At the Second Vatican Council / photo by Lothar Wolleh - Wiki Commons

Is truth dead? That’s the question on the cover of the April 3 Time magazine, a clear call-back to the famous “Is God Dead?” cover of 1968. While it’s tempting to see an analogy between the two, worry over the current “post-truth” political climate is not an ontological issue of the same order. It’s an issue of factual truth: What did or did not happen, what is verifiably true or false—like the size of the crowd at Donald Trump’s inauguration. “Post-truth” is an elegant way to describe an attack not on the metaphysical nature of truth, but on the sheer denialism of historical facts.

The theological culture of the institutional church is not immune to the rise of the “post-truth.” In fact, it was already showing signs of the syndrome in the early 2000s. Such challenges to the idea of distinguishing between what happened and what did not catch the Catholic Church just when it faces a crisis over the role of the study of history in theology. The consequences for the intellectual viability of Catholicism are significant, especially in considering the formation of future Church leaders.

In 2005, for example, the Pontifical Gregorian University (the most respected of Rome’s pontifical universities) established the Faculty of History and Cultural Heritage of the Church, which merged the prestigious faculty of ecclesiastical history (founded in 1932) with a program in cultural heritage (created in 1991). This institutional push to reduce history to “cultural heritage” effectively disconnected theology and the magisterium from the critical inputs of Church history. This delinking of Church history from theology is even more apparent in the United States. Katarina Schuth in her latest book casts light on how this shift influenced seminary training in the U.S. in the early 2000s. The fifth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation, issued in 2005 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made clear that “among historical studies, the study of patristics and the lives of the saints were considered of special importance.” The special emphasis on the lives of the saints, typical of the devotional turn in many Catholic seminaries during the John Paul II-Benedict era, should be considered alongside the reduction in the number of history courses the Program of Priestly Formation required: from six in 1992 to three in 2005. Though many seminaries and pontifical universities still require the study of Church history, the history of the past century is often seen as dangerous—and the history of Vatican II the most dangerous of all. (My personal experience: Since 2012 I have given more than one hundred talks around the world on Vatican II and Pope Francis, but only one of those came at the invitation of a seminary faculty: the Faculty of Theology at the Jesuit University Sanata Dharma in Indonesia.)

The consequences for the intellectual viability of Catholicism are significant, especially in considering the formation of future Church leaders

John O’Malley worked to counter this “dangerous” framing with “Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?”, an article that appeared in 2006, and in his 2008 book, What Happened at Vatican II. Though the article (based on a 2005 lecture at Yale) was written before Benedict XVI’s famous “two hermeneutics” speech to the Curia in December 2005, his book was surely the best response to that speech—one of the most consequential of Benedict’s papacy. But that speech was also the culmination of the trend to downplay the historical significance of Vatican II, a trend in which Walter Brandmüller, then president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, also played a role. (Brandmüller, it should be noted, is also one of the four signatories of the recent dubia against Francis’s Amoris Laetitia.) Benedict’s argument was philosophical: Vatican II resulted in some changes, but it did not change the profound essence of the Church. His position of “continuity and reform” over “discontinuity and rupture” tried to undermine the legitimacy of some key aspects of the hermeneutics of Vatican II, even though of course it did not deny the historical importance of the council. It was a more sophisticated speech than the ultra-simplified interpretations from some theologians and bishops would have it.

But the ideological spin surrounding Benedict’s speech now seems in some ways the Catholic version of the post-truth debate in politics—only a decade earlier. Now, four years into the pontificate of Francis, only the traditionalist wing still uses the hermeneutics of “continuity and reform” versus “discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting Vatican II; Francis has never used it. But the damage is done, and not just in Rome or in the Vatican. For while on one side there is the minimizing of the role of critical thinking about Church history, on the other there is the cultural turn to an emphasis on identity studies. Even at those universities where a historical-critical approach to Church institutions and magisterial texts persists, things tend to gravitate around “religious studies” instead of theology.

This poses a problem for history and religious studies as disciplines: trying to understand the past lives of Christians without a theological line of credit open toward the faith of those Christians limits the ability of the historians to understand the lives of those Christians. But it’s an even bigger problem for theology. The historical-critical method is facing some pushback today even when it comes to biblical studies, as seen recently in overblown reactions to what the new general of the Jesuits said about the interpretation of the Gospel a few weeks ago. Paradoxically it seems more acceptable in today’s Catholic Church to bring the historical-critical method to bear on Scripture than to documents of the magisterium; it’s become more acceptable to critique divinely inspired authors of Scripture than a pope writing on sexual morality. A creeping magisterial fundamentalism toward the encyclicals of this last century is part of the “biopolitical” problem of Catholicism. This is clearly visible in the debate over Amoris Laetitia. But it would also be worth exploring how naively and uncritically Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is sometimes used (or misused) in the U.S. church to make arguments about Catholic social teaching.

Catholic traditionalists have different expectations from Catholic progressives when it comes to history. In the recent past, a strictly institutional and traditionalist Church establishment attempted to disable historians from offering insights about what Church history can teach Catholic theology, especially Catholic leaders drafting magisterial texts. As Rowan Williams wrote a few years ago, “Good theology does not come from bad history.” Catholic theologians, confronting a possible shift from historical-critical analysis of religious history to a post-historical theology, could stand to learn from what the current “post-truth” moment is showing us.

But the institutional Church establishment isn’t alone in carrying some responsibility. A post-historical approach gives us bad theology because it tends to reduce Church history to “narrative,” where different narratives present “reparationist” accounts of what happened. I believe that understanding Catholicism historically and theologically still needs a general “Church history” kind of approach, enriched by the new methodological insights of post-modern historical and social studies. Church history as a discipline has a lot to learn from other methodologies—and this might be the key to its survival as a discipline in the no-man’s land between theology, secular history, and social studies. While we can bemoan the decline of the historical-critical study of the Church in its most “ecclesiastical” aspects (history of Church institutions, of canon law, of magisterial documents), we cannot really celebrate the “success” of the social/cultural approach. For if it was meant to liberate the Church from its institutionalism, it has in fact done the opposite: opening the way to an institutional Church even more reluctant to historicize itself, or even eager to elevate every aspect of itself to the level of ontology. Through the neglect of Church history by Catholic academia, we now reject the very idea of changes in Church teaching; some, for example, still deny that Vatican II changed the Church’s teaching on religious liberty. If bad history first gives us bad theology, it next gives us bad politics. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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