Italy’s new populist government has attracted interest in the USA, and in particular in the small, but active American Catholic anti-liberal and neo-traditionalist minority. There is a perceptible fascination with the new League-Five Star populist government, if we read the analysis hosted by the centers of these post-liberal and anti-liberal theo-political circles - magazines like First Things and Commentary.
What is at play here is not just an American perception of Europe, the European Union, the Euro, Italy and Germany that is different from the perceptions of Europeans vis-à-vis other fellow Europeans and European institutions. There is also a theological and religious battle going on. For anti-liberal US Catholics, the coming to power of right-wing and populist governments in Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia) represents, together with Putin’s Russia, a new and attractive model for the relationship between religion and politics. Italy’s regime change is so far the most ambitious goal in the plan of Catholic traditionalism and anti-liberalism in America to take back Europe from secularism, multi-culturalism, immigration, globalization, and in particular from the European Union. Italy is at the center of this geo-political and geo-theological map, given its historical role for Catholicism. It’s almost as if the new League-Five Star populist government in Italy was the theologically neo-traditionalist, Catholic, and Rome-centered version of Brexit.
Catholic neo-traditionalism and Catholic anti-liberalism can be seen as two different phenomena, but their perception of the situation of Europe today largely overlap. This ideology originates in the USA: Steve Bannon is just one of the spokespersons for this worldview that does not have one official organization. In this picture, Trumpism is just a proxy for the long-term fight of this kind of Catholicism against what they see as an almighty and overpowering liberal establishment or liberal order. This Catholic neo-traditionalist movement has a history that precedes and is different from the Trump movement. In order to understand the context, it is useful to mention the ground-breaking article published in July 2017 by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica and co-authored by the editor, Antonio Spadaro SJ, which talked about the very peculiar theological-political “ecumenical” alliance between evangelical Protestant fundamentalism and Catholic integralism in the USA.
In English-speaking Catholic theology in these last two-three decades at least we have seen the development of different kinds of theological anti-liberalism and post-liberalism: in a very simplified way, we could say that there is a radical-progressive post-liberalism, and a traditionalist, neo-medieval anti-liberalism. The neo-traditionalist minority in US Catholicism today is much more about the latter, even though there are in this Catholic culture also some elements of the radical-progressive critique of liberalism (for example, against the neoliberal economic system) together with a stream that draws from the theology of the “prosperity gospel”.
This ideological anti-liberalism is a minority in the Catholic Church, but it is not just one of the many religious fringes within American society. You can find it – in different versions that vary greatly in worldview and fervor - in the Catholic commentator of the The New York Times, Ross Douthat; in beacons of conservative culture such as National Review and The American Conservative; in the magazine The Week; in respected university professors teaching in important Catholic universities like Notre Dame and Ivy League universities like Harvard. The culture of the vocal neo-traditionalist American Catholic culture (which is not a remnant of old generations of Catholics: it is recruiting among the young generations) is waging an intellectual war against the liberal international order. This critique of globalization is morphed into a radical critique of modernity and of political modernity – not just an impatience with the sometimes grotesque extremes of post-modernist political correctness. It is against economic neoliberalism (which makes it often impossible for young couples to raise a family – a key point for this religious mindset), but also against theological liberalism (the dialogical approach towards the modern world typical of the Second Vatican Council, but more generally theological developments in the 20th century, with an exception for John Paul II and Benedict XVI who are interpreted from a neo-traditionalist point of view) and against political liberalism in the sense of constitutional liberal democracies. Catholic neo-traditionalists who are enraged with the liberal order desire the return of a strong role of religion and especially of Catholicism in public life. This rage often derives from a strong pro-life stance, driven by the moral rejection of legalized abortion. The extremism of the abortion laws and culture in the USA paints for these Catholics all kinds of secular and liberal political systems as morally illegitimate and complicit with “the culture of death”. Together with this pro-life motif, there is also a civilizational anxiety about the rise of LGBT rights, the religious pluralization of the Western world, the dawn of a post-Christian America, and views on other religions (included Judaism, but especially Islam) that tend to dismiss completely fifty years of inter-religious dialogue and official teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject.
The theological-political program flowing from this particular kind of American Catholic elite in the USA (usually well connected with rich Catholic donors and sponsors) is all in the name of “the people against the liberal elites”. Their program is in America currently stuck with the presidency of Trump, who delivered some symbolical victories on the pro-life front (with the appointment of Supreme Court judge Neil Gorsuch) but also other more embarrassing moments with the “Muslim ban” and the extremely harsh policies against immigrants from Latin America (such as separating children from their parents at the border). But the neo-traditionalist worldview is not limited to America. From this worldview proceed their deep ideological sympathies for Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, Putin in Russia, and the Salvini - DiMaio government in Italy. This falling in love for Salvini and Di Maio is not just a “shotgun marriage” in absence of better alternatives. The views of these American Catholic anti-liberals and post-liberals coincide to a large extent with the desire of this kind of Catholics to go back to the pre-globalization, pre-liberal, and pre-1960s world order. Their moral odium directed at the political and religious consequences of the 1960s is matched by their historical and theological indifference towards the political ideological alignments between anti-liberal Catholicism and totalitarian regimes in Europe in the 1920s-1930s. In a reversal of what Luigi Sturzo and Jacques Maritain did from America for the democratization of Europe between World War I and World War II, this neo-traditionalist American Catholic culture looks now at Europe for a reversal of the Western liberal order. Some of the arguments of anti-liberal Catholicism seem closer to the nationalist and integralist Catholicism of Maurras than to Maritain.
The plan is not just to defend Christianity on American shores, but also to “invade” Europe with this narrative that echoes the “clash of civilizations”. This entails, after the change of government with populist right-wing parties in charge, also some kind of transatlantic transplant of the American “culture wars” on the old continent. My opinion is that it will not work. When it comes to Italy, those who want to drag Italy into the American “cultural wars” should keep in mind that Italy has never finished a world war on the same side where it started. Besides that, there are differences between the Italian and US Catholic cultures that makes is difficult to imagine a theological culture war in the bel paese. Let’s remember that the attempts to implant Catholicism as a “civil religion” in Italy after 9/11 and the Iraq war – and during the pontificate of Benedict XVI - did not work.
The “alternative-right” movement is now on the move towards Europe and with Italy in its sights, and religion is part of this march: the radicalization of the right in Europe has a theological component that European and Italian far-right leaders might be deaf to or too cynical to care about, but is very clear to their American advisers. It is not a coincidence that these same neo-traditionalist Catholic circles are the exact same ones that have worked hard since 2013 to delegitimize Pope Francis – more or less what Matteo Salvini did when he said that his pope was “Pope Emeritus” Benedict XVI, not Pope Francis . Reversing the culture of Catholics towards a neo-medievalist political culture would have significant costs in the world of globalized religion: this Catholic neo-traditionalism is a minority, but it counts on the theology of the “creative minorities”. And creative indeed they are. Just a few months ago some American Catholic public intellectuals found a good idea to affirm Pius IX’s actions in the famous Mortara case in what became a stunning revival of the pre-Vatican II anti-Jewish theology.
All this should not just be a concern for Catholics or professional theologians only. The Catholic endorsement of constitutional democracy in the second half of the 20th century played a role in the successes in the democratization of the world after World War II and during decolonization. This was a theological development made possible also by the intellectual and theological contribution of US Catholic and of European Catholics coming back from the USA after the war. In these last seventy years, in the global struggle for the implementation of constitutional democracies and for the respect of human rights, Catholicism has been part of the solution. Now it could become part of the problem.
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