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.)