When Pigs Fly, and Commonweal Is Right

By John Zmirak Published on June 5, 2018

Today I had a jarring experience. The kind that smacks you in the face like a big dead halibut, wielded by Andre the Giant. When that happens, let me tell you, you can’t ignore it.

But unlike a wet, swinging fish, what I suffered caused me angst. It made me look inside myself. Where had I gone astray? Was I somehow to blame? Had God sent this my way for punishment? Or had His “permissive will” simply allowed it?

Perhaps it was just one of those evils we suffer as part of living inside a Fallen world. Even those we should learn to welcome, say theologians such as Jean-Pierre De Caussade. Take them as light rebukes for our still unpunished sins. Or offer such evils up as prayers for others in distress.

Awaking to a Strange Bedfellow: Should You Gnaw Off Your Arm?

And so I found acceptance. I realized I need to come clean. To tell others what happened to me and what it means. In the current, #MeToo spirit let me just say it:

Today … I found myself … agreeing with theologian Massimo Faggioli.

Not fully, I hasten to add. There’s no merit in scrupulously exaggerating one’s faults. That’s false humility. No, not fully.

But with the bulk of Faggioli’s argument in a recent Commonweal essay, I agreed. I simply have to accept it.

I stand with one of the smuggest academic allies of Pope Francis now living. He’s a theology professor and Italian émigré who rants about Trump several times per week, then rebukes Americans for daring to opine on Italian elections. A tenured professor who regularly tells other Catholic laymen they lack the credentials to comment on papal statements. They must leave that to experts like … Massimo Faggioli.

Today… I found myself… agreeing with theologian Massimo Faggioli.

It’s tempting at times like this to take refuge in denial. To see your long-cherished beliefs as somehow tainted now, because Faggioli shares them. To throw them in some dumpster, then set the contents on fire. But that won’t do. I’m certain we agree about one or two other things as well. He might also enjoy the Southern Italian pasta/bean soup pasta e fagioli, for instance. Will I let him take that away from me? That’d be cutting off my pasta to spite the faggioli. Ma, basta!

The Fight on Religious Freedom

Instead, I write as through gritted teeth: On religious liberty, Massimo Faggioli is mostly right. And leading Catholic traditionalists are wrong. Faggioli writes:

Historically, Catholic confessional states like Italy and Spain did not protect the religious liberty of non-Catholics until the mid-twentieth century. And there are some who would like to return to this prior state of affairs, regarding Dignatis humanae as a deviation from the tradition, or proposing revisionist readings of that document that would minimize its support for religious liberty. In fact, Dignitatis humanae, along with the rest of Vatican II, makes a fundamental preferential option for democracy, for pluralism, and for freedom—in Latin: favor libertatis. Nor were these values simply shoehorned into the Catholic tradition; they arose from the heart of Christianity.

I’ve said much the same thing before. For instance, in yesterday’s FAQ on Integralism. In fact, in that same piece I also asserted something very much like this (again, Faggioli):

There remains a certain discomfort with the theology of religious liberty because it underscores discontinuities in the tradition that many bishops would like to minimize or deny altogether. But the obvious theological differences between Dignitatis humanae and, for example, Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) or the Holy Office’s silencing of John Courtney Murray, SJ, in 1954 and 1955 constitute a problem for those who insist that there were no doctrinal changes at Vatican II.

Back to Apostolic Tolerance

Yes, there was a change on one crucial subject: Religious freedom. The Church returned to the stance it had taken before Constantine on the subject. As Lactantius and other heroic Christians who suffered persecution used to say, “All the Church asks is liberty.” We don’t need the State to send us inquisitors to silence opposition.

We must admit that the Church’s stand at Vatican II, and by every pope and reigning bishop since then, is substantively different than what popes taught in the 13th and 19th centuries.

We’d welcome official recognition by the State of the truth about God. A tolerant “confessional” state that protects religious freedom for all. But we can do without it. In fact, we worry a bit that if you hand churchmen power, it will corrupt them. Attract the wrong kind of people to serve in the Church. Darken the hearts of those who began with pure intentions.

Nothing Infallible to See Here

We must admit that the Church’s stand at Vatican II, and by every pope and reigning bishop since then, is substantively different than what popes taught in the 13th and 19th centuries.

