persons with charity and justice, including “those who hate what we believe.”
“It demands a conversion of heart. It demands patience, courage and humility. We need to shed any self-righteousness. But charity and justice can’t be severed from truth,” he said, citing St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans and other biblical calls to “sexual integrity and virtuous conduct.”
For the archbishop, attempting to soften or detour around these calls would demean what Christians have always believed and “reduces us to useful tools of those who would smother the faith that so many other Christians have suffered, and are now suffering, to fully witness.”
Archbishop Chaput suggested that the article got points of American religion incorrect. American Baptists, for instance, see their faith as undermining the integration of Church and State.
“Foreign observers who want to criticize the United States and its religious landscape – and yes, there’s always plenty to criticize – should note that fact. It’s rather basic,” he said.
The archbishop praised religious liberty legal groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket, saying they are “heroes, not ‘haters’.”
“And if their efforts draw Catholics, evangelicals and other people of good will together in common cause, we should thank God for the unity it brings.”
His column said the La Civilta Cattolica article was “rightly criticized” and “unfortunate comments,” voicing a broader warning against misunderstanding the political and religious situation.