George Weigel Traces the Church’s Engagement With Modernity

BOOK PICK: The Irony of Modern Catholic History

(photo: Unsplash)

THE IRONY OF MODERN CATHOLIC HISTORY
How the Church 
Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform

By George Weigel

Basic Books, 2019

336 pages, $30 (hardcover)

To order: ewtnrc.com or (800) 854-6316; or amazon.com

 

 

One of the best-known texts of Vatican II is Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world. That unique document, addressed not just to Christians but everyman, voiced the Council’s “yearn[ing] to explain … how it conceives the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.”

How we got to Gaudium et Spes and where we have come in the ensuing half-century comes down to the question of the Church and modernity. In this book, George Weigel advances a bold but credible interpretation of almost 200 years of ecclesiastical history, tracing the Church’s engagement with modernity from the 19th century through today. 

The story begins around 1800, with the crumbling of the ancien regime and the revolutionary/counterrevolutionary periods that followed it, including how they affected the papacy. Modernity and the papacy did not get off to the best start (abducting a pope who dies in captivity doesn’t help). A Church accustomed to a certain arrangement between altar and throne was hard-pressed to conceive of any other (e.g., an American model of friendly separation).  Emergent nationalism, leading to Italian unification and loss of the Papal States, didn’t build friendships. Still, the modern world was not going away. 

Weigel divides his book into five periods: the Church against modernity; the Church exploring modernity; the Church embracing modernity; the Church critiquing modernity from within; and the Church converting modernity. 

The Church against modernity encompasses French Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Europe through most of the 19th century, i.e., the pontificate of Pius IX, with a brief encore under Pius X. Weigel argues that the Church began to examine modernity more critically under Leo XIII, picking up that thread again under Pius XI and XII. The Church came to embrace modernity, perhaps somewhat overzealously, at the time of Vatican II, under John XXIII and Paul VI. Their successors — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — were both thoroughly modern men, university professors well-versed in yet critical of the intellectual currents of the modern world. They attempted to engage modernity, encouraging it to enter into a conversation with itself, challenging its current approaches to the human person, life and the moral law to a deeper, more thorough analysis of those realities precisely on modern terms. That effort flows into the present, when the Church is called, by returning to its missionary and evangelical roots, to convert modernity, to “reimagine” contemporary culture, just as once it converted the cultures of Greece and Rome. That is part of the “New Evangelization.”  

“The history of modern Catholicism is, in fact, rather ironic. With modernity acting sometimes as a midwife and other times as amazed observer, Catholicism in its third millennium has reclaimed its birthright as a Gospel-centered, missionary enterprise. Rather than killing Catholicism, the encounter with modernity has helped the Catholic Church rediscover some basic truths about itself. Even more ironically, the Church’s rediscovery of those truths might, just might, put Catholicism in a position to help secular modernity save itself from its own increasing incoherence. Might a differently configured idea of the relationship of Catholicism to modernity help the West gain a more rational, humane path into the future?”

Weigel’s thesis is likely — as he himself admits — to find opponents across the spectrum. “Progressives” may regard it as a last-gasp effort by the Church to refuse to face its own reactionary ideas. “Traditionalists” awaiting the implosion of the modern project, after which “the Church can help the chastened survivors pick up the pieces and start civilization again,” will call Weigel an accommodationist for not pursuing a scorched-earth fight against modernity. Weigel’s ideas are certainly worth serious examination. Highly recommended.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco celebrates the ‘Mass of the Americas’ using the extraordinary form of the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16, 2019.

Msgr. Charles Pope and Limiting the Latin Mass (July 24)

Historically, changes to worship have always cause intense reaction. Reaction to Pope Francis’ decree Traditionis Custodes limiting the use of the Traditional Latin Mass is no different. Msgr. Charles Pope helps us sift through the concern and frustrations many Catholics have we expressed. Then, in an Editor’s Corner, Matthew Bunson, executive editor for EWTN News, and Jeanette De Melo discuss the Napa Institute conference and a roundup of Catholic news.

Photo portrait of American poet and Catholic convert Wallace Stevens (1879–1955).

The Art of Catholic America (July 17)

Art, music, literature — in a word, beauty — have in the life and history of Catholicism been a great evangelizing force. For a lesson in this we often turn to the lasting masterpieces and legacy of Christendom in Europe. But what about on our own shores: Is there an imprint on the U.S. from American painters, poets and the like who were Catholic? On Register Radio, we explore American artists and Catholicism in the U.S. with Robert Royal, founder and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing. Then we look at the ways the sexual revolution has impacted the professions — particularly education, psychology and medicine — with Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute.