Is history really over?

In 1989, as the Cold War entered the bottom of the ninth inning, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a memorable essay entitled “The End of History?” And despite the question mark in the article’s title, the argument resolved itself in a straightforward answer: “Yes.” It was a nifty bit of Hegelian reasoning, filtered through the thinking of a Russian-born Frenchman named Alexandre Kojève, and it fit the temper of the times perfectly: communism was collapsing; the great debates of the past two centuries were being resolved in the victory of market-based economies and democracy over state-based economies and authoritarianism; “history,” understood in grand philosophical terms, was over; and while things were likely to be more peaceful, they were also likely to be more boring.

In a Wall Street Journal article two months ago, my friend Fukuyama revisited his 1989 essay and began with the obvious: “The year 2014 feels very different from 1989.” Indeed. Authoritarianism is resurgent in Russia and China. Radical Islam is roiling world politics along a band of political conflict and anti-Christian persecution running from the west coast of Senegal to the eastern edge of Indonesia. Various socialist experiments are trying a comeback in Latin America. But Fukuyama stuck to his analytic guns, arguing that, while he’s learned a lot more about political development than he knew a quarter-century ago, and while different peoples are going to get there at different times, democracy and the free economy would still characterize the “end of history.”

When Frank Fukuyama’s original essay appeared, I wrote that “history” would continue because “history” was more than politics and economics. History was also literature and art, religious conviction and moral passion: history was driven by culture, an idea I learned from Pope St. John Paul II. Pondering the difficulties some countries have had since 1989 in securing post-communist or post-authoritarian transitions to democracy and the free economy, I’m inclined to sharpen that point farther, as I tried to do in a June lecture at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington:

“… notwithstanding the kernel of truth in Fukuyama’s argument, ‘history’ manifestly continues. It continues because democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves.

“History continues because the essential complement to democratic politics and free economics is a vibrant public moral culture, capable of forming the citizens who can make free politics and the free economy work, so that the net result of these remarkable systems is liberty, justice, abundance, solidarity, and the other public elements of human flourishing.

“History continues because the great challenge within history is not the creation of the machinery of democracy and the free economy; difficult as those tasks may be in some circumstances, the even greater challenge is to nurture the public moral culture, embodied in the institutions of civil society, that ennobles political and economic freedom and prevents the machinery of democracy and the free economy from freezing up—or worse, from corrupting the very men and women, the citizenry, on whom the future of freedom ultimately depends.”

From the perspective of Catholic social doctrine, democratic self-governance is not inevitable, it’s only possible; and its possibility can never be taken for granted. Even established democracies can decay, to the point where what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism”—the use of coercive state power to impose regimes of lifestyle libertinism in the name of tolerance, while marginalizing those who object in the name of classic moral truths—becomes a real and disturbing possibility. That possibility is well advanced in parts of Europe. It cannot be ruled out in the United States.

It takes a certain critical mass of citizens, living certain habits of mind and heart, to make democracy and the free economy work properly. The formation of those habits is an essential task of the free associations of civil society, and the Church plays a critical role in shaping the moral understandings that animate those free associations. “History” continues because the task of forming the virtuous citizens that make freedom work never ends.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.