US bishops’ failure to unequivocally denounce Trumpism + Willingness of some Catholic leaders to give Trump a free pass and portray him as more sympathetic to the Church

By Massimo Faggioli | United States, in La Croix, Jan 2021

“It looked like a medieval battle scene.”

That’s how a Washington, D.C., police officer described the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, the seat of the United States Congress.

Medieval battle scene is an appropriate image to describe what’s happened in American Catholicism since Pope Francis’ election in 2013.

We have seen similar rallying cries (“let’s take back our Church”), similar tactics (the spreading of lies and conspiracy theories) and similar eminent masterminds or at least useful minimizers of what’s been happening (not the disheveled characters in the mob, but the ones wearing a suit and tie from a Catholic TV studio).

If the assault on Capitol Hill was that of a mob trying to subvert the constitutional order in the United States, what’s happened in the Catholic Church in the last several years has been an attempt to defenestrate the current pope.A former papal nuncio and his anti-Francis cabalIt was begun earlier on — in the spring and summer of 2013 — by trying to undermine his legitimacy.

Then, when those delegitimization tactics were clearly not working, a cabal was formed around Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in August 2018 when the former papal nuncio to Washington (2011-2016) spearheaded a ferocious and unprecedented campaign to discredit Francis.

As Viganò goaded the Jesuit pope to resign, two dozen U.S. bishops publicly supported the former nuncio. Not one of those bishops has ever apologized or retracted his support, even as both Viganò and his claims have been decisively debunked.

Not surprisingly these are the same bishops who seek to delegitimize President Joe Biden’s credentials as a Catholic.

An ongoing political and religious crisis in America

The Church in the United States is at the center of both the political and religious crisis that is not anywhere near to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been unable to narrow the gap between trying to remain non-partisan and being willing to speak the truth.

It’s enough to compare the USCCB’s statement on the Capitol Hill to Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s denunciation of the insurrection attempt.

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement on January 16 calling for peace and condemning the violence.

But Cardinal Schönborn had already gone even further than that.

“The crowd that stormed the Capitol was falsely convinced that they were fighting the biggest electoral fraud in America’s history. Nothing justifies their violence. Even less: the lies that led to the violence,” the cardinal said in a January 15 statement.

“This is what happens when truth can no longer be distinguished from lies. What a warning against the power of lies!” he exclaimed.

In fact, “the power of lies” is at the heart of the problem concerning the recent attacks against both the constitutional system of American democracy and the ecclesial status of the Catholic Church in the country.

Beyond the bishops, Catholics in mainstream media

An intra-Catholic debate over the past several days has rightly and necessarily focused on the US bishops’ failure to unequivocally denounce Trumpism or the willingness of some Catholic leaders to give Trump a free pass and portray him, tacitly or quite openly, as the candidate more sympathetic to the Church.

Attention has focused also on the responsibility that the Catholic media in the United States bears for creating a hate-filled environment.

But here there is another class of leaders that have been let off too easily: the prophets and precursors of Catholic Trumpism who are not members of the clergy and do not work in Catholic media.

There are Catholics in the mainstream commentariat who have sought to dignify the “take back our Church” instincts channeled by less prestigious media outlets.

The Catholics with a media following who are gunning for Pope Francis

For instance, Ross Douthat, an adult convert to Catholicism who has been a columnist for the New York Times since 2009, constantly downplayed the threat that Donald Trump represented for American democracy from the moment the reality TV show host and billionaire announced his candidacy for the White House in 2015.

At the same time, Douthat was fomenting suspicions towards Pope Francis.

“The pontiff’s ambitions have encouraged plotters and counterplotters to work with greater vigor. And right now, the chief plotter is the pope himself,” he charged in the opening lines of one of his columns in October 2015.

That article was not an isolated incident. Douthat published a book in 2018 on Francis – or rather against him.

It is full of insights typical of a wickedly clever intellectual. But it also reveals some of the cultural illnesses of Trumpism.

