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Beyond the US Bishops vs. Joe Biden: The Catholic crisis in the USA

Beyond the US Bishops vs. Joe Biden: The Catholic crisis in the USA

Professor of Theology and author Massimo Faggioli outlines the positioning of US Catholicism in relation to the global Church. 26/06/2021

1.     A multi–layered Catholic crisis in the USA 

On January 20th, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, making him the second Catholic to hold the office – the other being John F. Kennedy. In the wake of Biden’s election, a storm has been brewing in the triangle between Biden, the US bishops, and the Vatican. It’s not merely a clash between different political cultures, but rather lays bare the heart of the divisions that are affecting the Catholic Church in the USA.

In terms of global Catholicism, the US is amongst the biggest players – in population, theological and cultural production, number of men and women in ministry, financial resources, media outreach, and missionary potential – and so events there will send shockwaves around the world . Despite its size and wealth, US Catholicism is a giant in crisis, as we have seen since 2013, when important sectors of the clerical and lay Catholic leadership in the USA became the center of the opposition to Pope Francis for reasons that are both theological and non–theological. So what is this crisis, and how did we arrive here? 

There are three different kinds of crisis that are distinct but not separate. There is a crisis of ecclesial order: a vacuum not only in the authority, but in the legitimacy of the institutions of the Catholic Church, both structural institutions (the Bishops, the clergy) and non–structural (the priesthood, theology). There is a crisis of political order of which Catholicism in the USA is part: from the assault of Capitol Hill of January 6, 2021 to the ongoing attacks against voting rights, the leaders of Catholicism in the USA are reluctant to defend democratic and constitutional values. There is a crisis of geopolitical order: what is the role and position of US Catholicism in the world of today – both in terms of the secular–political world after the Cold War and War on Terror and also in the Catholic global sphere, with a traumatic  interruption of the US bond with the Vatican, and weakened relations with other areas of the world). 

2.     From JFK and the “Catholic Sixties” to Joe Biden 

What led to this situation in US Catholicism is historical development over the last sixty years, since the election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy in 1960. This came after the debacle of the first Catholic candidate, Al Smith, who ran in 1928 and was crushed, thanks to a vicious and racist anti–Catholic campaign, waged (among others) by the KKK.

The Sixties was the beginning of the decline of the seamless confluence of Catholicism – for long assumed to be incompatible with American democracy – into the mainstream. It was JFK’s Catholicism itself that was the problem, not what kind of Catholicism (conservative or progressive) like Joe Biden’s in 2020–2021. Kennedy overcame that challenge by declaring his Catholicism private and irrelevant for his politics both domestically and internationally. The public split among Catholics created by Vietnam, the contraceptive pill, and the legalization of abortion now makes that option impossible for Biden.

In the sixties, thanks to the four–session assembly of all the bishops at the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962–1965) global Catholicism tried to declare peace with modernity, with the Council bringing in changes to the liturgy, and a renewed spirit of ecumenicism, alongside reaffirming Catholic tradition. But the peace was fragile –  like “dancing on the edge of a volcano”, as American Jesuit Stephen Schloesser put it a few years ago. Until the early 1980s, the US Catholic leadership (bishops and intellectual leaders) still pursued the project of modernization and adaptation to social and cultural modernity – for instance, the pastoral letter of the US bishops of 1983 on peace and war, and of 1986 on economic justice. 

The delayed effects of the election of John Paul II (1978–2005) put a stop, in the mid–1980s, to that project of Catholic progressivism: the age of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II on the transatlantic axis, and of Reagan and Thatcher’s ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK.  This inaugurated a second phase that saw the rise of a new movement – neo–conservative Catholicism, an American endorsement of John Paul II’s effort to moderate the progressivism of the interpretations of the Second Vatican Council and of his focus on life issues as the decisive battle for the future of the church and of modernity. 

The traumatic opening of the new millennium in the USA, shaped by 9/11 and the revelations on sex abuses in the Church in 2001–2002, contributed to a mutation in the neo–conservative Catholic project of the 1980s–1990s: from neo–conservatism to neo–traditionalism. The problem is not, as it is for neo–conservative Catholics, merely some progressive interpretations of the Second Vatican Council: for Catholic neo–traditionalists, the problem is the teaching – indeed, the existence – of Vatican II itself. 

It’s one of the effects of the mix between religion, nationalism and militarism in an international and national context shaped by the philosophy of the “clash of civilizations”: this suggests an identification between Christianity and the West, against Islam. The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI (2005–2013) was received in the USA as the consecration of the definitive rejection of Catholic progressivism and liberalism as viable options: not just politically, but also theologically.

The sacred union between the Vatican and American conservatism came to a traumatic end at the beginning of 2013, when Benedict XVI resigned unexpectedly and the conclave elected a Jesuit from Argentina: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the name Francis. Traditional in theology, but with a pastoral eye in his politics and a sympathetic ear to social movements, with his focus on the poor, the environment, and the global south, Pope Francis’ pontificate meant the end of the transatlantic alliance between the theological conservatism of the Vatican and the political conservatism of the Republican party in the USA. This is when the domestic ideological rifts within US Catholicism escalated to an international, global Catholic level. 

