American Catholics view Pope Francis’ theology like partisan politics, through a liberal or conservative lens, and this oversimplification has “produced a polarized vision of what this pope is about,” according to a leading Catholic theologian.
“This pontificate is inherently allergic to any polarizing narrative,” said Dr. Massimo Faggioli, Church historian and professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
Faggioli recently delivered a talk titled “Pope Francis and the USA: Theology, Politics and Diplomacy,” the second annual Jorge Bergoglio Lecture, sponsored by the Curtis Center and the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University. Earlier in the day, Faggioli received an honorary doctorate from the university.
Five years after Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement, Faggioli offered his critique of three trends of Pope Francis’ pontificate: the theological gaps between the pope and U.S. Catholicism; how a pope from Argentina speaks about issues in terms of political alignments in the United States, and the shifting geopolitics of the Church.
Americans have a two-party political system, unlike European governments, and for them “it is difficult to understand the message in categories that are not easily defined as liberal or conservative,” he said.
The North American Church is polarized by political beliefs they impose on their faith and they often view theological issues the same way, Faggioli said. As a result, Francis faces the predicament of overcoming political characterizations because his theology is neither Democratic or Republican.
According to Faggioli, another fundamental difference between Francis and American Catholics is their perception of Vatican II.
Many U.S. Catholics, he said, view Vatican II as “the theological version of Woodstock,” associating it with the turmoil that defined the 1960s, such as Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement and the Nixon presidency. In addition, they typically blame the Council for problems over the past 50 years, including the migration of Catholics away from the faith and the Church’s loss of influence in the modern world.
As a Latin American Jesuit who was bishop of a poor city in Argentina, Francis bases his theology on “Gaudium et Spes,” the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which was one of the four constitutions that came out of the Second Vatican Council.
“For most of the Catholic world, Vatican II was a good thing,” Faggioli said, noting that view is not shared in America, where the pope often confronts “traditionalist insurgency.”
“Francis accepts we live in a secular world and that we don’t want to go back to a Church enslaved by politics,” Faggioli said. He has gone beyond the fantasy of everyone living in a Christian society. In addition, he has no nostalgia for the Latin Mass.
“This pontificate reads the map of the Church and globe and wants to bring back the theological message of Gaudium et Spes,” Faggioli said, with “the goal of making the Catholic Church more like Jesus Christ and less like the Roman Empire.”
Francis recognizes that the most important sign of our times is the mass migration of populations, refugees and migrants, because of persecution and poverty, Faggioli said. He sees a world of people who are resettling and not a world of nations of settlers.
Francis’ view is different precisely because he comes from an urban experience in a multicultural city where Catholics were a minority, Faggioli said. As a result, he is comfortable in a secular, pluralistic world and considers cities as “open space for God” and not places where God has been abandoned.
Francis realizes the Church needs to decentralize itself and “look at the geopolitical peripheries first” because it is in those regions that you find disintegration of faith and marginalization.
Because he is from the slums of Buenos Aires and not Germany or Poland, like his predecessors who loved the United States, his world view is different.
“We now have a pope who has no particular sympathy for North America,” Faggioli said, noting the history of anti-Americanism in Latin America. Moreover, his geopolitical vision is not as friendly to the United States.
Faggioli pointed out that for the first time in history, a pope inserted his opinion in the U.S. political process when during the primaries, Francis told a reporter on a flight back from Mexico that talk of building a wall is “un-Christian.”
“There is a new kind of tension between the Vatican and the White House,” Faggioli said, adding that despite their differences, there had been a mutual understanding between Francis and Barack Obama, Pope Benedict and George W. Bush, and Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan.
Now, there is no common vision between the Vatican and the United States as there had been during the Cold War and after 9-11.
Faggioli, who describes himself as a European Catholic who came to the United States ten years ago, has recently been engaged in a public debate with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic who has been critical of Francis’ pontificate.
Discussing Catholic intellectual tradition and universities, Faggioli said that theology has no future “without recovering some ecclesiastical commitment” and that there cannot be theology that is disconnected from the Church.
For the Church to move forward in the 21st century, Faggioli says it must “reoccupy the center of the spectrum and recognize it is no longer the center of universe in a secular society.
“We cannot return to the 1950s,” he said.
Pictured above: Dr. Massimo Faggioli, Church historian and professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, is joined by Dr. Sabina Petillo after his talk at Sacred Heart University.