Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Catholic cyberspace in recent weeks has, I am sure, dipped a toe or two into the oceans of ink poured out in commentary about the recent La Civiltà Cattolica essay that ran with the headline, "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism."
First, note the title's trailblazing work in the field of subtle labeling in public discourse about religion.
We are not talking about mere "evangelicals" or "fundamentalists." In this case we are talking about "evangelical fundamentalism," which would be fundamentalists who preach their fundamentalism with an evangelical zeal?
Anyway, key is that the authors -- universally hailed as allies of Pope Francis -- have taken to the pages of a "Vatican-vetted publication" in an attempt to link decades of high-profile public contacts between culturally, and doctrinally, conservative Protestants and Catholics (as well as Jews, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, etc.) with the painful political chaos surrounding the rise of President Donald Trump. The goal of all those contacts in the past, it appears, was an American theocracy backed with Sharia law, only defended with quotes from the Catholic Catechism and the works of St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Apparently it took some time for The New York Times to ramp up a doctrinal response to all of this for circulation at the highest levels of mainstream journalism.
The result is some fascinating editorial writing, in the form of a new Times column by Catholic conservative Ross Douthat ("The Vatican’s America Problem") and, the same day, an alleged news story straight from the world of hushed, anonymous conversations in the hidden corners of Rome.
Let's keep this as short as possible, starting with the overture in the "news" piece: "A Vatican Shot Across the Bow for Hard-Line U.S. Catholics."
VATICAN CITY -- Two close associates of Pope Francis have accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to back President Trump, further alienating a group already out of the Vatican’s good graces.
The authors, writing in a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Stephen K.Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as a “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics” that has stymied action against climate change and exploited fears of migrants and Muslims with calls for “walls and purifying deportations.”
The article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States. The writers even declare that the worldview of American evangelical and hard-line Catholics, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, is “not too far apart’’ from jihadists.
It is not clear if the article, appearing in La Civiltà Cattolica, received the pope’s direct blessing, but it was extraordinary coming from a journal that carries the Holy See’s seal of approval.
As is frequently the case with the Kellerism-era Times, the reporting raises all kinds of basic journalism questions about (1) the use of anonymous sources and (2) the one-sided presentation of information about valid, and complex, debates.
Once again, readers are offered paragraph after paragraph of unattributed information and analysis. However, the key quote in the entire article is contained in this passage:
Not long after Francis’ election, Vatican ambassadors briefed the pontiff about various situations around the world and suggested that he be especially careful when appointing bishops and cardinals in the United States.
“I know that already,” the pope interrupted, according to a high-ranking Vatican official familiar with the details of the conversation, who asked that his name not be used while discussing internal Vatican deliberations. “That’s where the opposition is coming from.”
The Vatican declined to comment about the conversation. Fans of the article said it made clear that the conservatives who ran the American church for decades were out of step with the new Catholic mainstream under Francis.
We have seen this before, of course.
Those seeking background may want to check out my previous GetReligion post with this headline: "Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon." That post opened like this:
It would be hard to imagine a subject more intriguing to some editors at The New York Times than suggestions that the Darth Vader of the Donald Trump administration -- that would be Stephen K. Bannon -- was somehow working with forces close to the Vatican to undercut Pope Francis.
Thus, there has been quite a bit of online buzz about the rather BuzzFeed like feature (in terms of its sourcing) that Times editors ran under the headline, "Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican."
Now, what -- informed readers might ask -- does someone like Bannon have to do with decades of work by St. John Paul II and the late 20th century fellowship surrounding the late Chuck Colson and the late Father Richard John Neuhaus?
There is much to say there and Douthat says plenty. Let's let him speak for himself on this matter, which does contain some commentary on the painful choices facing conservative believers of all kinds in the Trump era:
... 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 Civiltà 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. Its seems to intend, reasonably enough, to warn against Catholic support for the darker tendencies in Trumpism -- the xenophobia and identity politics, the “stigmatization of enemies,” the crude view of Islam and a wider “panorama of threats,” the prosperity-gospel inflected worship of success.
But the authors’ understanding of American religion seems to start and end with Google searches and anti-evangelical tracts, and their intended attack on Trumpery expands and expands, conflating very different political and religious tendencies, indulging in paranoia about obscure theocratic Protestants and fringe Catholic websites, and ultimately critiquing every kind of American religious conservatism -- including the largely anti-political Benedict Option and the pro-life activism fulsomely supported by Francis’ papal predecessors -- as dangerously illiberal, “theopolitical,” Islamic State-esque, “Manichaean,” a return to the old integralism that the church no longer supports.
None of this makes any sense.
I especially appreciated this point. Then again, I happen to agree with lots of the stunningly blunt language Francis has used when discussing the cultural imperialism of the West (think Planned Parenthood) and his rarely quoted commentary on gender, marriage and family.
Francis has, in other words, been known to wax political.
... The other bizarre thing about Spadaro and Figueroa’s broad brush: As the American Catholic writer Patrick Smith points out, by warning against a Catholicism that takes political sides or indulges in moralistic rhetoric or otherwise declaims on “who is right and who is wrong” in contemporary debates, the pope’s men are effectively condemning not only American conservative Catholics but also the pope’s own writings on poverty and environmentalism, his support for grass-roots “popular movements” in the developing world and his stress on the organic link between family, society, religion and the state.
However, I think the key is to read the Vatican-datelined piece in the Times, look at the specific sources cited therein, and then think about the following.
Yes, it is highly possible that reporters and editors at the world's most powerful newspaper made zero or few attempts to interview conservative Catholics about the many rumors and issues discussed in this important piece. That would fit with the doctrines of Kellerism, since debates about religion, morality and culture are at the heart of this story. Why should the Times strive for accuracy and fairness when discussing the work of bigots?
However, is it also possible that representatives of the Gray Lady tried to talk to Catholic conservatives and that these Catholics concluded that there was no safe way to talk to an advocacy publication -- on issues of religion, morality and culture -- such as the current New York Times?