Percival Lowell was a member of the distinguished Boston Lowell family, graduate of Harvard, founder of the Lowell Observatory, the most prominent American astronomer – some say – until Carl Sagan. He also believed, on the basis of what he thought careful scientific observation, that there were canals on Mars, and wrote several books about what might have driven Martians to such a vast undertaking.
Unfortunately, his “observations” were an optical illusion (as several scientists already knew in Lowell’s day). Recent Mars probes have discovered no signs of the civilization Lowell thought once existed there.
Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian hand-picked by Pope Francis to be editor on the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, have recently made quite controversial observations  about America in “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism.”
They are, with good reason, destined to suffer the fate of poor Percival Lowell.
It’s not that they don’t have some data. But like many distant observers who know little of the concrete reality they are describing, they mistake the relative size and significance of almost everything.
For example, they take Rousas John Rushdoony – a marginal figure unknown these days to most evangelicals and much criticized by many who do – as a major reference point because his theocratic views fit the thesis they’re trying to push about conservative religion and politics in America.
In dozens of other instances, they draw lines among widely disparate facts with even less justification than the old believers in Martian canals.
Their main fear is that the collaboration of Catholics and Evangelicals in fighting the culture war is really a bid to create a theocracy in America. You usually hear a charge like that from Planned Parenthood or gay-rights groups or fringe academics. Not from the Vatican.
Further, the authors opine, the participants in this “surprising ecumenism” indulge in a “Manichean” view of Good vs. Evil that sees America as the Promised Land and her enemies as enemies of God whom it’s only right to destroy, literally, with our armed forces.
Taking this as the heart of the Evangelical-Catholic alliance is so delusional that a Catholic must feel embarrassed that a journal supposedly reviewed and authorized by the Vatican would run such slanderous nonsense. The authors would have done better to get out and see some of America rather than, it seems, spending so much time with left-wing sociologists of religion.
There is something like an emerging theocracy in the United States, with a Manichean vision. But it’s the theocracy of sexual absolutism that cannot tolerate pluralism or dissent. The Little Sisters of the Poor, Hobby Lobby, evangelical bakers, anyone who stands up to the contraception-abortion-“gay-marriage” (and now) “transgender” juggernaut risks legal jeopardy and accusations of being a “hate group.” (Spadaro and Figueroa echo this claim, saying the Evangelical-Catholic alliance represents a xenophobic, Islamophobic, purist vision that is really an “ecumenism of hate.”)
Fighting the sexual theocracy is imperative, for believers and non-believers alike who care about liberty and the common good in a pluralist society. The courts have – so far – found for defenders of religious liberty, largely Catholics and Evangelicals. But that such cases even have to be brought tells us who is really trying to impose a kind of totalitarianism on America. Most traditional Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and others would be happy, at this point, to be just left alone.
All this is invisible to Spadaro and Figueroa, or is dismissed as a cover for something sinister. They know not the heart of American Evangelicalism, which is generally closer to the thoughtfulness of a Russell Moore than to blind Fundamentalism (which is why we use two different terms for the two groupings). Their labeling American Catholic conservatives as “integralists” is another slander and a sloppy misapplication of a term from one period of European history to something else entirely. They could easily have learned this.
The authors claim that Pope Francis has outlined an alternative to “militant” Christianity. But their obsession with “dialogue” over these matters is a plausible strategy only to people who have never had to confront the sharp edge of the culture war. And believe they can go on avoiding it forever. They can’t.
Pope Francis added to the international controversy last week. If his frequent dialogue partner, Eugenio Scalfari – editor of the socialist La Reppublica – is to be believed (personally, I find about 25 percent of what he “reports” vaguely credible), Francis spoke just before the G-20 meeting  in Hamburg of the “distorted vision of the world” of America and Russia, China and North Korea, Russia and Syria, especially on immigration matters.
The pope’s including us among such malefactors agitated many Americans. If he meant that he disagrees with President Trump, perhaps he should have said as much.
He went on to say, in Scalfari’s perhaps garbled telling, that a “federated Europe” is necessary or Europe will count for nothing in the world. This is curious for several reasons. In other contexts, the pope seems to have given up on Europe – and expects renewal from the “peripheries.” Further, the European Union is already “federated,” perhaps too much so.
I was at a conference in Portugal two weeks ago where repeated German calls for “ever closer ties” among European nations worried everyone except the Germans themselves. It’s a commonplace in such meetings to lament the EU’s lack of political accountability and arrogance – and Germany’s looming financial power.
In the last analysis, Europe counts for little, because it is in demographic collapse, is spiritually and culturally adrift, doesn’t have the means to defend itself, and seems to think its only reason for being is to be “open” to other cultures.
America has multiple grave problems, but still enjoys active religious engagement in the public square, is groping towards political and cultural renewal, and – not incidentally – still accepts over 1,000,000 legal immigrants every year.
Perhaps it would be worth noting such things, sometime, in Rome.