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Issue 16 – Easter 2023


The Catholic Church and the End of History

On the revival of old debates with the Church.


It is a turbulent time in the Catholic Church. The scope of the abuse crisis extends well beyond concerns about sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Rome and Germany squabble over contrasting views of the “synodal process” opened by Pope Francis. The Vatican finds itself in diplomatic binds in Russia and Ukraine, in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and, increasingly, in Nicaragua. And external concerns also trouble the Church: the risk of nuclear war between major powers in Europe and in Asia; the serious disruption of the globalized economy; the unraveling of democracy in the West; climate change and environmental degradation; pandemics; the alienating acceleration of technologies; the uncontrolled effects of artificial intelligence. In both the Church and the world, things that were once thought solid are falling apart and reforming anew. The current situation reminds us that Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” is over (if it ever even began). The same could also be said of the life of the Church, where two different and opposed “end of Catholic history” narratives are rapidly collapsing as the Church hurtles toward a future marked by many possibilities and unknowns.

The first of these narratives, which became popular even as the Second Vatican Council was underway, relied on the idea that the “spirit of Vatican II” was the unassailable global destiny of the Church, the theological version of “demography is destiny.” The second narrative styled itself in reaction to the presupposed “self-evidence” of that spirit. It took the shape of a particular neo-conservative dispensation—heavily reliant on an American culture-warrior interpretation of John Paul II, in opposition to an “exculturated” European Catholicism—which for three decades has been taken as definitive and final for a Church dealing dismissively with secular modernity. Until fairly recently, that narrative seemed unshakeable. Even now the Catholic Church is still dealing with the consequences of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s interpretations of Vatican II—not just in terms of the relationship between majorities and minorities in the national episcopates and the College of Cardinals but also in terms of the balance of intellectual energies at play in the Church. And in some sense, the theological pivot point of the Church is still where John Paul II left it. Sixty years after the beginning of Vatican II, it is clear that while some conciliar teachings have aged, others are even more applicable than they were in the Sixties (Scripture and Tradition as a response to fundamentalism, which is, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “essentially a mistaken theory of language”). For some teachings, any balance is still a work in progress (ecclesiology, liturgy and inculturation, mission and dialogue). And some other teachings continue to show their indispensability but are under pressure in a world of renewed confrontations between “identities” (ecumenism, religious liberty, and inter-religious relations; the possibility of an entente cordiale with secular modernity).

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About the author

Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and a contributor to Commonweal and La Croix International. His most recent book is Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.

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