Actor Tom Hanks brought to life (on screen) the fictional Harvard University "symbologist" Robert Langdon, the hero of Dan Brown's fanciful novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons."
If there actually were a "symbologist" floating around, it might be useful to page them -- or Tom Hanks -- to help interpret a Vatican-linked bit of commentary about, of all things, American politics, the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and President Donald Trump's chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.
Put all THAT in your word processor, Dan Brown! Can't you almost see the trailer for that movie, releasing perhaps in time for Campaign 2020?
Instead, we are, fortunately. in the capable hands of Rachel Zoll, religion writer for the Associated Press, and Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher. Each approaches the subject in a professional manner. Dreher, of course, has his opinions, which we'll get to in a moment.
Let's start with the AP, via Maine's Portland Press Herald. Take a gander at this longish excerpt, published under the headline "Pope confidant sees unholy U.S. alliance," to see what's causing all the fuss:
A close confidant of Pope Francis, writing Thursday in a Vatican-approved magazine, condemned the way some American evangelicals and their Roman Catholic supporters mix religion and politics, saying their worldview promotes division and hatred.
The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, said a shared desire for political influence between “evangelical fundamentalists” and some Catholics has inspired an “ecumenism of conflict” that demonizes opponents and promotes a “theocratic type of state.” ...
The article, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” was co-written by a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, who is editor of the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in the pope’s native country.
Articles in La Civilta Cattolica are reviewed and approved by the Vatican Secretariat of State. Under Francis, who is a Jesuit, the publication has become something of an unofficial mouthpiece of the papacy.
There's a lot to unpack there, especially when you look at the English version of the La Civiltá Cattolica article and find bon mots such as this:
Theirs is a prophetic formula: fight the threats to American Christian values and prepare for the imminent justice of an Armageddon, a final showdown between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. In this sense, every process (be it of peace, dialogue, etc.) collapses before the needs of the end, the final battle against the enemy. And the community of believers (faith) becomes a community of combatants (fight). Such a unidirectional reading of the biblical texts can 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.”
AP writer Zoll doesn't attempt to decipher that, but she helps readers understand the link between Spadaro's critique and the 23-year-old "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" concordat forged between noted evangelical thought leader Chuck Colson and Lutheran-turned-Catholic cleric Father Richard John Neuhaus:
Spadaro said this relationship has “gradually radicalized,” dividing the world into only good and evil and providing theological justification for a type of “apocalyptic geopolitics” advocated by such figures as White House adviser Steve Bannon, who is Catholic.
Spadaro specifically criticized the far-right Catholic American media organization ChurchMilitant.com. Spadaro said the media outlet framed the presidential election as a “spiritual war” and Trump’s ascent to the presidency as “a divine election.”
Michael Voris, who founded the outlet, said in an interview that he was shocked by the article.
“Here’s a fellow who is accusing us of trying to use the church to push a political agenda, which is completely absurd,” Voris said, when “they are using a leftist agenda to pursue leftist goals." ...
Blogging extensively about the nuances of Spadaro's critique at The American Conservative, Dreher distills some trenchant points:
There’s plenty to criticize conservative Catholics and Evangelicals for, but this Civiltà Cattolica essay reads like deaf men criticizing a chamber music performance. They have very little idea what they’re talking about. ...
The most meaningful division within Western Christianity today is not between churches and confessions, but that which runs within the churches and confessions. Father Spadaro’s “ecumenism of hate” is actually an ecumenism among Christian believers who, whatever their differences, prefer the Holy Spirit to the Zeitgeist. It is very strange that a conservative Evangelical and a conservative Catholic find that they have a lot more in common with each other than either do with liberals within their own churches, but that’s where we are.
Zoll deserves credit for doing something Spadaro apparently didn't bother to do: Contacting Michael Voris of ChurchMilitant.com and asking him for his views.
Dreher, who wondered aloud whether Spadaro tossed in a jab his own "The Benedict Option" book, discusses that particular Zeitgist's implications for faithful Christians of many stripes.
My journalistic worry is that others won't be as probing. CNN, for example, presents the views of Spadaro and co-author Figueroa exclusively in political terms. No effort is made to explain any theological nuance, to get reaction from people such as Voris, or to gain a comment from outside the fray. As always: Politics is real. Religion? Not really.
Instead, and without a trace of irony, we get a standard journalistic gambit and its result: "The White House did not immediately return a request from CNN for comment on the article Friday."
Has any previous White House been asked to comment on a Vatican-linked opinion article? It may be standard practice to do so, but it would be more helpful for CNN to find a Catholic thinker such as George Weigel, noted biographer of Pope Saint John Paul II. I have no idea what Weigel would say, but I'd love to hear it. Or how about former Boston mayor (and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President Clinton) Raymond Flynn?
In other words, how about getting some Catholic voices that can shed light, not heat, on the question. That used to be a standard journalist practice, as some readers here might recall.
Something tells me this story is going to continue to roll out across the media, especially if said media can cast it as a righteous body slam against President Trump. Something also tells me that many, if not most, of these reports will avoid any search for context or voices that dissent from what Spadaro and Figueroa have to say. If so, that'll be a true journalistic "sin of omission," I believe.