Semiduplex

Francis, Faggioli, and the Medieval Imagination

At Commonweal, Professor Massimo Faggioli, a Twitter power user who moonlights as a Church historian, has an essay arguing, essentially, that the periods following the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council were just as tumultuous and contested as the period that has followed the Second Vatican Council. The implicit argument is that the post-Conciliar chaos often adduced as an argument against certain Vatican II acts is not dispositive, since there was likewise chaos following Trent and Vatican I. This point is not devoid of force; however, Professor Faggioli does not quite carry the day with his examples. Indeed, his analogies are a mixed bag. For example, he seems to think that St. Pius X’s anti-modernist crusade following Vatican I was “the most serious tragedy in the modern intellectual history of Catholicism,” apparently because the Saint decided that it would be best for theologians not to hold modernist ideas. All of this is very much of a piece with Professor Faggioli’s basic point: everything was terrible until about 1963, then it was fine until the fall of 1978, then it was bad until the spring of 2013. Now everything is fine again.

However, Professor Faggioli pivots from this point to make a broader argument about American Catholicism: it is too enamored of an imaginary medievalism. On its face, this is rubbish. The average American Catholic in a suburban church built in the 1970s, who hears Eucharistic Prayer II week in and week out, and sings the same ten egregious songs  is no more enamored with an imaginary medieval vision of the Church than Professor Faggioli. Indeed, we imagine that many suburban American Catholics subscribe happily to Professor Faggioli’s view that, before Vatican II, the Church was dark and gloomy, and then the Council happened and all those oppressive doctrines were changed. Many probably also subscribe to his views on the liturgical reform. In this regard, Professor Faggioli joins Father Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa on the list of the Pope’s partisans who seem to have almost no understanding of American Catholicism. We shall see in a moment that Professor Faggioli has other, deeper affinities with Father Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa.

First, one also wonders how seriously Professor Faggioli has considered the medieval Church. Recent books like Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State ought to force us to reconsider our biases about the Church in the medieval period, particularly with respect to how it interacted with the state. (Pater Edmund Waldstein’s recent review at First Things of Before Church and State is essential reading.) Moreover, Eamon Duffy’s towering study, The Stripping of the Altars, presents, in many ways, a very different vision of the Church in medieval, pre-reformation England than the gloomy, oppressive vision that one learned in school. Given the pictures painted by Jones and Duffy, one may be excused, we think, for seeing in the medieval world better solutions to the problems that liberalism purports to solve.

That historical quibble aside, what Professor Faggioli means is that some Christian intellectuals have some affinity for a medieval Church or at least the characteristics of a medieval Church. No doubt he would lump Before Church and State and The Stripping of the Altars and the response to those books in as part of this tendency. Now, Professor Faggioli rightly identifies this affinity as a response to religious and political liberalism, especially the crisis that political liberalism now finds itself in. He is not wrong when he says that the fascination with medieval Christianity is a response to a post-Christian world (he limits it to the United States, but we doubt he’d contend that Europe professes the Faith today). However, he seems to find some blameworthiness in this affinity. However, this is simply his hermeneutic at work. Liberalism appears to be breaking down. Now, only a fool would contend that liberalism is not hugely resilient and it may well adapt to the current crisis. It is natural that people begin to ask themselves “what comes next?” One answer to this question is found by recovering the pre-liberal tradition, especially in the teaching of the Church, which was a staunch opponent of liberalism far longer than anyone else.

One wonders whether this is what Professor Faggioli actually objects to; that is, the consideration of a world after liberalism by means returning to the pre-liberal and anti-liberal tradition of the Church. Yet, just as Fr. Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa found themselves at odds with Francis’s thought when they complained about integralism, so too does Professor Faggioli find himself at odds with the Pope. In Laudato si’, Francis appears to call Catholics to consider a world beyond liberalism, if not after liberalism. Consider this passage, one of our favorites:

The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy. They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”, while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.

The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence. In the concrete situation confronting us, there are a number of symptoms which point to what is wrong, such as environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living. Once more we see that “realities are more important than ideas”.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) And Francis, with brilliant clarity, captures the crisis of modern liberalism and proposes a solution:

There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.

All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

(Emphasis supplied.) Take a moment and consider that: “a bold cultural revolution,” which “appropriate[s] the positive and sustainable progress which has been made” and which “recover[s] the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

Francis understands the crisis of liberalism—in the pastoral language for which he has become so famous, he realizes that “people no longer seem to believe in a happy future”—and he understands the answer to “what comes next?” Keep the positive and sustainable progress that has been made, but recover the values that we discarded as we ran toward an ultimately illusory future. Additionally, Faggioli spends some time complaining about Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, and others who seem to be interested in recovering authentic Christian community in the West. However, he seems to forget that Francis argues that “a loss of the purpose of life and of community living” is a symptom of what is wrong in a modern society in thrall to the technocratic, anthropocentric paradigm. One can say, therefore, that the writers about whom Faggioli complains are attempting to address one of the problems that Francis has identified in modern society. In other words, Christians looking to the medieval Church for guidance in an era of liberalism in crisis are doing nothing more or less than contributing to the “bold cultural revolution” that Francis called for in Laudato si’, even to the point of addressing some of the symptoms of a sick society that Francis identifies.

In a very real sense, then, the Catholics who explore post-liberal possibilities by returning to the Church’s medieval tradition and its subsequent anti-modern and anti-liberal teaching are far closer to the Pope’s vision in Laudato si’ than the Pope’s supporters who cite the same shopworn passages from Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes. What better source for the values and great goals of Christians could there be than the teachings of the Church from Augustine to Aquinas? What better exemplars for this “bold cultural revolution” than France under Louis IX? It is no secret that the most exciting, most interesting thought today is being done by Catholics trying to reclaim the Church’s anti-modern and anti-liberal teachings, so carelessly discarded by Professor Faggioli’s forebears. One has a hard time imagining that a Pope who so perceptively diagnoses the sickness at the heart of modernity could complain that this is somehow inconsistent with his own vision of a postmodern, post-liberal society.

Nevertheless, one might respond that Francis does not want Christians to turn to the medieval Church and the subsequent anti-modern and anti-liberal tradition of the Church as part of this cultural revolution. Yet such a reading is hard to square with Laudato si’, which fits squarely into the Church’s suspicion of modernity and liberalism. At First Things (a publication for which we occasionally write), R.R. Reno, shortly after Francis handed down Laudato si’, described the encyclical as a return to the Church’s anti-modern teaching. Indeed, Reno argues that Laudato si’ presents a postmodern reading of Vatican II’s landmark document, Gaudium et spes. Professor Faggioli makes a similar point, arguing that some conservative Catholics adopt a conciliar postmodernism. That is, some Catholics think that Vatican II no longer has anything to teach us. (Precisely why this matters especially in the case of Vatican II, he never says. Certainly most Catholics no longer think that Trent or Chalcedon have anything to teach us, but you don’t see Professor Faggioli writing articles in Commonweal about that.) But consider this: in 172 notes, Laudato si’ cites Vatican II three times—in point of fact, Gaudium et spes—and generally only for a phrase. Is it possible that an ecumenical council rooted so firmly in the circumstances of the early 1960s is no longer quite so relevant? Indeed, is it possible that, despite the wishes of some aging liberals in Bologna and Berlin and Boston, the world of 2017 does not have overmuch in common with the world of 1965? Francis, at least, seems to understand that the crises of today require thoughtful responses on their own terms, without nostalgia for the false promises of liberalism that were so beguiling in the 1960s.

Whether his staunchest supporters get that is another question.