“While European prelates languished in the tawdry palaces of a deracinated nobility and extracted money and spirit from ignorant peasants, the American blend of patriotism, unionism, social moderation, and religiosity produced one of the most vibrant popular churches,” these were the words that Charles Morris used in 1997 to explain the advantage enjoyed by the Catholic Church in the United States over its parasitic European counterpart. The same could be said of the advantage over Latin America. (Charles R. Morris, “American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church”).
Throughout the 20th century Universal Catholic Church gradually became "Americanized". The Church approached the new century still valiantly opposing the principle of inseparability between Church and State, of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, but it closed the century on the opposite side. Achievements in secularization, loss of contact with urbanized and the proletarized peasant masses, European war among Catholic powers and, finally, decolonization, forced the Church into radical and painful changes, which resulted in crisis and fractures. This same process, however, allowed it to take its revenge on the spreading secularization and fostered its return, today, as a moral and political reference point in a society running out of ideals and prospects.
The model of this trend reversal has been the American Catholic Church. The only outpost of Rome in a non-Catholic Country, which was completely free – at least according to the First Amendment – to participate in the most colossal and unregulated faith market in the world. From its earliest days, the American Church embraced the principle – harshly rejected by the Universal Church – of freedom of conscience, in order to enter the competition in such a market. From the beginning, it was "a Church that goes forth" without any institutional support, but instead forced to face derision and hostility daily. For this reason it did not wait for the faithful to come to it, but went to look for them, to organize them in working class neighborhoods and factories, where they lived and worked. Thanks to that experience it managed to become as Morris wrote in the foreword of his book: “the most successful national Catholic Church in the world.”
Now, this American Pope goes to pay tribute to that Church and to that successful model which saved the Universal Church from the shipwreck of a self-referential perspective, largely disconnected from the changes happening in the world. The "American" principles were officially accepted by the Vatican Council in 1965, introduced by New York Jesuit John Courtney Murray, under pressure from his Archbishop Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, for decades acting as an intermediary between Rome and Washington. Later those principles became almost commonplace, in an institution like the Catholic Church, very slow in its adjustments to change, but very fast in metabolizing them. Benedict XVI said that the trip to the United States in 2008 offered him “the opportunity to reflect on the American historical experience of religious freedom.” According to the former ambassador to the Holy See (2005-2008), Francis Rooney, John Paul II and Benedict XVI “had a genuine and abiding fondness for America.” Rooney writes: “In a sense Benedict’s model for the proper relationship between religion and civil society was the United States of America.”
The American Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has taken a step forward. As a theorist of the “Church that goes forth,” he is trying to universalize the American model, urging those of faith in all catholic countries to give up their privileged positions and to participate in the free market of faith. Knowing that, in such a market, only those who are more proactive, who have more experience and organizational reliability, will actually prevail.
But “the most successful national Catholic Church in the world” could also be a very valuable tool for an America in relative decline by providing that “supplement in soul” to a country that is increasingly finding itself to be bewildering and soulless. This Catholic contribution is notable also for the amount of social services – hospitals, shelters, canteens, nurseries, schools, universities – it can make available. And for the staff of Catholic origin which at the moment occupies, like never before, the highest political, military and judiciary ranks of the country.
A Pope speaking before the Congress, who can afford to lash out at American imperial arrogance, and receiving a round of applause and ovations in return, represents the historical nemesis of the Pilgrim Fathers fleeing the old world from Catholic persecutions. But it also represents a nemesis for the Church entrenched in its prerogatives and, for a long time, considering religious freedom as “a delirium.”
Fear of decline has pushed the Catholic Church to rely on, among other things, the American experience, and the United States to rely on, among other things, the Catholic experience. Pope Francis' visit represents a seal to this unique intersection of destinies.
Traduzione dall'originale italiano di Simona Lisi.