Session of the Council of Trent by Matthias Burglechner, 16th century

On October 31 Catholics and Protestants marked with ecumenical spirit or with polemical tone the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Just a few days later—November 4—came the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, one of the great saints of the counter-reformation, or “Catholic Reform,” or “early modern Catholicism,” depending on your preferred historical-theological interpretation of that very long period. He along with St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, and others were once associated with “the golden age” of confessional Catholicism, but now that age does not seem so golden anymore. Some of the reactions against Pope Francis seem to be the expression of (or to express a new enchantment with) medieval Christendom.

The current debate on the pontificate of Francis reveals an interesting approach to history, especially among those who accuse the pope of fostering chaos in the forms of disciplinary instability and theological uncertainty among the faithful. This assumes a particular view of this pontificate and of so-called “Vatican II Catholicism” in opposition to the historical narrative of the pre-Vatican II period as a time of stability and certainty. There are those who believe Vatican II ushered in an era of crisis and existential challenge for Catholicism. They cite data on declining religious affiliation, the drop in the number of clergy and religious, and the wave of sexual-abuse and financial scandals. But it is really the change in sexual mores that drives Vatican II critics to see the collapse of Catholicism as a fruit of the council. Further, their views of the popes of these last fifty years have solidified: Paul VI is seen as an enigma, at best a victim of his own naïveté about the possibility of rescuing Catholicism from radical progressivism; John Paul II is spared the association with Vatican II and post-Vatican II through his identification with anti-Communism and anti-abortion message; while Benedict XVI has been subjected to a neo-traditionalist appropriation. As for Pope John Paul I—who served only thirty-three days and whom Francis recently recognized for “living the Christian virtues in a heroic way” and therefore is on his way to possible sainthood—it remains to be seen if the Church will rediscover the “Vatican II centrism” with which he identified.

This apocalyptic reading of Vatican II is not new. But the way its adherents now view pre-Vatican II history—especially the period between the Middle Ages and today—is new, and much more nostalgic. Already at the time of Vatican II the opposition of the skeptics or antagonists of the conciliar reforms tend to separate the two worlds, the pre-Vatican II Church and the Vatican II Church – one marked by certainty and the other by uncertainty; tradition and stability versus reform and revolution. Back then, during the conciliar debates and the early post-Vatican II Church, the pre-Vatican II Church was seen as simpler, as it was generally identified with Vatican I (mostly, with notion of papal primacy and infallibility), the council of Trent, and the Tridentine Church. 

The real historical narrative of the post-Vatican II era has yet to take shape.

The real historical narrative of the post-Vatican II era has yet to take shape. But the work of historians these last fifty years has made the picture of the pre-Vatican II Church more complicated than those shocked by Vatican II would have it. The pre-Vatican II period in fact was not more stable—theologically, socially, or politically—than the post-Vatican II years have been. For example, while the Council of Trent (1545-1563) may have helped centralize power in the papacy and “Romanized” Catholicism (in liturgy and other areas), it also sparked a long period of crisis in the application of the reforms introduced. For some, like the establishment of seminaries for priestly formation, more than a century would pass before most dioceses implemented it. Robert Bellarmin, one of the most important theologians of the post-Trent period, sent Pope Clement VIII a memo at the turn of the 17th century indicating that the council had been a failure and another council was needed. Then there were the religious wars that ravaged Europe until 1648 (ended by an international peace treaty that humiliated the papacy by reducing its international role), as well as the ferocious Catholic infighting about “what happened at Trent” (the conflict between Venetian priest and statesman Paolo Sarpi and Roman Jesuit Pietro Sforza Pallavicino particularly illustrative), which ended only in the second half of the 20th century with the four-volume History of the Council of Trent by Hubert Jedin. The corruption in papal Rome condemned by Luther was rooted out only at the end of the 17th century, under the papacies of Innocent XI and Innocent XII—that is, almost two centuries after Luther’s trip to Rome. In other words, the post-Trent years do not really exemplify the notion of a perfectly stable Christianity.

The post-Vatican I years are hardly a better example. The period was marked not just by the small schism of Catholics who refused to accept new doctrines on papal power, but also and more importantly by the most serious tragedy in the modern intellectual history of Catholicism: the anti-modernist purge begun in 1907 under Pius X (now St. Pius X—Exhibit A in the problem of declaring popes saints) and the Vatican intelligence service he created to spy on theologians. The declaration of papal infallibility was a response to, but not a solution for, the loss of temporal power and the international isolation of the Vatican. There then followed the rise of Marxism and Catholic cooperation with nationalism, leading to World War I, fascism, and Nazism. The cooperation of French Catholics in Action Française led to Jesuit Cardinal Louis Billot being relieved of cardinal title by Pius XI in 1926. Do any of these seem like signs of stability?

