Regarding Antonio Spadaro S.J.’s Account of a Surprising Ecumenism

Did everything in Western Civilization really just get ugly when couples started using contraception and gays and lesbians asked to be married? 

Sam Rocha once characterized Rod Dreher’s view of the US culture wars by describing Dreher’s sense of catastrophe as kitsch and parochial, his sense of despair as emotivist and modern. Same with +Chaput’s vision.

Rhetorical confrontation, political, legal, canonical & military coercions all have their rightful place as the hard powers that we must call upon at times. But prudence and subsidiarity give primacy to the less coercive soft powers of dialogical communication, diplomatic consultation, pastoral accommodation, moral enculturation & Gospel inculturation. What most characterizes the neocon cultural engagement strategy is their reflexive & inordinate reliance on hard powers. Kaveny has characterized +Chaput’s approach as prophetic utterance? That’s fair-minded. But his theological anthropology seems too pessimistic, his imagination too dialectical?

+Chaput’s pastoral approach flunks Pope Francis’ critique of legalism & rigorism. His problems run much deeper, though, as his infallibilism inappropriately extends beyond essential dogma to moral realities, where the sensus laicorum, theologians & magisterium yet continue their search for the sensus fidelium.

While it is encouraging that pastoral solutions are being reinstated to their place of primacy over legal approaches, the problems are often more fundamental. For example, too often, pastoral accommodations for objectively “irregular” relationships are recommended when, instead, one’s primacy of conscience should be recognized and a moral probabilism should be affirmed over against a creeping infallibilism.

Even Pope Francis’ approach, which emphasizes mercy, can become unmercifully condescending to the divorced-remarried, contracepting & LGBTQ couples, who – not unreasonably and suffering neither invincible ignorance nor poor formation – believe that their relationships to God & each other are loving and upright.

+Chaput once lectured: “Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls our period the ‘secular age.’ How we got to this moment is far too big a subject for us tonight.”

It apparently remains too big a subject to address in this book, too, for he does not offer empirical sociological support for his hasty anthropological generalizations. One can only infer from his diagnosis that he precisely believes in the “subtraction account” that Taylor opposes.


Those needling MSW for more argumentation to support his dismissals of +Chaput’s facile anthropological account need only consult Taylor for a sound, thoroughgoing refutation.

I cringe, however, at the thought of thus juxtaposing those books.

From First Things: re: “Francis sees what Spadaro and Figueroa do not: that ‘the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church’ is necessary.”

That sounds right. The John Courtney Murray approach is alive and well in the USA. That’s not what’s wrong with many in the Religious Right. What’s wrong is more fundamental and derives from a pessimistic theological anthropology (dialectical imagination, depravity, etc) combined with various impoverished moral philosophies (sola Scriptura, solum Magisterium, facile natural law reasoning, etc). Those deficits then foster an overemphasis on hard powers like confrontational rhetoric and legal, political and military coercions at the expense of soft powers like dialogical communication, diplomatic consultation, moral enculturation, Gospel inculturation and pastoral accommodation, which should, instead, enjoy primacy.

This argument is fleshed out below.

Antonio Spadaro, SJ, recently wrote of a Surprising Ecumenism in the U.S. between Evangelical fundamentalists and Catholic integralists.

I agree with its editors that First Things has precisely resisted any tendencies to theologize political stances and, in fact, the neoconservative critique, in part, first emerged as a response to chasten such a tendency from the Left. 

It may be that Fr Spadaro’s critique did not proceed from explicit principles but it does in my view seem to implicitly fit the context of Amoris Laetitia and to flow from its prudential logic, consistent with subsidiarity.

To wit: If we consider a spectrum of coercive influence, which ranges from the soft powers of dialogical communication, diplomatic consultation, pastoral accomodation, moral enculturation, Gospel inculturation & so on, to the hard powers of confrontational rhetoric and political, legal and military coercions and so forth, then, clearly the soft powers enjoy a prudential primacy over the hard powers, any escalations warranted by Just War-like Principles. 

If there’s one thing FT has clearly stated in recent years, it’s that, when it comes to statecraft, pastors must defer to competent and legitimate authorities, who, sharing the same ends, must prudently deliberate over the suitable means. This is true whether waging a war on poverty, a war on terror or a moral culture war.

