Out of Many Hearts, Thoughts May Be Revealed: a Reflection on the Spadaro-Figueroa Article in La Civilta Cattolica

July 18, 2017

During the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, Simeon famously said to Mary, “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:35) The sword that pierced the heart of the Mother of God is often depicted in paintings of the Blessed Mother, reminding us of the sorrows she endured in the Passion of her Son.

But why was it necessary for Mary to endure such suffering? Simeon gave one answer. It was so that “out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.”

At first blush that may sound like a judgment, a kind of punishment. One suspects that most of us have thoughts that we would rather not become available for public scrutiny. But from another perspective, having one’s thoughts exposed could be the greatest of blessings. We often do not know ourselves, or understand our own thoughts and motives. And while it is a daunting prospect to have our thoughts revealed to others, it would be of obvious benefit to know ourselves as God knows us; to see ourselves with ultimate clarity.

While it would not be as instructive as seeing ourselves as God sees us, seeing ourselves as our fellow humans see us can only be beneficial. While their vision of us may not be infallible, and might even be profoundly mistaken, learning how we are perceived by others can only serve as a teaching moment, whether it leads to self-reform or efforts to counter misapprehensions.

Just such an opportunity has been given us Americans in the Vatican vetted La Civilta Cattolica, in an article entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: a Surprising Ecumenism,” written by Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa. [1] Father Spadaro, a Jesuit, is the director of La Civilta Cattolica [2], and Reverend Figueroa, a Presbyterian Pastor, and is editor-in-chief of the Argentinean edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Though the article is about an aspect of the interface between religion and politics in the United States, neither of the authors are American, something which gives them that outside perspective that is so often needed.

The article begins by pointing out how religion has had an increasing role in United States electoral politics in recent decades, infusing politics with the absolute good and evil dichotomy characteristic of religion. This can take on Manichaean proportions, the authors point out. Just as in Manichaeanism good is associated with spirit and bad with matter, good in this context becomes associated with things American and bad with those things that are to be considered other than that. Thus, President George W. Bush spoke of an other-than-American “axis of evil.”

But the evil other-than-American does not reside solely outside of United States borders. It can be found within the country as well. Hence, “President Trump steers the fight against a wider, generic collective entity of the ‘bad’ or even the ‘very bad.’”

The authors correctly identify the source of this dynamic: an evangelical fundamentalism that has largely transmogrified into what they identify as the “evangelical right.” Most Americans would refer to this group as the “Christian right,” but “evangelical right” is more descriptive. Whatever the name, people who fall into that category “consider the United States to be a nation blessed by God. And they do not hesitate to base the economic growth of the country on a literal adherence to the Bible.” What’s more, they deem themselves as confronting and contesting an evil other-than-American within our borders. “The panorama of threats to their understanding of the American way of life have included modernist spirits, the black civil rights movement, the hippy movement, communism, feminist movements and so on. And now in our day there are the migrants and the Muslims.”

Of course, the Christian understanding of evil is that it should be eradicated at all costs. To that end we pray, fast, give alms, and receive the sacraments, in the hope of overcoming completely the evil within ourselves. Moreover, we seek to help others achieve the same. But the evangelical right’s understanding of evil has become conflated not only with ethnic and cultural prejudices, but also with the persons and groups that make up the movements that are deemed a threat. The Christian message is thus bowdlerized from a message of human liberation from evil, to one of containment, perhaps destruction, of individuals who are harbingers of unwelcome change.

Such theological terraforming can easily lend itself to utopianism, or it can degenerate as far as a “Prosperity Gospel,” where earthly riches become recognized as a sign of God’s favor. Even if the utter crassness of seeking a sign of God’s favor in material riches on an individual level can be avoided, American prosperity in general is looked upon as a sign of God’s blessing, and, hence, his approval of the American system as conceived and remythologized by the evangelical right. The demonstrably false and revisionist notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation is propounded, thus conceptualizing the U.S. as a kind of latter-day Israel, with all of the exceptionalism that implies.

The perceptions of the evangelical right are not always distorted, however. It is true that there is a form of secularism that is not content with government neutrality as to religion, but wishes to set up government in opposition to religion, and allowing for freedom of religion that extends only so far as government permits. But the response is too often to seek a governmental imposition of religion; to seek a confessional state. This goes to the very foundation of the American constitutional system. If a confessional government was ever achieved in the United States, it would constitute an overthrow of the existing system.

Here the evangelical right and Catholic Integralists seem, superficially, to find common cause. And it is symptomatic of a more broadly perceived unity of interests in the political sphere. Indeed, there are common social interests between Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity, and the two can legitimately enter into a socio-political partnership with respect to such issues as “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.”

Yet this unity of interest must not be overplayed. Catholic social teaching involves more than the issues mentioned. But if the reach of Catholic teaching is curtailed to correspond only to the concerns of conservative Protestant Christianity, a distortion of Catholic doctrine results, and the obligations of Catholics in the social sphere are compromised. Specifically, when Catholic doctrine becomes identified with American conservative politics, Catholic teaching on such issues as the rights of labor and the preferential option for the poor are cast aside.

It will be objected here that the same dangers can be associated with what is (incorrectly) called “liberalism” in the United States. And we are not without examples of Catholic politicians who at least ostensibly support labor rights and the concerns of the poor while supporting the legality of abortion. But the attempted fusion between religion and politics has not gone so far on the “left.” Any Catholic who is politically involved is bound to hear eventually that his vote for Republican candidates is morally obligatory, a claim far more rarely made in Democratic circles.

Now none of this is to say that the fusion of religion and politics would be more legitimate if it was carried out by the political “left.” But, in the United States, it is happening on the “right,” and there is cause for concern. To serve partisan ends in this manner, Catholicism must lose much of its critical teaching to accommodate its political master, and it must be misdirected from its call to embrace all of humanity; whole swathes of humankind themselves become the evil to be overcome.

This seems to be what Father Spadaro and Reverend Figueroa are observing and expressing in their article. It is, perhaps, hard for us to see up close. But what we must keep in mind is that there are no acceptable casualties in Catholicism. Politics too often represents the internal struggle for the control of resources. There are winners and there are losers. But the teaching of the Church is that all of us are in the image of God, and as God will win, so we all must win. The article by Father Spadaro and Reverend Figueroa can serve to remind us of that when politics is at its most wretched.

Jack Quirk