In 1892, Pope Leo XIII addressed a letter to the Catholics of France. For a century French politics had been divided between mostly Catholic monarchists and mostly anti-clericalist republicans, and the church had championed royalists against the secular republic. But now the pope urged French Catholics to take a different approach — to rally to the republic, a strategy called “ralliement,” and work through republican institutions to protect the church’s liberties and promote the common good.
In European politics this was a novel gambit, but for American Catholics at the time it amounted to a tacit endorsement of what they were already doing. In the United States there was no ancien regime to imagine restoring, no plausible scenario in which the integration of church and state might be achieved — and Catholics had been trying to prove their patriotism in a largely Protestant country by rallying to the republic since the founding era.
So Leo’s letter began a long (and complicated) process of harmonization between America and Rome, sealed in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council, in which the church’s political thought was tacitly Americanized. No more would the Vatican emphasize the necessity, for Catholics, of supporting an “integralist” relationship between their government and church. Instead the American way of doing religious politics — in which a secular political framework allowed a great deal of room for religiously inspired activism — was blessed and accepted as the Catholic way as well.
Over the last decade, however, as American Christianity has weakened and American politics become ever-more-polarized, the Catholic position in the United States has become more difficult and perplexing. The Democratic Party, whose long-ago New Deal was built in part on Catholic social thought, has become increasingly secular and ever-more-doctrinaire in its social liberalism. The Republican Party, which under George W. Bush wrapped the Catholic-inflected language of “compassionate conservatism” around its pro-life commitments, has been pinballing between an Ayn Rand-ish libertarianism and the white identity politics of the Trump era.
As a result a sense of disillusionment and homelessness among Catholic thinkers — younger ones, especially — has increased. It isn’t just that old 20th century approaches to Catholic politics — both the ethnic-Catholic liberalism of a Mario Cuomo or a Ted Kennedy and the Catholic neoconservatism that shaped figures like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan — seem like they’re out of energy and influence. It’s also that Western liberalism writ large seems at once hostile to traditional religion and beset by internal contradictions, making the moment ripe for serious Catholic rethinking, a new and perhaps even post-liberal Catholic politics.
So far that new thinking includes revivals of radicalism on the Catholic left, where people pine for a pro-life Bernie Sanders and flirt anew with baptizing Karl Marx. It includes the lively debate over Rod Dreher’s recent book “The Benedict Option,” with its insistence that politics cannot save American Christianity and that some form of cultural separatism is essential for religious renewal. And it includes the various Catholic responses to President Donald Trump and to the revival of European nationalism — some of which imagine that out of the crisis of Western liberalism a new or different integralism, a more fully Catholic politics, might eventually be born.
Meanwhile 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. The post-1970s evangelical-Catholic alliance has been flawed in various ways, but it is neither theocratic nor illiberal; if Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus were integralists, I am a lemur. The religious right stands in a complex continuity with previous religious reform movements in American history, from abolition to the Social Gospel to Prohibition to civil rights and peace movements in the 1960s. And in its specifically Catholic form, religious conservatism has aspired to exactly the kind of Catholic engagement in liberal-democratic politics anticipated by Leo XIII’s “ralliement” and endorsed by the Second Vatican Council.
What Spadaro and Figueroa do not grasp is that the tendencies that they see at work in American Catholicism, the religious votes for the cheerfully pagan Trump and the growing interest in traditionalism, radicalism and separatism, are not the culmination of the Catholic-evangelical alliance but rather a reaction to its political and cultural failures — and the failures of liberal religious politics as well.
In increasing numbers, American Catholics (and Protestants) feel that their leaders and thinkers have spent decades rallying to the republic, trying to bring about its moral and political renewal … only to see republican virtues decaying, liberalism turning hostile to religious faith, and democratic capitalism delivering disappointment and dislocation. So some of them are reaching backward and sideways or ahead, trying to claim Trumpism or socialism or grasp some as-yet-unknown idea, because they sense that the present order might someday soon be itself an ancien regime from which their religion must slip free.
They may be wrong about this, but their sense of things is shared in certain ways by Pope Francis himself, who has a Trumpish, populist streak in his own right, and whose critiques of the West’s technocratic order are notable and pungent. Which is the other bizarre thing about Spadaro and Figueroa’s broad brush: As 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.
This they surely do not mean to do. But it is precisely this tension, between the Spadaro-Figueroa critique of American religious conservatives and Pope Francis’ sometimes harsh assessment of the liberal West, that makes the essay important as well as incoherent — because it reveals something significant about the dilemmas of the Vatican in a populist moment, in which the future of Western politics seems unusually uncertain.
Between Leo XIII and the Second Vatican Council, Rome gradually made its peace with secular and liberal government, and embraced a style of Catholic politics that worked comfortably within the liberal order, rather than against its grain. And the church has good prudential reasons not to lean in too far to any kind of populism or post-liberalism, lest it lead toward authoritarianism or simple disaster.
At the same time the church is supposed to be larger than any particular political philosophy, ready to outlast any particular order and capable of speaking prophetically in periods of transition. It could not remain bound to French monarchists forever; there may come a moment when it cannot remain with whatever liberalism might become.
Again, in the rhetoric of Francis as well as the unsettlement of American Catholics you can see hints that such a moment may be on its way. But in his advisers’ essay, in their evident paranoia about what the Americans are up to, you see a different spirit: a fear of novelty and disruption, and a desire for a church that’s primarily a steward of social peace, a mild and ecumenical presence, a moderate pillar of the establishment in a stable and permanently liberal age.
At the very least the men in the Vatican who yearn for such a church need to do a better job grasping why so many of their flock, in Europe and the United States, find this vision insufficient to the times.
And then beyond that they might consider the possibility that as in the 19th century, American Catholics, in all their present confusion and occasional extremism, might be closer to grasping what our strange future holds for Catholic politics than Rome.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com.