The current crisis in the global Church is not the worst crisis in Catholic history, but it is bad enough. Nor is it confined to the scandals of clerical sexual abuse and malfeasant Church leadership, though those scandals crystallize its meaning and implications. Today’s crisis must be properly located in its distinct historical context—not to excuse, minimize, or mitigate, but in order to understand and know how to respond. Today’s crisis is best understood, and the remedies for it best conceived, in light of the great ecclesiastical drama of the past 250 years: the drama of Catholicism and modernity.
That drama began with sharp confrontation, embodied on one side by Voltaire’s cry, “Écrasez l’infâme!”—“Crush the loathsome thing,” namely, the Church—and on the other by the condemnations of modernity hurled by two nineteenth-century popes, Gregory XVI and Pius IX. Today, the drama is configured quite differently. Yet in the great irony of modern Catholic history, the Church, through its centuries-long encounter with modern political, social, and cultural life, has rediscovered essential truths about itself while developing a social doctrine that may help save postmodernity from incoherence. Outlining the five acts of this drama will bring today’s crisis into clearer focus and help us identify the reform that must be undertaken.
In order to get the drama of Catholicism and modernity into focus, it helps to abandon chronology for a moment and jump to the opening of the drama’s fifth act, on which the curtain lifted on January 6, 2001.
John Paul II often said that the Great Jubilee of 2000 was the interpretive key to his pontificate, and the fact that the jubilee year lasted two weeks longer than a calendar year suggests that he saw it as a potentially decisive turning point for the Church. The Jubilee opened at St. Peter’s on Christmas Eve 1999, when John Paul knelt at, then walked through, the basilica’s Holy Door, which represented the breadth of God’s mercy. It then continued throughout 2000 and was extended into the first week of 2001. On January 6 of that year, the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the two bronze panels of the Holy Door were closed, and John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (Entering the New Millennium), which defined Catholicism’s grand strategy for the twenty-first century and the third millennium of Christian history.
Throughout that letter, John Paul repeated a biblical antiphon drawn from the fifth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, in which several Galilean fishermen have spent a long night on the Lake of Gennesaret, fruitlessly plying their trade. Jesus walks into the scene and borrows Simon’s boat as a kind of floating stage from which to address the crowd gathering on the seashore. After teaching the people about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, he tells Simon to “put out into the deep” for a catch. The haul of fish is so immense that another boat must help them bring their catch to shore. Simon, later known as Peter, leaves everything to follow Jesus, along with his brother Andrew and their partners in the other boat, James and John.
The Latin phrase for “put out into the deep,” Duc in altum, reverberated throughout Novo Millennio Ineunte. Repeated five times, Duc in altum was John Paul II’s metaphor for this Catholic moment: The Church must leave the shallow, brackish waters of institutional maintenance and set out into the roiling deep of the late-modern and postmodern world. To do what? To make a great catch—to convert the twenty-first-century world to Christ, and to strengthen the moral and cultural foundations of modernity’s aspirations to liberty, equality, prosperity, and solidarity.
This summons to evangelism and civic engagement marked a major evolution in Catholicism’s self-understanding. Throughout his pontificate, and most dramatically in Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul II called the Church to a great transition: from the institutional-maintenance model of the later Counter-Reformation to the Church of the “New Evangelization,” in which the Church’s institutions would become launch platforms for mission and evangelization, and evangelization would include a proposal for deepening the moral and cultural foundations of the modernity project.
Still in its early phases, this evolution was made possible by a chain of developments reaching back to the late eighteenth century: the drama of Catholicism and modernity.
Act One in this drama, which ran from the French Revolution through the death of Pope Pius IX in 1878, was the penultimate phase of the Counter-Reformation. As first animated by the reformist Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, Counter-Reformation Catholicism was not simply defensive. In its first 150 years, Counter-Reformation Catholicism was full of missionary zeal, as the names Francis Xavier (“Apostle of the Indies”), François de Laval (founding bishop of Québec City in New France), and Bartolomé de las Casas (defender of the human rights of native peoples in the Western Hemisphere) suggest. Confronted by ideological and political challengers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the Catholic Church became, in the main, a defensive bastion focused on institutional maintenance—not unreasonably in some cases, given the assault on Christian culture and institutions by anticlerical regimes in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, and elsewhere. Catholicism was also burdened in its encounter with political modernity by the Papal States, that chunk of central Italy of which the pope was absolute monarch, an arrangement that linked the papacy (and the Church) to autocracy as a mode of governance. The Italian Risorgimento was completed in 1870 with the conquest of the Papal States, and it is one of the most consequential ironies of this drama that, however devastating it seemed to Pius IX, the demise of the Papal States cleared away one impediment to a serious Catholic engagement with political modernity.
