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“A Surprising Ecumenism…” (Part 1)

Both my spirits and my hopes have been raised by the recent appearance of an important and already game-changing new article in the most recent edition of La Civilta Cattolica. This is a prestigious Jesuit publication, whose contents are personally vetted by the Vatican Secretary of State and which can thus be seen as a bellwether if not a de facto mouthpiece for papal policy. Entitled Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism, the article is the first attempt I have seen to drive a significant intellectual wedge into the murky moral alliance between conservative Catholicism and Protestant evangelical fundamentalism that helped to catapult Donald Trump into office and is still a cornerstone of his support.

genesis
Courtesy of whatchristianswanttoknow.com
Pope & Spadaro
(CNS / Paul Haring)

In this learned yet accessible study, co-authors Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa (a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian pastor, both of them respected editors and close friends of the Pope) trace the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the early 20th century, exploring its major doctrinal assertions and detailing its increasing infiltration into American politics. They conclude with a pointblank rejection of these doctrinal claims as antithetical and dangerous to authentic Catholic belief. The article’s “blockbuster” assertion (understandably receiving wide play in the social media) is that there is basically no ideological difference between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam: both draw their juice from an identical “cult of an apocalypse,” featuring a final confrontation between good (“us”) and evil (“them”) which will destroy the planet as we know it and usher in the reign of God.

The article represents a significant intellectual milestone and augurs a significant potential windshift in Vatican political activism. It’s well worth some close study and discussion in our Wisdom circles. Over the next two or three blogposts I’ll share some of the reactions and implications it’s been stirring up for me.

An “Ecumenism of Hate”

While there are few surprises here for those already familiar with American religious history, the most welcome surprise is the message clearly being signaled that the Vatican is finally waking up to the theological implications of this “surprising” alliance that a significant segment of American Catholicism has been flirting with and is now taking a firm intellectual stance against its three constituent threads: the aforementioned “cult of an apocalypse,” the “prosperity gospel” (which has deeply influenced several US presidents including our current one), and a particularly distorted notion of religious liberty which sets the Church in permanent mortal combat with the presumed secularity of the state. The article powerfully calls the question on the present “ecumenism of hate,” as the authors name it, and lays out in contrasting detail Pope Francis’s vision of impartial and active engagement with the secular state in the hopes of securing a sustainable future for all humankind.

I applaud their work here because it lays a firm theological foundation for articulating the dangers implicit in the growing entanglement of the Catholic Church in American rightist politics. The article sets out clear standards by which, for example, self-styled über-Catholic Steve Bannon (specifically mentioned in the article) is in fact peddling a dangerously distorted version of Catholic teaching. It lays out clear benchmarks by which Catholics can sort through the confused rhetoric of evangelical fundamentalism and name its widening drift from classic Catholic doctrine. While the authors could have done more to clarify that evangelical fundamentalism represents a perversion of Protestantism as much as of Catholicism (not merely another of Protestantism’s myriad confusing expressions), their analysis is nonetheless a solid intellectual milestone. It is also reflective of the Pope’s strategic way of thinking: his preference for first building a solid theological and historical foundation for reflection and action, rather than simply leaping in with rhetorical or kneejerk responses.

But the elephant in the room remains……

Swiss Guards at VaticanWhile I am deeply gratified for the breakthrough this article represents, I must say that I find it naïve to expect that it will shift a single stone in the present Catholic/ fundamentalist political alliance. The article mounts a strong case theologically, but in a glaring omission it manages to overlook the crucial point on which any practical consequences turn—namely, that the real basis for the alliance is not theological but strategic. Nor is this merely a minority dalliance, to be laid at the doorstep of a small subset of Catholic ultraconservatives; it represents the united “bottom line” of the Roman Catholic Church in America: the vast majority of its bishops, seminaries, and the message percolating into the parishes. The real root of this alliance lies in the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing fixation on the abortion issue, together with this issue’s now vigorously reemerging sidekick, birth control. This is the practical motivation behind the devil’s pact with fundamentalism; if it takes casting one’s lot with a “cult of the apocalypse” to ensure that Roe versus Wade is legally overturned, well, that’s the unfortunate cost of doing business.

It seems unfortunate that in an article otherwise so thorough and scholarly, this rather sizable elephant in the room escapes mention. The article thus creates the impression that all we have to do is wake up to the theological errors inherent in the alliance with Protestant fundamentalism, and Catholics will come streaking back to a more inclusive and life-affirming version of the gospel. Well, maybe. But if you think this translates into any significant flipping of the Catholic vote in 2018, don’t hold your breath.

