On paper, it looks like a takeover: not only is the new president Catholic (and rather devoutly so), but so are the Speaker of the House and six of the nine Supreme Court justices, including the chief justice. Imagine how alarmed an early twentieth-century Protestant politician would be, if he glimpsed these facts in a crystal ball. To calm him down, one would have to explain two things. First, the Church underwent a sort of liberal revolution in the mid-20th century, in which it dropped its old opposition to liberal democracy. Second, the Church then suffered an unofficial schism, which was especially strong in America, with the result that these politicians are so deeply at odds that they couldn’t take over a Sunday school. Massimo Faggioli gives a useful sketch of Biden’s faith but is mainly concerned to place him in the context of a dramatically divided Church. First he tells the stories of the three previous Catholic presidential candidates, all Democrats. When Al Smith ran against Herbert Hoover in 1928, he was hoping that America had moved on from its old anti-Catholic prejudice. It hadn’t: he was portrayed as the pope’s puppet and lost badly. Such prejudice was unsurprising: the papacy was still in full reactionary mode – not long before, in 1899, it had condemned “Americanism”.
By 1960, the landscape had changed. Thanks to World War II and the Cold War, Rome began to seem a pillar of western liberty. Intellectuals including the Jesuit John Courtney Murray emphasised the Catholic affinity with democracy, at a time when Evangelicalism was politically quiet. Kennedy’s Catholicism was in tune with the vague ecumenical religiosity of the time, and came across as a good liberal Protestant when he affirmed the “absolute separation” of church and state. So American Catholicism was ahead of the curve that led to the new political outlook of Vatican II, summed up in Gaudium et Spes.
Can folksy Joe bring healing to such bitterly troubled waters? It’s a tall order, but no one could be better placed.
The next candidate was John Kerry in 2004. By now the landscape had changed again, due to the raging of the culture wars. This momentous shift is Faggioli’s core concern. He shows how the anti-communism of John Paul II, and the rise of abortion as a defining issue, created a bond between Catholics and the Republican party–- a bond vaguely endorsed by the papacy, and the American bishops. Then – Faggioli does not conceal his opinion – this bond turned toxic. The bishops overlooked the Republicans’ hyper-capitalist ethos, and enthusiasm for the death penalty, and denounced liberal values in ever stronger terms – and major aspects of Vatican II. They were egged on by
“neo-traditionalist” and “integralist” thinkers – Faggioli does not use the term “theocratic” but he comes close. Thus the bishops became a core part of America’s religious right.
Then came Francis – and the papacy dramatically withdrew from this “alignment”. The result was “soft schism”: the bishops have been openly critical of Francis’s liberal internationalism, and in 2018 the Trump-supporting Archbishop Vigano led a “coup attempt” against him. This was “part of an attempt… to nationalise Catholicism, and at the same time, to internationalise the ‘Make America Great Again’ project.” Faggioli’s generally academic style gives way to anger: “This is the Catholic version of the intellectual and moral disaster of American evangelicalism in the last few decades.”
This short book has an important thesis.
Can folksy Joe bring healing to such bitterly troubled waters? It’s a tall order, but no one could be better placed, Faggioli argues. For Biden can appeal to moderately conservative Catholics–- he is visibly devout, in a distinctly Catholic way (as Kennedy was not); not too close to Catholic radicalism (as Kerry the protestor was), and stylistically at odds with secular identity politics. He is a “grownup Catholic” whose faith-based desire to serve his multi-faith nation refuses to be sidetracked by toxic culture wars. He is well placed to contribute “to the difficult realignment of American Catholicism with Pope Francis’s vision”.
Though it sometimes feels rushed and repetitive, this short book has an important thesis. It is in America, in this “culture of conversion and permanent religious rebirth”, that the unfinished business of Vatican II is still being contested, rather than semi-evaded by jaded European shrugs. Ironically, it is in the home of liberal democracy that Catholicism has been seriously attempting an anti-modernist turn. Now it’s time for the decisive exorcism of that old integralist dream, Faggioli implies.