In Act Two, which opened with the election of Pope Leo XIII in 1878, the Catholic Church ventured gingerly into a conversation with cultural, social, economic, and political modernity. At the beginning of his pontificate, Leo, elected as an elderly placeholder, made a bold, grand-strategic decision: The Catholic Church, rather than saying “no” to modernity as it had done under his two immediate predecessors, would engage modernity, albeit with distinctively Catholic tools and on the basis of philosophical first principles that could be known by reason. What became a Leonine Revolution kicked off with the path-breaking encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), which set a new course for Catholic intellectual life. The Revolution’s foundations were then laid down over the next quarter-century by Leo’s great encyclicals on the state, liberty, law, and social doctrine, his reinstitution of the Vatican Observatory, and his revival of Catholic biblical and historical scholarship.
The Leonine Revolution continued in fits and starts for the next eighty years; the controversies over its boundaries and even its advisability were continual and sometimes quite sharp-edged. In the fourth decade of this second act, a predominantly European Catholic Church found its people embroiled in World War I, a mass slaughter in which modern technology gave lethal expression to some of the worst ideas of intellectual and cultural modernity, including Social Darwinism, eugenicist theories of racial and ethnic conflict, and xenophobic nationalism. In the aftermath of that disaster, Catholicism was confronted by the totalitarian project in its communist, fascist, and German national-socialist forms—each of which threatened the very existence of the Church. Throughout its struggles with these extreme manifestations of political modernity, however, and despite internal opposition from churchmen wedded to what they imagined to be the stability and certainties of the past, the dynamism of the Leonine Revolution was sustained and a path beyond institutional-maintenance Catholicism opened up.
With Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices), Pope John XXIII’s address opening the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, the curtain rose on Act Three of the drama of Catholicism and modernity. Judging from the proposals received by Vatican II’s preparatory commission, which solicited discussion topics from the world episcopate, many bishops expected the Council to fine-tune Counter-Reformation Catholicism. But other bishops and their theological advisers, more alert to the dynamics produced by the Leonine Revolution, had other ideas. And as he made clear in his opening address, so did John XXIII. As Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris had opened the possibility of a Catholic engagement with intellectual and cultural modernity, and as Leo’s social and political encyclicals had created conditions for a Catholic engagement with political modernity, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia signaled that another pope elected as an elderly placeholder had made a bold, grand-strategic decision: The Catholic Church should reclaim its evangelical patrimony through the conciliar experience of a new Pentecost, which would lead it to engage modernity fully—in order to convert it. The terms of that engagement were debated throughout the four sessions of Vatican II, but by the time Pope Paul VI solemnly closed the Council on December 8, 1965, the curtain was coming down on Counter-Reformation Catholicism.
The character of the Catholicism of the future remained contested, however. A minority element in the Church, determined to resist modernity in all its expressions, clung to what it understood as settled and unchangeable forms of Catholic thought and ecclesial life, though many of those conceptions and practices were historically contingent. A not inconsiderable part of the world Church engaged in a decades-long experiment in the exuberant, often uncritical embrace of modernity—but in doing so, it seemed to forget that John XXIII had summoned the Council precisely to reenergize the Church’s evangelical mission.
In the latter years of the pontificate of Paul VI, a double-edged counter-proposal came into play. According to that counter-proposal, the Church should critically engage cultural, economic, social, and political modernity in public debate about the questions of meaning and value that would decide the human future. It should do so in two ways: through evangelism, which responded to modernity’s quest for meaning; and on the basis of its social doctrine, which might provide a more secure foundation for modernity’s aspirations to liberty, equality, prosperity, and solidarity.
The reformist Catholic critique of social, political, cultural, and economic modernity—not from outside, as with Gregory XVI and Pius IX, but from within modern intellectual premises—constituted Act Four in the drama of Catholicism and modernity. It reached its first mature expression in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in their social teachings and in the living parts of the world Church they inspired.