To their credit, I am not sure that from the European (or even South American) perspective, the Vatican can really understand the ferocity with which the abortion issue has enthralled the popular American Catholic imagination. It’s a quintessentially American stew, comprised in equal doses of high idealism and sentimentality run amuck. One need only to drive the interstate almost anywhere in the American South or Midwest and see the fully emblazoned billboards with a flat-lining EKG announcing “ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART” to begin to appreciate the pungent mix of sentiment and sentimentality that makes this particular issue such a moral flashpoint. I personally know many Catholics (perhaps even the majority of my Catholic acquaintances) who, although good, solid, thoughtful people, not otherwise inclined toward hysteria, feel so strongly that this issue is so essential to their practice of Catholicism—and so underrepresented by any other advocacy group— that they will reluctantly sacrifice the entire rest of the gospel’s “pro- life” teaching (as it might apply to immigrants, Muslims, accessible medical care, gun control, capital punishment) in order to secure this one point. It is this “unholy alliance” that really has provided the undefended back gateway—in fact, sluiceway—by which unethical politicians can continue to occupy their seats in congress, pawns in a game whose real movers and shakers are in fact the Ayn Rand-style kleptocrats (such as Paul Ryan, The Koch brothers, the Trump dynasty) or apocalyptic Armageddon-mongers such as Steve Bannon.

My continuing hope—which I have alluded to in articles and posts before—is that our brilliant and committed Pope will move increasingly in the direction of giving issue-specific theological guidance and direction to begin to disentangle this Gordian knot in a way that is both respectful of Catholic tradition and profoundly responsive to the desperate need of our one planet, trembling on the brink of environmental and social collapse.

In the face of this unprecedented global crisis, it is not enough merely to name and proclaim the ways in which the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism represents a perversion of Catholic doctrine. It is not enough merely to repeatedly denounce those currents in American politics fueling radical isolationism and environmental irresponsibility. It is not enough simply to continue to decry the Muslim ban, or lament the moral corruption of our present executive and congressional branches. These stances are all good insofar as they go. But we need to connect the dots. What is really needed—and comprises, I believe, the real Catholic moral priority of our time— is to develop specific guidelines for faithful Catholics clarifying how, when push comes to shove, to weigh priorities and make those difficult trade-offs so that abortion does not become the tail wagging an increasingly rabid and dangerous dog.

I am not a moral theologian—or even a Catholic for that matter—so I recognize that I will have no standing in that particular conversation. But as a Christian Wisdom teacher and a concerned planetary citizen, I know that it is important for this conversation to be taking place and for imaginative new thinking to be invited from all quarters. Deliberations on this all-important topic so far left in the hands of the Catholic experts have yielded us no appreciable results, they’ve merely solidified the impasse. This is a human dilemma, and it is as a human family that we will solve it.

And so I propose here to engage this conversation among our Wisdom Community, asking us all, from our collective data banks of spiritual insight and life expertise, to engage this crucial impasse and see if the act of intelligent conversation can itself generate a bit of third force.

Over the next two or three blogs (writing not yet begun but intention herewith signaled) I will attempt, first of all, to lay out a potential pathway toward a new social contract with regard to the abortion issue> a pathway which, though admittedly a compromise, might be one that both Catholics and non-Catholics could live with. In the following, more extended blog, I will reflect on what light the Wisdom tradition has to shed on the beginnings of life and the nature of the soul, both key components in the present gridlock.

A good start has been made in this article, and I commend it to you all for deeper study and reflection. But in accepting its conclusion that joining forces with a distorted Christian fundamentalism is not an option, the next step is to move courageously to confront the “root of the root” of this nefarious allegiance and speak directly of—to— the elephant in the room.  

Comments (9)

  1. PART I:

    Beautiful, heartfelt and elegant statement – and an important one at this time.

    I’d like to add something from the psychological perspective.

    Karen Armstrong, in her writings on fundamentalism, makes the crucial point that, while many secular folks think of fundamentalists as expressing medieval views, the mindset of fundamentalists could simply not have existed prior to the emergency of 19th century materialism.

    And, according to British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, the root of modern materialism is not a philosophic view as much as a form of attention. Put in neurological terms by Buddhist teacher and former neuroscience professor John Yates (in his “The Mind Illuminated” – the best manual of Buddhist meditation i’ve ever come across), he describes two major attention networks, one responsible for selective attention (SA) and one for peripheral awareness (PA). On my recommendation, Yates looked at McGilchrist’s work, and agreed that McGilchrist’s “left mode” and ‘right mode” thought (somewhat related to left hemisphere mediated and right hemisphere mediated attention) are closely correlated with SA and PA.

