Ten Years of Pope Francis and the Transatlantic Catholic Gap

Massimo Faggioli

Via Vyacheslav Argenberg on Flickr

The tenth anniversary of a papal election is an important milestone. This is especially so in the case of Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, 2013 in extraordinary circumstances after the resignation of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who had been in office for less than eight years. Of the many typical developments in Catholicism during the last decade that we can associate with Francis’ pontificate, one of the most important is the widening of a transatlantic gap between Catholics in Europe and those in the U.S.A about the role of the state and governments in Catholics’ religious and political affairs.

Since its inception in the late nineteenth century with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), modern Catholic social doctrine has regarded the state in an ambivalent light. On the one hand, the doctrine states that the government should allow and even aid in the Church’s work in education and social work. On the other side, modern Catholic social doctrine singles out the state as a necessary and indispensable agent uniquely endowed with the legitimacy and resources that only sovereign political power has to build and protect the common good. In this sense, there has been no radical departure in the teaching of Pope Francis’ pontificate compared to his predecessors. 

In the last few decades, important circles of American Catholics have departed from that careful balance created by Catholic social doctrine and have embraced instead a libertarian view of the relationship between government and the economy that has made Pope Francis’ teaching look like a deviation from “orthodox” Catholic tradition. One interesting example is the work done by think tanks like the Acton Institute

Two examples of Francis’ teachings which are viewed as departures from the Catholic social doctrine are relevant here: the 2015 encyclical on the protection of our common home and creation, Laudato Si’, and the 2020 encyclical on the one human family Fratelli Tutti. Both teachings are consistent with the foundations of Catholic social doctrine, yet have still faced harsh criticism. The role of the nation-state is mentioned several times in Fratelli Tutti. Paragraph 132, for example, talks about the necessity of a common effort in the international community when dealing with large-scale migration. Paragraph 153 defends states that often find themselves at the mercy of more powerful countries and large businesses. Early in the fifth chapter, Francis laments the fact that “the twenty-first century ‘is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation-states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political. Given this situation, it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions’” (no. 172). Francis defends the role of the state: “politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy […] We cannot expect economics to do this, nor can we allow economics to take over the real power of the state” (no. 177). Fratelli Tutti does not constitute a comprehensive analysis of the role of the nation-state, but it is consistent with Francis’ previous statements.

It is a particularly interesting document to compare with what Pope Francis shared in an interview-style book published by the French sociologist Dominique Wolton in 2017. The book examines the role of the nation-state worldwide, and it includes Francis’ perspectives on healthy secularity (the English translation of the French concept of laïcité) and the need for the Church to leave behind the confessional state. When he talks about state, government, international organizations, and the role of the Church in the world, Francis’ language is pragmatic and non-ideological. It is particularly telling that he sees nation-states as indispensable actors which have an enormous responsibility in caring for the global common good, eliminating hunger and poverty, and defending fundamental human rights. Pope Francis also views the economy in terms of redistributionist capitalism, in which the state is the key actor in redistributing wealth. Francis is also very far from the rhetoric of American Catholic neo-integralists, who emphasize the victimhood of the Church at the hands of the nation-state. The pope’s pragmatically positive view of the nation-state comes not just from his political realism; it has theological roots as well. Francis still echoes that fundamental assumption of the Second Vatican Council: the Church and the nation-state can and must cooperate for the common good. Francis is a Vatican II Catholic whose view of the nation-state is very distant from the political ecclesiology of radical orthodoxy — and even more removed from retreat plans like Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option.” 

Pope Francis waves to a crowd at the US Capitol on September 24, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding Francis’ background is essential to understanding his position relative to the resurgence of traditionalist and integralist tendencies within US Catholicism, which manifests as a rejection of the theology of the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II). These traditionalist and integralist tendencies also imply a revisionist interpretation of the conciliar and post-conciliar magisterium on social and political questions (for example on questions of social and economic justice), which is one of the factors in the rise of the new Catholic anti-liberalism or illiberalism in the United States. Political liberalism, judged incompatible with Catholicism, is identified with an alleged liberalism of the documents of Vatican II. Both political liberalism and the alleged liberalism of Vatican II are seen as the origin of a failed project of multiculturalist globalization. It also affects the cautious but positive assessment of democracy and constitutional systems given by Vatican II. However, these differences between European and American Catholicism originated before Vatican II, and result from the very different relationships that emerged between Church and state in 19th and 20th century Europe and America. As I argued in an essay published recently in The Journal of Law and Religion, this division can be understood through the work of two major Catholic thinkers: American Jesuit John Courtney Murray (1904-1967), and German legal thinker and lay theologian Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde (1930-2019). In 1960 John Courtney Murray published a collection of essays titled We Hold These Truths, which argued for the end of anti-Catholic prejudice in America and the full absorption of Catholics into everyday life. Murray had been silenced by the Holy Office just a few years before for his work on religious liberty, which in pre-Vatican II Catholicism had put him at odds with the official teaching of the Church, U.S. ecclesiastical circles, and American Catholic academia. He was the most important advocate for a new relationship between Catholicism and American political values. That role earned him the cover of Time magazine of December 12, 1960, with the title “U.S. Catholics and the State.”