The pontificates of John Paul and Benedict also embodied the other dimension of the postconciliar reformist counterproposal: the recovery of the evangelical, missionary imperative found in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. So the ongoing fifth act of this drama, in which we are living today, incorporates the fourth—the Catholic critique of modernity from within—while living an evangelical commitment to convert the late-modern and postmodern worlds to friendship with Jesus Christ. In that encounter with the incarnate Son of God, John Paul and Benedict believed, modernity would find the most satisfactory answers to its twenty-first-century dilemmas, which include a loss of confidence in the meaning and value of life, arising from skepticism about the possibility of any human grasp on the truth.
In Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul II stressed that evangelical Catholicism in the twenty-first century would require Catholics in the developed world to think of themselves and their religious obligations in a radically new way.
In the era of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, Catholics typically thought of missionaries as brave men and women who left their Christian homelands for exotic and sometimes dangerous places, offering those who had never heard of Jesus Christ the possibility of friendship with him and incorporation into his Mystical Body, the Church. John Paul knew that such missionary activity remained an urgent part of the Church’s twenty-first-century task. But given the rise of “post-Christian” societies throughout the West, new concepts of “the missionary” and “mission territory” were needed.
As John Paul said in his homily at the Epiphany Mass that concluded the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Catholic Church must “start out afresh on a new stage of the journey on which we become proclaimers and heralds.” That was how Catholicism would “become in history a true epiphany of the merciful and glorious face of Christ the Lord.” In order to be and do that, the pope wrote in Novo Millennio Ineunte, the entire Church, not just a small subset of Catholics dubbed “missionaries,” had to put out into the deep and “take up her evangelizing mission with fresh enthusiasm.”
Every Catholic, in other words, was called to be a missionary disciple in the third millennium. And for that, holiness was essential. Holiness—mirroring God’s love and mercy in the world—was not something for a few extraordinary people. No, John Paul wrote, holiness is the “standard of ordinary Christian living”—for individuals, and for the Church as a community and an institution.
Here, then, are the two great ironies of modern Catholic history. The first is that through its sometimes turbulent encounter with modernity, the Catholic Church recovered the basic truth about itself as an evangelical, missionary enterprise. The second is that, in the course of that recovery, Catholicism, long despised as retrograde and irrelevant to modern concerns, developed a social doctrine capable of offering modernity a path beyond the destabilizing incoherence that became unmistakable as late modernity gave way to postmodernity—and as the imperial autonomous Self threatened to produce new forms of authoritarianism, through either a dictatorship of relativism or a populist reaction to relativistic social coercion.
It is in this context that today’s Catholic crisis should be understood, and the necessity of reform grasped in full measure.
Biblical religion taught Western civilization that history is linear. But as the many ironies in the drama of Catholicism and modernity attest, there are no givens in history, and history’s ironic turns can be disturbing and painful.
In Act Five of the drama of Catholicism and modernity, a bitter irony came into view at the start of the twenty-first century: Just as the living parts of the Catholic Church were beginning to put the New Evangelization into practice while offering important proposals for the renewal of public life, it was revealed that Catholic clergy of all ranks had sexually abused the young and that the Church’s leaders had often failed to address these grave sins and crimes with timely action. Of all the modern assaults on Catholicism, this was arguably the most lethal.
The intellectual assault on Catholicism from Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern skepticism had posed a serious challenge, which cost the Church the allegiance of many intellectuals. That assault was successfully met, however, by a renovation of Catholic philosophy and theology that generated a more compelling account of the human condition than much that was on offer in Western intellectual life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
The political assault on Catholicism—which began with the French Revolution and continued through enlightened despotism, the German Kulturkampf, the Italian Risorgimento, the anticlerical French Third Republic, and the mid-twentieth-century totalitarianisms—took an enormous toll, not least in the lives of millions of modern martyrs. But that assault, too, was finally met. And in another of the ironies in the drama of Catholicism and modernity, that assault helped the Catholic Church detach itself from state power, promote religious freedom as the first of civil rights, and develop a social doctrine that spoke to many of twenty-first-century democracy’s most pressing issues.
