As we struggle to understand the rightwing populist movements that have taken the world stage, Roman Catholicism has turned out to have an unexpected, tragic starring role. Those who work in the expansive global network of Catholic thinking (universities, high schools, popular or university presses, parishes, magazines, think tanks, and NGOs) cannot responsibly ignore this. Anyone seeking to make sense of the world we find ourselves in should also take note. How can this movement’s religious imagination—its theology, its spirituality—be understood? Most importantly, what might a distinctive mode of resistance look like?
In the United States, white Catholics voted for Trump by a wide margin. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, is a devout Catholic, and the transcripts of his (warmly received) speech given to the Vatican have recently been released. General Michael Flynn, the choice for national security advisor, hails from a large Irish Catholic family. In France, the devout and staunchly conservative François Fillon has pulled ahead in the presidential primaries, supported by those now known as les zombies catholiques. The term “zombie Catholics” refers to the faithful who had long been dismissed in secular France, but have suddenly, as if from the dead, risen up to assert their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Throughout Eastern Europe, the far right gather under a broad Catholic-nationalist coalitions in the region, including Poland’s League of Polish Families. Around the world, these populist movements present themselves as the besieged, traditionalist victims of the secular, elite establishments of power.
At one level, the centrality of Catholicism here makes sense. Despite the gilded thrones and papal rings that might suggest otherwise, there is a deep history of Catholic scorn for establishment powers. Within this theological imagination, through Jesus, God chose the least and lowliest of vessels to enter into human history, not as a real king, but as an infant who grew up and surrounded himself with the lowly, the poor, the criminals, and the generally unfit. It makes sense to Christians that the most reviled would have special divine favor, not the centers of worldly power. The uneducated, the poor, and the rejected are endowed with a transgressive kind of holiness. Catholic sermons and hagiographies throughout history constantly remind people of this inverted logic. To be holy or authoritative, the lack of respectable credentials can be a sure route to success.
Hagiographies of St. Francis often begin when Francis strips himself naked before the shocked townspeople of Assisi. When Teresa of Avila interrupts the narrative flow of her mystical theology in The Interior Castle with “But I am so stupid!” it is not only internalized oppression. Nor is it rational, but it is the Christian logic of inversion at work. When French novelist Léon Bloy highlighted the sanctity of the protagonists of his books (the orphans, the poor, the insane, the disfigured) he always, as a contrast, described the blind and deaf elite, oblivious to the cries of the vulnerable from below. Bloy’s 1902 Exégèse des Lieux Communs [Exegesis of the Commonplaces] was a collection of satirical aphorisms from the bourgeoisie (today it would be like a parody of Chicken Soup for the Soul). It made a splash: in 1928, Walter Benjamin called it “splendid. A more embittered critique, or rather satire of the bourgeois could hardly have been written.” We see this Catholic mockery of authority in artists closer to home too, like the late, great comedic genius Chris Farley. His character Matt Foley pokes fun at parental authority, clueless disciplinarians, and his own huge body. Bruce Springsteen had all this in mind in his new memoir: “I don’t always participate in my religion but I know somewhere… deep inside… I’m still on the team. This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger, and darkness that reflected my inner self.” Here is the almost religious aura that surrounds mockery of those in charge, peering at what’s underneath, and endowing that underbelly with a new kind of reverence and power. It is a vision that can steer the conversation. In her 1962 Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas, herself a Catholic, theorized as a feature in fact of all religions, not just Catholicism. In the realm of ordinary reality, according to Douglas, we work to excise death, danger, and weakness from our lives. But in the religious domain, what is taboo carries what she called a “symbolic load” in our psyches that can serve as a powerful source of relief, regeneration, and resistance.
When, in 2014, French sociologists Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras declared those French Catholic populists on the right who oppose gay marriage “Catholic zombies,” the grotesque term was meant as an invective. But the zombie is a contemporary symbol that marks that strange liminal space between life and death. To call these populists zombies was to inject their transgression of liberal norms with the foulness of death and turn it into an ultimate symbol of taboo, giving it more power. It made perfect sense that we suddenly saw pictures of white, middle-class Catholic French activists dressed up in zombie costumes, fake blood coming out of their mouths, holding up signs reading, “No gay marriage!” In the United Sates, white Trump supporters wore pins emblazoned with their new repugnant monikers: deplorables. The more transgressive Trump and his followers seemed, the more fascination and desire gathered around them.
So in one way, what we see in the rise of right wing populism among Catholics is simply an extension of the Christian logic of inversion. But the differences are noteworthy. We saw, for instance, in Trump’s campaign an antiestablishment mockery of the elites (that charade has now all but disappeared). But the “taboo” was not only to mock the elites, but to insult the world’s multicultural present and its attention to race, religious pluralism, and gender. Trump was not just poking fun at the media establishment and Washington, D.C., but mocking the vulnerable, especially the elites who care about the vulnerable: his own victims of sexual assault, people with disabilities, American Muslims. This violated the logic of Christian inversion and the basic rules of humor (which tends to be about overturning hierarchies). It’s funny to see a powerful man in a tuxedo slip on a banana. But a little old lady? No. This is why Trump was so stridently unfunny and un-Christian even if he played, on the surface, with their transgressive logic. He was using psychic flirtation with a taboo critique of the mainstream, but deepened, rather than overturned, basic hierarchies.