Francis was hailed as a liberal for his outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics, on LGBT+ issues, on the environment, for his defense of democracy against authoritarianism. For these same reasons, the American Catholic conservative movement revealed a radical right–wing turn: not just by embracing Trump, but also by rejecting Francis in all possible ways short of declaring a formal schism. They got dangerously close to just that, in August and September 2018, when the former papal diplomat to the USA, archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, tried to unseat Pope Francis by making serious accusations of crimes against him – to the undisguised delight of a substantial group of US bishops. Other historic steps by Francis alienated him further from the American Catholic establishment: the refusal to adopt the “culture war” framework (dominated by abortion politics of Republicans versus Democrats), the landmark diplomatic agreement with the People’s Republic of China in September 2018 and the sympathy shown for the election of the second Catholic president, Joe Biden, in November 2020. 

3.     Three kinds of theological crisis 

Catholicism in the USA finds itself now in three kinds of crisis. 

The first one is a theological crisis. The updated theology of the Second Vatican Council is the foundation of the contemporary Catholic Church, but in the USA it is considered by conservatives too modern to be Catholic, and by progressives too Catholic to be modern. 

The split is not just between liberals and conservatives, but more specifically between a  liberal culture on one side and a neo–fundamentalist on the other side. Neo–fundamentalists have made the smart choice (from their point of view) of populating the church institutions and spaces of the Church’s younger generations – something the Catholic left is not doing. Joe Biden’s election should not be taken necessarily as evidence of the vitality of progressive Catholic theology. 

There is a crisis of lived Catholicism. The dominance of social–political issues has cemented a two–party imagination (everything is either Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal) that has colonized the American mind, included the mind of Americans who are religious and Catholic, with catastrophic intellectual and spiritual effects. Therefore, there is now the temptation of retreating into self–segregated communities, in the name of different kinds of ideological options (the most famous being “the Benedict Option”, popularized by writer Rod Dreher) which would add to Catholicism a sectarian flavor fundamentally incompatible with Catholic ecclesiology. 

There is a liturgical crisis. The politicization of liturgical inclinations among Catholics in the USA (where there is the most vibrant movement for the return to the pre–Vatican II Latin Mass) has, for some, gone beyond the Agatha Christie–kind of aesthetical attachment to the pre–modern: instead signifying a rejection of the validity of the Ordinary FormMass, and an outright, wholesale rejection of the contemporary theology and papal teaching of dialogue with other Christians, with the Jews, with the modern world. When a Christian community becomes split about the way it is supposed to celebrate liturgy together, disunity has reached a dangerous level. It’s the wisdom of the ancient motto “lex orandi, lex credendi”: the rule of prayer, the rule of belief. Disunity (which is different from diversity) in the rule of prayer signifies a disunity in the faith. 

4.     US Catholicism as a mirror of global Catholicism 

The Catholic Church in the USA faces an uncertain future. It is experiencing massive changes in its demographics, mostly thanks to the influx of Catholics from Latin America (and also Asia). This has already changed – and will change even more – its geography, culture, and politics. But there is no ‘demographic solution’ to the current multi–layered crisis. All historical churches in the USA are in steep decline and facing a reckoning on race and sexual abuse in their midst. 

There are however specific questions for Catholicism in the USA, different from other  American Christian churches: 

The first question concerns what kind of Americanism will be embodied by Catholicism in the USA. The success of Catholicism in the twentieth century – the acceptance by the American mainstream, the climbing of the economic, social, and cultural ladder as the competition and then substitute of the Protestant establishment – happened also thanks to the acceptance of a certain idea of the USA in the “American century”. Now that the future of global world does not belong to the USA to the same extent, it is not clear what kind of idea of America US Catholicism will embrace: the attempt to revive American exceptionalism, or an acceptance of the redefinition/decline of its political–religious mission? 

The second question concerns what kind of “Rome” will be in the cultural, theological, and political disposition of Roman Catholicism in the USA: the question of different “Romanism”. An old–style institutional Romanism (which we saw evaporate among Catholic conservatives in the USA in their radical opposition to the pontificate of Francis)? A political Romanism, subject to the viability of transatlantic alliances between the pope and the US Catholic leadership of the day? Or perhaps an affective Romanism, where the Vatican and the Holy See work as a new kind of Orientalism, an idealized point of reference attached to broad Western ideological and cultural commitments and detached from an historical appreciation of its role? 

These are just two questions among the many that the Catholic Church in the USA, one of the biggest and most influential in the world, will have to face: a church in permanent state of flux due to a dynamics of individual conversions (passage from one Christian church or tradition to another) that shape a very particular pattern of ecumenical relations; where race relations have been and continue to be at the center of systems of power in the church; where the English language is, for a global Church like the Catholic, more of a handicap than an advantage in terms of its understanding of diversity; where the power of money coming from big donors has a direct impact on the policies decided and enacted by the institutional church, much more than theology; where a weak sense of history tends to politicize doctrinal issues that belong to the centuries more than to the news cycle. 

We are witnessing  a vertical collapse of the legitimacy of the institutions (legal but also cultural institutions) of the Church; a political homelessness of Catholics made evident by the interruption of a century of rapprochement between Catholic tradition and modern democratic values, together with the inability to make sense of secularism and to keep what can be kept of the values of the Enlightenment; a geopolitical disorientation reflected in the loss of the historical mission of a church now deprived of its previous alignments in light of the new world disorder and of the reorientation of the papacy on the world map (Eastern Europe, China, Middle East) independently from the tutelage of Washington, D.C. and of the Northern Atlantic alliances. 

In a sense, the Catholic Church in the USA is exceptional and unique. But the present moment of that church says a lot about the global situation of Catholicism.  

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 Image: BiksuTong/

Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University (Philadelphia, USA).
He is author, among other books, of Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (2021), and co–editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Vatican II (2022). You can follow him on Twitter: @MassimoFaggioli



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Posted 29 June 2021

Catholicism, Donald Trump, USA


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