Consider too what the future Pope John XXIII observed in his visits to parishes and dioceses throughout Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, first as secretary of his bishop in Northern Italy, then as papal envoy to raise money for the missions in the early 1920s, and finally as a papal diplomat in Bulgaria. While in Bulgaria, he was struck by the miserable state of ecclesiastical discipline, especially with respect to obedience and chastity among the clergy. About one Catholic priest who had a de facto family, the future pope remarked: nisi caste, saltem caute—“if you cannot be chaste, at least be cautious.” The debate over celibacy is not a post-Vatican II phenomenon; prior to the council, some groups of bishops were demanding the issue be taken up. Not only were they ignored, but their petition was expunged from the official record of Vatican II, as Brazilian Church historian José Oscar Beozzo discovered a few years ago.

So, the construct of a tumultuous post-Vatican II period vs. the quiet of the post-Trent and post-Vatican I periods seems less credible. And maybe this explains the neo-Medievalism of some voices within American Catholicism, a sort of doubling-down on the sureties of the past. It’s not just the tweets of a few Catholic “rad-trads,” but rather something that seems to be taking place at the intellectual level. I got this impression from some of the works I’ve read in the last five years or so. Between Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, it seems as if even theological thought is tilting toward medieval Christendom. (It’s not just a Catholic syndrome, as the tensions between “traditional” and “modernist” Eastern Orthodox communities in the United States illustrate.) There was also the series of articles in First Things on the need to rediscover a viable Christendom and of course the worldview expressed by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. In a recent Ross Douthat column devoted to the Protestant Reformation, one could clearly see a framing of the Reformation as remarkably close to the pre-Vatican II (and the anti-Vatican II culture of the SSPX)—Catholic Weltanschauung, that is, a framing of our times in the genealogy of the “modern errors”: the Reformation destroying the unity of Western Christendom and ushering in social, political, and theological liberalism that finally gave us Donald Trump. Renewed fascination with theological medievalism also seems related to the reaction of particular sectors of Anglo-European, white American Christianity facing the prospect of the so-called “post-Christian America” and the quest for a theological paradigm sustaining a “post-liberal” world order.

As an Italian European Catholic who moved to the U.S. in 2008 and has taught and written about Catholicism, I think it’s impossible to overestimate the clear influence of the Catholic medieval imagination in American Catholicism as compared to all other Catholic Churches in the world. That influence is powerful, seen not just in the architecture of college campuses but in how the U.S. church wants to be perceived by “the world” at large. Beyond the theological canon spanning the centuries between Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, there seems to be a lot of room for both anti-modernism and post-modernism. There has always been pushback against Vatican II, but there’s also been a subtler “a-conciliar Catholicism”—as if Vatican II had never happened or got many things wrong (the anti-modernist narrative), or Vatican II is passé and has nothing to say to us today (the postmodernist approach). But now there seems to be less room for what Catholic theology (political theology included) was between the early modern period (Erasmus included) and the nouvelle théologie leading to the Second Vatican Council. Also, the so-called “Catholic reform” movement from the late 15th century on (including Trent) seems to have become too modern for those who read the Ratzingerian hermeneutics of “continuity versus discontinuity” as a rejection, pure and simple, of any historical-theological development in the Catholic tradition, forgetting that Benedict XVI talked about “continuity and reform.

Ressourcement as anti-modernism and anti-historical, and post-modernism as post-traditional and post-historical: such polarizing of views of Church history is one of the particular aspects of the theological reception of Vatican II in the U.S. Pope Francis did not cause this intellectual involution, but now he has to deal with it. Witness the negative reaction to his recent statements about the death penalty; the reactions against Amoris Laetitia arise from this as well.

The reduction of Catholic tradition to an imaginary medieval Catholicism has significant consequences for the intellectual life of the Catholic Church in the United States, and for the way it perceives and responds “politically” to the social and cultural changes of the last fifty years. It’s no surprise that the Middle Ages have replaced the modern period in the new canon of neo-traditionalist Catholicism; the distance provided by time gives a convenient impression of stability. The trouble is how it’s being used for a purely anti-modernist function; it’s an ideological view of history, and a very dangerous cul-de-sac both theologically and politically.

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

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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