An artist on stage paints an image of former president Donald Trump and an image of the face of Christ at the Conservative Political Action Conference, February 23, 2024 (OSV News photo/screen grab CPAC).

There’s the National Eucharistic Congress coming in July, not to mention the second session of the Synod on Synodality in October and the opening of the Jubilee of 2025 in December. But what many U.S. Catholics may be more focused on are the presidential election in November and the inevitable “post-Francis” era of the Church.

Pope Francis has not remade the U.S. Church, as some had hoped and others feared. Even Ross Douthat, who often worried about a “civil war” in the Church (going as far back as November 2013), now seems to see peaceful coexistence among different Catholic “identities.” As he recently wrote: “Full pre-Vatican II traditionalism is likely to remain an eccentric and somewhat elite phenomenon, but what I’ve termed the ‘neo-traditional’ big tent will probably become steadily more influential, even dominant, as the church adapts to its own relative diminishment.” Douthat graciously conceded that “the liberal tendency in Catholicism can be resilient even if it isn’t a major source of dynamism and growth.”

In America magazine, Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America, posited something that I would call a “conditional Vatican II”—an acceptance of the council itself but not its spirit. White states that “what seems to be replacing the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ is not indifference to the council, still less a rejection of it, but a form of Catholicism that embodies precisely the ecclesiological, sacramental and liturgical vision laid out by the council itself.” What follows is the usual post hoc, propter hoc explanation about the connection between Vatican II and secularization, which has been questioned many times.

Both Douthat and White mention the widely shared May 1 Associated Press article on the return of conservatism and “shift towards orthodoxy” in American Catholicism. Both proceeded from two implicit assumptions: that there is special value in “the resistance” offered by a more orthodox and conservative Catholicism in the United States; and that the “spirit of Vatican II” Catholicism that might have once been prevalent is now in retreat, exhausted both culturally and sociologically.

As to the first assumption, the return of conservative Catholicism is not so much a “win” over its theological, ecclesial, and ecclesiastical opposite as it is part of a larger phenomenon in the West. The French sociologist Yann Raison du Cleuziou notes that the return of more traditional forms of doctrinal orientation and liturgical expression is the consequence of an internal evolution of Catholicism in response to a relationship between the Church and the world that developed differently from what Vatican II might have led people to expect. In the 1960s and ’70s, general societal secularization seemed to open the door to a Church that internally would reflect secular values, through egalitarianism, individual rights, and lay activism.

But sixty years after Vatican II, secularization seems to have had the opposite effect, save perhaps for limited instances in Europe. The American ecclesiastic system seems not to have been impacted at all. Indeed, what we’ve seen is the restoration of the religious value of discipline and roles of authority within the Church, and beyond it, a new militancy we simplify by characterizing it as part of the “culture wars.” A shrinking Church will naturally reorganize itself around those who remain and who have a more “conservative” profile—Catholics who are not inclined to pursue structural reforms they associate with secularism, but who would build a higher and more visible fence between the Church and “the world.” It’s not surprising to see a desire for a clear and defined religious identity in more orthodox terms among younger generations of Catholics, who may see themselves as a minority within a minority: a minority in an aging society and in an aging Church. What they feel is a connection with the experience—not to be belittled as pure performance—of more intense and orthodox belief and practice. This is illustrative of what Cleuziou has called a “global trend towards a minoritarian/minority-driven re-composition of Catholicism.”

Pope Francis has not remade the U.S. Church, as some had hoped and others feared.

The United States has provided particularly fertile ground for this trend to take root. The tensions of its two-party political system have made their way into the Church. The American clerical culture of the past thirty to forty years seems largely untouched by the theology of Vatican II in its post-conciliar development. A kind of “gentrification” can be seen in academic theology and in the marketing of Catholic higher education. It’s also evident from the way high-profile conversions to Catholicism make news, and the way the ecclesia seems to be losing touch with the working class. It’s not something really to be viewed as a “win” for the theology of a conservative Catholic project. Rather, it reveals the market-like elasticity and adaptability of an American religious entrepreneurialism that has found a home in right-of-center Catholicism more than in left-of-center.

There’s another assumption that needs scrutiny: that the return of Catholic conservatism doesn’t suggest a rejection of Vatican II. That may often be true. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to an embrace of it. It seems to be more of a conditional acceptance of the council that excludes anything not in literal continuity with the previous tradition. Thus the conciliar documents don’t need to be interpreted “in the spirit of Vatican II,” a spirit that in the United States tends to be ridiculed and reduced to the notion that “anything goes.” But in fact that spirit has its own distinctive place in the official teachings of the Church, the popes, and the synods—see, for example, the Final Report of the 1985 Bishops’ Synod. What’s more, drawing only on the texts of Vatican II is not a workable way of addressing important issues in today’s global Church or in U.S. Catholicism. Hence the skepticism (and occasional hostility) with which the Synod on Synodality has been met.

Consider the debate on the role of women in the Church and specifically the female diaconate. The documents of Vatican II say nothing about women deacons. But this cannot be used as justification for foreclosing legitimate development of council teaching: a literalist interpretation has never been the way in which a post-conciliar magisterium has used council documents, whether that was Vatican II, Vatican I, or Trent. As theologian Robert Taft, SJ, wrote

In the present, the past is always instructive, but not necessarily formative. What its study, like all study, should provide is understanding, an understanding that challenges myths and frees us from the tyranny not just of any one frozen slice of the past, but also from the tyranny of the latest cliché, so that we can move ahead to solutions suitable for today in faithful freedom, faithful to living tradition that is always indebted to but free of the past.

 The real question is: What’s needed for the work of evangelization today?

I’d call first on those who see themselves as part of the so-called return of conservative Catholicism to consider whether, in their own way, they might represent the fruits of the spirit of Vatican II.

It’s important that this debate isn’t held in a vacuum, or in isolation from the global Church. Globally, more traditional forms of worship have returned, though they don’t necessarily line up exactly with what’s seen in conservative U.S. Catholicism. Further, in the United States, there seems to be an American Catholic exceptionalism on the progressive side as well, especially evident since 2013. It can be seen in the nostalgia for the immediate pre-conciliar period among Catholics stirred by Pope Francis’s emphasis on Vatican II. The identification of the council with the activism of what Matthew Schmitz in First Things calls “collegiate Catholicism” brings back memories of a liberal global order when “white Catholics were stalwarts of the Democratic Party and guarantors of the postwar consensus.” But that world order is now in tatters, and also identified with center-left Western political parties that maintained an unjust socioeconomic system benefiting the elite. And among social-progressive Catholics, there has been too much of an emphasis on Francis as “a pope on our side” (at least until he seemed to shut the door on the possibility of a female diaconate in his recent interview with “Sixty Minutes”). They delight in his caricaturing of princely bishops, clericalist priests, and rigid seminarians. They feel they’re receiving generous reassurances about the sustainability of the early post–Vatican II years. All of which is to say: it’s not just anti-Francis Catholics who need to work on an aggiornamento of the aggiornamento. Those who emphasize the spirit of Vatican II must also integrate those final documents as well. These are what support the operative system of the Catholic living tradition in a multicultural and multi-religious world.

That also requires changing the context in which efforts at Church reform seem to be carried out. We not only have to move beyond the legacies of medieval and early modern European Christendom, we also have to drop the illusion that we’re still in the late twentieth century. For all the enthusiasm for what Karl Rahner called the emergence of “the world Church,” Vatican II envisioned a scenario in which Catholicism would remain strong in the West and the United States. But it didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the growth of Catholicism in the global South and of the ex-culturation of Christianity in Europe. The minoritization of Catholicism in the West should lead theologians to rethink some of the assumptions about the texts of Vatican II and the early post-conciliar period. Catholics with leading roles need to reassess important coordinates around which Catholicism is developing—intellectually and theologically, but also, in more practical terms, in its liturgical, catechetical, and educational expressions.

This applies to Catholics all over the world. The problem is that in the United States the overlap between the two-party political system and something like a two-party Church has produced a damning memory of the experience of the older generation of Vatican II Catholics. In turn, there’s a dismissive attitude towards the basic catechetical, spiritual, and devotional needs of minorities within a minority (young people, immigrants). Not all reconstructionist efforts in theology and in the Church can be characterized as part of the integralist or nationalist projects to “make Catholicism great again.” There’s a restorationist Catholic movement—irreducible to the populist, nationalist, or semi-fascist political right of Trumpism—that is ethnically and ideologically diverse, and whose members want to be taken seriously in their quest for religious faith. It is indeed, as Douthat more recently wrote, “one of the most successful movements of the entire post-Vatican II era, using one manifestation of the spirit of the age (disputatious, populist, anti-authority) to organize against a different manifestation (the renovation of the liturgy).” The problem is that these Catholics are being ill-served by those Church leaders who belittle Vatican II or exhibit the usual, careless lack of knowledge of its basic facts. It’s not just a lack of respect for the generation of Vatican II Catholics who don’t want their experience reduced to stereotypes of guitar Masses, indifference to doctrine, and “flower power.” It’s an ecclesial problem.

In short: U.S. Catholics in different theological quarters need to stop viewing one another as holdovers of a previous era, unable ever to reconcile. That’s the thinking of a dead Church. I’d call first on those who see themselves as part of the so-called return of conservative Catholicism to consider whether, in their own way, they might represent the fruits of the spirit of Vatican II. But really, it’s up to the whole Church to do so as well.

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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