The current wave of anti-liberalism in the nations of the West and in the Catholic Church is bringing fifty years’ worth of disappointments to the surface. One would have to be blind not to notice the fact that the period after Vatican II—what Karl Rahner called the beginning of the “world Church,” a new age in the history of Christianity—has been a messy one, full of tension and uncertainty. Most postconciliar periods have been messy, but the disorder of this period has been aggravated by new global anxieties about environmental ruin, nuclear war, and globalization.
The new anti-liberalism springs from an old temptation: nostalgia. The anti-liberals dream of a new Christendom that would restore the church to a position of official dominance enforced by the state. They are allergic to pluralism, especially cultural and religious. There is some of this in the Trump agenda and in the right-wing governments now in power in Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Poland, as well as in the free state of Bavaria in the German Federation. The recent meeting between Cardinal Raymond Burke and the new Italian minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, says something about this realignment. Salvini is known not only for his threats of unconstitutional police-state repression against migrants and gypsies in Italy, but also for saying that Benedict XVI is still his pope.
Some people in Europe and the United States still haven’t accepted that we now live in a world church that represents a historical development beyond medieval Christendom. The state of denial of those who still believe that a return to Christendom is possible is driven by many factors, but one in particular: the return of the myth that the whole category of the secular is a liberal invention, the myth that “once, there was no secular.”
There is, of course, nothing new in populist politicians using religion for their appel à la violence. The major problem is the legitimacy that a new generation of anti-liberal Catholics seems willing to give to this kind of populist rage, with the intention of overcoming current political challenges with a return to the past—as if the failures of liberalism automatically make Christendom possible again. The crude fact is that Christendom failed. What are usually called “liberal Catholicism” and “liberal theology” acknowledge this.
In an important book published in Italy and Germany this year, the young church historian Gianmaria Zamagni recounts the modern history of the debate on the “Constantinian age” of European Catholicism. The critique of the Constantinian model of Christendom begins at least thirty years before Vatican II. In 1932, in the first volume of the Kirchliche Dogmatik, Karl Barth identified Constantine as the reason for the decline of Christianity. In the spring of 1963, as debates about what would become Gaudium et spes were underway, the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu also drew attention to the problems of Constantinianism in a paper titled “The Church and the World.” Nor were Barth and Chenu isolated cases. Friederich Heer, Erik Peterson, Ernesto Buonaiuti, Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, and Yves Congar all made similar arguments.
Vatican II’s attitude toward the church’s past was complex and ambivalent. It’s clear from the way the council dealt with the issue of Concordats and bishops’ appointments that there was still a desire to maintain certain features of the old relationship between the church and political power. But Vatican II’s teachings on religious liberty, ecumenism, and non-Christian religions represented a break with key aspects of the theology that had undergirded Christendom. As for ecclesiology, in paragraph 8 of Lumen gentium, Vatican II looked to the way Jesus himself dealt with the issues of freedom and coercion, especially religious coercion: “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men…. [the Church] ‘like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,’ announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes.”