American Idol

Rome vs. the ‘Modernists'

With the advent of a new millennium, what some have called “The American Century” officially came to an end seven years ago. The significance of the United States’ rise to world power and, eventually, to lone superpower status, marked as it was by unprecedented economic, military, and cultural influence around the world, will continue to be debated, and experienced, for decades to come.

One wonders how history will judge U.S. influence on the Roman Catholic Church during the twentieth century. Well known are the contributions of Virgil Michel to liturgical reform and John Courtney Murray to the church’s stunning endorsement of religious freedom, both of which came to initial fruition in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). If not “Americanists” in the strict sense, these and other mid-century pioneers agreed on the desirability of popular participation in liturgy and church governance and on the importance of the church’s autonomy vis-à-vis the state. They had internalized, in short, the hard-won victories of the American “experiment in ordered liberty.”

But what about the noble failures of the Americans and Europeans who explored new ways of “thinking with modernity” decades before such experiments could be endorsed? In calling the church to a new engagement with the modern world, Pope John XXIII took the risk of embracing modernity without capitulating to its many errors. One hundred...

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About the Author

R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Center for Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is co-editor of Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics and Praxis.