By Massimo Faggioli, LaCroix, June 2019
This year marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allied troops invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944. Just two days earlier the Allies had carried out the Liberation of Rome, making the Eternal City the first capital to be freed from Nazi German occupation.
Near my hometown in Northern Italy there are numerous cemeteries where one finds the graves of Allied soldiers – young men from the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and even Poland who fought against Nazi-Fascism in the Second World War. With our US-born children, my wife and I always make it a point to pay our respects at one of these war cemeteries when we visit Italy.
World War II fused a special relationship between Italy and the United States that is stronger, for example, than ties linking the Italians and the British. But this June it seems Italian Catholics are celebrating a different sort of liberation of Rome.
This time it’s liberation from the Americans, or at least one of them – Steve Bannon.
Liberation from Steve Bannon’s subversion
The Italian government announced on May 31 that it is taking steps toward revoking the lease (allegedly entangled in fraudulent banking statements and other irregularities) for a monastic complex in Trisulti, near Rome.
That’s where Bannon had hoped to establish the campus for his far-right theological-political training academy. Now he will likely be stripped of his much desired Roman foothold for the think tank “Dignitatis Humanae.”
It is ironic that the announcement of the government’s action came just a few days after the elections of the European Parliament on May 26, given the considerable investment of time and money that Bannon made in the last few months with the aim of subverting the European political order.
The investment actually yielded very little return.
Europeans do not want the political disruption that Bannon helped create in the United States as a former strategist for Donald Trump.
At the continental level, the wave of populist and anti-establishment parties has been more limited than expected. Even European populist and nationalist-xenophobic politicians have looked at this American political entrepreneur with deep suspicion.
But no matter what happens to Bannon’s project, there is a growing rift between the new Catholic right in the United States and believers in Europe.
And it is not going away anytime soon. Bannon is nominally Catholic. And his politics embody a new culture within a certain strain of Catholicism in the United Sates.
The rise of right-wing American Catholicism
It is marked by an anti-establishment social conservatism and a theological traditionalism.
This not only helped Donald Trump win the White House, but it is also likely to survive his term as president.
Evident markers of the ideology of this new right-wing American Catholicism are anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobia, extreme positions on human life issues, and theological traditionalism – driven by a mentality which is much closer to the late Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) than to the Second Vatican Council and the popes from John XXIII to Francis.
An integral part of the ongoing genetic modification of the DNA of today’s right-wing American Catholicism is also its relationship with Europe.
For the past several years its most visible intellectual leaders have made Europe a prime target. They have taken aim, in particular, at the European Union and Catholicism on the Old Continent.
This happens sometimes with vitriol and verbal violence, which is part and parcel of a post-civil engagement in the public square. Civility and decency have become “secondary values.”
This group of American Catholics has made Europe the anti-model and a prime polemical target. They bristle at European Catholics for refusing to use religion as a tool in the “clash of civilizations.”
They dislike Europe’s social model, which historically has been the alternative to an American free-market and anti-government ideology. And they excoriate the alleged liberalism of European episcopal and theological elites, especially in Germany.
Now, there is no question that European Catholicism has to find new solutions to the problems of secularization, the disengagement of the youth from religion and the long-term patterns of immigration.
And no one denies that the European project is in trouble, and has been for quite some time.
It was already clear in 2005, with the failed referendums in France and the Netherlands on the proposed EU Constitution, that many Europeans had grown dissatisfied with the Union’s neo-liberal and technocratic turn.
American contempt for post-World War II Europe
But the contempt that American Catholic right-wingers have shown towards Europe is not about the failures of the EU to deliver or the continent’s centuries-long history of secularization.
Rather, it’s about the diverging trajectories of the United States and the nations of Europe – both politically and theologically.
And thus, this fault line is relevant for understanding global Catholicism today, because it represents a shift in the relations between the Vatican and Europe on one side and the Vatican and the United States on the other side.
Notwithstanding the pro-American enthusiasm by such leading European and Catholic intellectuals as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and Jacques Maritain in the 20thcentury, anti-Americanism has always been part of the culture of European Catholicism. This was especially evident during World War II when many European Catholics supported Hitler, Mussolini and Vichy.
Catholics in Europe were fascinated by the United States, but also suspicious of its democratic culture, religious liberty and capitalism. That changed during the Cold War when the USA became a key ally of Catholicism in the fight against Communism.
In addition to this anti-Communist political dogma, Benedict XVI’s blunt views about the political theology of Islam and its incompatibility with the West also helped build a political and diplomatic bridge across the Atlantic in the post-9/11 period.