The abuse crises are different. Yes, the breakdown of clerical discipline that resulted in grave sins and crimes was one reflection of the sexual revolution’s assault on classic norms of behavior, and in that sense was a wound inflicted on the Church by late modernity. Ultimately, however, the abuse crises in the Catholic Church cannot be blamed on “the world.” Their deepest, most diseased root is internal. For this is a hydra-headed crisis of fidelity, in which those assumed to be among the Church’s leaders trampled on the truths the Church is privileged to bear as gifts from her Lord. That the abusers’ sins and crimes leave Catholicism vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy, and not only from its cultured despisers, compounds the damage.
The sexual abuse of the young is a worldwide plague, and sociological studies do not suggest that abuse is more prevalent in the Catholic Church than in other institutions; some studies suggested that sexual abuse of young people is more prevalent in American public schools than in the American Catholic Church, and there seems little doubt that most sexual abuse takes place, horrifically, within families. Yet the abuse crisis within the Church, which was intensified by cover-ups perpetrated by Church leaders, has struck hard at a Church that was beginning to understand that evangelism begins with witness, not argument. And it is difficult to imagine a more severe counter-witness to the truth of Christ than the abuse of innocent young people by those claiming to speak in Christ’s name.
The geographic breadth of the abuse scandals confirms that grave breakdowns of clerical discipline and major defaults in episcopal leadership afflict the entire Church. In addition to the United States, scandals and leadership failures have come to light in Canada, Austria, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Guam, Honduras, India, Norway, and Poland—and were inadequately addressed by the Vatican, particularly under Pope Francis. In the United States, the incidence of clerical sexual abuse spiked in the 1970s and 1980s, and the great majority of the abused were adolescent and young-adult males. The incidence of abuse dropped significantly in the 1990s, as John Paul II’s reform of the priesthood began to take hold. New practices adopted by the bishops of the United States in 2002 led to a reduction in these sins and crimes, to the point where it could be demonstrated that the Catholic Church was one of the safest environments for young people in the country.
But when it was revealed in June 2018 that the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., had been a serial sexual predator specializing in the abuse of seminarians under his authority, and that many bishops throughout the country had failed to act decisively in dealing with abuse cases prior to 2002 (and occasionally afterward), the crisis was reignited in the United States—just after Pope Francis had dealt clumsily with charges of widespread sexual abuse by clergy in Chile. It was a failure for which the pope had to apologize publicly, a few months after charges of sexual misconduct in the Vatican had broken out in the Italian press.
Sexual predation has as many causes as there are individual predators. In the American context, however, it does not seem accidental that the spike in incidents of clerical sexual abuse took place during the period of confusion, controversy, and disarray that followed Vatican II—and specifically after widespread dissent by both priests and bishops from the teaching of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Priests who had convinced themselves that they did not have to believe or teach what the Church definitively taught to be true were especially vulnerable to their passions in the cultural free-fire zone of the sexual revolution. And once they had convinced themselves that intellectual duplicity was acceptable, moral duplicity and behavioral decadence followed. The victims were often innocents who believed that these men were living what they professed.
The malfeasance of bishops in handling cases of sexual abuse by their priests also reflected the internal turbulence of the postconciliar Church. Bishops who had not grasped the imperative of leading an evangelically dynamic Church, but who governed according to the institutional-maintenance model of late Counter-Reformation Catholicism, were less likely to lead a thoroughgoing reform of their clergy—a cast of mind underwriting leadership that stressed keeping the institutional machinery ticking smoothly, by compromising truth and discipline if necessary. Bishops who had misconstrued Vatican II’s teaching on the collegiality of bishops as warranting an episcopal caste rather than a mutually corrective episcopal college were reluctant to call their brother bishops to account.
The Roman response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis of 2018–19 suggested that institutional maintenance and status-quo thinking continued to prevail over the imperatives of the New Evangelization at all levels of the Vatican. This institutional inertia was compounded by a tendency in the Roman Curia, first displayed in 2002, to blame the crisis on an aggressive media. The new Roman tack in 2018–19 was to suggest that sexually abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops manifested “clericalism,” which had to be expunged from the Church. This was a partial truth masking a deeper and more disturbing reality, which the highest authorities of the universal Church seemed less than eager to face.
