18 de febrero de 2017
The Trump Era’s Catholic Mirror
There is a natural desire for a unifying theory of all the disturbances in Western institutions, a way to make all the conflicts into one so that an unstable situation can be distilled and understood. Which is why, over the last week, there’s been an attempt to unite American politics and Vatican intrigue into a single melodrama, in which the same populist forces that elevated Donald Trump are supposedly trying to pull Pope Francis down.
The key to this interpretation is the connection, reported last week by my colleague Jason Horowitz, between Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief ideologist, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American traditionalist who has been the Jesuit pope’s most vocal critic within the College of Cardinals. The Bannon-Burke link consists of a friendly 2014 meeting, a few secondary connections and some broad commonalities between their respective worldviews — both in their way reactionary, nostalgic for the civilizational confidence of the Western or Catholic past.
Out of this thread a number of the pope’s admirers have spun a narrative in which the Catholic Church’s internal conflict and the secular struggle between liberalism and nationalism are basically the same battle. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, for instance, portrayed Bannon and the pope as locked in a struggle “to define the meaning of both Americanism and Catholicism.” Rather more intemperately, another Post writer, Emma-Kate Symons, accused Cardinal Burke of “using his position within the walls of the Vatican to legitimize extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy.”
As a description of actual machinations, this is conspiratorial nonsense: Burke has no such illiberal ambitions, Bannon has other fish to fry, and the theological issues dividing the church are quite distinct from the political issues dividing Western countries.
But the urge to compare the two conflicts is still understandable, because for all the differences in detail, the drama in the church is a kind of photonegative of the drama in Washington, D.C. In both contexts, a provisional center has cracked up, and a form of steamrolling populism has taken power. In both contexts, ideas from the fringes — far right and far left, radical and traditional — suddenly have unexpected resonance.
The difference is that in Rome the populist isn’t a right-wing president. He’s a radical pope.
Friendly media coverage casts the pontiff as a man of the center, an ecclesiastical equivalent of Angela Merkel or Barack Obama or David Cameron, menaced by authoritarians to his right. But he is no such thing, and not only because his politics are much more radical and apocalyptic than any Western technocrat. In the context of the papacy, in his style as a ruler of the church, Francis is flagrantly Trumpian: a shatterer of norms, a disregarder of traditions, an insult-heavy rhetorician, a pontiff impatient with the strictures of church law and inclined to govern by decree when existing rules and structures resist his will.
His admirers believe that all these aggressive moves, from his high-stakes push to change church discipline on remarriage and divorce to his recent annexation of the Knights of Malta, are justified by the ossification of the church and the need for rapid change. Which is to say, they regard the unhappiness of Vatican bureaucrats, the doubts of theologians, the confusion of bishops and the despair of canon lawyers the way Trump supporters regard the anxiety of D.C. insiders and policy experts and journalists — as a sign that their hero’s moves are working, that he’s finally draining the Roman swamp.
Meanwhile the church’s institutionalists are divided along roughly the same lines as mainstream politicians in the face of Trump’s ascent.
There is a faction that has thrown in with Francis completely, some out of theological conviction, some out of opportunism, some out of simple loyalty to the papal office. (The analogy would be to the mix of populists, opportunists and institutionalists who smoothed Trump’s progress to the Republican nomination.)
There is a group that is simply silent or deeply cautious — note how few of the world’s bishops have taken any position on the controversy over divorce and remarriage — in the hopes that things will simply return to normal without their having to put anything at risk. (The analogy would be to most Republican elected officials, and a few red-state Democrats as well.)
There is a group that is relatively open in criticism of the pope’s agenda but also unwilling to cross the line into norm-smashing of its own. (The analogy would be to the American center-right and center-left, from John McCain to Hillary Clinton.)
This last group’s sheer diversity is one reason the Bannon-versus-Francis theory fails. The ranks of papal skeptics are filled with Africans and Latin Americans as well as North Americans and Europeans, with prelates and theologians and laypeople of diverse economic and political perspectives. Most are not traditionalists like Burke; they are simply conservatives, comfortable with the Pope John Paul II model of Catholicism, with its fusion of the traditional and modern, its attempt to maintain doctrinal conservatism while embracing the Second Vatican Council’s reforms.
But because this larger group is cautious, its members have been overshadowed by the more forthright, combative and, yes, reactionary Cardinal Burke, whose interventions might as well come with the hashtag #TheResistance.
Which places him in the same position, relative to Francis, that a Bernie Sanders occupies relative to Trump — or that Jeremy Corbyn occupies relative to Brexit. He’s a figure from the fringe whose ideas gain influence because the other fringe is suddenly in power; a reactionary critic of a radical pope just as Sanders or Corbyn are radical critics of a suddenly empowered spirit of reaction.
So the story of Catholicism right now has less to do with reaction alone and more to do with what happens generally when an institution’s center doesn’t hold.
In his own way, no less than neoliberals in Western politics, John Paul II tried to forge a stable post-Second Vatican Council center for Catholicism; now, much like the neoliberal order in Western politics, his project seems to be collapsing. The church under Francis has moved left as Western politics has moved right, but the reality in both cases is one of polarization, of a right that wants to be more reactionary and a left that wants to be more radical, and an establishment uncertain how and where to move.
And while for now the Bannon-Burke conflation is a bit silly, it is possible to imagine the religious and the political eventually converging.
Today, the mainstream of conservative Catholicism is not reactionary and not remotely Trumpian.
But just as the Trump era may turn liberals into radicals, the Francis bulldozer is making a traditionalist critique of the entire post-Vatican II church resonate on the younger Catholic right — which is already more skeptical of modernity than the John Paul II generation. And with a traditionalist turn in theology could come the return of an illiberal or post-liberal Catholic politics — one already visible here and there online, in the zeal of certain Catholic trads for Trumpism and far-right politics in general.
Just as Trumpism is forging tomorrow’s political left, in other words, Francis is forging tomorrow’s Catholic right — theologically and perhaps politically as well.
Again: As a description of religion and politics today, the Bannon-Burke alliance is a conspiracy theory. But as a vision of what populism and polarization could deliver to Catholicism and Western politics, it is not the most implausible of prophecies.