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The Catholic Church faces a crisis of leadership. The latest series of abuse revelations, most notably the exposure of former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as a sexual predator, revealed a hierarchy that will not (and perhaps cannot) address corruption in its own ranks. Only intense public pressure and the threat of ruinous lawsuits have led it to take action.
Massimo Faggioli (“The Catholic Church’s Biggest Crisis Since the Reformation,” October 11) argues that the sexual abuse crisis has worsened a preexisting divide within Catholicism, one that flows from institutional failures to reform and update the church. By this way of thinking, the far-seeing Pope John XXIII and his progressive allies recognized that the Catholic Church was too conservative, too outdated. The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) presented an opportunity for deep reform. Sadly, Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John XIII, was weak-kneed, while John Paul II and Benedict XVI were conservative revanchists. Now, after 50 years of misrule, comes a good pope with bold plans. But a rump of conservative Catholic traditionalists with money and political power are fomenting division.
If only the church’s problems could be so conveniently captured in a neat ideological narrative. Faggioli is correct that the Catholic Church is being drawn down into the swamps of today’s secular politics. But he’s wrong to depict the divide in terms of left versus right, progressive versus conservative. Rather, the turmoil in the church today reveals yet another front in the populist rebellion against establishment leaders that has roiled the politics of the West.
Understanding the roots of today’s populist movement within the church requires looking back to the defining feature of modern Catholicism that took root in the nineteenth century. The term “modern Catholicism” can be confusing. In the Catholic Church, “modernism” refers to theologies based on a progressive view of history. This approach to Catholicism, which arose with modern historical study of the Bible, was condemned by the Vatican in the early twentieth century because its logic implies that people living today are better able to recognize the full truth about Christianity than were the men and women of the apostolic era. If that’s the case, then the plausibility of traditional Christianity collapses, for its authority is based on the claim to have preserved intact the apostolic witness, the most reliable source of revelation. Anti-modernism is thus the basic gestalt of Catholicism in the modern era.
Modernism has a social form, one committed to progress as well, defined as overcoming the constraints of inherited authority. This kind of modernism was exemplified in the ideology of the French Revolution and in the liberal ambitions of the Italian Risorgimento, both of which were marked by virulent anticlericalism and both of which the Catholic Church experienced as existential traumas. The church responded to modernism’s social dimension even before condemning its theology. Pope Pius IX ended his Syllabus of Errors (1864) with a denunciation of the erroneous view that the pope “can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
Rejection is not a positive program, however. Catholicism had to wait for Pope Leo XIII to set the broad agenda for the church’s social engagement, most influentially in the encyclical Rerum Novarum (New Things) in 1891. His ambition was to resist the double movement of political and economic liberalization. At their worst, these liberalizations atomize individuals, making them vulnerable to propaganda and manipulation or to being treated as raw material in the industrial process. More subtly, Leo XIII believed that the erosion of church and family created a dangerous vacuum filled by an increasingly pervasive and all-powerful nexus of secular economic and political power. Modernity frees humanity from traditional social forms, true, but this does not always lead to an open, liberal society. More often than not it produces Bonapartism, socialism, or some other secular, statist, and “modern” project of social reconsolidation. Freedom from traditional authority can thus bring new and often inhumane forms of subjugation.
Rerum Novarum urged the restoration of the authority of church and family. These two premodern institutions were to pinion the two-headed monster of an atomizing modern economy and an all-encompassing modern state. The church would do so from above, reserving for herself ultimate authority over the destiny of man, and the family from below, maintaining primary responsibility for educating the next generation. The Leonine strategy was in this sense anti-modernist and promoted a paternalistic social ethic.
From Leo XIII through Pius XII, who was pope until the late 1950s, the standard Catholic position was to buttress the authority of church and family as antidotes to the evils of modern economic and political arrangements. Leo XIII, for example, urged Sabbath limits on the industrial era’s limitless appetite for labor, and he defended the rights of parents to educate their children. His successors criticized race-based nationalism and warred against the metaphysical materialism and deterministic philosophy of Marxism.
One can debate whether Leo’s authority-based social anti-modernism worked. After 1945, however, many in the West began to treat authority in all its forms as suspect. The philosopher Karl Popper published his influential program for the reconstruction of the West, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Psychologists penned anxious studies of the “authoritarian personality.” In this context, the Leonine strategy of limiting the excesses of the “new things” of modernity by stressing the paternal authority of church and family became difficult to sustain.
During the first two decades after World War II, the authority of the Catholic Church played an important role in the formation of stable democracies in Italy and West Germany. Yet Catholic intellectuals such as Jacques Maritain were even then losing confidence in the Leonine strategy, fearing its authority-based approach actually contributed to the kinds of authoritarianism that shipwrecked Europe between 1914 and 1945. What was needed, many thought, was a spirit of critique and an ethic of freedom, not the counterauthorities of church and family.
