Fundamentalist integralism or sensible co-operation?

Mehrerau Collegiumskapelle Papst 10 Leo XIII a


Like the French with Gallicanism, the Americans have been unfortunate enough to have a heresy named after them. Americanism was the name given to a loose collection of erroneous opinions related to minimising authority, in teaching, spiritual direction and religious life, and in cultivating a too radical separation of Church and State. In his encyclical letter Longinqua Oceani of 1895, Pope Leo XIII condemned the view “that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” (n.6) and went on to say that “[the Church] would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.”

Recently, in La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa have criticised American Catholics in a way very different from Pope Leo XIII's: Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism.

There have been many critiques of the article, of which Tim Stanley’s in the Catholic Herald is of particular value: Why is Civiltà Cattolica attacking American Christians? I have a theory. Tim’s conclusion has a historical resonance: the late 19th century attack on “Americanism”  was also seen by many as more of a warning to the French.

The Civiltà Cattolica article first levels the charge of political Manichaeism, encouraged by the religious right, whereby good and evil are identified. I’m not sure that I follow the authors in this: it seems likely that politicians without any religious adherence could identify the flying of passenger aeroplanes into occupied buildings as an evil thing, along with the placing of bombs at public events. There is a discussion to be had over whether the USA or another world power would be best placed to combat this evil, and again over whether the means adopted are proportionate and so on, but this discussion is left aside in the overarching charge of Manichaeism.

In the USA as also in England, there can sometimes be co-operation, especially in pro-life campaigns, between Catholics and evangelicals who have historically disagreed trenchantly on grace, justification, the Eucharist and Our Lady. But the authors do not seem to welcome this: They say “This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.” Indeed, those themes are generally considered moral. Most people with or without a religious faith would agree that they are moral issues. (Do the authors not consider them moral issues?) Surely any Catholic would welcome co-operation with other Christians in trying to oppose the destruction of human life and the family? It is surprising to read in the next sentence of the article that “Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.” Is it not possible for Christians to unite in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage without being charged with integralism or a supposed dream of theocracy? To say that there is an “enormous difference” between this kind of pro-life ecumenism and that employed by Pope Francis could be taken as a comment about our Holy Father that would scarcely be ventured by his most extreme critics.

Nobody is contemplating a “theocracy.” What many Catholics and bible-believing Protestants want to see, and sometimes work together to promote, is that “political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order” (Gaudium et Spes 74) They would also recognise the encouragement given by the Church that: “Christians, redeeming the present time and distinguishing eternal realities from their changing expressions, should actively promote the values of marriage and the family, both by the examples of their own lives and by cooperation with other men of good will.” (Gaudium et Spes 52)
The danger facing Catholics and other Christians today is not the spectre of a theocracy. Perhaps the authors have in mind the lasting opprobrium in Europe for the government of the Papal States. We need not go into the question now of whether Blessed Pius IX has been unjustly vilified in the standard historical narrative. Perhaps there will be an Eamon Duffy figure to rehabilitate the reputation of the Papal States one day. Whatever the likelihood of that, we will not be seeing any Christian confessional state in our own time, though we may speculate on whether the authors would be as direct in their opposition to the confessional states of other world religions.

Here in England, our history teaches us to be more concerned about the state dominating the Church than the other way round. In modern terms, this gives rise to an increasing encroachment on liberty of conscience: not religious liberty only, as in the past, but the liberty of all people of good will to act in accord with the natural law and not to be coerced to act against it. We do well to join with other Christians in opposing the destruction of human life and the family, and the promotion of immoral life choices, because as we are experiencing daily, legitimising immorality leads rapidly in the dictatorship of relativism to the punishment of those who express dissent. Christian co-operation on moral issues, or ecumenism if you will, is not based on a childish fear of the unfamiliar, it is a sensible response to a sober and realistic assessment of an evil. There! I used the word.

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