The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform, by George Weigel. New York: Basic, 2019, ix + 322 pages, $30.00.

Anyone familiar with the world of American conservatism beyond the rants and slogans of talk radio, knows that Roman Catholicism plays an outsized role. In the history of Western civilization, the only Christian rival to come close to Rome’s central place is the Protestantism that emerged in the sixteenth century. Christians outside the church of Rome often receive attention from American conservatives mainly for unleashing social and political forces that undermined the Christian society of medieval Europe. The result is an outlook where the only serious version of Christianity for righting the wrongs of the modern West (at least) is Roman Catholicism. George Weigel’s new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, pretty much starts with this assumption. It is a chronicle of the relationship between Roman Catholicism and the modern world (i.e., Europe and North America).

Weigel’s purpose is to question and offer an alternative to the dominant way of telling this story—that modernity was on the side of progress and Rome on the other side, a reactive and regressive check on social, political, and intellectual improvement. The result is a history in which Roman Catholicism, through its encounter with modern society, “became more coherent, less defensive, and more influential in shaping the course of world affairs” (7). Weigel also believes (or at least hopes) that Rome’s example may help “secular modernity save itself from its own increasing incoherence” (7). Of course, as a popular Roman Catholic author and public intellectual, with over a dozen titles under his belt, including a successful biography of John Paul II, Weigel’s identity and audience is thoroughly Roman Catholic. At the same time, as a political conservative who has worked in the trenches with evangelical Protestants, Weigel could well have considered what the story of Christianity and modernity looked like with Rome and Protestantism in the picture. Publishing with a trade press (Basic Books) might also have produced a book with advice for Christians outside the Roman church.

The irony at the heart of Weigel’s history of Roman Catholicism since the French Revolution is the ongoing antagonism between Rome’s traditions and the West’s modern innovations. It is a narrative dominated by popes, though Weigel mixes in Roman Catholic theologians and writers (not necessarily clergy) who also supplemented the church’s awareness of and response to modern intellectual trends. That addition adds a wrinkle that Weigel never sufficiently addresses, namely, the degree to which bishops sift, approve, and authorize church’s teaching as opposed to scholars whose vocation it is to assess and produce ideas.

Either way, the short story to Weigel’s relatively long book begins with Popes Gregory XVI (1831–1846) and Pius IX (1846–1878) who resolutely, though sometimes for very good reasons, opposed European political developments that replaced aristocratic privilege with democratic access. Next comes Leo XIII (1878–1903), the so-called father of the church’s social teaching, who was guarded about modern economic and political forces, defended the church’s prerogatives, but also signaled forms of accommodation. Weigel calls this a “Leonine Revolution,” which twentieth-century popes implemented with various degrees of success. One successor in Rome was John XXIII (1958–1963) who called and convened the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). In Weigel’s view, that council advanced Leo XIII’s approach to modernity. Following in the wake of Vatican II were the papacies of John Paul II (1978–2005) and Benedict XVI (2005–2013), conservatives who strongly critiqued “political and cultural modernity” but did so “from inside modern intellectual premises” (11). The story concludes with Pope Francis (2013– ) about whom Weigel is ambivalent. Still, Francis emerges as a figure within the post-Vatican II succession of the church critiquing modernity, who also promotes evangelization and reforming the church (particularly with reference to the sex scandals).

Weigel’s book is not exactly warts-and-all history. His reputation as a certain kind of apologist likely prevents him from compiling the sort of blemishes that could turn a reader away from his Roman Catholicism. For that reason, the irony that his book does not explore as much as it could is the development of the dogma of papal infallibility during a period when popes looked particularly fallible when reading the signs of the times. Of course, papal infallibility means technically that when popes teach from the position of their Petrine authority (as successors to Peter) their declarations are free from error. Popes have invoked this power sparingly (only in connection with Mary, in fact). But the place of the Bishop of Rome in the hierarchy, not to mention the papacy’s universal jurisdiction, means that when popes pontificate, bishops, priests, and laity listen (or are supposed to). The global scope of papal responsibilities accounts in part for the long list of encyclicals and apostolic exhortations over the last 125 years on every manner of world crisis beyond the Roman Catholic Church’s own health.

Here the record of popes’ responses to the modern world hardly justifies looking to Rome as a font of wisdom. After all, the papacy completely reversed course from the early days (which lasted for at least seven decades) of opposition to the political liberties modern people associate with the American Founding (though the French Revolution’s version of political liberties were decidedly anti-clerical and threatened the papacy directly). After all, the last of the eighty defects of modern society condemned in the famous Syllabus of Errors (1864) sweepingly denied that the pope could or should “reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”[1]

One hundred years later, Vatican II changed that estimate of the modern world and elaborated ways that the church could and should accommodate the trends of modernity (from freedom of conscience and vernacular liturgy to a recognition of the laity’s vocation in serving God). Weigel himself admits that Vatican II’s sense of modern life, a time not of crisis but of calm, was naive and revealed “historical myopia” (165). The council’s pastoral constitution, Gaudiem et Spes, he adds, described the modern world of 1945–1965 in ways that left the church unprepared for what was coming in 1968 and beyond. 

[The] Western world at least, was not an “obsolescent” modern man of the sort imagined by … the bishops of Vatican II, but postmodern man—metaphysically indifferent, spiritually bored, demographically barren, skeptical about the human capacity to know the truth. (164)

To be sure, not even the best of Presbyterian or Reformed assemblies or synods is up to the task of understanding the present moment and charting a Christian course for civilization and politics. The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture at its best prevents Protestant communions from teaching on matters where the Bible is silent. But the legacy of the papacy’s place in European history, combined with its universal authority, encourages popes and those subject to them to think the papacy has the answers and insights to modern society’s woes. It is hard to imagine setting a Christian leader up for a bigger fall.

Despite the popes and bishops’ failure to discern the challenges of modernity—aside from the recent sex scandals to which Weigel devotes several pages—the author judges Rome’s stature in the modern West still to be vigorous and well situated to supply needed help. The modern world has run up against a crisis of human dignity, Weigel asserts. It is saturated in skepticism, doubt, relativism, nihilism, and emptiness. Prior to Vatican II, the church had largely adopted a defensive strategy. But the modern church has “recommitted itself to missionary discipleship … to proposing to the world what it believes to be liberating truths about salvation and the ultimate destiny of human beings,” which includes how to live together in society (284). What the church offers chiefly is “friendship with Jesus Christ,” the answer “to the question that is every human life” (285). In a word, modern Roman Catholicism is Christian humanism at its best, and it offers a better and more stable foundation for “happiness, beatitude, and genuine human flourishing” (287) than the one attempted by science, the Enlightenment, and modern political ideologies.

That may sound tempting to any believer who has thought about the relationship of Christ and culture. But as so often happens in those discussions, the effort to fashion a Christian culture often loses sight of the singularity of Christ’s redemptive work. In that way, Weigel’s book reveals more than he likely intends since it shows the degree to which even conservative American Catholics equivocate on the Augustinian basics of the fall, sin, its penalty, grace, Christ, and eternity.

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan.

[1] Vatican website, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius09/p9syll.htm

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, February 2021.

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