A new approach to modern Catholic history

Criticism comes with the territory when you write books, and the best for which any author can hope is intelligent criticism that engages your argument and leads to new insight all around. Alas, that’s too often the exception, especially among the more ideologically entrenched of Catholic intellectuals and reviewers. Thus I’ve been disappointed that, from both the port and starboard sides of the Barque of Peter, several reviewers have either missed the point of, or not engaged the argument about, modern Catholic history that I offered in “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church” (Basic Books).

The book begins with an obvious fact: Benedict XVI was certain to be the last pope to have attended Vatican II. That fact led to an equally obvious conclusion: an era in Catholic history was coming to an end. Which conclusion, in turn, led to two obvious questions: When did that era begin, and how should it be described?

It seemed to me myopic to assume or argue that the period in question began with Vatican II. A more sophisticated form of this myopia opened the historical lens wider, finding in the Catholic biblical, liturgical, theological and social action movements of the mid-20th century the antecedents to the Council. But was that going far enough back to get the era into clear focus?

I thought not. For those reform movements themselves had antecedents in the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), who abandoned the defensive strategy of Gregory XVI and Pius IX in the face of cultural and political modernity, and who sought to engage these “new things” (as Leo styled his most famous encyclical) in a critical, authentically Catholic way. Leo XIII, I proposed, was the man whose 25-year-long papacy marked the beginning of the era that was coming to an end with Benedict XVI.

And how should that era be described? I suggested that the past century and a quarter was the last, extended moment of Counter-Reformation Catholicism: the mode of being Catholic that came into being, largely through the Council of Trent, in response to the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation and the first stirrings of modern cultural, social, economic and political life. Now, I suggested, Counter-Reformation Catholicism—the way-of-being-Church in which every Catholic over 50 today grew up—was giving way to the Catholicism of the New Evangelization, or what I and others call “Evangelical Catholicism.”

I thought this way of framing modern Catholic history offered a more complete account of the Catholic drama from my grandparents’ day to my grandson’s that was typically on offer. It linked Leo XIII to Vatican II via the reformist movements Leo’s pontificate had set in motion. And it stretched Vatican II and its authentic interpretation into the pontificates of two men, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who as young participants at the Council had helped shape its call to the Church to re-imagine itself as a communion of disciples in mission.

When I explain this out on the hustings, people seem genuinely appreciative: dots get connected, and what seems a fragmented, even indecipherable history begins to display Henry James’s “figure in the carpet:” the narrative thread that ties together a very complex business—which modern Catholic history undoubtedly is. I don’t think this proposal is “idiosyncratic,” as one starboard-leaning reviewer put it; nor is it “odd,” as a brother on the portside had it. It’s not even original, for as I explain in the book, the idea emerged out of a decade of conversation with my friend, Professor Russell Hittinger, who has done important and groundbreaking work on Leo XIII.

My proposal may, however, challenge the comfort zones of those still stuck in Counter-Reformation Catholicism. For my further suggestion is that Evangelical Catholicism is not some 50-yard line between Catholic left and Catholic right, but a vision of Church far beyond those polarities. If that’s “idiosyncratic” or “odd,” then so were John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and so is Francis, the evangelical pope from the far end of the earth.

COMING UP: Colorado bishops issue letter on the Hyde Amendment and other pro-life Congressional policies

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We, the Catholic bishops of Colorado, urge Congressional Representatives to support the Hyde Amendment and the Walden Amendment. We also ask the Faithful to sign The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) petition to lawmakers encouraging them to preserve the Hyde Amendment, which can be accessed at: NoTaxpayerAbortion.com, and to contact their Congressmen and women to support the Hyde and Walden amendments.

The House Appropriations Labor and Health and Human Services subcommittee recently passed a spending bill that strips protections for pre-born children, healthcare providers,and American taxpayers by excluding pro-life provisions, including the Hyde and Weldon amendments.

The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortion in most cases, except for rape and incest, has received bipartisan support since its inception in 1976 – including by pro-abortion administrations. Hyde is critical in saving lives. The Charlotte Lozier Institute estimates that approximately 60,000 pre-born babies are saved every year because of the Hyde Amendment.[1] This is the first time in 40 years that the Hyde Amendment was not included in the annual appropriations bill[2] and failure to include pro-life amendments will only further increase divisions in our country.

The Weldon Amendment prevents any federal programs, agencies, and state and local governments from discriminating against health care practitioners and institutions that do not provide abortion services. It ensures that pro-life individuals and organizations can enter the health care profession without fearing that the government will force them to perform a procedure that violates their well-founded convictions. It has also received bipartisan support and was added to the appropriations bill every year since it was first enacted in 2005. [3]

Congress’ recent actions endanger the lives of pre-born children and infringe on the rights of millions of Americans who do not wish to participate in the moral evil of abortion. A recent Knights of Columbus/Marist poll found that 58 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortions[4] and a 2019 Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans think abortion should either be illegal or only legal in a few circumstances.[5]

The government should neither use taxpayer funds for the killing of pre-born children nor compel medical practitioners and institutions to violate their well-founded convictions. Congress must uphold these long-standing, common-sense bipartisan policies that promote a culture of life in our nation.

Human reason and science affirm that human life begins at conception. The Church objects to abortion on the moral principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with respect due to every human person. There has never been and never will be a legitimate need to abort a baby in the womb.

It is critical that Congress continue its long-history of supporting policies such as the Hyde and Walden amendments, and that all Colorado Catholics and people of good will make their voice heard in supporting these life-affirming policies.

Sign the petition to Congress here: www.NoTaxpayerAbortion.com

Contact your Congressional Representatives here: https://cocatholicconference.org/news/

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver

Most Reverend Stephen J. Berg
Bishop of Pueblo

Most Reverend James R. Golka
Bishop of Colorado Springs

Most Reverend Jorge Rodriguez
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver