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The Irony of Modern Catholic History
by george weigel
basic, 336 pages, $30

In The Irony of Modern Catholic History, George Weigel offers a comprehensive interpretation of the history of the Catholic Church’s encounter with modernity. For Weigel, the fixed point in this story is the goodness of the aspirations of “political modernity,” by which he generally means liberalism. Political modernity aspires to freedom, prosperity, and solidarity. Weigel describes how the Catholic Church slowly ­realized first that liberalism was right, and second that Catholicism could help modernity realize liberalism’s aspirations in their true form.

In Weigel’s telling, the Church thereby became a purer version of itself. It rediscovered its identity as a preaching Church of total mission aimed at the conversion of hearts and not at governing the world. The world ought instead to be governed by “free politics and free economics.” The Church’s role is to inculcate virtue, while the mediating associations of civil society check the power of state and market. This is the classic conservative vision of the “free and virtuous society.”

Weigel’s story unfolds in five acts. In Act One, the papacy of the early and mid-nineteenth century upholds the alliance of throne and altar and denies the possibility that liberals might have a point about freedom or progress. Act Two begins with the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878–1903), the first pope elected after the loss of the papal states. Freed from this political burden, Leo was able to begin “exploring” the modern project in earnest and with an open mind. This exploration led to the development of Catholic social doctrine. Act Three centers on Vatican II. In this act, the Church definitively shifted from a defensive stance to a stance of evangelical ambition. The Church decided to “embrace” modernity and convert it from within.

In Act Four, the Church finally becomes itself. St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI offer a critique of political modernity that accepts modernity’s premises. They adopt its aspirations and even its forms, while demonstrating that those aspirations can be fulfilled only in Christ. They envision a “proposing” rather than an “imposing” Church, one that converts hearts rather than controlling institutions or polities. In Act Five, the Church is hit with clerical scandals and finds itself in heightened conflict with a now postmodern West. Then it is burdened with the confusing and seemingly backsliding ­pontificate of Francis, who oddly seems to revive both the defeated modernist danger from the left and the defeated ­Gallican danger from the right.

This story is well told and demonstrates a subtle understanding of the spirit of modern Catholicism. It is almost convincing. But a more convincing account, one that retains most of Weigel’s insights, could be written by inverting his story and casting political modernity as the confused and ever-moving character and the papacy as the relatively stable fixed point.

This inversion first needs to address the “aspirations of political modernity”: freedom, prosperity, and solidarity. These aspirations are not modern. The Bible is the story of man’s tragic loss of these goods and his desperate attempts to regain them. The Passover and the Exodus are about these goods. The Paschal Mystery is about these goods. All human history is the tireless and seemingly futile pursuit of these goods, and Christianity claims to be their long-awaited realization.

It is not the case that modern man was the first to think about freedom, to seek it with true fervor, and that finally the Church came around and saw that freedom was, after all, good. What marks modernity is not the conviction that men can attain some measure of freedom, prosperity, and solidarity. What marks modernity is the belief that these goods can be attained without grace, that grace is not socially efficacious, that we don’t need God in order to have a happy world (if we need him at all). As ­Weigel demonstrates, this belief is what all the popes have relentlessly opposed. They preach that God is necessary. And this preaching is directly opposed to political modernity.

The Church’s opposition to modernity is complicated because everything that exists is, in a sense, good. In The City of God, St. Augustine showed the ancient world that the goodness in paganism was but a shadow of the goodness that is complete in Christ. He showed that all men desire peace. In their drive for power and glory, the pagans themselves were seeking peace. Yet peace was finally found only in Christ. ­Augustine was able to acknowledge the goods of paganism, but in doing so he was not embracing paganism. He was undermining it. When the Church takes the aspirations of the nations and turns them around as a mirror, showing men the incoherence of what they are doing and presenting them with the gospel as the answer to what they ­really want, the Church is not endorsing their world, but rather attacking the root of their error. There is much goodness in the world, and all that is good is, in the end, already Christian. All that is left over is sin.

With these considerations in mind, we can recast the narrative. Through the first half of the nineteenth century, liberalism was not the majority position. The status quo in Europe involved modern sovereign monarchies committed to the maintenance of a Christian culture for their own ends. The papacy was not particularly happy about this situation. Sovereign monarchies threatened the liberty of the Church, and the papacy spilled a great deal of ink and some blood defending the Church’s freedom. Nevertheless, most of the population of Europe retained a traditional way of life and a traditional faith. The arrangements the papacy made with governments sought to defend this reality. The papacy’s territorial base in Italy was essential to that defense. As long as states thought it was in their interest to be Christian, the papacy was in constant danger of being absorbed into one polity or another. It needed a polity of its own.