No one should doubt that “clericalism,” meaning a wicked distortion of the influence priests enjoy by virtue of their office, was a factor in the clerical sexual abuse of young persons. And, if by “clericalism” is meant some bishops acting as if they were members of a privileged caste taking care of their own, rather than as shepherds protecting their flocks, then “clericalism” was certainly a factor in Chile, Ireland, Germany, Great Britain, and Poland, and in the McCarrick case (and others) in the United States. Yet the diagnosis of “clericalism” as the root malady was too often a way of avoiding the demonstrable fact that the overwhelming majority of this abuse in the U.S. (and, it seems, elsewhere) involved sexually dysfunctional clergy preying on young men: 80 percent, on most data-based analyses of the American situation. Clericalism is a facilitator of abusive behavior; it is not a cause.
Here, then, was a devastating instance of the sexual revolution’s impact on Catholic fidelity and discipline. The failure to recognize and address that impact, however, was the Church’s failure, not the culture’s. And that failure caused grave damage to the people of the Church, while eroding Catholicism’s credibility in proposing its ethic of human love.
This most bitter of ironies makes clear that the ongoing fifth act of the drama of Catholicism and modernity must be one of purification and reform. The reform must be led by clergy and laity animated by the vision of evangelically robust Catholicism born of Vatican II—and Vatican II as authoritatively interpreted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It cannot be effectively led by either the Church’s traditionalist or progressivist camps, neither of which seems capable of coming to grips with the abuse crisis.
The traditionalist claim that all this wickedness was the result of the Second Vatican Council is falsified by the fact that some of the worst clerical sexual abuse occurred prior to the council in traditionalist bastions such as Ireland and Québec; there was abuse and there were institutionalized cover-ups in preconciliar Boston, epicenter of the 2002 crisis in the United States. As for progressivist Catholicism, its valorization of the sexual revolution made it impossible for those who defended dissent from Humanae Vitae to acknowledge the role of that dissent, and of the Catholic Lite phenomenon generally, in the crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. By contrast, those parts of the world Church that had embraced evangelical Catholicism in full, and were living the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, were both less vulnerable to the crisis and most engaged in developing proposals for authentic Catholic reform.
Viewed through the prism of the centuries-long drama of Catholicism and modernity, the abuse crisis thus comes into focus as a moment of purification. To be the Church of the New Evangelization and the Church that offers modernity a remedy for its ills, the Church must purify itself, not least of doctrinal and moral dissent. And the Church must live—and be seen to live—what it proclaims. The countercultural truths of Catholic teaching on the ethics of human love, and the challenge that Catholic social doctrine poses to postmodern understandings of freedom as willfulness, are difficult enough to proclaim; they cannot be proclaimed with any credibility by a Church that fails to discipline itself, whose clergy and laity live freedom as willfulness, and whose leaders’ failures lay it open to charges of hypocrisy.
Deep Catholic reform necessarily involves every Catholic. John Paul II described chastity as “the integrity of love.” Growth in that demanding virtue must be pursued by all the people of the Church, lay men and women as well as clergy. The abuse crises, however, also demonstrated that there is a particular need for evangelically oriented Catholic reform in the priesthood and the episcopate. No one who does not believe what the Catholic Church believes to be true, and who has not demonstrated that belief by his life and his experience as a missionary disciple, should be admitted to a seminary, much less ordained a priest. No priest who has not shown himself a successful evangelist, deepening the faith of the people entrusted to his care and bringing others into the communion of disciples that is the Church, should be called to the episcopate.
No one can know, today, how this bitter irony will play itself out. In the most extreme scenario, legal action against the Church, instigated by individuals and the state, could play a role similar to that played in the Old Testament by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who destroyed Solomon’s Temple—which would mean the large-scale deconstruction of the Catholic institutions built during Catholicism’s encounter with modernity. But even in that worst case, the path forward for Catholicism would be the one defined during Acts Four and Five of this drama: the path of missionary discipleship and public witness to the truths that make it possible to live freedom nobly.
