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The Church in a Change of Era of How the Francis Reforms are Changing the Catholic Church

Faggioli is both thorough and consistent in his analysis of what is happening in the Catholic Church. There are many unwarranted and unsubstantiated criticisms that he attends to with vehemence and the need for clarity. But what is amazing about these criticisms is how historically and theologically uninformed so many of them are. And it is precisely here that Massimo Faggioli provides an indispensable remedy: an historian of theology with the tools of both disciplines at his disposal. He commands a deep grasp of the Church’s tradition set in its historical contexts. We are indebted to Massimo Faggioli not only for his fertile mind and his keen analytical skills. We are especially indebted to him as one who chronicles and explains why our period is, as Pope Francis has said, not simply an era of change but a change of eras. 9th century,” a period that actually started for the Church in 1789 with the shock of the French revolution and never ended until after World War II – a very long century indeed. In his masterful book What Happened at Vatican II (2008), Jesuit theologian and historian John O’Malley identifies it with a stifled Catholic theology that was incapable of understanding modernity until very late, that is, mid-20th century. It seems that an extension to this concept has also taken place for the political-ideological alignments within English-speaking Catholicism. We may now be witnessing the delayed end of the 20th century. The pontificate of Pope Francis, on the one hand, and the crisis of American conservatism on the other hand are concrete evidence of the end of an era both in American politics and in the Church. There is a clear parallel between the disarray of American conservatism still identified with the Reagan agenda and the divisions among US Catholics. The Latins used to say, simul stabunt, simul cadent: they stand together and they fall together. The fall of the house of cards of late-20th century political conservatism is part of the crisis within the political culture of the Catholic leadership in these last 30 years. This is evident in the United States of America, but it is a more general crisis. It is part of the largely still unwritten history of the post Vatican II period with the neoconservative bid to change the direction of leadership in the Catholic Church. Between the 1980s and the early 1990s prominent Catholic intellectuals such as Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak and members of the Acton Institute vigorously cast the pope, March, 2016 MASSIMO FAGGIOLI 54 John Paul II, as someone completely aligned with their view of the economy, society and the role of the Church in the public square. The narrative of the alignment between a supposedly “Americanist” John Paul II and the evangelical right of American politics accompanied the reshaping of the episcopate in the USA and pushed the politics of American Church leaders into the arms of the Republican Party. It was officially about opposition to legal abortion, but it was visibly about something else as well. What happened was a deepening of the division both within America and within the Catholic Church – a division that is not simply liberal vs. conservatives, but concerns all the ills an individualistic and “society does not exist” worldview gives birth to. The simultaneous collapse of ecclesiastical and political alignments is not new in history. What is happening now in America happened in a similar way in Italy in the early 1960s with John XXIII, whose pontificate (and his decision to call the Second Vatican Council) led to a reassessment of the apparently unavoidable alliance between a Catholic party and the political right in post-World War II Italy. On a smaller scale, it happened also in the post-John Paul II and post-Benedict XVI period in Italy, where the establishment of the political right wing basically ceased to exist without ecclesiastical life support. This is not an “I told you so” moment, but rather a “what now?” moment. The chaos within the political right in America has had no equivalent in the Catholic Church up to now. The US bishops have been reluctant to acknowledge the changes that are happening in the Church under Pope Francis – or better, they have refused to make them happen in America. However, this is clearly the end of an old alignment and it will have consequences. The bishops have probably already come to the realization that America’s two-party system makes the Church vulnerable to the hyper-partisanship that now plagues their country’s politics. But it is not only and solely about the bishops. The end of this alignment is an opportunity to rethink a way to shape the Church – and not only for conservative Catholicism.


The divisions created and furthered by the alignment between the Church leadership and the political right have, in fact, fed two different and opposite political-religious ideologies in these last few decades. On the one hand, there is what we can call a neoconservative religious ideology. This is a theology that is skeptical about many developments of Vatican II and is substantiated by a political message of faith in an unfettered free market in the economy. It is also allergic to the virtue of solidarity (except for voluntary charity) if that solidarity is channeled through social services provided by the government. It is moralistic in framing moral issues as purely individual acts that are completely separated from the social sin (abortion is just one example). It is based on a nationalism that sees American exceptionalism as part of an American Catholic exceptionalism. And, finally, it is institutionalist and clerical in its view of the Church. On the other hand, that is, on the left side of the political spectrum, there is an ecclesiology that is close to so-called “radical orthodoxy” and consists of a rejection of the perversions of the neoconservative ideology. This rejects the idea of a fruitful exchange between the Church and the political sphere, which is perceived as necessarily poisoning of the Christian character of the Church. In rejection of the alignment with conservatism, this theology advocates a Church that is more community than a Church in society; a Church that is socially very active, but that recoils from political engagement for fear of being contaminated. The problem with both views (which I have summarized very briefly here) is that they feed an ecclesiology that tends to idealize the Church and therefore to make it ideological. The neoconservative option idealizes a clerical and hierarchical Church that epitomizes a non-reception of Vatican II. The radical orthodox option idealizes a Church whose theology has in fact learned something from the public square and the interaction with the realm of politics (the idea of religious liberty, just to mention one example). This ecclesiology tends to see the Church as a counter-society that masks the temptation of a Church as societas perfecta.


The end of the ideological alignment between one political religious conservatism and the Catholic Church goes beyond the American scene. It is part of the globalization of the Catholic Church. It is a process that entails taking seriously the political realm, what that is and how it has changed in different areas of the world, and what it means for Catholicism.

The book is compelling and written for an audience who is aware of the struggles/politics/conservatism that has molded a different dilemma. In reading what Faggioli states the clarity of the problem is improved. I would recommend this substantial rendition of how we are in the place of crisis that we are. “Massimo Faggioli provides an indispensable remedy: an historian of theology with the tools of both disciplines at his disposal. He commands a deep grasp of the Church’s tradition set in its historical contexts.”

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