By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the cultural atmosphere had loosened within the church, encouraging a rethinking of the modern church’s social stance. The council produced documents that suggested an opening up to the modern world. This suggestion became active policy immediately after the council. Catholicism allied itself with anticolonialism. The Vatican relaxed its formerly strident anticommunism. There was a general trend toward cooperation with the liberalizing elements of society. In the United States, this culminated in the 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit. The gathering urged the church to drop its intransigent stance toward birth control, homosexuality, clerical celibacy, and female priests and to enter into partnership with a progressive movement battling racism, militarism, and economic oppression.
The opening was not limitless, however. Already in 1968, Paul VI drew a line prohibiting Catholics’ use of contraception. The papacy of John Paul II drew other lines, reining in liberation theology, insisting on moral truths, and buttressing church authority. But the general policy was to reframe the Leonine strategy in more inclusive, less dogmatic terms.
John Paul II reinterpreted the authority of family and church in terms of gift, freedom, and individual openness toward the transcendent. He also gave a more open interpretation of the church’s role in society: under the Polish pope, a free, personal encounter with Christ became the church’s critique of totalitarianism. Man’s search for meaning—not the counterauthority of Rome—limited the power of economic and political ideologies. This reframing is not at odds with traditional Catholic theological affirmations, as anyone who reads John Paul II’s encyclicals can see. But it reflects the consensus in postwar Catholicism, one that worries about a too-heavy reliance on authority, even the authority of church and family.
The Francis pontificate has moved the Catholic Church further along in this direction. Where John Paul II sought to revise the Leonine project, recasting the authority of marriage and church in terms of free self-giving and using openness and freedom against their own excesses, Francis largely jettisons the project altogether. Not coincidentally, the main controversies of Francis’ pontificate revolve around the authority of the institution of marriage and the authority of the church. A footnote in the 2016 papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia seemed to allow for divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion, provided they did so under the “accompaniment” and approval of their priest, who is given wide latitude to exercise discretion. Francis has even gone so far as to denounce as Pharisees those who affirm the authority of the church teaching that communion for the divorced or remarried who engage in the conjugal act is never permissible. More broadly, the Francis pontificate signals a general loosening of the older norms about sex, procreation, and family.
This trend is closely related to a slow dismantling of the authoritative superstructure of the Rome-centered church. Francis does this (perhaps without much forethought) by refusing to pronounce authoritatively in some instances, or by doing so in confusing ways, as was the case with recent changes in teaching about capital punishment. More generally, the Francis pontificate seems to want to manage growing tension within Catholicism by allowing for greater local autonomy. German Catholics can have their own approach to divorce and remarriage, one which need not be the same as that in neighboring Poland.
These moves have all weakened the Catholic anti-modernist project. In reality, the notion of pastoral accompaniment softens clerical authority to the point of eliminating it. The priest uses his own discernment. He speaks for himself, as it were, not for the church, which is the traditional source of clerical authority. Francis also emphasizes mercy in a way that makes authoritative judgments of any sort suspect. This, too, dissolves authoritative moral norms. Revisions of sacramental discipline for the divorced and remarried diminish the objective authority of the church’s sacraments, making them subject to personal, interior determinations.
“Time is greater than space” is one of Francis’ maxims. It means that movements are more important than institutions, and tendencies of thought more decisive than settled dogmas. Again, such thinking dissolves what has been inherited from the past, or at least makes it secondary.
Francis’ abandonment of Catholic anti-modernism has significant implications. As time passes, it becomes more and more obvious that the Francis papacy is merging the Catholic Church into the cultural and political establishment in the West, which is dominated by a consensus in favor of “openness.” Both the revision of the church’s discipline on marriage—making boundaries more porous—and the pope’s stated views on immigration, for example, are in line with the attitudes of upper-middle-class Western elites.
As time passes, it becomes more and more obvious that the Francis papacy is merging the Catholic Church into the cultural and political establishment in the West.
Explaining the Francis pontificate and the controversy surrounding it in terms of the traditional left-right divide distorts reality. The center-left establishment favors cultural deregulation, which Francis accommodates. The center-right establishment favors economic liberalization. Francis speaks against this at times but largely endorses the “open world” ideal integral to the ongoing expansion of markets. Both center-left and center-right in the West coalesce around calls for more porous borders, freer trade, and open minds, calling them either inevitable or beneficent, or more often both at once.
The Francis papacy is in near perfect accord with this consensus. It is a deregulatory pontificate, dissolving that which was once solid and weakening what was once authoritative. The pope and cardinals and bishops allied with him should be the signs and instruments of unity in the church. But their indifference to the apostolic authority of the church and complicity with a secular ruling establishment have alienated many ordinary Catholics, who, like many ordinary voters throughout the West, worry that what was once solid is being eroded by negligent leaders. Because of this, a populist rebellion is now under way. It seeks a return to solid things—borders in political life, protection from relentless competition in economics, and dogma and truth in religion. This rebellion does not trust the establishment in politics, culture—and, now, the Vatican.
Populism is roiling the political culture of the West. It’s increasingly clear that an ecclesiastical populism is beginning to do the same in the Catholic Church.