    1. Cynthia, you have offered much to think about. I think there are at least two other mastodons in the room that need careful consideration:

      Sexuality and feminism: As many have pointed out the need to repress sexuality and especially homosexuality and women’s sexuality feed the need for rigid systems of law and belief that will keep powerful impulses at bay. The cultural divisions on this issue erupted in the 60s and 70s and battle lines were drawn. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable rallying cry of the last campaign–“Lock her up, lock her up!”–was directed at a decades-old symbol of the post-60s modern woman .

      Contempt for religion: Far too many liberals (now known as progressives) have carried over an Age-of-Enlightenment contempt for religion and by unthinking extension, for any spirit-centered life. Those who make religion/spirituality central in their lives are viewed as benighted anti-intellectuals who cling to silly beliefs out of fear or unimaginative habit. The abortion issue then becomes a stand-in for this larger cultural divide. There seems to be almost no room in the Democratic Party for the faith-centered, at least in their Caucasian form. During the Obama Administration there was a needless pushing of limits on issues such as abortion and health insurance simply because there was no real respect for principles emerging from a religious—centered life. There are stories of some senior Democrats simply writing off White Catholics and Evangelicals in the last election. During the women’s march on Washington pro-life groups that wished to participate were excluded. There is an article in The Atlantic on the topic, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/democrats-have-a-religion-problem/510761/.

      I’m not sure that the bridge you are trying to build can carry sufficient weight unless these issues are actively addressed as well.

      1. Hi William:

        Do you know Paul Ray’s work? He has done research over several decades on different trends in American culture.

        I don’t think these track spiral dynamics, though I know some have made an argument for it. I think it’s best with a new category system to let it speak for itself and not try to fit it into old categories.

        He speaks of Traditionalists – people who are comfortable with the way things were 50 or more years ago; traditional family, church, etc.

        The Modernists are those who call themselves “classic liberals” – who focus on economics as the “business of America.” This fits very much into the neoliberal framework.

        Then there are 2 categories of Cultural Creatives. This may not be associate with economic class as so much of the Spiral Dynamics “Green” category is. But it is, as you say, William, rather relentlessly secular and – as with the Modernists – often anti-religion.

        Then there are spiritual Cultural Creatives. These were a very small number 40 years ago but have grown to some 20 million in the US (the estimate for overall Cultural Creatives is as much as 60 million or more; almost a 5th of the population). These are among the core folks interested in non dual Christianity. MANY of them, if not most, are progressives.

        You might look this up and also look up Rabbi Michael Lerner’s “”Spiritual progressives.” There are far far more of them than you think. The Washington consensus on both the Right and Left, among mainstream politicians, tends to be tolerant of religion but often (in private (much more dismissive).

        Finally, read about Hilary Clinton’s long term desire to be a Methodist preacher. It gives a whole different side of her.

  2. Its a sad day when conservative biblical beliefs are vilified by the Pope and other extreme left-leaning scholars. Where is the Pope on the topic of the bloodshed in Venezuela? Where is the Pope on the topic of gang violence and shootings in Chicago? Maybe he’s too busy overseeing ghost written articles slamming conservative CHRISTIANS.

    I’m sorry – but I stand against the following:
    – young teens having babies out of wedlock generation after generation which happens in the lower economic segments of our society…then to have the ultra-liberals decry these high-school dropouts don’t have any opportunity in our economy
    – the quick “abortion on demand” which as you do note in your article does in fact STOP A BEATING HEART. Do you think Jesus would support abortion? My hunch is you on the left have completely forgotten about Jesus
    – protection of our borders. I do believe in immigration, but legal immigration. Why is it OK for those to the south to simply cross into the country and get welfare while Christians trying to flee the middle-east have to go through yrs of red-tape to get into the country legally
    – for believing the BIBLE (you do remember what it is don’t you) that talks frequently of the return of Jesus and the need to be prepared
    – believing in free speech which is under attack by the left in our colleges and universities and where being a conservative in thoughts and / or beliefs means 1 is ridiculed and in many cases forced underground.
    – paying my fair share of taxes. As I make more $ than avg, I fully appreciate / understand my responsibility. However it makes me cringe seeing the continued expansive growth of welfare programs. Back in the 1930’s you worked menial hard-labor jobs to get handouts. Now, it’s a “right”. Do I feel a decent % abuse the system – absolutely. Do I get mad the left demands I pay more….absolutely. You call it materialism, I call it fairness. I didn’t have a lot to start with….paid my own way through college in the 80’s by working 40-hrs a week as a cook. So I get frustrated by the sheer laziness of some but frustrated even more by the liberal left decrying that I’m a “materialist”.

