Some U.S. evangelical Christian leaders want to talk with Pope Francis about a prominent Jesuit-run journal’s essay on Christianity and American politics that depicted some Catholic-Evangelical collaboration as an “ecumenism of hate.”
“Rather than being offended, we have chosen to attempt to make peace,” Johnnie Moore said, according to Time Magazine. “We would be willing to get on a plane tomorrow to Rome to meet with whoever, whenever to create a space for dialogue instead of conflict.”
Moore, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and past president of the Virginia-based Liberty University, requested the meeting with the Pope and other Vatican leaders on behalf of some U.S. Evangelical leaders, including some close to President Trump. He is part of a group of evangelical Christian leaders who are informal advisors to President Trump. Only parts of the letter were made public.
Moore voiced surprise at the essay, considering the Pope's reputation as a “bridge-builder,” the Washington Post reports. His letter alluded to contemporary “ongoing persecution, political division and global conflict,” saying there are “efforts to divide Catholics and Evangelicals.” “We think it would be of great benefit to sit together and to discuss these things,” said the letter. “Then, when we disagree we can do it within the context of friendship. Though, I'm sure we will find once again that we agree far more than we disagree, and we can work together with diligence on those areas of agreement.”
Moore sent the request to Pope Francis as well as to the Archdiocese of Washington and other possible intermediaries on Aug. 3. The Rome-based Jesuit-run journal La Civilta Cattolica on July 13 published an analysis piece co-authored by its editor, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor who is editor-in-chief of the Argentine edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of Vatican City.
The essay, titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism” made a number of claims, alleging that many conservative Christians have united to promote an “ecumenism of hate” in policies that contradict Pope Francis' message of mercy. They claimed that that “Evangelical fundamentalists” and “Catholic Integralists” are being brought together in a “surprising ecumenism” by a shared desire for religious influence in politics.
The piece's analysis of American Christianity listed various influences like Christian fundamentalism, the “dominionism” of Presbyterian thinker Pastor Rousas John Rushdoony, the Prosperity Gospel, inspirational writer Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, and the polemical lay Catholic site Church Militant. It attempted to link these figures and trends with political trends and figures like Republican strategist Steve Bannon and Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The essay did not mention by name any of President Trump’s religious advisers.
The essay noted the American trend of “values voters” whose political decisions prioritize abortion, same-sex marriage, religion in schools and other matters. Both of these Catholic and Evangelical factions, the authors claimed, “condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.” They charged that this collaboration also advances a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations” and thus an “ecumenism of hate.”
However, the essay drew criticism from several quarters, including the editors of Commonweal Magazine, themselves unsympathetic to U.S. Catholic conservatism. In a July 25 editorial, they described the essay as “a mishmash of wild and erroneous claims, made in a disjointed, almost impenetrable style,” whose authors “seem woefully ignorant of American religious history.” They said the essay was a “lost opportunity” to criticize the partisan use of religion in a way that might engage “those who do not yet have ears to hear.”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia characterized the essay as “an exercise in dumbing down and inadequately presenting the nature of Catholic/Evangelical cooperation on religious freedom and other key issues.” He characterized this cooperation as “a function of shared concerns and principles, not ambition for political power.” The archbishop said it was surprising “when believers are attacked by their co-religionists merely for fighting for what their Churches have always held to be true.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat half-panned the essay as “bad but important.” Despite its apparent intention to warn about “the darker tendencies in Trumpism,” he said it reflected a superficial understanding of American religion and missed the fact that both Catholic-Evangelical alliances and liberal religious politics have failed. Douthat saw an increase in “disillusionment and homelessness” among Catholic thinkers, while the contradictions of political liberalism seem to make the moment “ripe for serious Catholic rethinking.”
For his part, Catholic commentator George Weigel suggested the publishing of the article reflected poorly on the competence of La Civilta Cattolica and the Vatican Secretariat of State, which vets its articles.
The essay drew support from Prof. Miguel H. Diaz, a U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under the Obama administration. Writing at Crux, he said the essay rejects “human indifference” that is “politically manifested and religiously justified.”
Anthony Annett, a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development — Earth Institute at Columbia University, wrote in Commonweal July 28 that the essay showed a light on “the pathologies of a certain brand of American Catholicism.” Its basic point, he contended, was that “a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of right-wing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism.”