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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).

Still, today’s situation is a world away from John Paul II’s settlement of the contrasting post-conciliar movements. The shift began with his successor, Benedict XVI (his death in December marked the passing of the last participant at Vatican II to be elected pope). Benedict opened for traditionalists the door that John Paul II had only cracked—an opportunity for them to re-enter but also a signal to keep to themselves. But for traditionalists, though, Benedict XVI’s offer sounded like a promise not just of personal and collective rehabilitation but of a coming reversal of Vatican II, with Summorum pontificum seen as merely the beginning of the end of conciliar reforms. But Benedict’s resignation, and the conspiratorial murmurings that followed it, left traditionalists mourning an unfinished doctrinal project.

The election of Pope Francis made clear from the outset the incompatibility of the neo-conservative political-theological doctrine with a more global Catholic Church, less tied to Western ideologies. Francis shook the Church and inspired all-out opposition—quite different from the dissent of theologians on very specific points of papal magisterium in the early post–Vatican II period, namely Paul VI’s Humanae vitae in 1968.

Despite the petty accusations of “communism” raised against Francis, there is a real retro scent in his approach to history as a struggle for justice. But his approach is much more along the lines of Walter Benjamin than of Karl Marx. Francis recognizes the reality of the transcendental, which intersects with and is mediated by the practical and particular—an aggiornamento of Gaudium et spes itself. Francis speaks to the actual human condition, which actually makes his appeal more audible to non-Christians and non-believers who are willing to put aside their anti-ecclesial and anti-religious sentiments and listen. His rebalancing of the magisterial emphasis on some issues—social and economic justice, care for creation, Islam—has not gained him, especially in the West, the support needed to re-orient the church. His distance from Western liberalism sits side-by-side with his defense of democracy, the constitutional order, open society, and a certain universal idea of human rights. But that seems to be a moot point compared to the enduring tensions around Francis’s exhortation Amoris laetitia (and the non-reception of it in the United States), which demonstrate that Humanae vitae is still, at least for Catholicism in the West, the neuralgic point that continues to resist a resolution.

And yet Francis’s pontificate shares something surprising with Benedict XVI’s. Each made possible, in opposite ways, the re-appearance of the extremes. Until John Paul II it was thought that doctrinal and liturgical questions were settled, and both anti–Vatican II traditionalists and post–Vatican II progressives were excluded from the “definitive” (that is, not “infallible”) magisterium. But now we are at the end of that “end of history.” History has restarted, and what were once marginalized groups are getting a chance to challenge the consensus created by John Paul II and his followers. Understanding this new beginning of history is more important than any speculation about who is going to be the next pope.

On the right, John Paul II’s prophetic pushback against Western liberalism’s “culture of death” became an exemplar for a number of Western bishops (especially in the United States and in Western Anglophone Catholicism) who previously were uninterested or uninvolved in social and political criticism. At the same time, despite John Paul II’s thought on economic justice, neo-conservatives and Catholic Barthians put his papacy in service to a culture war pitched at the American “market.” John Paul II tried to claim complete ownership of post-conciliar Catholicism, along with an absolute, inevitable interpretation of Vatican II. Drowned out by the volume of papal teaching and personal charisma, John Paul II’s episcopal appointments placed limits or made impossible any authentic instrument of reflective hierarchical reception. Those bishops in turn ordained young priests who were taught that post-conciliar Vatican II theology was either bankrupt or to some degree “unorthodox,” bordering on heretical. The thoughtful ecclesial reception of Vatican II has thus been cut off for decades now, in favor of a papalist interpretation of Vatican II, where the papalist part has been much stronger than the Vatican II part.

Much less explored, however, is what has happened in the last few years on the important sectors of the “leftish” side. Historical consciousness has evaporated, hermeneutical nuances have been lost, and in a strange way we are back in an either-or situation: either you are alert to racial prejudice and discrimination in a very blinkered way or you are automatically conspiring with all the evils of some bad old “unenlightened” tradition—the stereotype of the Christian past as either violent, banal, or irrelevant. Hence, the now dominant preferential option for the exotic, which is something very different from the legitimate emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and an awareness of the multiplicity and plurality of Christian and Catholic traditions. This exoticism seems to be spiritually moved less by the Christian or Catholic tradition than by what precedes or is outside that tradition. A view of cultures that sees them as radically internally hybridized or radically contingent has made dialogue between Church and world or faith and culture not just impossible, but pointless. From an institutional point of view, the emphasis on the peripheries annihilates itself when it forgets that in religion both the center and the peripheries become meaningless outside of a minimal set of normative commitments. The Catholic theological guild’s turn toward political theology, political theory, and identity politics now often tends to avoid the fundamental questions: What is the point of believing? Why be a disciple? And this is not even to mention the reduction of ecclesiology to “ecclesiodicy” in light of a Church now identified by default with evil—from patriarchal abuse to cultural genocide.

