The need to rediscover the global Church teaching of “Pacem in Terris.”
“Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine,” St Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11,19).
The interpretation given throughout the centuries is that heresies and divisions are necessary in order for the Church to develop the tradition in response to them.
And today there is division coming from Donald Trump and his court theologians, including the new US President’s Catholic supporters of different kinds and ideological worldviews.
The intellectual relationship between Trumpism and Catholicism is key to understanding the importance of this moment. This will be much more important for the future of Christianity – and especially Catholicism – than the diplomats’ dreams of a possible alignment between the Vatican and Trump’s foreign policy on Russia and Syria.
The Trump presidency marks the great unveiling of the eccentric culture of American Christianity and American Catholicism. In particular, in denotes the difficult relationship that has developed over these last thirty years between the clerical and theological elites within US Catholicism and the Church’s social teaching on social, economic, and international issues since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
To put it briefly, many American Catholics are still caught between the dream of reviving medieval Christendom and the appeal of Leo XIII’s teaching on modern economy and society, which is found in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. That document cautiously opened the Church to modernity but was still very much influenced by the model of medieval Christendom.
What Rerum Novarum does not talk about is the importance of human rights and political rights in a new post-nationalist and international world order, something papal teaching started to do only since the early 1960s.
In a special way now is the time to rediscover the 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris. This was St John XXIII’s spiritual and theological testament and last document of his pontificate. It was published just a few weeks before his death.
Pacem in Terris is at the basis of the documents of Vatican II, which focused on the dignity of the human person against racism, nationalism, and religious and social discrimination.
We might be tempted to see the relevance of Pacem in Terris only in light of the new global situation. Seeing the news of the last few days, following the inauguration of President Trump, world peace is at risk.
The president’s most important advisor, Steve Bannon, is a wartime advisor. His worldview sees a war coming soon with China and one already going on between the world shaped by Judeo-Christian values and Islam – which he does not see as a religion but only as a political ideology.
It should be also noted that Bannon is seen as an ally against Pope Francis by some Catholics, namely those at “Dignitatis Humanae Institute” who invited him to speak via Skype at a conference in the Vatican in the summer of 2014.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the most outspoken critic of the pope and one of the bishops that long shaped the intellectual profile of the US episcopate up to Francis’s election, is president of the institute’s advisory board.
It is deeply ironic that the “Dignitatis Humanae Institute” takes its name from the Vatican II declaration that championed religious liberty for all faiths. And it is striking that this Catholic think tank’s founding document – the “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity” (2008) – does not quote a single source of Catholic teaching.
And this is the heart of the problem. What I would call a “neo-Americanist Catholicism” is based on a very selective list of Church teachings. It usually excludes what is at the heart of the papal advocacy for human rights and religious freedom, namely Pacem in Terris.
This document was seen as a direct challenge to the ideological alignment between Catholicism and the anti-Communist front of NATO when it was published. It is politically necessary today for a Church that tries to de-escalate the international situation and to avoid new wars that some in the Trump administration are eager to fight.
But Pacem in Terris is also theologically necessary because it is the foundation of Catholic teaching on what the Church has to say in the global world. The document was drafted and published in early 1963 after the first session of Vatican II. It came only a few months after the Cuban missile crisis and in the midst of the Council.
Pacem in Terris is the basis of the Church’s highest level of teaching on human dignity and human rights, on democracy and development. It is the necessary first step to understanding the Vatican II constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes (1965), the declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae (1965) and Paul VI’s most important social encyclical, Populorum Progressio (1967).
In this sense, the distortion operated by Steve Bannon and Trumpian Catholicism is the extreme version of a problem typical of some quarters of Anglo-American Catholicism – the dismissal of the basic ideas of Catholic social teaching originating from St John XXIII and from Vatican II in order to favor a tradition of Catholic social teaching still based on Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891).
For example, this is very evident from the theological framework used by the US bishops to fight the contraception mandate of the Obama administration’s health care reform on the basis of “religious liberty”. Despite using the one quotation from Dignitatis Humanae, the bishops’ entire argument of was legal-constitutional, not theological.
Consequently, the bishops were weak in defending the freedom of other religious groups in the United States during a presidential campaign that repeatedly threatened the religious liberty of Muslims, for example. And it seems that these bishops are still not alert to what is happening. One the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ most recent initiatives speaks only of the concerns of Catholic institutions in dealing with “biopolitical” issues (marriage, human sexuality, and the protection of human life).
The problem is that a Rerum Novarum-based Catholicism can find some kind of accommodation with the Trumpian worldview. But that is only because it is the language of the Catholic Church before the two World Wars; before ecumenism and religious liberty for all religions; and before Catholicism shifted from Euro-Western configuration to a truly global one.
Catholicism of Pacem in Terris and Vatican II, on the other hand, cannot find any accommodation with the Trump and Bannon worldview. And this is exactly the problem of Trumpian Catholicism with Pope Francis.
This pontificate interprets Rerum Novarum in light of the developments that took place in the Catholic social teaching since Vatican II, beginning with Pacem in Terris. Francis’ statements on the economy and capitalism, for example, cannot be interpreted with Rerum Novarum only, but need the Vatican II and post-Vatican II developments. Francis’ Laudato Si’can be seen as a new Rerum Novarum, though it never cites that older document. All the papal teachings quoted in Laudato Si’ come from post-Vatican II documents.
I am reluctant to see anything providential in the election of Donald Trump. However, it may provide an opportunity to clarify a big theological problem in the culture of Anglo-American Catholicism. A truly Catholic response to Trump must begin with Pacem in Terris and the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
Over the last few years, the US episcopate has been showing a particularly “Americanist” (non) reception of the Council’s teachings. The wider moral and epistemological picture Vatican II portrayed for the Church in the modern world seems to have been lost on many American Catholics, including Steve Bannon. And this is now a problem not only for the Catholic Church but also for the entire world.