In the work of antiestablishment Catholic writers who went on to have lasting power—like Dorothy Day or Léon Bloy—there is, admittedly, also sometimes a proximity to insanity, but humanity is eventually revealed within the peril. They focus on the concrete reality of protagonists bought in from the margins, and despise efforts to obscure their lives. For example, in Bloy’s 1909, Le Sang du Pauvre [Blood of the Poor], he inveighed against on the horrors of child labor practices, which were rhetorically condemned throughout Europe but still widespread. Catholics tended then to blame everything on secularism or Protestants, but Bloy, at his best, resisted temptations to change the subject: “In order that no one may say ‘religion is forgotten,’ the little girls’ workshops are often managed by nuns!” he wrote.
In contrast, right wing populism now is a studied refusal to attend, in any way, to the actual material reality of vulnerable people’s lives. It is a projection of ideology that never encounters reality. Instead, their flirtation with taboo lands its focus not on the humanity of people struggling, but on scapegoats. The conversations steer themselves, as if irresistibly, to immigrants and Islam. In Steve Bannon’s comments to the Vatican, there is a blend of populist frustration with banks but the activist energy gathers for a war against Islam, strengthening our nation against it, and an urging to return to our “Judeo-Christian roots.” This fanciful and divisive rhetorical construct is a dangerous diversion playing to basest instincts in human nature. It helped create the culture we are in at the moment, where it perfectly acceptable to select a national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who has called Islam a “vicious cancer.” What could that possibly signal other than a call for the absolute violent destruction of Islam by “Judeo-Christians?”
In Europe, Islam and immigrants are scapegoated too, but among Catholics, the politically active populism focuses a great deal on homosexuality, feminism, and changing gender norms. One feature of their success has been to link their resistance to liberal gender norms to anti-Americanism. This keeps the antifeminist and antigay activism still seemingly tethered to a respectable anti-elitism and anti-hegemony. Activists associated with the Catholic group La Manif pour Tous [Protest for All] in France, for instance, protest gay marriage and inclusion of the idea of gender in schools (as opposed to biological sex), by framing these issues as an American invasion. As historian Camille Robcis has shown, in activist literature the term theory of gender is often rendered in English even in French pamphlets to signal its foreignness and Americanness. Rightwing activism slides easily into longstanding French Catholic anti-American sentiment, signaling that family relations, like so much else in our world, are tragically in danger of Americanization. This brand of populism is a much easier sell.
So what should we do? If this weird religious imagination with its taboos, inversions, and scapegoats is the problem, sober-minded secularism must be the answer, right? No. This must be emphasized: we cannot succumb to the familiar triumphal narrative of secularism. This almost always makes things worse.
In trying to imagine alternatives, my own research has focused on the small community of Catholics who played important roles in resisting anti-Semitism and fascism in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Though our world is radically different from theirs (a point I state emphatically), their ways of pushing against the widespread scapegoating of religious others and the acquiescence to authoritarianism overlaps with some of our own concerns. Three distinctive resources help us imagine Catholic kinds of resistance today.
First, the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac was among the few priests active in the resistance. In letters and essays from 1939-1944, he showed prescient awareness of the widespread but largely unconscious feelings of repugnance against Jews spreading throughout Europe, animating the violence and indifference. He called it an “invasion of poison” that spread, little by little, into “souls.” To understand it, de Lubac immersed himself in the propaganda literature of Aryan nationalism. “It is repugnant,” he wrote, “to move about again in this bloody filth by rereading these blasphemous pamphlets.” He saw that the propaganda functioned at a deep psychic level of demonization, making sure Christians felt they were so unlike Jews spiritually that their destruction was irrelevant. De Lubac and others insisted their work was a kind of “spiritual resistance.” In some essays, he directly described the violence, but he also worked on the underworld of the religious imagination as it pertained to the vulnerable, highlighting the spiritual vitality of the Jewish scriptures and their connection to Christianity. He honed in on the beauty of Jewish texts and prophets in the Hebrew Bible: “The Prophets shake us still today…. They console us in our distress and revive hope in us. The Psalms nourish our prayer every day.” Against those who would stress separation between Christians and Jews he wrote, “In truth, all this is our heritage. We will no longer allow them to tear it away from us.” De Lubac understood this work as distributing a kind of spiritual food in a time of crisis.
