The risk of becoming just slightly Catholic

slightly catholic

President Joe Biden’s recent meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis has further unmasked the animosity that the Catholic right and alt-right in the United States harbour toward the current Bishop of Rome.

In fact, that animosity has become even more virulent and graphic.

One American bishop (a Catholic bishop!) even called Francis a “serpent”, a slur reminiscent of 16th-century anti-Catholic tropes against the papacy and the Jesuits.

The assimilation to animals as a way to disparage the pope is a bizarre reception of Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’.

But it’s the only reception there is in some places. (The bishop in question later deleted the offensive tweet and apologized, but he kept tweeting polemically about the pope’s meeting with Biden.)

Many wonder what would have happened, under Francis’ predecessors, if Catholic bishops had publicly insulted and showed contempt for the pope — something that the Code of Canon Law (can.1373) counts among the “crimes against ecclesiastical authorities and the freedom of the Church”.

But the phenomenon has become too big to be treated from a canonical point of view alone. This phenomenon is a scandal but is no longer limited to isolated cases.

It has now become a fixture in the relationship between the most influential leaders of the American Catholic right and the current pope.

This animosity of the Catholic right and alt-right began, not with the 2020 election of Biden as president, but more than seven years earlier with the election of Francis as Bishop of Rome.

Disregard for tradition by those who profess to defend it

It’s the rabid reaction against the fact that the trajectory of Catholicism – both in the US and globally – is not following the plans of those who envisioned not just a naturally conservative Catholicism, but conservative in the ways of conservative Catholicism in the United States.

Going back to the 2004 presidential run of John Kerry, another Roman Catholic, the Catholic right in the US has forcefully demanded that the Eucharist be denied to politicians who favour keeping abortion legal.

They invoke the Code of Canon Law. But they fail to mention that the teaching on communion as being “the medicine for sinners” is the doctrine of the Church and not an innovation of the current pope.

The Council of Trent (Session XXII) stated clearly that, in the Eucharist, the Lord “pardons wrongdoings and sins, even grave ones” — crimina et peccata etiam ingentia dimittit (cf. Denzinger, 1743).

This disregard for tradition on the part of those Catholics who would like to sanction Biden to advance a pro-life agenda (and a genuine pro-life culture is tragically urgent in the United States) is not due only to intentional or ideological ignorance. Often it is the result of real ignorance.

What we have seen in the debates among US Catholics – both in intra-ecclesial settings and in the public square – is a collapse of the sense of the tradition.

It has been replaced by a notion or idea of religious tradition that is politically expedient, but not genuinely Catholic.

This is one of the consequences of the crisis of the intellectual and theological reception of Vatican II and its doctrine on the Church.

An ecclesial crisis on the “sensus Ecclesiae”

There is obviously a scant knowledge of Church institutions.

In the case of the relations between the US presidency and the papacy, we have seen a total lack of understanding, even among some bishops, of the distinctions that exist between the Bishop of Rome, the Vatican, the Holy See, the universal Church, and the functions and roles of each of these.

In the small, yet vast world we call “Rome” or “the Vatican,” certain things have become more complex from the time of Saint Peter, Julius II and Pius IX.

It is now a state government and a Church government with a diplomatic service. Inside its small territory, there is a cluster of churches, a monastery, a bureaucracy, a bank, a tourist site, a museum, a post office, a fire department, even a jail and so much more.

This is something both Francis and Biden know well. Some of the ideologues on the Catholic right also know that, but they choose to keep it hidden from their followers and sponsors.

This is not a theological crisis about the traditional teachings on abortion and the Eucharist, which are not in question.

It is a theological crisis on the sensus Ecclesiae, an ecclesiological crisis on the “sense of the Church”, which risks being bent — even by the episcopal leaders of the Church itself — to the immediate needs of ecclesial and party politics.

Just “slightly Catholic”

The losers of the Civil War in Ireland took power in 1932.

One of the leaders was a man called Sean Francis Lemass. He had been asked a few years earlier if his political party, Fianna Fáil, was completely committed to the democratic ideals. He replied that his party was “slightly constitutional”.

We might use the analogy for influential circles in US Catholicism.

In terms of their ecclesiology and their communion with a Church universal, they have shown and continue to show a level of contempt for the Bishop of Rome that would rightly lead us to say they are now just “slightly Catholic”.

The issue is not Pope Francis. It has to do with a much larger problem.

In the same way that social and political concerns have shaped contemporary theology to the point that every field of theology has become, in one way or another, political theology, now in the US context Catholic ecclesiology has taken the shape of a political ecclesiology that has sectarian, and therefore, non-Catholic traits.

Within that particular Catholic culture, the political momentum will pass at some point, but the religious movement will last a little or much longer, also because the American “culture wars” have gone global.

Reactions against Francis’ pontificate have demonstrated that we are past the moment when American Catholic neo-conservatism and neo-traditionalism could be liquidated as a passing fever, something that will have a life as short as the political season that generated it.

Basic criteria for remaining Catholic

It’s something different. It is a religious movement within the Catholic Church and needs to be treated as such, by reminding them about some basic criteria of Catholic ecclesiology for remaining in the Catholic Church.

Here are three, just to start.

The first is that there must be a coherence between the goals, methods and behaviours in order to show a unity between one’s life and the faith that is professed. Catholicism is not served well by the protection of political leaders whose private life is a manifest of wholesale contempt for Christian values and human decency.

The second is that there must be an acknowledgement and acceptance of the legitimate plurality of ways to live Catholicism.

Third, is that there must be a sense of visible communion with the bishops and the Bishop of Rome, the pope.

As the constitution of the Church of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, states, the college of bishops and individual bishops have no authority unless they are in communion with the Roman Pontiff, the Successor of Peter.

The systemic crisis of the institutional Church has weakened our “sense of the Church”.

But there is a danger of creating a false equivalence here.

Liberal-progressive Catholic dissent has never shown such contempt for the basic criteria of communion in the Catholic Church.

The controversy over Joe Biden and Eucharistic communion is important. But not because it’s about the US president.

It’s important because it is the story of non-conservative, non-traditional bullying by so-called conservatives and traditionalists who keep calling conservative and traditional that which actually is not.

  • Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University (Philadelphia) and a much-published author and commentator. He is a visiting professor in Europe and Australia.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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