To some extent, then, there is an incredible irony in First Things getting caught in the crosshairs of the Spadaro critique. I really can’t see where any that critique’s rhetorical arrows have hit any particular mark vis a vis criteria regarding prudential judgments and/or subsidiarity principles.

Any problems with Evangelical fundamentalists and some radically traditionalistic Catholic cohort don’t so much lie in how the Catholic faith comports with various notions of classical liberalism. The problem as I see it lies more so in how they too often seem to share a rather pessimistic theological anthropology coupled with rather impoverished moral philosophies. They don’t just rage against a militant secularism but cannot see or affirm what is otherwise implicitly true, beautiful, good, unitive or liberative in the secular order or even other religions. When the Catholic analogical imagination gets coopted by a dialectical imagination, it forfeits an anthropological vision that should otherwise be profoundly incarnational and profusely pneumatological in exchange for one of total depravity. When a time honored natural law approach is not bolstered by the insights of a more robustly personalist perspective with its relationality-responsibility model, it devolves into the biologistic, physicalistic, a prioristic, rationalistic account of a sterile scholasticism (and using the personalist idiom sans principles to cloak old physicalistic conclusions fools no one, e.g. so-called theology of the body). 

With such a pessimistic anthropology and impoverished moral philosophy, one’s prudential judgments will logically tend toward hard power coercions and deemphasize soft power persuasions. Culture warriors will resort more to confrontational rhetoric and legal coercions. Communion warriors will resort to church disciplines and canons with a frequency and in ways that most bishops properly discern as imprudent. The war on terror will try to install Jeffersonian democracies in tribalistic cultures. Too many social justice warriors, for their part, too often take the hard power approach by default, facilely and cynically demonizing those who otherwise prudently advocate for federalism and fiscal sustainability and not at all in an attempt to wage class warfare.

Enough with the war metaphors! Enough with the overemphasis on hard power! Left and Right!

It is a blessing that in the US, beyond the Constitution, federal statutes provide for strict scrutiny in any attempts to advance a compelling government interest & require the least restrictive means practicable where matters of conscience are at stake. Now, of course, we cannot entirely avoid remote material cooperation with perceived evils in pluralistic societies, but religious freedom statutes do prescribe such avoidance to a most reasonable extent!

For example, if there exists a less restrictive means than signing an opt-out form to conscientiously object to a mandate, the onus is on the government to provide it. But we can trivialize our own moral philosophical distinctions, e.g. remote material cooperation, by pressing such claims too far, especially with hyperbolic cries of religious persecution, e.g. of Little Sisters of the Poor. More tragically, we then trivialize the real religious persecution taking place elsewhere across the globe.

I would add that the reason the Religious Right is now more often taking refuge in the religious freedom statutes, as a strategy for advancing their agenda, is because they have failed to make compelling arguments in the Public Square and, resultingly, have thus failed, too, in their legislative & judicial strategies.

The Biblical fundamentalists lack arguments transparent to human reason. The natural law fundamentalists lack the more robust relationality-responsibility model of an authentic personalism. Both lack adequate noncoercive inculturational & pastoral strategies. Neither recognize the rights that flow from moral probabilism, rights gifted by one’s humanity & not by various magisteria.

So, ecclesiastically, they overzealouly use church canons, while, in the public square, they disingenuously invoke religious freedom, in their cynical attempts to deny others (e.g. LGBTQ) their rights to both the Church’s sacraments as well as the secular order’s implicit sacramentals.

+Chaput, for example, doesn’t get that Rome’s not as much critiquing his moral, legal & political strategies as they are his impoverished evangelical & pastoral approaches.

+Chaput seems right in that his is no essential theocratic stance, but his impoverished evangelical & pastoral approaches lead to a practical theocratic aspiration as he and evangelicals overemphasize legal & political strategies and underemphasize inculturation & pastoral sensitivity vis a vis various moral realities. In such an evangelical approach, any attempts to then align divine & natural laws with positive laws, whether ecclesiastical & canon law or civil & criminal law, will inevitably devolve into an exclusivistic ecclesiology with moralistic, legalistic & even ritualistic rigorisms.