One need only look at the sources Douthat quotes. Some of them are known for their relentless campaign of lies against the pope.

And then there are the prominent “former Catholics” who attack the pope

Another hero of Catholic conservatives is the journalist Rod Dreher. Once a convert to Catholicism, he is now a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

His outbursts against Pope Francis did not make it into the non-repentance he published after what he saw in the Trump movement’s rally in Washington, D.C. on December 12. It just so happened that Viganò addressed that event via video. In a February 2020 article called, “The Pope Francis Threat”, Dreher derided the current pontificate.

“Spiritual warfare happening now at the summit of the Catholic Church is going to be decisive for the future of the world,” he wrote. But this is just one example.

Mobs and those who embolden them

The assault on Capitol Hill was an act of domestic terror prepared and carried out by hundreds or thousands of individuals. But there are others who were not part of that mob on January 6 who bear moral responsibility for what took place.

They include Catholics who wield political power and others who work in the media.

And they also share responsibility for the assault on Francis’ pontificate. The only reason Archbishop Viganò’s lies have gained traction among a Catholic public is because a commentariat that should know better has been feeding those lies.

Among them are Catholics (and former Catholics) who have had no moral or professional qualms about participating in this act of mendacity in order to expand their already large media audiences.

Of course, the problem is not about criticizing the pope. It’s blaming the things he does that you don’t like on some sort of nefarious conspiracy. We have seen this played out in US politics as well as in the Church.

A moment of reckoning

There is a parallel between the attack on the legitimacy of an election and the refusal to accept its outcome, regarding both Pope Francis and President Biden.

The conspiracy theories led a number of people in the United States and within the Catholic Church there to totally lose it, while their intellectual enablers managed to surf the anti-institutional and anti-establishment tide.

In this political and ecclesial moment, it is easy to go after the Catholic media. It’s even easier to point the finger at the bishops, a visible target with a lot to answer for.

But this moment of reckoning demands a wide spectrum of analysis, and especially a reflection on the role of the opinion leaders who have helped develop “getting away with everything” into an art.

It is the privilege of those George Orwell called the “unteachable” ruling class – the product of an elite system where ignorance is well disguised by contempt and dismissiveness of what they ignore.

Getting away with spreading lies may be the rule in politics. But it should not be the way the Church deals with what has happened these past four or so years.

I am looking forward to the mea culpa of some bishops. It’s more likely to come from them than from those Orwell considered unteachable.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, was published by Bayard on January 20.

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The opposition to Pope Francis is not really about ‘Amoris Laetitia'”Many have forgotten that the opposition to Pope Francis started very early in his pontificate – at least two or three years before ‘Amoris Laetitia’ was published.”

By Massimo Faggioli, in LaCroix, 2017

It has now been a year since Pope Francis published his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (8 April 2016). And the Catholic Church is still in the process of receiving it.

The pope’s interpretation of and contribution to the long synodal debate on love in marriage and the family has certainly changed the Catholic conversation on some of the typical issues of the Church in modern times.

But it is still too early to draw conclusions about the document’s reception. That’s because the people most touched by its teaching – the lay faithful – are largely invisible to the Catholic media.

But it is not too early to see a phenomenon that could give us a distorted picture of the relationship between Francis and the different circles and individuals that oppose his pontificate if one links this opposition to the teaching of Amoris Laetitia.

It is true that during the past year the debate over the document has radicalized some voices in the Catholic Church. Most notable is Cardinal Raymond Burke, who threatened the pope with a “formal correction” of his teaching. This especially concerns passages in the exhortation that discuss access to the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.

But Burke’s opposition to Francis does not stem principally from anything that was produced by the Synod of Bishop or the post-synodal exhortation. Those events merely allowed him to take it a step further.

In fact, there are two problems with certain Catholic media focusing on the radical opposition to Amoris Laetitia.

The first is that the intentions of the other three prelates that signed the “dubia” in November 2016 are not moved by the same animus of their fourth co-signer, Cardinal Burke.

