Catholicism’s long struggle with modernity

Weigel notes that the Church became ‘the safe deposit box of Polish identity’ (Getty)

The Irony of Modern Catholic History
by George Weigel,
Basic Books, 336pp, £25/$30

From the societas perfecta, its face set against modernity, to a communion of disciples in mission, engaging with modernity in order to convert it. In his compelling new book, eminent American historian, biographer and theologian George Weigel revisits the Church’s tempestuous journey from “intransigent rejectionism” in the mid-to-late 19th century, across the “fiery brook” of modernity, to where we are now. 

Though a firm advocate of engagement, Weigel travels with eyes and ears open. Rather than slotting people and actions into pre-assigned roles in the drama, he stops to re-examine them. Thus, while he finds Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors guilty of blunderbuss condemnation, he also praises it for identifying flaws in the thinking of the day that would later become “painfully obvious: publicly, in the rise of totalitarianism, and culturally, in the breakdown of reason”.  

Later, he analyses with great acuity the mirror image shortcomings of Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” – pinpointing, above all, its failure to anticipate that the late modern world it addressed was close to decomposition, that a “new gnosticism, teaching the radical plasticity of human nature” was gathering strength. Weigel’s cataloguing of the successive shockwaves of postmodernity is masterful.  

His pages on Leo XIII brim with admiration. Weigel writes of a “Leonine Revolution” under which the Church first began to probe “the possibility of a conversation with cultural, social, economic and political modernity, conducted on the basis of philosophical first principles that could be known to reason”. Crucially, Leo was the first pope since the time of Charlemagne who did not, upon his election, become a temporal sovereign. Weigel doesn’t let us forget how papal attachment to having lands to rule, in the  old monarchical fashion, influenced the Church’s delay in working out what it had to offer the post-Ancien Régime world.  

The great irony Weigel sees in all that followed is that, through engagement, Catholicism eventually “rediscovered its evangelical essence and developed intellectual tools capable of rescuing the imperilled modern project”. What would Voltaire have said to that?  

Weigel has a great eye for facts that raise eyebrows and provoke reflection. When Pius XI took office, we learn, there were no native bishops governing missionary provinces. By the time of his death in 1939, there were 40. Meanwhile, Benedict XV had virtually bankrupted the Vatican through the provision of humanitarian relief during World War I. At the next conclave, cardinal-electors slept on beds borrowed from Roman schools and hospitals. 

Weigel is also a high-calibre phrasemaker. The Church, he notes, became “the safe deposit box of Polish identity” under communism. The monitors originally given the task of rooting out Modernism from universities and seminaries he describes as “a network of ferrets”. 

Having sung Weigel’s praises, there is one glaring omission to report in  an otherwise comprehensive survey. His discussion of Paul VI pays close attention,  of course, to Humanae Vitae, and also to the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, but fails to mention the Novus Ordo Mass. No doubt this comes from a desire not to be distracted by the immense and heated conflicts over the liturgy. Yet Paul’s Mass, in renewing the very source and summit of the Christian life, was surely the modernising act par excellence. 

Meanwhile, beneath the surface of Weigel’s overarching master irony, one can sense other ironies. There is, for instance, the likelihood that trenchant opposition to modernity ultimately guaranteed the success of modernising forces. Weigel reports Pius X saying that “the duty of the multitude is to suffer itself to be governed and to carry out in a submissive spirit the orders of those in control”. So, when the proposals came down to remove the altar rails or close up the confessionals, what else could the faithful reply but “If you say so, Father”? 

And here’s another irony. Up on the intellectual heights, Catholic thinkers, refusing to cave in as liberal Protestants had done, grappled heroically with modernity through long decades of what Weigel calls “great creativity” in theology. Meanwhile, back down on the plains, in the Church’s historic heartlands, many of the faithful seem to have simply wandered off. We now have Professor Stephen Bullivant’s Mass Exodus analysing the collapse in numbers of the post-conciliar laity in the UK and the US; and Bishop Robert Barron taking to YouTube to express bafflement and dismay at the news that just a third of American Catholics agree that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.  

Near the end, Weigel pauses to consider the impact of “Catholic Lite” and, somewhat despairingly but nevertheless cogently, the causes and consequences of the abuse crisis.  

You will be wondering, no doubt, what Weigel makes of the current Pope. He sees this pontificate, originally heralded as an injection of new energy, as the latest stalling in the dynamic of an evangelically vibrant Catholicism. Rather than providing leadership, he says, Francis risks spreading confusion through a “new Gallicanism and a new historicism” in contradiction with the teaching of Vatican II. 

The ironies, it seems, just keep coming.