History never repeats itself, but patterns of human thought and behavior repeat themselves all the time. William Faulkner captured it well when he said that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” And that simple fact informs the work of both Carlos Eire and Brad S. Gregory in their studies of the sixteenth century and its turmoil. As Gregory notes in The Unintended Reformation, “what transpired five centuries ago [in Europe] continues today” to influence the lives of people globally. This applies whether they’re religious or not, and whether they know it or not. Eire says much the same in his Reformations. He argues that “no Westerner can ever hope to know him- or herself, or the world he or she lives in, without first understanding this crucial turning point in history.”
History follows and shapes us. A personal example: My paternal grandfather was born exactly 360 years after Martin Luther’s excommunication. His home was a village in Baden-Württemberg. He grew up on the dividing line between Catholic and Lutheran Germany. Raised Catholic, he immigrated to New York in 1905 at the age of twenty-four. He met a young woman, a Lutheran. He converted in order to marry her. My dad, born in 1910, was raised Lutheran. And he grew up on a New York City street with an invisible DMZ right down its middle, separating German Lutherans on one side from Irish Catholics on the other.
Naturally he fell in love with the girl across the street. To marry my mother, he became a Catholic . . . and his Protestant relatives refused to acknowledge the couple for years. Note that my mother’s family was no warmer than my father’s to the prospect of a mixed marriage. And for understandable reasons. Belief provides a framework and glue for the long haul of a shared life. Over time, every marriage has challenges. The unity of a family under pressure is fragile. Divided loyalties in matters of belief—differing convictions about what’s right and wrong, what’s true and what isn’t—threaten that unity. Plenty of exceptions exist, of course. But they’re exceptions. We’re each a tangle of memories and assumptions fed by the past. And one of the lessons taught by the past is that conflict in matters of faith, at both the personal and cultural levels, can have the effect of a wrecking ball.
Which more or less describes the sixteenth century. And also our own. Scientism, for example, is not the successor to religious belief; it’s simply another, competing form of it. And the social sciences are arguably not science at all, but a form of moral philosophy. This doesn’t diminish their utility for certain tasks. But their truth claims tend to proceed from beliefs about the nature and purpose of the human animal that are very different from, but no more “rational” than, biblical faith.
All systems of reasoning develop from ultimately unprovable axioms. A high-tech society produces the tangible results, along with the anesthetics and distractions, to make materialism seem plausible. That doesn’t, however, make it true. And so, when a cardinal of the Roman Church suggests, then walks back, but then seems again to hint that Christian sexual morality is unsustainable in the light of science—as Jean-Claude Hollerich has done—one can ask what he really believes; where he actually grounds his faith. So many of this pontificate’s loudest supporters are ambiguous on issues of sexual identity and behavior that one can miss the larger problem of the current papacy: the confusion it sows at a time when confusion has a very high cost.
When Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation in 1944, on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, transistors and computer chips were unknown. They were still in the future. So was the massive sea change they wrought. He thus captured just one disruption in a rising wave of transformative social disruptions that track back, at least in part, to the fractures of the sixteenth century. In such times, the last thing Christians need is what this pontificate seems to encourage: more ambiguity in matters of faith. Christians need reasons for confidence in the Word of God, the teachings of their Church, and the meaning of their lives. They need a recovery of zeal. They need clarity of mission. And they need leaders who can convincingly deliver on all of the above. They’re not getting it. A global listening process, with modest grassroots participation, to prepare for a 2023–24 “synod on synodality” is unlikely to produce any of that. It may have value, but it’s hard to see how it serves the words of Matthew 28:19–20.
To be fair, Pope Francis follows a string of popes who endured the bloodiest century in history. It’s a hard act to follow. Jorge Bergoglio’s background is very different, but it has its own strengths and sufferings, rooted in the Latin American experience. So comparisons can be unjust. His 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), remains a beautiful, exhilarating read. All of his published teachings have moments of spiritual power. But they’re undercut by the contradictions of his temperament and leadership, and a lack of organic consistency.
The irony is that this pontificate has created as much anxiety and bafflement as joy. Francis has often criticized legalistic “doctors of the law” and rigidity in the Church. Yet his own manner toward anything resembling disagreement is often thin-skinned and authoritarian. His irritated closing comments to assembled bishops at the 2015 synod on the family were, to put it kindly, awkward. The delegates had apparently failed to give him what he wanted. And his realignment of priorities at the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences—starting with the appointment of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as president and grand chancellor respectively, a man less than ideal for either job—will have long-term negative effects. None of this absolves Catholics from praying for the Holy Father and supporting him in his legitimate service to the faith. But neither does it license turning off one’s critical faculties.
History never repeats itself, but its lessons transcend time. Unity in a family, including the family of the Church, can be fragile. Confusion is toxic. And ignoring it, enabling it, or feeding it has consequences.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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Image by Alfredo Borba licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.