Similarly, the writer Raïssa Maritain, a Catholic convert from Judaism, wrote in 1942 of the beauty of the household Jewish piety she knew growing up as a child in Russia. In her archives, I found a letter from a priest written to her in 1943. “I was not an anti-Semite,” he wrote, “but there was in me a certain repulsion. I have overcome it, and for that I thank you.” Today on our campuses, in book clubs, in magazines, and at conferences, we might consider the power that spiritual, literary, even mystical narratives and art have to reach these levels of repulsion that so many white Catholics feel toward Muslim refugees, gay families, the poor, African Americans, and women who control their reproductive lives. Not all activism has to be about the direct political level of conscious belief, action, and policy. Showing the spiritual depth, beauty, and humanity of a vulnerable group can work effectively on that deeper level.
Second, when I was a graduate student one of my mentors, the beloved Church historian John W. O’Malley, coined a phrase, the “parishization” of Catholicism. It described a process in modernity in which we have come to think only of the parish as the place to find “church” and spiritual nourishment. This wasn’t always the case. In early modern times, monasteries, mendicant societies to aid the needy, confraternities, shrines, and schools were key places for meeting God in community and living out one’s faith. (You can see a summary on page nine of this document.) This opened my eyes up to a feature of the twentieth-century Catholic resisters in Europe that I would have otherwise missed: in their writings there is very little discussion of parishes. I’m sure many of them went to mass, but it wasn’t where the intellectual, spiritual, or social action usually was, by a long shot. Instead it was in the salon of the Maritains, or the events hosted by resister and scholar Marie-Madeleine Davy at the Château de La Fortrelle, or the community gathered around the underground journal Témoignage Chrétien [Christian Witness], and groups like Amitié Chrétienne [Christian Friendship] focused on Jewish-Christian friendship. At the same time, in the same impulse, Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality were sprouting up in the United States. The work was political, but it was also understood to be deeply spiritual, and it didn’t necessarily happen only in the parish.
In our own time, Stephen Pope wrote powerfully about how little Catholic parishes in the U.S. did to resist the authoritarian trends that led us to Trump. He writes of the “anemic, impersonal, and ‘low impact’ character of many of our parishes today.” For Catholics looking for alternative ways to “be” church in addition to the parish, we might think of places like the monasteries that offer spiritual renewal and recharging, like the Benedictine Abbey Regina Laudis in New Bethlehem, CT. Or we might think of places like the thriving immigration center, Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Services in East Harlem. Started by nuns in the 1950s, it is now run by secular women who have a deep respect for the original spirit of founding Sisters. The staff consists mostly of brave, dedicated New York women with social work degrees who work to meet the needs of immigrant families in East Harlem. Or I think of the Abraham House in the South Bronx which helps families with incarcerated parents. Abraham House was started by a French worker priest and Belgian nuns. These are just some institutions near my home that embody the spirit of Catholic resistance. But they are all over the world. They would love to hear from progressive Catholics—or anyone—for support. We might too think about the crucial role that Jesuit Universities have played in places where populations were dangerously vulnerable, like the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador in the 1980s. In the United States, there are twenty-eight Jesuit universities—so much potential and institutional power! It is in these places, not only the parishes, where the action often is. And they are all still here.
But none of these organizations can carry the weight of inadequate social policies. Alone, they cannot fight whatever cruelties the far right has in store. This leads to my final example. In the 1930s Jacques Maritain described the American community organizer Saul Alinsky as “one of my closest friends who was an indomitable and dreaded organizer of ‘People’s Organizations’ and an anti-racist leader whose methods are as efficacious as they are unorthodox.” Maritain and Alinsky had met through George N. Schuster, then editor of Commonweal and chairman of the board of trustees of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Maritain wrote in a 1940 letter to his friend Yves Simon, “Alinsky has discovered in community organization work the creative sap of American life and I believe in them can be found the germ of an authentic renewal of democracy.” Through Alinsky, Maritain saw in these community organizations seeds of renewal: the grassroots efforts to put pressure on governments to protect the vulnerable, immigrants, the poor, mothers who cannot afford childcare, low-wage earners. Today, we must include grassroots efforts that have been dismissed as “women’s issues” (or as Maritain wrote, “None of my business!”). In 2016, we don’t need to wait for Catholic men to prioritize issues: we have to put priorities like childcare and access to contraception at the forefront of our efforts to combat poverty at the heart of grassroots demands.
Though whatever efforts we put in at the local level, we should resist the temptation to assume a march towards secularism, even if we’re understandably dismayed at the role many Catholics are playing in the current political moment around the globe. In our protests, art, speeches, books, and teaching, our words and actions should draw deeply from the symbolic wells of the religious imagination: inversions, transgression, blood, death, renewal, redemption. There are risks, to be sure, in engaging its strangeness, but there is a long history of creative, risky thinkers who drew deeply from this symbolic reservoir and combined it with a compassionate, leftist social politics. To think of de Lubac again: “All of this is our heritage. We will no longer allow them to tear it away from us.” But the heritage must be struggled for and reclaimed, constantly. When Charles Péguy wrote, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” I think he meant that it was the mystics, the artists, the writers who spurred our imaginations and opened our horizons, and the politicians, often for the worse but sometimes actually for the better, who took it from there. There is just so much to do.
Photo Credit: Laurie Avocado, “Christ of the Breadline”, flickr.com