Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

George Weigel

One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.

COMING UP: What kind of “believers”?

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This past June I was in the Munich area for four days, giving a public lecture on Evangelical Catholicism and doing a lot of media interviews. My hosts were exceptionally gracious, but it was also obvious that the Catholic Church in what was once Germany’s most intensely Catholic region is in terrible shape. The numbers tell the tale.

The parish in whose rectory I stayed has some 10,000 parishioners — which is to say, the pastor knows that there are 10,000 people within the parish boundaries who, when paying their federal taxes, tick the box for the Kirchensteuer, the “Church tax.” Having seen years of statistics on Sunday Mass attendance from the German bishops’ conference, I was expecting the pastor to answer my question about his Sunday congregation with a figure somewhere between 700 and 1,000. No, he said; average Sunday Mass attendance among those 10,000 parishioners was 200. And when he asked people politely when he might see them at Mass, he frequently got the answer, “Look, I pay the Church tax; what else do you want?”

So it was with some interest that I read the recent explanation by Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx as to why he and the majority of the German bishops were defying the Vatican and plowing ahead with their “binding Synodal process,” in order to re-examine “issues” such as the Church’s sexual ethic, its teaching on marriage, and its ancient pattern of ordaining only men to the ministerial priesthood. Cardinal Marx claimed that “Countless believers in Germany consider (these issues) in need of discussion.” The not-so-tacit suggestion was that questions once thought settled by the Church were in fact open.

In light of my recent experience in the cardinal’s archdiocese, some questions immediately occurred: Who are these “countless believers”? Do they participate in the Eucharistic community of the Church or do they just pay the Church tax (and get snarky when asked why worship is not on their Sunday agenda)?

And further: How many of these “countless believers,” who seem to think that what is settled is in fact unsettled, have ever had the truths they question explained to them? How many of German Catholicism’s legion of theologians and church workers devote themselves to such teaching? The archdiocese of Munich and Freising has, I was told, some 2,000 employees. Do any of them live the vocation to explain what is challenging in the Gospel and the Catholic Church’s application of it?

Moreover, in what time-warp do these “countless believers” live? The Catholic Church has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy over the past 50 years “discussing” the “issues” that Cardinal Marx suggests are at the top of German Catholics’ concerns. Isn’t the real problem here that, after a lot of discussion and deliberation, the teaching authority of the Church resolved those issues in a way that “countless believers” didn’t like and still don’t like — perhaps because the Church’s settled answers are in severe tension with the libertine public moral culture that prevails across western Europe?

A little honesty here would go a long way.

Much of the Catholic Church in Germany (and in other German-speaking lands) is in a de facto state of schism: many of its leaders and intellectuals do not believe what the Catholic Church believes. And because of that, they do not teach what the Catholic Church teaches. Nor does this de facto schism touch on neuralgic moral questions alone. It involves the bottom of the bottom line: Is Jesus Christ the unique redeemer of humanity, such that all who are saved are saved through him (in one fashion or another)? Are there divinely revealed truths that remain binding over time? Is the Catholic Church speaking the truth when it solemnly declares that it is doing so, irrespective of what the surrounding culture thinks?

Catholicism is dying in the German-speaking world, not because the Gospel has been proclaimed and found incredible or hard, but because it hasn’t been proclaimed with joy, confidence, and zeal. Friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and incorporation into the community of disciples in mission that is the Church, has not been offered. That is why there is two percent Mass attendance in that Munich parish. Recognizing that hard truth is the only path toward a German Catholicism that has something credible to say to the rest of the world Church.