Is the work of the National Catholic Register, and its parent apostolate, EWTN, advancing an “ecumenism of hate” in which “Catholic integralists” and “evangelical fundamentalists” seek to subordinate the Gospel to a right-wing political agenda?
That’s the remarkable charge made by some thinkers close to Pope Francis and their most enthusiastic supporters. Such people, in Christian charity, should be ignored; and, if the quality of their analysis alone were the only relevant criterion, its manifest mediocrity would mandate just that. But when such figures are such prominent interpreters of the current pontificate, they cannot be ignored.
Last month, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, confidant of the Holy Father, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Protestant pastor personally chosen by Pope Francis to be the editor in chief of the new Argentinean edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, authored an essay arguing that what they consider to be the hate-filled politics of the Trump administration has its roots in an unholy alliance between “Evangelical Fundamentalism” and “Catholic Integralism.”
The essay appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit journal published in Rome that warrants attention because its pages are reviewed in advance by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Father Spadaro is the journal’s editor.
The essay has produced a great number of critical responses, including from R.R. Reno of First Things, writing in these pages.
Those responses have argued that the analysis provided by Father Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa is not an accurate reading of America’s religious history over the past century. The essay was particularly weak in selecting as the Catholic example of this “ecumenism of hate” the website “Church Militant,” which by any account represents a tiny minority in the United States.
Father Spadaro and Figueroa, having made an outrageous claim using an incendiary and inaccurate example, were then supported by liberal American commentators claiming that the “ecumenism of hate” problem had actually infected this newspaper.
Michael Sean Winters, writing at the National Catholic Reporter, began with Church Militant and ended up with us:
That kind of militaristic, and profane, language is not uncommon at right-wing Catholic websites, all of which feed into the mainstream through less outrageous, but decidedly conservative, media outlets like EWTN and the National Catholic Register. EWTN is a kind of gateway drug for conservative Catholics: You may start by watching Raymond Arroyo interview Sebastian Gorka for the umpteenth time or reading Father de Souza explain how Trump’s speech in Poland was “faith-filled” and go no further, just as some people smoke weed and that is enough. But for others, EWTN or the Register lead you into the snake pit of truly whacky conservative Catholic media.
Writing at Crux, another commentator, Steven Krueger — president of Catholic Democrats, a partisan organization that grew out of the “Catholics for Obama” project in the 2008 and 2012 elections — claimed that the unholy alliance began under the auspices of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus and the late Charles Colson:
There’s an evangelical/Catholic alliance that has evolved over time and was first codified in 1994 with the signing of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” In 2004, The New York Times reported that “Catholic and evangelical leaders who forged relationships in the anti-abortion movement … are now working side by side in campaigns on other culture-war issues, and for Republican candidates.”
George Weigel responded to the nonsense that Evangelicals and Catholics Together, one of the most serious theological dialogues on the ecumenical front anywhere, was somehow a partisan political initiative.
What is to be made of such intemperate accusations, portraying the late Father Neuhaus or Mother Angelica as providers of a “gateway drug” that intoxicates conservative Catholics with hate-filled attitudes and lamentable politics?
It is politics.
Father Spadaro, Figueroa, Winters, Krueger and others are preoccupied with politics. The very term “integralism” in the original essay is used to characterize an approach to religion and politics that sees, historically, the state subject to the control of the church, or at least in active cooperation with it. The claim now made is that new Catholic “integralists” in the United States have made their faith subordinate to Republican Party politics.
One can understand why Catholics of a left-leaning political bent would be frustrated. For several generations, the intersection of religion and politics in America has been around a set of issues — the right to life, marriage and family and religious liberty — that have aligned religious voters with more conservative politics. A key priority of Pope Francis has been to highlight issues that would shift religious voters toward the political left — increased immigration, climate change and redistributive economics.
That project should bring Spadaro et al. confidence, but, instead, we see a lashing out and a flailing about in the face of supposedly shady enemies engaged in nefarious coalitions.
It brings to mind the unhinged nature of the late atheist Christopher Hitchens, who devoted his considerable intelligence to spewing forth vicious attacks on Mother Teresa. While the substance of the attacks was easily dismissed, it was the fever of the attacker that remained notable.
And one might simply ask: Whose fault is it that religious voters find liberal political options so unwelcoming?
There is a long tradition, not only in the United States, of what has been called the “social gospel,” the application of Christian principles to politics in a progressive vein. It has a venerable history and could claim the abolition of slavery, the anti-poverty programs of the welfare state, the civil-rights movement and universal health care as part of that history.
How did liberal politics move — above all, with its embrace of abortion — toward the place where an American president sought to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide contraceptives in their health plans? Is that not an example, for Catholics who prefer liberal politics, of precisely the subordination of faith to politics that Father Spadaro and Figueroa lament?
The Spadaro/Figueroa essay and its aftermath is most curious. At precisely the moment when those on the Catholic left have the enthusiastic encouragement of the Holy Father, there is a desperate name-calling of those with whom they disagree.
When they should be confident in the persuasiveness of their arguments, they have resorted instead to (falsely) discrediting others. Indeed, as they analyze the dark motivations of others, one might ask why they are so insecure.
is the editor in chief of