This came to an end when Benedict resigned from the papacy.
The U.S.-Vatican alignment that had taken shape would have changed in any case, given the direction global Catholicism is taking towards the so-called “global south.”
But the election of Pope Francis made the shift much sharper than expected.
Pope Francis and a broader idea of ‘America’
Right from the beginning of his pontificate, it was clear that Francis holds historical and geopolitical views of the United States that are very different from his two immediate predecessors.
That is a normal for a Latin American pope for whom America, both historically and philosophically, is first of all “Latin America,” and not “the United States of America.”
But then something else happened – that is, the social and political crisis that infected the United States with the backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama (2008-2016). It can be synthesized with the simple mention of one man, Donald Trump.
Religion in the United States, including Catholicism, is currently experiencing a theological crisis.
The Vatican has seen this clearly.
Not only Pope Francis, but also significant sectors in the Church have been speaking out (more or less openly) against this new Catholic Americanism, which appears to be a reaction to the end of “the American century.”
Particularly since 2017, the Jesuits at the Vatican-vetted magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, the president of the European bishops’ conferences (Jesuit Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich) and the Holy See’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, have all published articles that outline the Vatican diagnosis of the American and American Catholic malaise.
This is an ecclesial problem. Global Catholicism today consists of tectonic plates that are moving in different directions, and these different plates often do not know much about one other.
A trans-continental family feud
But the relationship between Europe and the United States is different. This is a family quarrel of the type that takes generations to heal.
European Catholicism has an uncertain future given its sociological weaknesses and secularization, together with a growing religious pluralism that the continent’s elites are still trying to figure out.
American Catholicism has an uncertain future, too. But it is moving in a different direction. It is a much more polarized Church, both theologically and politically, where the non-white components (especially Latinos) are still under-represented, although they will be soon make up the majority of all U.S. Catholics.
Catholicism is at crossroads on both continents. But while European Catholics are used to the sense of deep uncertainty about the future of their Church and of Christianity, Catholics in the United States are not.
This is also a geopolitical problem.
Catholics have been tempted in many countries to trust and elect “strongmen” that promise to protect their identity from globalization.
Some of them — including Trump, Italy’s vice-premier Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – show clearly illiberal, if not authoritarian instincts together with a shameless inclination to use religious symbols to justify their policies.
Authoritarianism in the eyes of the beholder
But there is a difference here in the ways European and U.S. Catholics look at these forms of authoritarianism. First, all Europeans are essentially more secular than Catholics in North America. And they are more afraid to turn legislation on social issues over to religious ideologues.
This is one of the reasons why it’s hard to understand the great enthusiasm that some commentators close to the American Catholic right express towards Salvini, given his notorious indifference to the Catholic right’s key political issue – abortion.
Second, there is a significant difference in the way European and U.S. Catholics have historically looked at authoritarianism and fascism. It is true that in Europe, the memories of fascism and Communism are divided between East and West, thanks to very different “memory politics.”
Moreover, the experience of Christian-Democratic parties and Catholic political leaders was much more important for Western Europe than for Eastern Europe. It is no surprise that U.S. neo-traditionalist Catholics are particularly fascinated by Orbán’s “illiberal” model for Hungary.
But overall there is a trans-continental divide that transcends the differences even between the various regions of Europe. The most important difference between the United States and Europe is that Catholic anti-fascism is historically a European phenomenon.
And this is relevant for the relationship between Catholicism and the European Union.
Because no matter how small its contribution to the liberation of Europe compared to the heroic sacrifice of the Allied armies and of the Soviet Union, Catholic anti-fascism was at the root of the EU project – from its very first leaders to its biggest supporter today, Pope Francis.
Is the vaccination against authoritarianism wearing off?
European Catholics were vaccinated against authoritarianism and totalitarianism in a way that American Catholics never were. Obviously, there is a risk that this vaccine could wear off at some point.
And one could say that Italian Catholics are again exposed to the virus, given that a third of them voted for Salvini in the EU elections. But at the continental level this difference between the political cultures of U.S. and European Catholics still holds.
The reluctance of the European electorate to trust Bannon’s offer to defend “the Judeo-Christian West” has to do with the fact that Europe is more secularized and therefore more skeptical about political-religious ideologies.
But it also has to do with the fact that American and European Catholics interpret the current crisis of liberal democracy in different ways because they have from different histories.
The anti-European sentiment running in the veins of the U.S. Catholic hard right has put Trump’s “Make America great again” on the geopolitical map of the Church. Trumpism has penetrated the body of American Christianity and that means the future of the global Catholic community is now an open question.
Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli