Last week was an interesting time to be in Ireland attending the Loyola Institute’s conference at Trinity College Dublin, “The Role of the Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?” Pope Francis was on a historic trip to Armenia, the Pan-Orthodox Council was underway in Crete, and the Brexit referendum was being held in the United Kingdom. (For good measure, Vice President Joseph Biden showed up on the last day of the conference, although the timing was coincidental: He was at Trinity receiving an honorary degree.)

The conference had international appeal and featured speakers from a number of different countries; among those present were Commonweal’s Peter and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. The location was also notable, in that Ireland is geographically at the junction between continental Europe and North America, and is undergoing transition from a solidly and proudly Catholic country to one in which the role of religion and the church has changed, and not only because of the sex abuse scandal. I left the conference with three distinct impressions of the current debate on the role of the Catholic Church in modern society.

The first was of the divide between European Catholicism and North American Catholicism on perceptions of secular modernity. Many Americans, for instance, see as problematic the unproblematic acceptance of secularity in European Catholicism since the mid-20th century. But Europe is more secular than the United States for a reason, with European Catholics viewing secularity and especially the secular state as a guarantee against the manipulation of religion for political purposes and of the church by the state—authentic concerns after fascism and Nazism. In the United States, meanwhile, a kind of new political Augustinianism has taken root, with radical orthodoxy and the recent shift in the reception of Vatican II undoing the reframing of the relationship between the temporal and the supernatural that the council, along with Gaudium et spes, had introduced.

The second impression concerns the ecclesiological consequences of two different visions of modernity.

Some presenters spoke in favor of the possibility the Church could engage constructively with secular culture in a pluralist society. Hans Joas offered an analysis of pluralism (following Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age) in which the Church has to work with, learning what “genuine pluralism” means, in the sense of taking others seriously. (At the beginning of June, Joas gave a long interview to the most important cultural weekly in Germany, Die Zeit, in which he criticized the country’s generous policy of welcoming immigrants but more forcefully bemoaned the impossibility of honest debate on immigration without being accused of nationalism or racism.) Patrick Riordan (Heythrop College) also advocated for engagement with secular society in a paper that presented an interpretation of Augustine’s ecclesiology as not necessarily hostile to “the earthly city.” Similarly, Bryan Hehir—who could not be at the conference but whose paper, “Church State and Church World: The Narrative Since Vatican II” was one of the best—defended the intuitions of John Courtney Murray and Vatican II, and Gaudium et spes, which he believes is still valid in facing the pluralism of today.

But the most impressive contribution came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx (archbishop of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops’ conference, and member of the council of nine cardinals created by Pope Francis in April 2013). Cardinal Marx said, among other things, that it “is not possible to imagine the future of the church without reference to the history of freedom.” He stated that the encounter of the church with secularity is inevitable: “The state must be secular. Middle Eastern Christians tell us: the future is a secular state.” He emphasized that the debate on freedom and pluralism is passé: “In this world, the present political challenge is not about freedom, but identity and security.” The church cannot give up the effort to be a public church—it “cannot be like a castle looking at what the world is doing.”

The third impression is related to Brexit and concerns the historical-theological trajectory of Catholicism. The simultaneity of the Dublin conference and Brexit made me think about the tight relationship between development of Catholic theology (especially ecclesiology) in the 20th century and the development of Catholicism from multinational to truly internationalist/globalist. Catholic support for the European project after World War II (from Pius XII to the most important politicians of the Christian-Democratic parties governing Europe after 1945) was part of the transition from the nationalist, romantic roots of the theological ressourcement between the mid-19th century and the 1920s and ’30s. At Vatican II, Catholic theology internationalized what had been born as expressions of national movements during the previous century (adoption of the vernacular; the new role of national bishops’ conferences; anti- Curia sentiment; anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal Catholic social movements, etc.). The internationalist quality of Pacem in terris and Gaudium et spes was a turning point in doctrine concerning the state and government in Catholic theology, and also a response to the most powerful internationalism of the second half of the century, Communism. At Vatican II, Catholicism became an advocate of globalization, which John XXIII had called in the opening speech of the council in 1962 “a new order of human relations.”

Now, it all depends what kind of globalization we are talking about—that is, what kind of relationship there is between the globalization/modernization of the Catholic church at Vatican II and the technocratic globalization of capitalism that came after Vatican II. In this sense, Brexit can be seen as a subset of the debate on Vatican II and the post-Vatican II period, at least among Catholics. It’s no secret that Catholics and the Catholic bishops of Britain were deeply divided over Brexit, and that for many conservative Catholics in Britain opposition to the EU and to Vatican II has similar roots. Traditionalist Catholics who today reject “the new order”—in terms of economic and social exclusion, as well as of the dominance of what Francis in Laudato si’ called “the technocratic paradigm”—tend to put Vatican II and the EU together in one category of internationalization and globalization; they choose a traditional, pre-global church and a nation-state (even though this fallback on the nation-state is for them theologically not unproblematic) as opposed to the larger framework of a globalized ecclesial context and a European political union. It is an opposition to a much more complex world, politically and theologically, and to the modern, globalized attitudes toward vulnerable life, marriage, family, subsidiarity, immigration, war, and peace. It is an opposition that puts back into question the Catholic perception of political power, and in particular the church’s perception of the sovereignty of the nation-state and of international/supranational institutions.

Brexit will have an impact on how European Catholicism engages the European project. (This is not so different from how American Catholics—at different levels, with different responsibilities—may or may not engage with Donald Trump as the GOP’s probable presidential nominee.) The current crisis in the EU exposes a theological crisis within Catholicism, which not long ago—between World War II and Vatican II—accepted and contributed significantly to the legitimacy of both the nation-state and of international/global institutions. Socialist-communist internationalism is dead, but it is not clear how Catholic internationalism will be able to challenge the globalism of the technocratic paradigm.

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.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.