    Sadly, there is a war brewing (I’ll freely admit on both sides). What is sad is the inability to work together. My “belief” is the forces of evil are pushing the 2 sides further apart with ea side growing in hatred of the other side.

    So call me what you will….you are right in your article, the Pope’s letter and opinions mean zip to me any more. I, like many, have left his church to join a church that still preaches the bible.

  3. David,

    Thank you for your courage and faithfulness in taking the risk of posting your thoughts on this obviously “leftist” leaning site. Yours is an important and vulnerable self-offering which helps tremendously to shed some light onto our tragically polarized civic discourse by giving voice to where the underlying heart concerns on the right are coming from.

    It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to get into a point-by-point debate about the insights you’re raising here. By way of a response, I’d simply want to share two general observations. First of all, the left is as multifaceted as the right. While there is certainly a swathe of aggressive secularism represented here, which might not know the Bible or perceive the world from the from a specifically Christian or even a spiritual context, there are also very, very many people represented within this camp who know their Bibles well, pray daily in deep scriptural prayer, and believe– from within the authentic sincerity and living practice of their faith– that the path of Jesus calls us to a radical inclusivity and generosity extending to all the world. Like the Laborers in the Vineyard: no more “not fair,” no more “mine vs theirs,” no more “more or less.”

    While you may not agree with that perspective, I think it’s unhelpful (on both sides) to question the sincerity of faith simply because interpretations differ.

    Second–and me speaking personally here–I don’t believe that Christ will come again at some unspecified future date. I believe he is ALREADY HERE NOW, fully present, at work in the world “reconciling all things to himself.” It is because of my own felt-sense commitment to the living Christ, here in our midst, healing from within as well as drawing from beyond, that I feel impelled to look beyond tribal loyalty (whether religious, racial, or nationalistic)– all “them vs us” perspectives– to seek the wholeness of our single human family as Our Lord shapes us here and now into the “many members of the one body of Christ.”

    Thank you again for speaking up.

  4. Hi David:

    Taking your comment on materialism first – I’m not sure if anybody else mentioned it, but in case you were responding to one of my comments, by “Materialism” I don’t mean the use of physical things, but rather, the feeling of taking anything to exist apart from God. In a way, we’re all “sinners” – if it means looking at people (whether the Pope or Donald Trump) as if they could move an inch or think even one thought without the power of God behind them). So if any of my comments triggered any discomfort, my apologies.

    I’d like to take a moment to respond to your other points, all of which sound like they come from a place of considerable pain and discomfort, something I’m quite intimately familiar with. I’ve tried for the past 47 years to live remembering as much as possible what I just wrote about above, that I “live and move and have my Being in God,” and, well, so does everyone else. So as a fellow God-Being (!!), I offer you the following reflections.

    DAVID: Its a sad day when conservative biblical beliefs are vilified by the Pope and other extreme left-leaning scholars. Where is the Pope on the topic of the bloodshed in Venezuela? Where is the Pope on the topic of gang violence and shootings in Chicago? Maybe he’s too busy overseeing ghost written articles slamming conservative CHRISTIANS.
    DON: I imagine that if I felt the Pope was that important, I would too be concerned that he wasn’t addressing the grave problems you mention, including bloodshed in Venezuela and gang violence. And certainly, if he is unfairly attacking conservative Christians, that would be inappropriate – for him, and for anybody. I still have fond memories of the hundreds of conversations I had with conservative evangelical Baptists from Bob Jones University over the 8 years I lived in Greenville, SC

    I’m sorry – but I stand against the following:
    DAVID: – young teens having babies out of wedlock generation after generation which happens in the lower economic segments of our society…then to have the ultra-liberals decry these high-school dropouts don’t have any opportunity in our economy
    DON: You might be surprised – and I hope it might bring a smile to your face – to hear the extent to which Hilary Clinton agrees with you! I remember during the campaign wishing so often that she would speak more frequently to pro-life groups about her wish to share common ground with the goal of reducing abortions to zero. One of the major areas she hoped to promote was ending the cycle of poor girls from white, black, Hispanic and other backgrounds having children out of wedlock. And I admire any conservative statesperson who works to create more opportunities. If President Trump were to succeed in creating more job opportunities for these girls (having dramatically lowered the out of wedlock birth rate) I would be among the first to applaud him (just because I might disagree with other policies of his doesn’t mean I can’t applaud him for doing something I agree with!