The fact that they signed the same “dubia” says nothing about whom they represent in the Church or about the coherence of this little group.

During his visit to Carpi in Northern Italy this past Sunday, Pope Francis publicly embraced and concelebrated Mass with one of the signatories of the “dubia” – Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop-emeritus of Bologna.

The fact is that there never was an organized opposition of cardinals against Francis through the “dubia”. The tendency to paint the debate around Amoris Laetitia with Cardinal Burke’s brush, therefore, misrepresents the reception of the current pontificate in the Church, including among cardinals and bishops.

There is no doubt that many in the ecclesiastical hierarchy are still in a “wait and see” mode, but very few would follow Cardinal Burke all the way.

There is a second, even bigger problem in analyzing the opposition to Francis from the point of view of critiques against post-synodal exhortation. And that has to do with the history of this pontificate.

Sometimes it looks as if the radical opposition to the pope started with the reactions to Amoris Laetitia or, even earlier, with Francis’ way of interpretation or dealing with the unfolding of the Synod between October 2014 and October 2015.

But now more than four years after his election, many have forgotten that the opposition to Pope Francis started very early in his pontificate – at two or three years before Amoris Laetitia was published.

Those opposing the pope saw in the very first days and weeks of his ministry as Bishop of Rome something difficult to square with their own interpretation of Catholicism.

In October 2013, just seven months after his election, Francis announced that he was convening the Synod of Bishop to an extraordinary session in 2014.

By then it was already clear that in some quarters of European and North American Catholicism there were deep concerns over how this Jesuit bishop from Buenos Aires was interpreting the papacy. It is enough to mention here a few examples of statements made in public. Just a week after Francis’ election, the Lord Acton Institute – one of the most important think tanks in North America embodying the recent Catholic embrace of a libertarian, free-market economic and political ideology – expressed concerns about the social-economic views of the new pope.

At the end of July 2013, the Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in an interview that members of the conservative wing of the Catholic Church “generally have not been really happy” with some aspects of Francis’ early months. He said the pope would have to find a way “to care for them, too”.

We should note that Chaput was not the only American bishop to express disappointment in Pope Francis during that summer of 2013.

In September 2013 R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, reacted to the interview the pope had just given to Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica.

Reno commented that “such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame” and made a larger point about Francis’ reframing of Catholic social message focused not exclusively on sexual morality.

“This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church,” Reno said. “We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept ‘talking less’ about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement – or silence,” the conservative editor added.

All these comments and many others of a similar kind were made public weeks and months before the Synod assembly was even announced, and more than one year before it actually took place with its robust debates, final votes, and – finally – the publication of Amoris Laetitia.

By the end of the summer of 2013 Francis’ pontificate had already put a new emphasis on the poor and on mercy (already during the first week of the pontificate).

He published the decree to declare John XXIII and John Paul II saints in a single ceremony (5 July 2013). He visited the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and took a much stronger stance, compared to Benedict XVI, on immigration and refugees (8 July 2013).

He then traveled to Brazil for the World Youth Day and gave speeches to the CELAM (Latin American Bishops) and the bishops of Brazil (26-28 July 2013). And after his return to Rome, he met with the theologian of liberation Gustavo Gutierrez in the Vatican (12 September 2013).

That was all before he had announced the extraordinary Synod assembly or given the groundbreaking interview to Fr Spadaro.

In fact, the opposition to Pope Francis is made up of different streams. There is a theological opposition nostalgic of the John Paul II-Benedict XVI paradigm. Then there is an institutional opposition that is trying to defend the ecclesiastical status quo.

And, finally, there is a social-political opposition, which is concerned with the political-economic sustainability of the pontificate that is radically on the side of the poor.

Future historians will have to analyze the interplay between these different kinds of opposition. But let there be no doubts. The opposition to Pope Francis did not begin with the Synod gathering of 2014-2015 or the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. It began with the very first days of his pontificate.

Originally published on 3 April 2017 and reposed in September 2017

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