Massimo Faggioli and Rafael Luciani Discuss Global Catholic Church

by David O'Neill


On January 30, the Irish Room in Gasson Hall found itself with more guests than seats for a talk entitled “Global Catholicism.” The speakers were Dr. Massimo Faggioli and Dr. Rafael Luciani. The event was put on by the College Theology Society, and co-hosted by the School of Theology and Ministry and the Theology Department in the Morrissey College.

Faggioli, a Church Historian, is a Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova and a contributing writer to Commonweal as well as a columnist at Huffington Post Italy. Luciaini serves as a Professor Extraordinarius at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and Senior Advisor to the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Latin American Bishops Conference). A graduate student at the School of Theology and Ministry, served as a moderator.


Though the talk was titled “Global Catholicism,” the discussion was largely focused on the reception of Pope Francis in North and South America, and Europe. Discussion of Catholicism in Africa was noticeably absent.


Faggioli started off the discussion with the claim that to understand the pontificate of Francis, one needs to understand that “there is a genuine racial and geographical rift between the Catholicism he personifies and the North American Church.”


Faggioli further explained that Francis embodies a global Catholicism, which opposes the “self-centered” theology of the Church in the United States. He condemned the hierarchal Church in the United States, stating it “has lost a sense of its mission.”


Faggioli suggested that the divide in national politics in the United States has come to influence Church life, claiming, “The American Catholic Church is the most divided and polarized in the world.”


He continued with a prediction, saying, “It is not a church in a state of schism—yet—but it is a two-party Church, a mirror of a two-party system.”


His prediction that the Church in the United States is not “yet” in a state of schism harkens back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 condemnation of the heresy of “Americanism”­­—a manifestation of American Exceptionalism in that idea that the teachings of the Church should be different in the US than in the rest of the world­­.


Moving on to the subject of the Church in China, Faggioli explained that the underground Church and the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association are more united than the two factions of the American Church. This, he says, is because the Chinese Church disagrees about authority, not about major theological and moral issues, as is the case in the United States.


At this point, Dr. Luciani took the floor, bringing his experience as a theologian from Latin America. He stated, “You cannot understand Francis without understanding ecclesial life in Latin America.”


He explained that this view is marked by “a conservative way of understanding ecclesial structures, with a deeply pastoral theology.” In Latin America, he said, “A theologian who is not involved in pastoral theology is not seen as a theologian. Jesuits called them ‘corporate theologians.’”


The question was raised if the contentions in the Church in the United States, including women’s ordination and sexual morality, are as controversial elsewhere. Faggioli responded that increased globalization has led to deeper rifts in local churches, but that Francis is teaching that ideological rifts become “less important” if we “decode his actions.” Francis, he said, “is relocating, radically, the centers of Catholicism.”


Faggioli perceives the center of the Church until the 20th century as Europe, with America taking its place following the Second Vatican Council. He remarked that Francis has “carefully avoided travelling to traditional European countries which made up Christendom,” with the exception of major events, like the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima. He remarked that though “we think of Francis as bishop of Rome…the most significant acts [of his pontificate] have not been in St. Peters or Rome.”


The discussion turned to the future of the Catholic Church around the globe. Faggioli applied his scholarship as a Church historian to give some insight. He remarked that scholars had assumed the globalization of the Catholic Church and its decentralization would lead to a more liberal theology, but now, he is not so sure. This coincides with a point not discussed by either Faggioli or Luciani—that the fastest growing area in the Church today is Africa. Unlike Latin America, where liberation theology quickly took root, African Catholicism has largely been associated with adherence to traditional moral teachings and liturgical practice, as the New York Times pointed out in 2015.


Luciani then moved the discussion to the Pope’s attempts to root out clericalism. For Francis, Luciani stated, the word clericalism “has to do about power.” Luciani expressed that the Pope has lived through a series of stages in the interaction between Church and culture in Latin America. In the first stage, the Church was involved in social and political changes, and was an advocate for the rights of the worker. This position, Luciani says, was strengthened and made more official following the Second Vatican Council, and ended when then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger began speaking out about moral relativism. Luciani said that the Latin American bishops, at this point, stopped addressing economic and social issues, and focused their efforts on moral issues, “especially sexual issues.” Luciani posits that this focus on personal morality led to the clericalism that Pope Francis is trying to dismember.



Luciani claimed that Francis’ recent decision, to affirm that celibacy is a gift to the Catholic Church and that married priests are not for the Latin Rite, is not a loss for those who desire married clergy. In this same statement, Francis showed that he was open to exceptions when “gravely needed.” Interestingly, Luciani contends that Francis establishes exceptions to rules, with the desire that these “exceptions lead to common procedure.” Many Catholics are concerned about this notion, especially in relation to the exception regarding reception of Holy Communion in the now infamous footnote 351 from the 2016 encyclical, Amoris Laetitiae.


Faggioli discussed a change in the American religious sphere that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s­­—namely the Catholic Church replacing Protestantism as the leading moral authority. Faggioli contends that as a result, the hierarchy in America hyper-focused on sexual issues. He continued with a bit of a mystifying claim, that the people in the United States have the “idea that there are some issues which can be solved in a court of law.” He claimed “this is a cul-de-sac that Catholic Church should avoid.” What Faggioli meant by this comment was unclear, perhaps referring to the strength of US courts and critiquing a focus on overturning Roe v. Wade rather than building up a culture of life. The comment came off in poor taste, though, in light of the Church’s history of covering up clerical sexual abuse and keeping the courts from getting involved.


Luciani closed the talk by discussing Francis’ approach to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. He brought up the Holy Father’s reaction to Bishop Juan Barros. Barros is a Chilean bishop with ties to notorious abuser and former priest, Fernando Karadima, for whom Barros is accused of covering up. When visiting Chile in January of last year, Francis called accusations against Barros “all slander.” Francis’ comments were widely criticized by the media and clergy, leading to a public apology in April. Luciani sees this as a learning moment for Francis, and a moment of change. He said that, since then, Francis has been moving towards a more synodic direction in handling the abuse crisis, as he has been in other areas of the pontificate.


Luciani ended by saying that Francis will never oppose power with power, and will therefore not fight clericalist cardinals by making women cardinals (a distinct issue from women’s ordination, as historically not all cardinals have been ordained). Instead, he will continue with a “synodic” vision for the Church, focused on bottom-to-top reform, stemming from the “holy dignity of the baptized,” which will lead to conversion of corrupt members of the hierarchy. 


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