Originally published in the 28 September 2019 issue of the Wall Street Journal.
The Irony of Modern Catholic History
by George Weigel
Basic Books, 330 pages, $30
A pun inspired the title of George Weigel’s latest book. The sociology professor Peter Rossi was fond of the phrase “many ironies in the fire.” Mr. Weigel sees many ironies in the Catholic Church’s confrontation with what he calls “the fiery brook of modernity.”
By modernity he means the period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during which a liberalizing, rationalist outlook challenged traditional precepts, creating conflicts over Catholic doctrine and the church’s attitude toward secular democratic governments. This conflict was sometimes fought with guns, as when Garibaldi’s soldiers put an end to the papal states by conquering them for a united Italy; at other times, only with encyclicals, such as the one from Pius X in 1907 that declared modernism “the synthesis of all heresies.”
The project that faced John Paul II when he became pontiff a decade after that council, and which Mr. Weigel believes he mostly achieved, was how to maintain the Church’s engagement with the modern world while preventing internal modernizers from going too far. And what looked like conflict was often fruitful tension and even collaboration, Mr. Weigel suggests. “Rather than killing Catholicism, the encounter with modernity has helped the Catholic Church rediscover some basic truths about itself,” he writes. “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.”
Two sides defined themselves in opposition to each other. The arch-reactionary Pope Pius IX locked himself up in the Vatican rather than recognize the new Italian state that had seized his territories. His “Syllabus of Errors” deemed it a heresy to assert that the church should “come to terms with progress, liberalism, or modern civilization.” But even as he wrote, theologians were striving to do just that. Over the following decades, Germans like Ignaz von Döllinger applied modern critical methods to the study of Scripture and church history, and Frenchmen like Maurice Blondel tried to reconcile Catholic theology with modern philosophy. The challenge posed by these modernizers eventually made necessary the Second Vatican Council.
The trouble with ironies is that, unlike irons, they are delicate. They depend on ambiguities. The settlement that the Catholic Church reached after Vatican II relied on artful vagueness. Liberals and traditionalists within the church didn’t achieve a compromise so much as an uneasy truce.