Why Rome is doing battle with American culture

A US flag blows in the wind in front of a mural of Pope Francis across the street from Madison Square Garden in New York (Getty images)

In 1866, when Pope Pius IX’s secretary of state learned that the Habsburgs had lost the Battle of Sadowa, he exclaimed “Casca il mondo!” – the world is collapsing. “Good God,” he cried out as he struck his face, “what is to become of us?” For decades, the popes had positioned themselves as the spiritual support of European powers challenged by revolution. The defeat of the Habsburgs cast the Church’s very survival into doubt.

Today, threats as varied as Corbyn, Putin, ISIS and Trump have left the leaders of the liberal order – based on open borders, free trade and secular pluralism – feeling embattled. On the night of Donald Trump’s election, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the US, tweeted, “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes.” Florian Philippot, the impish adviser to Marine Le Pen, retorted: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” Once again, the pontiff was put forward as the bulwark of teetering powers. Fr Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser to Pope Francis, tweeted, “Who’s the world’s moral leader in this moment? Who leads the way? A voice emerges and continues to emerge.”

The men surrounding Francis see him as an indispensable support of a uniquely just political system. In a series of speeches on Europe, Francis has embraced that role, arguing that with the formation of the European Union, Europe finally “found its true self”. Europe had always had “a dynamic and multicultural identity”, but only since World War II has that identity been embodied in societies “free of ideological conflicts, with equal room for the native and the immigrant, for believers and non-believers”.

Francis stresses diversity over identity, dialogue over agreement. (“If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue.”) For all else the men share, this is a view opposed to that of Benedict XVI, who called on Europeans to “embrace our own heritage of the sacred” and warned that “multiculturalism, which is so passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own things”. Benedict XVI saw the Church and the liberal order standing in a deeply ambivalent relationship. If Francis is more optimistic that they can partner, it is perhaps because he desires both a liberal Church and a liberal politics – each ratifying the other in a kind of inverted integralism.

Integralism was the system in which church and state collaborated to secure man’s peace on this world and salvation in the next. Joseph de Maistre defended it with a formula binding pope to king: “No public morals nor national character without religion, no European religion without Christianity, no true Christianity without Catholicism, no Catholicism without the Pope, no Pope without the supremacy that belongs to him.” Essential to this arrangement was the idea that the state must be subordinate to the Church.

Today a new kind of integralism operates, in which the Church is subordinated to the state as the two conspire to uphold liberal values. If one were to update de Maistre’s syllogism, it would go something like: No cheap consumer goods or avoidance of genocide without liberalism, no liberalism without true Christianity, no true Christianity without an undogmatic Church, no undogmatic Church without a liberalising Pope, no liberalising Pope without accountability to the age and freedom from tradition.

It is in this context that one must understand the Vatican’s recent sally against America in the unofficial papal organ La Civiltà Cattolica. Written by Fr Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, another papal confidant, the article is not merely an expression of anti-American spite or an attack on ecclesial enemies. It is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Spadaro and Figueroa believe that American Catholics and Evangelicals resemble ISIS, in that they have formed a “cult of the apocalypse” in which the “community of believers (faith) becomes a community of combatants (fight)”. Underlying this cult of the apocalypse is a “political Manichaeism”, a desire to identify “what is good and what is bad”, which ultimately “divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil”. Spadaro and Figueroa single out for censure a fringe website called Church Militant – perhaps less for its influence (which is minor) than for its martial name.

If an indigenous tribesman interrupted in his affairs by a Columbus or Pizarro had read the accounts those explorers sent home, he would have marvelled as I did while reading this document. Error and exaggeration bloom, as the authors survey an unfamiliar landscape. American deserts and wastes were once expected to disclose glittering El Dorados; today, obscure websites and forgotten thinkers are accorded capital significance. A minor stream of thought is plumbed as though it were the Northwest Passage; the Mississippi is disregarded. A position is attacked that no man defends, and the resulting massacre is set down as a famous victory. The authors depict themselves as heralds of the Prince of Peace, and Americans as savages painted with blood.

Yet for all their inaccuracies, Spadaro and Figueroa have hit on something real. Americans are indeed more indulgent of both public religion and public violence than are their European counterparts. From prayer on the 50-yard line to stand-your-ground laws, from the First Amendment to the Second, Americans never seem to walk far from heaven or hell.

Spadaro probably learned this from the writer and Catholic apologist Flannery O’Connor, on whom he has written, but the man who has thought most deeply about Europe’s and America’s differing approaches to religion and violence is the French political scientist Pierre Manent. “For Europeans the abolition of the death penalty constitutes the most eloquent expression, the one dearest to their hearts, of their identity and their distinctive values,” he writes. “Europeans find the American retention of capital punishment almost incomprehensible.”

It is no coincidence that America is more comfortable with both religion and violence – in some strange way, the two go hand in hand. Only if public moral judgments are potentially legitimate can public violence be justified, or dogmatic distinctions upheld. Traditionally, the state “could inflict the death of the body, as the church ruled over and for souls and therefore could inflict the death of the soul.” Now Europe’s leaders have come to doubt the legitimacy of such judgments, and so, Manent explains, along with the church, “the secular state is itself becoming secularised”. No authority has the right to say who is worthy of receiving communion and who is not, who may live and who must die.

Americans are less confident that they can dispense with such judgments. “Since the risk of violent death at the hands of others never completely disappears, the right to self-defence cannot completely disappear” – thus capital punishment and the Second Amendment. Spadaro and Figueroa decry this as a barbaric version of the old integralism. For Manent, it is an acknowledgment of inevitable fact.

America’s savagery is all the more baffling to Europeans because the US is richer and less haunted by the past than are the nations of Europe. At once more advanced and more primitive, America is an unsettling sign that no amount of progress will reverse the effects of the Fall.

Spadaro and Figueroa hope to overcome conflict and sorrow. They dream of “inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges”, of “working against ‘walls’ and any kind of ‘war of religion’”. They join Francis in refusing to say “who is right and who is wrong”, since “at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power”.

When such sweet hopes are held out in an essay full of vehement rhetoric and stark dualisms, the chance of their realisation seems dim indeed. Certainly there is much to criticise in America today. But are Americans aberrant for believing that violence and religion must touch on politics – or are Europeans so, for thinking they need not?

Pope Francis and his advisers believe the Church must defend the system of open borders and celebratory diversity exemplified by liberal Europe. There are many things in that settlement a Catholic should value, but when hatred of borders extends to a refusal to fence the altar, and dislike of division overwhelms dogmatic distinctions, the Church begins to seem as imperilled as the world to which it clings.

Nonetheless, fears that the Church will fall with a collapsing world are mistaken. One day, the order championed by Francis, like the one blessed by Pius, will give way. The body of Christ, however wracked by conflict, will remain.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

This article first appeared in the July 28 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here