ACT ONE:Father Anthony Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and prominent Pope Francis advocate, authors with Reverend Marcelo Figueroa an extensive post in La Civilta Cattolica detailing the surprising ecumenism between Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists, particularly in the United States. Normally the response for this would be:
Not for the topic itself but rather the level at which this discourse proceeded. Let's get it straight: one of the Pope's closest Jesuit buddies and an Argentinian Presbyterian minister hand-picked by Pope Francis himself to edit the Argentine version of L'Osservatore Romano, co-author a piece about ecumenical cooperation in a continent neither of them come from or live in. (Let's put aside for a second the rather curious fact that there's a Protestant minister playing a prominent role in disseminating a Catholic publication...) OK, got it--now what are the National League Central standings? On the surface it just doesn't seem like that big of a deal.
But you know where this story leads--of course it's a big deal. Spadaro and Figueroa waste no time in alleging a "ecumenism of hatred" between the two groups. Both harbor deep hostilities about modern life, seeking instead to reassert a baldly theocratic order wherein many elements of progress would be reversed. The authors mention Lyman Stewart's funding of The Fundamentals in 1910-5 (overlooking the complexity of this phenomenon) and John Rushdoony's Christian reconstructionism. These figures contribute to an apocalyptic world view wherein anything leading to dialogue is suspect and anything validating conflict with the forces of (modernist) evil are celebrated. The Scriptures say a big fight with evil is coming, so let's get to work, good guys. Spadaro and Figueroa finger George W. Bush as particularly susceptible to this thinking.
They then name Breitbart chairman and Trump cabinet strategist Steve Bannon as a fomenter of this "ecumenism of hatred." They seem unaware that Bannon's religiosity is questionable or that in 2014 Bannon gave a now-well-publicized talk beamed to a Vatican audience. Of course the Vatican is not a monolith (as John Allen Jr has so ably detailed in his books), but still--is a little awareness too much to ask? Linking anything Catholic with Rushdoony and/or Stewart is, on the face, just plain wrong. It is an anachronism for which any undergraduate scholar would be scolded. Furthermore, the authors posit "Integralists" as if we all know what that means. Just as the authors themselves are a little fuzzy on what exactly constitutes a "fundamentalist," the same could be said about Sparado and Figueroa's Catholic counterpart. Google "Catholic integralism" and you get first the Wikipedia entry on the 19th and 20th century anti-Modernist movement. (And their own article link comes up third.) That's important because the authors never define "Integralism," nor do they distinguish what that means in the post-conciliar Church. Instead "Integralists" loom like boogeymen in the dark recesses of the Church where the light of Vatican II just hasn't yet shone. Again, if an undergraduate student submitted a paper with these unsubstantiated claims, a rather low grade would be forthcoming. It's not a well-crafted argument.
No matter. For Spadaro and Figueroa, Catholic traditionalists suspect Pope Francis of closet Marxist sympathies, while evangelicals, when they're not damning Catholic liberationists for confusing social justice with salvation, throw their weight behind alt-Right fantasies and the morally corrupt leadership of figures like President Trump.
Read all the original post here.
ACT TWO: the initial reactionsRather quickly, Father Dwight Longnecker posted a critique. He detailed Spadaro and Figueroa's obliviousness regarding their subject as well as their laudable desire to defend Pope Francis. (In doing this Father Dwight linked to another judicious criticism by Father Raymond de Souza.) Longnecker:
Dismayed, Massimo Faggioli took to friendly confines of Commonweal to reassert the importance, and inherent rectitude, of Spadaro and Figueroa's post. Faggioli, ever quick to assert his interpretative skills regarding the Papacy and the Vatican, insists that to reject Sparado and Figueroa's analysis is to reject Pope Francis' agenda. Furthermore, Spadaro and Figueroa's view is, Faggioli claims, effectively Pope Francis'.
In this sense the article points to something that really has happened to American Catholicism: a growing nostalgia for political Augustinianism as a juridically and institutionally established subordination of the temporal order (politics) to the supernatural (the church). This political neo-medievalism (conscious and unconscious) is one of the side effects of the moral and theological de-legitimization of politics today. Yves Congar, reading Gaudium et Spes in December 1965, thought that this was no longer part of the developing Catholic tradition.
In other words, the American Catholic power elite, upset by developing trends threatening their power, have, like Trump supporters, embraced a nostalgic--and wrong--view of "greatness." Anything undermining that greatness is rejected and, if possible, suppressed. Spadaro and Figueroa, attuned to Pope Francis' revolutionary vision, oppose this nostalgia. Not so sure about that, but hey, Faggioli's free to argue it.
Thus Philadelphia's archbishop Charles Chaput issued a counter-attack wherein he reminded readers that Catholics can dialogue with a variety of non-Catholics on a variety of social, economic, and political issues. He pointedly remarked that, historically, Catholics and Protestants tended not to cooperate, so the indication that some of each group are cooperating should lead instead to the question of causation. That, Chaput suggests, might be found in the headlong rush in Obama's second term to redefine marriage and punish those who disagree. In this situation, Chaput reminded us, the naive who get involved without knowing the stakes at hand are basically what Lenin allegedly called "useful idiots." The implication being that some Catholic useful idiots are carrying the water for social activists who intend the Church extensive harm. Chaput slyly argues that Spadaro and Figueroa, and those who support them, have placed their fears in precisely the wrong spot (and, Chaput notes, misrepresent their targets when they do).
ACT THREE: the prequel
We've seen Faggioli before. In October 2015 he and NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, who basically leans to the Right, squared off. Initially over Twitter, the conflict quickly escalated into a multi-pronged debate, quite forcible and very public in true Catholic social media fashion, between Faggioli and Douthat's legions of supporters. Back then I constructed (but didn't complete) a post, the bulk of which I present here:
The same day as Douthat's Erasmus lecture for First Things, he tweeted to Massimo Faggioli (who, let's admit it, is basically the David Lee Roth-esque rock star of Catholic theologians and Vaticanistas these days): "Own your own heresy."
Well, well, well--we done got ourselves an honest-to-goodness fight here.
Rod Dreher, ensconced in southern Louisiana, picked up the gauntlet.... and used it whack said progressives. First Things, with the usual scalpel-sharp wit, offered some satiric advice. (Pro-Tip: this was First Things imitating the Onion--do not take that post seriously.) Said Progressives suddenly realized their overstep and thus started backpedaling. Outside observers, predisposed to favor the progressives, understandably recognized their compatriots had made a mess of things and thus offered their help. This only throws gasoline on a fire that, heretofore, stayed somewhat contained.
Bishop Barron then settled everything down.
Confession: it took me three weeks to complete even that much of that post. Here is a then up-to-date reflection by Tim Muldoon at Boston College. Friendly to the letter-signers, he also recognized the problems the letter's rhetoric and presumptions pose. Along with Bishop Barron's reflection, Muldoon's post makes the best overview of the entire situation.
Again, that was all material I threw together during the autumn of 2015 as the posts appeared. My point with dusting it all off is that this is not the first time Faggioli has inserted himself in a Catholic internet controversy.
ACT FOUR: Internecine bloody knucklesOK, first, I am not accusing Father Spadaro of heresy.
Second, I am, though, concerned first about the original post's tone--and the quick, and quite frankly baldly naive, defense of the post by Faggioli.
Thus, the Catholic interwebs once again have escalated:
We haven't devolved yet to the level of 2015's Catholic online civil war. However, there is a connection. Just weeks after Trump's astonishing presidential victory, the American Academy of Religion held its annual meeting--this time in San Antonio, Texas. Deep in the city convention center, the Roman Catholic Studies group convened for its business meeting. There, surrounded by the sympathetic like-minded, scholars like Faggioli and others bemoaned: "52 percent of Catholic voters chose Trump? WTF?!?!"
Well, I hate to tell them, some of that defeat lies with these Faggioli-involved controversies wherein the American Catholic left and its intellectual vanguard baldly categorize anybody who disagrees with them as benighted, malicious theocrats. In other words, they helped create their own opposition.
The Catholic Left, once again vocalized by Faggioli, has, according to their own orthodoxy and rationality, decided who's right and who's wrong in this situation. They know they are taking sides...and they just do not care. As gay journalist Michael Musto recently posted:
Yes, we’re all just preaching to the converted on my pages these days, but hey, it feels good. I’ll take our fake news over their fake news any day.
Faggioli, his supporters (academic or not), and the readers of Commonweal and America know they are advancing slanted opinions, not objective arguments. And they do not care--but they likewise will not accept or recognize the validity of other, differently slanted opinions, i.e., those who criticize Spadaro and Figueroa's sloppy argument.
How this insight manages to evade them puzzles me. It's basically the same thing Chaput castigates with Spadaro, Figueroa, and Faggioli (who, remember, teaches at Villanova Unviersity...in Chaput's archdiocese).
And recently National Catholic Reporter has decided that the other two predominantly left-leaning Catholic publications can't hog all the fun and weighed in. Michael Sean Winters argues that Chaput's rebuke, in its decisiveness, illustrates the very dualism and diabolical forces Spadaro's original article describes. In other words, Spadaro and Figueroa have been right all along (just like Faggioli has insisted) AND, *gasp*, the problem appears in the most prominent of places.
So liberal American Catholics repeat thus again:
Are you not afraid?
Actually, guys, no, we're not scared--we'd just like you to:
1) please refrain from commenting long enough to consider the argument;
2) consider that maybe other valid views on these points exist.
ACT FIVE: Illumination
G. K. Chesteron reminded us in Orthodoxy (1908):
It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; a it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple....But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."
Quite frankly, while they're probably both loathe to admit similarities with such trad-favorite as Chesterton, Spadaro and Figueroa have something that like in mind. They perceive problems in both Catholic Integralism and Protestant Fundamentalism, each on their own as well as their purported malicious cooperation. Thus the ease of heresy--real orthodoxy requires balance and these two groups, in the eyes of Spadaro and Figueroa, are noticeably, obviously even they'd say, unbalanced.
Problem: the way in which Spadaro and Figueroa pursued their argument created, as Father Longnecker correctly said, a scapegoat by way of a scarecrow. Scarecrows aren't real people--they're caricatures. Faggioli exacerbates the situation by accepting the caricatures as real and then insisting the criticisms are the real caricatures. So it's clear how quickly the "fake news" accusations start swirling with all this. Furthermore, Faggioli's insinuation that critics of Spadaro and Figueroa are somehow closeted anti-Vatican II renegades is singularly unhelpful. As Austin Invereigh's recent Crux piece indicates, there are several reasons for criticizing a pope just as there are those for supporting. The Church is ONE and maintained so by God alone, not us. The same holds true for the Church's holiness; God sanctifies the Church through Christ, not us. (and for that we should always thank God!)
That being said, simplistic arguments and the presumption of righteousness in defending such arguments help no one. This charge, of course, can be leveled at the Right as well as the Left. And at that level, Spadaro, Figueroa, and Faggioli's words do far more harm than good.