Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Vatican's America Problem Catholicism in the United States, as with Politics, Has Entered an Era of Confusion, Observes Columnist Ross Douthat

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Vatican's America Problem Catholicism in the United States, as with Politics, Has Entered an Era of Confusion, Observes Columnist Ross Douthat

Article excerpt

In 1892, Pope Leo XIII addressed a letter to the Catholics of France. For a century French politics had been divided between mostly Catholic monarchists and mostly anticlerical republicans, and the church had championed royalists against the secular republic. But now the pope urged French Catholics to take a different approach - to rally to the republic, a strategy called "ralliement," and work through republican institutions to protect the church's liberties and promote the common good.

In European politics this was a novel gambit, but for American Catholics at the time it amounted to a tacit endorsement of what they were already doing. In the United States, there was no ancien regime to imagine restoring, no plausible scenario in which the integration of church and state might be achieved - and Catholics had been trying to prove their patriotism in a largely Protestant country by rallying to the republic since the founding era.

So Pope Leo's letter began a long (and complicated) process of harmonization between America and Rome, sealed in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council, in which the church's political thought was tacitly Americanized. No more would the Vatican emphasize the necessity, for Catholics, of supporting an "integralist" relationship between their government and church. Instead the American way of doing religious politics - in which a secular political framework allowed a great deal of room for religiously inspired activism - was blessed and accepted as the Catholic way as well.

Over the last decade, however, as American Christianity has weakened and American politics become ever-more-polarized, the Catholic position in the United States has become more difficult and perplexing. The Democratic Party, whose long-ago New Deal was built in part on Catholic social thought, has become increasingly secular and ever-more-doctrinaire in its social liberalism. The Republican Party, which under George W. Bush wrapped the Catholic-inflected language of "compassionate conservatism" around its pro-life commitments, has been pinballing between an Ayn Rand-ish libertarianism and the white identity politics of the Trump era.

As a result a sense of disillusionment and homelessness among Catholic thinkers - younger ones, especially - has increased. It isn't just that old 20th-century approaches to Catholic politics - both the ethnic-Catholic liberalism of a Mario Cuomo or a Ted Kennedy and the Catholic neoconservatism that shaped figures like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan - seem like they're out of energy and influence. It's also that Western liberalism writ large seems at once hostile to traditional religion and beset by internal contradictions, making the moment ripe for serious Catholic rethinking, a new and perhaps even post-liberal Catholic politics.

So far that new thinking includes revivals of radicalism on the Catholic left, where people pine for a pro-life Bernie Sanders and flirt anew with baptizing Karl Marx. It includes the lively debate over Rod Dreher's recent book "The Benedict Option," with its insistence that politics cannot save American Christianity and that some form of cultural separatism is essential for religious renewal. And it includes the various Catholic responses to Mr. Trump and to the revival of European nationalism - some of which imagine that out of the crisis of Western liberalism a new or different integralism, a more fully Catholic politics, might eventually be born.

Misdirected attacks on Trumpery

Rome, and specifically the men around Pope Francis, seem to both misunderstand and fear this new ferment. Both reactions, fear and ignorance, inform a recent essay in the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, written by two papal confidantes, the Jesuit Rev. Antonio Spadaro and the Protestant journalist Marcelo Figueroa, which has generated thousands of words of intra-Catholic argument in the last few weeks.

Their essay is bad but important. …

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