The argument that still has to be made about the current pontificate is one that is difficult to stomach for Catholics who cheer, in a Pavlovian reaction, when they hear Francis admonishing against “backwardism,” liturgical and otherwise. It is about the future of the Church that might be imagined by those (myself included) who believe that a return to the past is neither possible nor desirable but also believe that Vatican II was, in the words of German Jesuit Karl Rahner, “the beginning of a beginning” and not the end of institutional religion, magisterial teaching, and the intellectual tradition.

Francis’s pontificate has awakened from their dream all those who had been lured into the illusion that the future of the Church was going to be beyond Benedict’s opening to traditionalists. And it has been an unpleasant discovery. But for all his words and gestures for a more welcoming Church, it would be naïve to think that Francis has revived the Catholic theological tradition based on Vatican II. Francis’s approach to the institution (despite the reform of the Roman Curia with the apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium of March 2022) could still leave the monopoly of juridicists and clericalists untouched, especially in the United States. The abuse crisis in the Church has made clear how much we need institutions and structures. The hermeneutics of suspicion against institutions has been followed not just by an attempt to liquidate the structures of ecclesiastical government but also by an anti-institutional view of ideas in favor of culture and society, surrogates of “the market.” From the point of view of church government, this pontificate reflects the hermeneutics of suspicion (including suspicion of all institutions) that has reigned from the 1970s until now.

More than the return of an anti–Vatican II or pre–Vatican II Catholicism, the real problem is “non–Vatican II, non-conciliar Catholicism” in the form of denial of the tradition. “Non-Vatican II” does not mean simply ignoring Vatican II, but above all neutralizing it, considering the trajectories of Vatican II concluded and exhausted, and its promises empty. This problem is very well known for the right, with its postmodern brand of “Catholic orthodoxy,” a rigidly absolutist manner where a widespread new pseudo-Scholasticism gives simplistic answers and misreadings of contemporary life. And it might be too late to uncouple what we mean by “American Catholicism” from this impoverished brand of the intellectual and theological tradition: a hard-right vision of economics, politics, morality, and piety reducible to a set of easily remembered talking points for self-consoling apologetics that substitute for spiritual discernment.

The problem is more subtle for the “disappointist” Catholic left-leaning side. By giving up on the tradition, naïve theological progressivism gives up also on the possibility of theological development and on the need to defend what was real advancement at Vatican II: a Catholic doctrine and praxis trying to be more faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than to the status quo. The crisis of Vatican II Catholicism is not just a problem of ecclesiastical governance and of the episcopacy—even though aggiornamento bishops are hard to find and the last vision statement from progressive bishops was Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment.” It is also a theological problem. Compelling reflection and expression of corporate practices and of personal involvements in social and political life can be rooted only in an enlarged view, based in biblical exegesis, the Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church, the liturgical traditions, moral practices, history, and hermeneutics. And hermeneutic is important, of course, but the important short-term task of preaching and theologizing should always be to “give a reason for our hope.”

Theology today is narrowly academic and bound up in a secular, American Academy of Religion conception of the Christian faith; much of it could be more accurately described as theological sociology or psychology—insightful within its self-appointed limits but missing Jesus Christ and the Paschal Event. As J.-L. Souletie wrote recently, we are in a second phase of the modernist crisis. It is no longer a conflict between history and dogma, but between experience and reason. The post–Vatican II period can no longer rely on Maurice Blondel’s category of the creative or living tradition as we are profoundly shaped today by the subjectivation of the individual and radical de-traditionalism. Souletie’s suggestion is to leave behind the ambition to control the mediation between history and truth, in order to leave it to the Incarnation. But this approach needs to have a deep sense of the mystery of the Spirit leading the Church into the future—a realistic eschatology and a new aggiornamento, without leaving the defense of the tradition to an apologetics that, like an addiction, now pushes the need for “religious certainty.”

The current global and ecclesial crises make clear the collapse of both “end of history” theological narratives. Although they pretend to be realist, both narratives are forms of escapism—the avoidance of a genuine interaction with a political and ethical order that is in fragments. The urgent need for an alternative to this escapism is clear. The question is whether Catholics can once again read the signs of the times, as happened after World War I and World War II, by resorting faithfully and creatively to the Christian tradition.

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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.