Catholicism & Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty‐First Century

by Massimo Faggioli

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


I have reviewed the work of Massimo Faggioli and this text too does not disappoint! It is difficult to disentangle the different approaches. Faggioli is Italian and is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University (until 2016 at St Thomas University, St Paul, Minnesota). In this book he frequently contrasts Euro‐Latin American and Anglo Saxon approaches to theology and politics. No doubt he personally experiences this contrast as he bridges the gap between his European heritage and his American audience. There are bold generalizations presented in the book. For instance, on p.89 we read: ‘This difference between the Euro‐Latin American Catholicism of (Pope) Francis and the Catholicism of the Anglo‐Saxon world affects the kind of relationship Catholics have toward the past (including Constantinianism and the established church) and therefore their ideas of “church reform”.’ Without examples to illustrate what is meant such an assertion provokes more questions than it answers. The real value of the book is in exploring the complexity of the relationship between the contemporary secular state and the church. In endorsing the secular state, does the post Vatican II church wish to relinquish its role in the public square? But if she is not to withdraw to the private realm, how does the church see her role in the public space? Faggioli interprets the stance of recent popes including Francis as upholding some form of formal partnership with public authorities but falling short of establishment or even adoption of political power.

Chapter Four headed ‘Prophetic Church and Established Church’ addresses the notion of Constantinianism directly, and explains it as follows: ‘By “Constantinianism” we can mean a theological political model of relationship between political and religious power in terms of an alliance that is both religious and political. … It is a system in which political power puts the power of the empire/state and its legal arsenal at the service of the church with the church’s full agreement and support …’. Faggioli draws attention to the great variety of historical forms this model has taken. The Second Vatican Council marks a rejection of this model, but the post conciliar debates have not clarified which models of the relationship of religion and politics would meet the Council’s aspirations. Is the continuing dependence of the church in Germany or Italy on the favors assured by the relevant Concordats (Kirchensteuer in Germany, for instance), or the integration of church run schools in the education systems of Ireland or the United Kingdom evidence of the failure to abandon Constantinianism? Faggioli doesn’t answer such questions, but highlights them as central to the present post‐conciliar debates. For instance, in the light of Pope Francis’s depiction in Laudato Si of the ‘technocratic paradigm’ dominating economic and political life in the world today, the question arises whether the church should let go of her privileges and advantages in social life if these are among the only resources available to defend the poor and the marginalized against the pressures of the market? (69).

There is a tendency taking various forms in recent decades to imagine the Christian Church as constituting relatively intimate communities that are counter‐cultural to mainstream national or political culture. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Benedict option’ following Alasdair MacIntyre’s suggestion at the end of After Virtue, there are other versions also associated with religious and spiritual movements in the church (46). Common to them all is a struggle with a false alternative between being insiders or outsiders in relation to the dominant culture and opting for the outsider role. Faggioli considers the attempt to become outsiders vis‐à‐vis ‘the world’ as illusory. But interestingly, he sees the experience of the Catholic Church in America as distinctive on this point. ‘On the other side, we have the split between an “insiderist” Catholicism that requires Catholics to defer to American civil religion in terms of unchecked nationalism and militarism, versus Catholics that reject American exceptionalism and with it also the legitimacy of the nation‐state as one of the keepers of the common good’ (133). The provocation in such comment is reinforced by the remark that the American Catholic Church has not succeeded in receiving Gaudium et Spes, having failed at an academic level to engage theologically with its challenges. ‘The weakness of the theological reflection on the history and theology of Gaudium et Spes left [the Council’s] ecclesiological shift at the mercy of a political‐theological spin that grew louder as the church became chronologically more distant from the event of Vatican II’ (121). Admittedly this last remark is formulated in the context of mapping out the need for further research but this and other such remarks cry out for elaboration and for a longer argument that supports the assertion, with evidence and analysis provided.

A quotation from Yves Congar, aptly indicates the challenge facing the Church in the world of today. ‘The [Vatican] Council recognizes the temporal order [as having] its own value, not reducible to its role for the attainment of the supernatural – although it is existentially ordered to the supernatural’ (120). Faggioli argues that Gaudium et Spes marks a rejection of political Augustinianism which would subordinate the secular order as a means to the supernatural. The existential ordering of temporal ends to ultimate ends is not to be denied, but the truth of this must be held alongside a respect for the autonomy of the secular with its own ends. At the same time Faggioli notes how recent popes and in particular Pope Francis advocate an important role for the church in the public arena, so there appears to be an ambivalence in the rejection of constantinianism. ‘[A] church that does not want to be politicized, but reclaims its right and duty to be political as it is necessary for a prophetic church’ (89). And to be political in this prophetic sense presupposes access to resources and to channels of communication to challenge the ‘technocratic paradigm’ that for Faggioli includes the weakening of the welfare state, the radical individualization of human life and the imperialism of ‘turbo‐capitalism’.

This book of six chapters and a conclusion is full of challenging and stimulating ideas that invite further discussion and analysis, and so it serves as a promise of research yet to be done and published. It addresses a key issue for the church and for theology today, in how the church might understand her role in the relationship with secular authorities, whose autonomy she respects. A repeated remark in this discussion is that at the same time as the church faces this challenge her opposite number, the secular state, is itself experiencing crises and challenges that call for reappraisal. The proposed theological investigation will be stunted unless it engages with the parallel secular conversations about the nature of the political. Only an interdisciplinary research programmed on an international scale could meet the challenge. The questions posed are relevant and well-articulated but need further research and study in order to encourage and incorporate all stakeholders.

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