    DAVID: – the quick “abortion on demand” which as you do note in your article does in fact STOP A BEATING HEART. Do you think Jesus would support abortion? My hunch is you on the left have completely forgotten about Jesus
    DON: I’m not aware of any abortion clinics that provide “abortion on demand” and if they do, I’m happy to support a 3 day waiting period (as I would for purchasing guns). Knowing that all living beings are manifestations of God – living and having their Being in Him – I certainly agree that before stopping a beating heart, we must go very deep within, pray in the most sustained, dedicated, surrendered way possible, and ask for Divine insight as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. I assume you are aware of the pregnant woman who died in an Irish hospital recently. Virtually every medical professional who examined her agreed that if she carried the fetus to term, she and the fetus would die. I assume you would agree that at least, in that single case, the abortion would have been worthwhile – the fetus would have died either way. If that is correct, then you and I are both pro-choice, and I imagine that you would also agree on the goal of reducing abortions to zero. So perhaps we can join hands on the same side of the fence and look out to the horizon together, with the same goals, even if we choose different means.

    DAVID: – protection of our borders. I do believe in immigration, but legal immigration. Why is it OK for those to the south to simply cross into the country and get welfare while Christians trying to flee the middle-east have to go through yrs of red-tape to get into the country legally
    DON: I’ve never personally met anyone identified as moderate or progressive who is pro illegal immigration. I do know that for much of the 80s, 90s and 2000s, until about 9 years ago, many pro-business conservatives were in favoring of looking the other way with regard to illegal immigrants, and almost all progressives I knew of were strongly against it to the extent it negatively impacted American workers. I do know that has changed, and if there are progressives who are pro illegal immigration, I would agree with you that that is deeply problematic (let’s make sure those Canadians don’t slip over the border illegally! Just kidding:>))

    DAVID: – for believing the BIBLE (you do remember what it is don’t you) that talks frequently of the return of Jesus and the need to be prepared
    DON: My understanding is that of all Christians, the ones who are most dedicated to being 24-hours-a-day-365-days-a-year-prepared for the return of Christ are contemplatives. In my own practice, I know that forgetting Him is like having the life-blood drain out of you. Remembering Him and preparing myself for an utter and complete surrender is the reason I get up in the morning – in fact, not a “reason” but the power, the Life that supports my every breath and every thought.

    DAVID: – believing in free speech which is under attack by the left in our colleges and universities and where being a conservative in thoughts and / or beliefs means 1 is ridiculed and in many cases forced underground.
    DON: I don’t think I can even conceive of a countering response to you. One of the great tragedies of the dogmatic Left is the suppression of free speech, political correctness, etc. Dogma is a problem on the Right and the Left. ON the Right, it’s adhering to a very narrow definition of what it means to be a conservative, and on the Left, it’s, well, exacly the same! Here we are together 100%! I think the single greatest challenge of being human and aspiring for a thoroughly spiritual life is to find unity amidst diversity – but to celebrate, rejoice in diversity, yet not for one instant forgetting we are all together in Christ (or as Paul says, “Christ is everything”)

    DAVID: – paying my fair share of taxes. As I make more $ than avg, I fully appreciate / understand my responsibility. However it makes me cringe seeing the continued expansive growth of welfare programs. Back in the 1930’s you worked menial hard-labor jobs to get handouts. Now, it’s a “right”. Do I feel a decent % abuse the system – absolutely. Do I get mad the left demands I pay more….absolutely. You call it materialism, I call it fairness. I didn’t have a lot to start with….paid my own way through college in the 80’s by working 40-hrs a week as a cook. So I get frustrated by the sheer laziness of some but frustrated even more by the liberal left decrying that I’m a “materialist”.
    DON: Well, it’s getting harder to find any disagreement. Regarding paying one’s fair share of taxes, I can only say, “Amen” and recall Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”

    DAVID: Sadly, there is a war brewing (I’ll freely admit on both sides). What is sad is the inability to work together. My “belief” is the forces of evil are pushing the 2 sides further apart with ea side growing in hatred of the other side. So call me what you will….you are right in your article, the Pope’s letter and opinions mean zip to me any more. I, like many, have left his church to join a church that still preaches the bible.
    DON: Regarding the war brewing (really, brewing? I think it’s here – been here for thousands of years:>)) Perhaps since we all left the garden?) I’ll just repeat what I said above about unity in diversity, celebrating unity while recognizing we are all one in the Spirit.

    You and I, Cynthia and Trump, Jesus and all, diverse yet united in God.

    Thank you David, I appreciated your passion and deeply held thoughts.

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