We must therefore conclude that neither the old teaching nor the new one was ever offered infallibly. Or else the Church has solemnly contradicted Herself. So we needn’t bother what She says on this or anything else. Instead of saying that, we must prune back our notion of how far the Church’s Magisterium extends. Consider that maybe it doesn’t reach to detailed issues of economics and politics. So I’ve been saying since 2014.

Saying this doesn’t open the doors wide to Faggioli’s fellow Progressives on topics like ordaining women, same-sex sin, or other moral issues. On those subjects, the Church has been unanimous since the days of the first apostles. It’s only where Church authorities have spoken at odds that we find ourselves free to argue.

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Thus far I stand squarely beside Massimo Faggioli. Thus far and no further.

From Bean Soup to Multicult Mush

No further, because by the end of his essay, Faggioli manages to take his sensible stance on religious freedom and twist it into a brief for the ACLU against President Trump. So take a Beano, because here’s another steaming bowl of Faggioli:

Catholics who support religious freedom for themselves cannot be indifferent toward threats against the religious freedom of non-Catholics and non-Christians in the United States or abroad. President Trump’s recent executive order protecting religious organizations from government overreach must be examined in light of his prejudicial statements about Islam. As Dignitatis humanae makes clear, religious liberty is by definition universal. It is not an idea that can be pulled out of storage when Catholics need it, only to be locked back up when the Muslims arrive.

Presumably Faggioli refers to President Trump’s proposed reductions in Muslim immigration. And the travel ban on folks from some nations. Namely those with recent explosions of terrorist activity. Because they happen (cue Gomer Pyle, “Sur-prise, sur-prise, sur-prise!) to all be Muslim countries. He probably also means to smack his countrymen back in Italia. They just elected a government that wants to take fewer Muslim migrants. Especially those posing as “refugees” who flock inside its borders and sign up for public welfare. Then scream for sharia or harass Italian women.

The Right to Say, “Va’ fa Napoli!” 

On this a few points are obvious. It’s impossible to violate someone’s liberty, religious or otherwise, by refusing him citizenship. No one has a right to come live in the United States. Period. End of story. Any more than I’ve a right to camp out in Prof. Faggioli’s office, along with my beagles. Let’s say I bang on the door, and he shouts “Va’ fa Napoli!” (a colorful way to send someone packing). I can’t complain. It’s his office.

It’s our country. We invite whomever we like. Failing an invitation, Muslims are perfectly welcome to practice their religion in other countries. In fact, those already legally in America are perfectly free to practice it here. That’s because we really do honor our First Amendment. Even when it threatens us, as it does when Muslims take seriously their own religious principles. Those don’t include religious freedom, or anything like it.

To put this in narrowly Catholic terms, let’s look at the Catechism. It calls on us to accept eligible immigrants if (and only if) they pull their weight. That means, according to the Church’s public doctrine, they’re obliged “to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.” (CCC 2241) If they don’t do all that, we’ve no obligation to take them. In fact, we can send them home. Even the Church’s document on religious freedom speaks of protecting that right “within due limits.” Surely such limits would include restricting attempts to proselytize for theocracy.

In order to keep on protecting all religious freedom, even for those whose creed extends into dangerous politics, we might want to keep their numbers small. In the 19th century, when the Catholic Church really didn’t support religious liberty, Americans worried about admitting too many of my ancestors. The U.S. changed its citizenship oath, in fact, to cover the papacy. We had to swear off political allegiance to “foreign princes.” Yeah, that meant “the pope.” Our bishops told us to take that oath, and take it seriously. I don’t blame Americans of the time for insisting on it. Or for insisting on it in letter and spirit today.


Thanks for letting me share all that with the group. It was really cathartic. The first step is always “admitting it.”

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  • Chip Crawford

    More Catholic intrigue and absurdities. What a shame … What a waste. “Unpunished sins … ” “The Church” referring to the Catholic Church alone – very sad. There’s really Good News … Jesus paid it all and THE Church he established is far more substantial and encompassing than that silly sect. How tragic to neglect so great salvation and to squander time and gifts on lies and fables.

  • Richard Malcolm

    No one has a right to come live in the United States.

    But if we’re really treating all of catholic Social Teaching as malleable and reformable, you might ponder whether there is any more value in Leo XIII’s embrace of a natural rights theory than there is in his Church-State teachings.

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