[T]hese differences between European and American Catholicism originated before Vatican II, and result from the very different relationships that emerged between Church and state in 19th and 20th century Europe and America.

In the book, and particularly in the essay “E Pluribus Unum: The American Consensus,” Murray made the argument for the compatibility between American political ideals and Roman Catholicism, as well as for the centrality of the Catholic intellectual and theological tradition to the American social and political order. Murray had to convince the American mainstream about the democratic reliability of Catholicism and, at the same time, keep at bay the “democratic heresy” by which everything must be decided by vote. Murray not only upheld the role of natural law — he also explained the differences in the history of the constitutions in America and Europe, particularly between the French Revolution and the European revolutions of 1848 on one side and the American Revolution on the other. Murray’s Catholic defense of the American Declaration of Independence was based on the difference between the “Christian tradition of America” and the “Jacobin laicist tradition of Continental Europe,” particularly concerning the “sovereignty of God in the American Revolution versus sovereignty of man in the French Revolution.” Murray explained the American Revolution as a moment of “conservation” which preserved the American people’s social and religious self-understanding, as opposed to the Jacobin tradition, which Murray viewed as a matrix for totalitarianism. Murray stated that the American consensus has a key place for Catholicism because in the American order “state is distinct from society […] Government submits itself to judgement by the truth of society; it is not itself a judge of the truth in society.”

On the other side of the argument, in an essay published originally in 1999, “Wieviel Staat die Gesellschaft braucht” [How Much State does Society Need], Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde addressed the issue of the relationship between state and society in the context of a national conversation on the reform of the publicly funded retirement and pension system in Germany. Böckenförde opened his essay by criticizing the idea that society does not need the state, and could exist solely through “mutual agreements and balanced networks based on consensus.” The fact is that, according to Böckenförde, “the consensus model for the organization of society, even if not without charm, is unsustainable.” The reason is that “this consensus, if it is to come about at all, cannot be formed in any other way than through the play of forces.” Böckenförde recalled the origins of the European modern state, which formed as a response to the threat of violence, the feudal order, and the wars of religion. A peaceful society is the product of the state and of state sovereignty: “It can only exist in this way as a state-ordered society; it is necessarily dependent on the state and statehood.”

In the second part of the essay, Böckenförde responded to the objections of those who see the State as constricting the liberties of a free society through overregulation. The starting point is the liberal state, which is built on the concepts of security, rights, freedom, and the possibility for the development of the individual — for all individuals, not just the members of some tier, group, or class. But society is based also on a level of necessary inequality, which is stabilized and reinforced intergenerationally by the system of inheritance. This is a system that augments inequalities: “If this development is allowed to run free, social inequality will result in social unfreedom, because — the longer the more — the prerequisites for realizing legal freedom will diminish.” Böckenförde emphasized that fighting against this social inequality and social un-freedom is a necessary function of the state.

The work of these two thinkers anticipates the ambivalent and divided position of Catholics in the early twenty-first-century United States on the role of the modern secular state in their lives. There are many intra-Catholic theological divides over the role of the state, especially between Vatican II Catholics and a traditionalist, integralist, anti-Vatican II minority who is well-positioned in academia, in politics, in the courts of law, and in the boardrooms of various institutions and corporations. But it is important to note here that both Murray and Böckenförde belong to Vatican II Catholicism: this is a divide that cannot be attributed to ideological clashes of the last few decades. It has deeper roots that are now contributing to divergent political theologies within global Catholicism, and also within Catholicism in the Western hemisphere and across the Northern Atlantic axis. One example is the gap that exists within non-traditionalist, non-integralist Catholic cultures across the North Atlantic concerning the role of the Church in the public square, and the role it should play in contemporary debates about issues like transgender rights and abortion. The reductionist interpretation of the clash between Francis’ pontificate with some U.S. Catholic circles as a collision between a radical (Francis) and conservatives (U.S. bishops, Catholic Republican politicians, and business elites) overlooks the deep-seated, diverging theological-political cultures within the one Catholic Church. The first ten years of Pope Francis’ pontificate cast a light on the transatlantic Catholic gap and on widening gaps within a more fragmented Catholicism. ♦

Dr. Massimo Faggioli is professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. His latest book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II (Oxford University Press, 2023) co-edited together with Catherine Clifford.

Recommended Citation

Faggioli, Massimo. “Ten Years of Pope Francis and the Transatlantic Catholic Gap.” Canopy Forum, April 06, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/04/06/ten-years-of-pope-francis-and-the-transatlantic-catholic-gap/