THE IRONY OF MODERN CATHOLIC HISTORY
How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform
By George Weigel
Basic Books, 2019
336 pages, $30 (hardcover)
One of the best-known texts of Vatican II is Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world. That unique document, addressed not just to Christians but everyman, voiced the Council’s “yearn[ing] to explain … how it conceives the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.”
How we got to Gaudium et Spes and where we have come in the ensuing half-century comes down to the question of the Church and modernity. In this book, George Weigel advances a bold but credible interpretation of almost 200 years of ecclesiastical history, tracing the Church’s engagement with modernity from the 19th century through today.
The story begins around 1800, with the crumbling of the ancien regime and the revolutionary/counterrevolutionary periods that followed it, including how they affected the papacy. Modernity and the papacy did not get off to the best start (abducting a pope who dies in captivity doesn’t help). A Church accustomed to a certain arrangement between altar and throne was hard-pressed to conceive of any other (e.g., an American model of friendly separation). Emergent nationalism, leading to Italian unification and loss of the Papal States, didn’t build friendships. Still, the modern world was not going away.
Weigel divides his book into five periods: the Church against modernity; the Church exploring modernity; the Church embracing modernity; the Church critiquing modernity from within; and the Church converting modernity.
The Church against modernity encompasses French Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Europe through most of the 19th century, i.e., the pontificate of Pius IX, with a brief encore under Pius X. Weigel argues that the Church began to examine modernity more critically under Leo XIII, picking up that thread again under Pius XI and XII. The Church came to embrace modernity, perhaps somewhat overzealously, at the time of Vatican II, under John XXIII and Paul VI. Their successors — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — were both thoroughly modern men, university professors well-versed in yet critical of the intellectual currents of the modern world. They attempted to engage modernity, encouraging it to enter into a conversation with itself, challenging its current approaches to the human person, life and the moral law to a deeper, more thorough analysis of those realities precisely on modern terms. That effort flows into the present, when the Church is called, by returning to its missionary and evangelical roots, to convert modernity, to “reimagine” contemporary culture, just as once it converted the cultures of Greece and Rome. That is part of the “New Evangelization.”
“The history of modern Catholicism is, in fact, rather ironic. With modernity acting sometimes as a midwife and other times as amazed observer, Catholicism in its third millennium has reclaimed its birthright as a Gospel-centered, missionary enterprise. Rather than killing Catholicism, the encounter with modernity has helped the Catholic Church rediscover some basic truths about itself. Even more ironically, the Church’s rediscovery of those truths might, just might, put Catholicism in a position to help secular modernity save itself from its own increasing incoherence. Might a differently configured idea of the relationship of Catholicism to modernity help the West gain a more rational, humane path into the future?”
Weigel’s thesis is likely — as he himself admits — to find opponents across the spectrum. “Progressives” may regard it as a last-gasp effort by the Church to refuse to face its own reactionary ideas. “Traditionalists” awaiting the implosion of the modern project, after which “the Church can help the chastened survivors pick up the pieces and start civilization again,” will call Weigel an accommodationist for not pursuing a scorched-earth fight against modernity. Weigel’s ideas are certainly worth serious examination. Highly recommended.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.