What is my primary identity? I am a white man or less crudely, a person of European descent. I am also a citizen of the U.S. And then, rounding out personal identities, I am a member of the communion known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
But if I check my wallet, the only ID card I find comes from the State of Michigan – a driver’s license (the photo on which identifies me as a white guy with receding hair). When I travel I have a passport issued by the United States (and a similarly dopey photo of a follicly challenged white man). So far, no ecclesiastical body has taken me up on my observation of the need for church passports. That way, we could when on the road, show that our papers are in order and that our membership is in good standing. We could also receive a stamp to verify to the home church authorities that we were present for church and if we partook of the Lord’s Supper.
So far, I am unaware of any documents that would certify my racial or ethnic identity. I know some fancy cats and dogs have breeding papers. The last time humans may have thought about such documentation, the effects were not pleasant. So let’s not go there.
These were some of the thoughts I had after listening to a story on NPR about Italian opposition to Cecile Kyenge, recently appointed as the first black cabinet minister within the Italian government. If Americans think that racism is bad on this side of the Atlantic, I wonder what they would do with Italians referring to Kyenge as a monkey and throwing bananas her way when speaking in public. Granted, it would not be fair to tarnish all Italians with the accusation of racism since the Northern League Party has been responsible for the ugly opposition to Kyenge, a party that accounts for 18 of Italy’s 315 Senators. Then again, can anyone imagine any political candidate winning an election in the U.S. if he were associated with this kind of racism?
So far, so nation and race. We have citizens of Italy who are of European descent (duh!) opposing an African-Italian politician. What about Christianity and church membership. Italy (another duh) is a nation whose citizens have long and deep ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, the Vatican was a major speed bump to Italy’s emergence as an independent nation, and tensions between Italian nationalism and Roman Catholicism existed down to World War II. Still, it is not inconceivable to think of Italians as having some awareness and affection for the Roman Catholic church. And that might lead us to think that Christians, like Roman Catholics, would not react in such a hostile way to politicians like Kyenge. After all, this is a church that puts “universal” in its very name. No matter how bad Christian practice is in Europe, being Catholic, you would think, would lift you out of the particularities of race and nation to identify at least with other Christians if not other humans in a universal way. But apparently Roman Catholicism has not had that affect on Italians just as evangelicalism has not lifted Protestants in the United States, despite all that mystical union with the body of Christ business, above identifying the United States with God’s redemptive purposes.
The Vatican has in the past spoken out against Italy’s racism, so it is not as if the Roman curia are unaware of the problem. Even so, this news does remind us of the older associations between Roman Catholicism and a European conservatism that opposed egalitarianism, individualism, and democracy. (Say what you will about the problems of those political sensibilities, they have been largely responsible for countering racial views that elevate one group above others.) I mention this Roman Catholic illiberalism if only because of a fascinating book by Peter D’Agostino about Roman Catholics in the United States and Italy and how the former sided with a Vatican that was opposed to the kind of political structures on which Americans usually prided themselves. (The book is just the start of D’Agostino’s fascination for me.) I have not finished the book, but here is an indication of the argument he makes:
Students of religion in the United States have ignored Fascist Italy. Studies of the interwar years rarely mention the Italy-Vatican rapprochement of the 1920s or the Lateran Pacts of 1929. Historians John McGreevy and Philip Gleason have analyzed mid-twentieth-century American liberal critiques of Catholicism as an antidemocratic, authoritarian culture with affinities to “fascism” or “totalitarianism.” In their work, “fascism (not Fascism) is a generic term for authoritarianism, and the “rise of fascism” happened in the 1930s, as if Fascist Italy did not exist in the 1920s. They tend to conflate informed anti-Fascists struggling for a democratic Italy with the bigotry of Paul Blanshard. . . . Ultimately, they sidestep the issue liberals raised: the substantial links between the American Church and Fascist Italy for two decades. . . .
On occasion American Catholics did criticize Fascism. It does not follow, however, that “what appeared to Italian exiles and American liberals to be a monolithic pro-Mussolini Catholic chorus were in reality the voices of individual churchmen.” This claim ignores hierarchical structures of power and community vigilance that belie the notion that the Church was a group of atomized individuals free to articulate broadly divergent views on matters relating to the Roman Question. Attention to the timing and content of American Catholic criticism of Fascism during the Italy-Vatican rapprochemement of the 1920s reveals the collaboration of a transnational church. When the Vatican praised Fascism for outlawing Masonry, American Catholics voiced similar praise. When the Vatican protested Fascist interference in the moral development of Italian youth, so did American Catholics. When the Vatican instigated the dissolution of the Partito Popolare Italiano (PPI), American Catholics agreed it was a wise policy. When the Vatican withheld commentary on the beating, imprisonment, or murder of an anti-Fascist, American Catholics also remained silent. (159-160)
So sometimes church membership does transcend nation (American Roman Catholics following Rome), and sometimes it does not (Italians today).
My point is not to find more skeletons in Rome’s closet. I do think this is another piece of Roman Catholic history that Jason and the Callers have airbrushed from their philosophical accounts of the papacy. But the fascinating point, I think, is the degree to which Christianity actually affects a person’s politics and identity. Does church membership define someone more than race and nation? Sure, we know what the ideal is. But can Christians actually escape the constraints of history like to whom and where you are born?