Throughout the drama of Catholicism and modernity, and even in moments when the grave failings of the people of the Church are obstacles to its witness and teaching, the Catholic Church has been and remains the bearer of a message of critical importance to the highest aspirations of the modern project. That message can be summed up in the term “human ecology.” The term as such was introduced to Catholic social doctrine by John Paul II and stressed by Benedict XVI, but the idea has been implicit since Leo XIII: It is insufficient to attend merely to the machinery of economic and political modernity; attention must be paid to culture, to the truths (including moral truths) by which modern men and women live, if modernity is to lead to genuine human flourishing. After a century turned into a slaughterhouse by false and lethal ideas about the truth of things, there was reason to believe, thirty years ago—in that year of miracles, 1989—that the ecological lesson had been learned. For the “twentieth century,” considered as an epoch that began with World War I and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, ushered in the defeat of totalitarian power by a new kind of revolution, expressing what Czech human rights activist Václav Havel called “living in truth.” In the twenty-first century, however, the lesson is once again contested.
Thanks to what it learned from its engagement with modernity, Catholicism has recommitted itself to missionary discipleship and permanent evangelization: to proposing to the world what it believes are liberating truths about salvation and the ultimate destiny of human beings, including truths about how we should live together in society. At a moment of cultural confusion and political tension throughout the West, when some are questioning whether modernity is worth saving and others are defining the modern project as a rupture with any concept of “givens” in personal and public life, Catholicism’s task is to be a culture-converting counterculture, offering skeptics a path beyond doubt, relativists a path beyond the will to power, and nihilists a path beyond emptiness. The core of that offer is friendship with Jesus Christ, whom the Catholic Church proclaims as the answer to the question that is every human life. The offer also includes proposing truths that are essential to the rescue of the modern project from its own self-demolition: truths whose reality can be observed by all people of goodwill.
What are the truths that will allow modernity to realize its noblest aspirations and longings? Five come immediately to mind.
There is the truth that every human being has a dignity and value that are inherent, not ascribed by government.
There is the truth that reflection on the inherent dignity and value of every human life discloses certain moral obligations and responsibilities, including the obligation to defend innocent life; the obligation to contribute to the common good; and the obligation to live in solidarity with others, especially those who find living their obligations and responsibilities difficult.
There is a further truth about the moral nature of the human person. For citizens of a democracy to think of themselves and others, for constitutional and legal purposes, as twitching bundles of morally inconsequential desires is not an act of tolerance. It is an exercise in self-abasement, even self-degradation, that infantilizes human beings, who cannot therefore sustain the modern aspiration to democratic self-governance.
And there is the truth that the good life is not measured solely, or even primarily, in financial terms. The modern aspiration to prosperity is not the problem; the problem lies in the reduction of “the abundant life” to indices of financial status. The human person is more than his or her salary, investment portfolio, or net financial worth, and the twenty-first-century world needs to be reminded of that.
Finally, there is the truth that a culture that appeals to the basest of our instincts, be it high culture or popular culture, damages the human ecology necessary to make political modernity work. For a degraded and debased culture will produce a vulgarized political culture, in which base instincts predominate.
No doubt some will find it not merely ironic but ridiculous to suggest that the Catholic Church is a safe-deposit box of certain truths about the human condition that are essential for the survival and flourishing of civility and tolerance, self-governance and the rule of law, prosperity and solidarity, liberty and equal justice for all. Today, the failures, sins, and crimes of the Church’s priests and bishops loom as obstacles to the proclamation of those truths. Indeed, an argument could be made that corruption and scandal in the twenty-first-century Church revealed a Catholicism not so much converting modernity as imitating it. For the wickedness evident among churchmen in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, and elsewhere often reflected late-modern and postmodern confusions (and worse) about what makes for happiness, beatitude, and genuine human flourishing—including most particularly the many false promises of the sexual revolution. There can be no doubt that serious reform, especially of the priesthood and episcopate, is essential if the Church of the future is to be a culture-converting counterculture.
The fact remains, however, that the noblest aims and moral commitments of the modern project were not self-generating in a world begun from scratch by Voltaire and Rousseau. Nor will the successful pursuit of these aims in the twenty-first century and beyond be possible in a public culture dominated by skepticism, relativism, spiritual boredom, and vulgar decadence. Modernity’s finest aspirations grew from soil tilled by the Catholic Church. After the twists and turns of the Catholic encounter with modernity, Catholicism embraced those aspirations and now seeks to serve the world by setting them on a firmer foundation for the future. If that is the ultimate irony of modern Catholic history, then perhaps we may be permitted to think of it as a providential irony, both for modernity and for the Church.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. This adaptation of his 2019 William E. Simon Lecture is drawn from his new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform, published by Basic Books on September 17.