Catholicism and Citizenship
Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century
By Massimo Faggioli
Liturgical Press. Pp. 188. $24.49


Review by Neil Dhingra

The prolific and polyglot historian Massimo Faggioli argues in this book that Francis is “the first post-conciliar pope.” A half-century after Vatican II, he has moved the church past any conception of itself as a “perfect society” defined by separation from the world. In praising the Pope who warns of the dangers of shutting ourselves “up in the parish, with our friends, within the movement, with the like-minded,” Faggioli criticizes those members of Catholic ecclesial movements who still nostalgically seek holy ecclesial refuges or, more quixotically, look for the “reconquista of secularized society.” (There are harsh words here for the Benedict Option, “neo-Augustinians,” “militant blogs and militant religious media,” etc.)

For Faggioli, the church should no longer see itself as a counter-society either exerting hegemony or suffering persecution, with those concomitant pressures that come with battle readiness — here, having to seem “immune from corruption” and internal disagreement. Our alternatives are no longer either Constantine or Diocletian.

Instead, the church can let itself be shaped by a messier process of “spiritual discernment” in dialogue with a reinterpreted secular, now “a common space in which the church and humanity can walk in solidarity.” The disentanglement was not completed at Vatican II, which expressed ambivalence on the thorny subject of an established church; it has taken Francis to say, “States must be secular,” even as he has preserved the church’s prophetic voice in the public square.

Likewise, Faggioli sees the church as finally moving past the ideal of a “singular Catholic culture … to a more pluralistic and historical-critical idea of cultures in the global church.” Here, though, Faggioli criticizes the American post-conciliar inculturation, or lack thereof. To him, American Catholics still seemingly dream in medieval hues and envision a Catholic Americanism — “what is good for American Catholicism is good for both the United States of America and for Catholicism,” in either liberal or conservative directions.

This Americanism has made it very hard for some American Catholics to criticize their state’s neo-liberal economics or neo-militarism. Other American Catholics have in reaction seen our disappointingly non-medieval state as nothing more than a paradigm of violence. To Faggioli, American Catholicism has not properly reinterpreted the secular as a temporal order with its own important values: public welfare, constitutional restraint, human rights.

Faggioli claims that the church, no longer seeking political or cultural hegemony, must go out to the world to show mercy in diverse forms of dialogue and service. Catholics should see their responsibilities as conscientious citizens to be in contributing to a common good that may otherwise be threatened by a dire lack of legitimacy. Their acts of mercy will be transformative as mercy shifts them to relational, practical, and experiential orientations that can be neither “exclusive” nor “identity-obsessed.” And mercy does not respect fossilized hierarchical boundaries, for all of us — ordained, degreed, tonsured, whatever — are called to feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned.

It’s always churlish for a reviewer to suggest that a book be longer, and Faggioli is hardly naïve about current challenges. However, I think Faggioli needs more concrete analysis of this reinterpreted secular. At several points, he cites a provocative essay by the Jesuit historian Stephen Schloesser that suggests Vatican II had an “apparent blindness, inarticulateness, or deaf ear” to the “volcanic forces” of “biopolitics,” ranging from more emotional definitions of marriage and the family to shifting attitudes toward contraception, sterilization, and abortion.

The church still struggles with these volcanic forces, long-simmering but erupting in the 1960s, as seen in the debates surrounding Pope Francis’s attempts to integrate the divorced and remarried into the church. Those who disagree with Faggioli may not be reflexively neo-medieval and ignorant of Vatican II, but rather disagree about the possibilities and perils of the contemporary secular, given the biopolitical realities that were barely imagined at the council. It is one thing to be Augustinian in reaction to Islam or gays and lesbians and another to be so out of concern for the future of our brothers and sisters with Down syndrome.

This is not to say we have to be either reflexively anti-modern or modern. Faggioli notes that Pope Francis has “an antimodern sensibility in him,” with his frank talk of spiritual combat and citations of Romano Guardini’s End of the Modern World and Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic Lord of the World. (Faggioli oddly claims that this is simply because of the tumultuous decade in which Francis was born.) Perhaps our modernity, anti-modernity, and postmodernity may have to be contextual and nuanced.

Massimo Faggioli has given us an erudite reminder to avoid neo-medievalism (or its twin, accommodationism). On the other hand, we still need a way to understand the secular in order to grasp the confusing, biopolitical world we find ourselves in and its elusive common good. The signs of the time that Vatican II called us to discern are, it turns out, very difficult to read. It might be good to have a post-conciliar pope who still has “an antimodern sensibility in him.”

Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland and a Catholic layman.

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