Being American and Catholic in a “competitive-democratic context”

Having had the chance, following the publication of Faith Meets World, to speak to several Catholic audiences in parish settings and radio interviews, I have found myself returning in those talks & discussions to one idea often. That is how very troubling I find the tendency of us American Catholics to allow ourselves to be formed far more dominantly by our politics than by our faith.

Too many of us docilely, even hungrily, take our instructions on how we should understand the world, how we should live in society, from whatever political party we affiliate ourselves with, and then we make careful and cautious judgments about what the Church and indeed the Gospel have to say in light of that — when it fact the process should work the other way around!

So I was pleased to see this commentary recently by historian and theologian Massimo Faggioli at the Italian incarnation of the Huffington Post. Faggioli is an Italian by birth and nationality, but has lived and worked in the United States for several years. He’s professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas here in Minnesota and the author of the book True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (full disclosure: that book is published by Liturgical Press, where I work).

Faggioli’s HP piece provides an interesting and instructive view of us American Catholics and the church we’re building here from the perspective of an “outsider.” Here is my translation of his comments, which he has approved. (Note for context that it was written and published before the resolution of the federal government shutdown.)

“Conservative American Catholics and Pope Francis”

Pope Francis has, up to now, received almost universal approval, but if there is one country where Catholics are divided over Bergoglio, it is the church of the stars and stripes. An article published on October 15 by the Washington Post makes the divisions clear, offering a journalistically credible platform to a group of Catholics who usually speak only among themselves and to their own followers, in their own circles, magazines, and blogs.

But the problem is real, and it is typical of the American church and its unique nature. On the one hand, there is the question of the relationship between American Catholics and non-Catholics, or, if you will, a problem of “market share”: a pope who is too ecumenical and too welcoming, one who refuses to use exclusion as a tool to strengthen religious identity, risks, in the eyes of some American Catholics, weakening the Catholic “brand.”

But there is a more pressing problem within American Catholicism: the church in the United States is highly polarized and divided within itself. It lives in close contact with the ambient democracy, a democracy that is not “consensual,” as are the European democracies based on multi-partisan alliances, but “concurrent,” composed of only two competing political parties. The Catholic Church in the United States has absorbed the mechanisms and the ethos of this competitive-democratic context, including what it means to belong to and participate in the Church.

Participation in the church of the United States is guided often by a “competitive,” alternative vision, more than by a “consensual” instinct. One clear result of this is that “non-negotiable” values have become a dominant element of the American Catholic landscape: not only because of the proverbial puritanism of the Americans (Catholics included), but also because of the American political culture. The democratic ethos has become part of the culture of the church, but in the church of the United States this has created more “concurrence” than “consensus.”

Pope Francis has begun his pontificate by systematically re-opening the doors to a long series of exclusions that had been closed within the church by some neo-exclusivist tendencies. It is obvious that conservative Catholics are those who are most skeptical about these new accents of the Bergoglio pontificate. That these skeptical voices are loudest in the United States has to do not only with the American religious culture, but also with its political culture. Indeed, the very mindset that is now bringing the country to default, to bankruptcy, is what Pope Francis is trying to avoid within the Catholic Church.


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