When the papacy attacked liberalism, it was not attacking political modernity from without, as Weigel claims. It had real Christian ground to defend, right there in the middle of modernity. The popes integrated the language of post-Napoleonic legitimacy into this defense, not out of nostalgia for the Middle Ages, but because that was the actual political situation.

The industrial revolution and the concomitant shift to mass society, with its mass politics, mass media, and mass education, changed the political landscape. Power no longer resided in the aristocratic and peasant classes but in the teeming, uprooted masses of the industrial cities. The nation-state came to supplant the monarchical state and, as Bismarck demonstrated, the nation-state no longer needed Christianity. Liberal nationalism became the norm. Because these states no longer cared about the Church, the Church no longer needed to be a state. The loss of the papal states is not, therefore, the cause of the Church’s liberation from politics, as Weigel contends, but a symptom of it.

Leo XIII turned the papacy’s attention to the new social order. It had become clear that the warnings of the post-revolutionary popes were accurate. The liberal order was a direct threat to what remained, by and large, a Christian civilization. The papacy therefore retained its anti-liberalism even as it adjusted to the world of industrialists and politicians. The good that was to be found in this world had to be reoriented to the truth. For example, in Rerum Novarum Leo confirmed the right to private property; then he promptly declared, “It is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills,” and that as far as this use is concerned, “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all.” Leo does not confirm the liberal conception of private property. He pulls the rug out from under it, even as he excludes socialism.

In the decades that followed, the papacy’s predictions concerning liberalism were steadily confirmed. Political discourse grew extreme and ideological, greed spread unabated, the family was undermined, populations drifted from the faith. Without their Christian grounding, morality and truth lost credibility. As the victory of liberal over Christian culture was pressed, true freedom, prosperity, and solidarity faded in favor of cheap substitutes. The popes said this would happen, and it did.

The mid-twentieth-century shift to an evangelical Church is real, but it did not happen because the Church came to understand its evangelical nature. It happened because liberalism had finally, almost completely, replaced Christianity as the cultural core of Western civilization. What once had been Christendom now was mission territory. Thus, the need for a “New Evangelization.”

Weigel is right that the Church returned to a missionary ecclesiology. But he is wrong to see this return as an embrace of political modernity. It was closer to the opposite. The ­ecclesiology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI does not leave space for politics or economics outside Christ’s salvation. Instead, the laity—who are definitively within the Church—are charged to convert these realms. Vatican II goes so far as to call on the laity to “establish the proper scale of values on the temporal order and direct it towards God through Christ.” This is not a call for a “public Church” to serve as the conscience for the basically good institutions of state and economy. The notion of the Church as the “People of God”—as a universal, sacramental communion of love that includes the laity as much as the clergy and that saves man socially, completely, and without remainder—is an ecclesiology for the conversion of a civilization, top to bottom. It is a patristic ecclesiology.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI preached to a nearly de-Christianized West. Like St. Augustine, the popes showed men the goodness of their world and then demonstrated that this goodness will remain ever ­incomplete, ever fleeting and illusory, until it finds its fulfillment in Christ. John Paul II’s juxtaposition in Centesimus Annus of a just economy with a consumerist one is not a defense of modern capitalism. It is its undoing. To imagine businesses motivated by the common good and consumers motivated by temperance and charity is not to imagine some variation on capitalism; it is to imagine capitalism’s eclipse. Of course, the Church did begin to integrate liberal terms and focus on liberal problems. Something similar happens in every age, because the Church is in history. But such integrations are really Trojan Horses, smuggling into the world a radical gospel that points beyond it.

If Weigel’s version of the story is the best one, if the Church really did discover her true self by embracing liberalism, then we cannot face our current situation without acknowledging total failure. America is quickly transforming into something beyond “free politics and free economics.” Liberalism is giving way to some yet unnamed technocratic state-corporation that merges social, economic, and political power, even as our society abandons the vestiges of cultural Christianity. Do we ­really want to tie the Church to a social vision that reached its peak in 1991 and has been in decline ever since? The pains that the Church is enduring today are due to the slow shedding of its integration with ­liberalism. It similarly shed empire in the time of ­Augustine, feudalism in the time of Gregory VII, and monarchy in the time of Leo XIII. Because it is not wedded to a particular form of government or economy, the Church will find a way of integrating whatever comes next, a way of preaching in history a gospel that is beyond history. It does so “that God may be everything to everyone,” with nothing but sin left out. 

Andrew Willard Jones is visiting assistant professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.