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The Vatican II Option: a Review of Catholicism and Citizenship

If Massimo Faggioli fails to find sympathetic readers among conservative American Catholics, this is partly his own fault.

His criticisms of Francis’s critics are often blunt and unmuted. Nevertheless, his readers should learn from his insightful account of the post-Vatican II Church.

Grappling with Pluralism

Catholicism and Citizenship uses Gaudium et Spes to read the current ecclesiological and political context; Faggioli sees a strong connection between the pontificate of Francis and the pastoral program outlined in this document:

“Francis’s decision to have a ‘synodal process’ with the two synods of October 2014 and October 2015” highlights the pontiff’s commitment to acknowledging the reality of pluralism within the Church, and to addressing this issue through discernment within a synodal process.”

Pluralism and the need to engage in dialogue are not a necessary evil. They provide a fundamental opportunity for the Church to witness to “our world that looks at the church with a glimpse of hope, trying to see if in dealing with this universe of diversities, Christians can succeed where others are failing.” The Church might witness to the world through the way in which her members hold their beliefs rather than only through the content of those beliefs.

This speaks directly to the proponents of the Benedict Option if only to suggest that greater thought must be given to the way in which disagreement is addressed (beyond the bare appeal to anathema) if the Church is to be an effective within in our secular age. Some might balk at this idea but pluralism is here to stay and surely the Church must find some way dealing constructively with this reality.

Engaging In The World

The “synodal process is something new we are trying for now at the level of the pope and the bishops, but it will have to spread to all the levels in the church”. One place within the Church where this type of deliberative process is already prominent is within religious orders. The role of democratic governance – in various forms – within religious congregations has been noted by commentators as varied as Michael Novak and Alasdair MacIntyre but despite his extensive reflections on Benedict’s rule, Dreher (in The Benedict Option) gave little thought to monastic governance and the way we might learn from these practices in order to improve our own political discourse and communal deliberations.

Picking up a theme from an earlier book, Faggioli, implicitly contrasts democratic governance within religious congregations with the tendency toward authoritarianism within at least some of the “new movements.” The new ecclesial movements that began in the years before Vatican II and have expanded since its conclusion—, including Regnum Christi, Focolare, Sant’Egidio, Communion and Liberation, and Opus Dei—, might be taken to be primary examples of Catholics who are living the Benedict Option. Faggioli would likely not dispute this but his concern is to note, however, the different stances of John Paul II and Francis toward these new movements. Where John Paul II tended to encourage the vanguard attitude, treating movements as an oasis of faith in an otherwise secular landscape, Faggioli argues that Francis’s primary concern is that movements promote unity both within the Church and with the world at large.

In Francis, the faithful see strong reverberations of the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, where the Church is presented as a sacrament of “communion with God and unity among all men.” Faggioli explains that “one of the most radical departures of Pope Francis from the vocabulary of John Paul II and Benedict XVI about the movements and the church is the inclusion of the ‘popular movements’ (that are ecumenical in their membership) advocating social and economic justice as an integral part of the pope’s audience” (see for example Francis’s speech to participants in the 3rd World Meeting of Popular Movements).

This raises the question of the validity of defining the interests of the Church in opposition to, rather than, in solidarity with secular society. The commonality of interests between the Church and the world is strongly emphasized in Gaudium et Spes. Benedict XVI expressed similar sentiments. Speaking to the Jesuits’ at General Congregation 35, Benedict said,

“The Church thus urgently needs people with a deep and sound faith, a well-grounded culture and genuine human and social sensitivity, of Religious and priests who dedicate their lives to being on these very frontiers to bear witness and to help people understand that on the contrary there is profound harmony between faith and reason, between the Gospel spirit, the thirst for justice and initiatives for peace.” In the same speech he noted that it was mistaken to posit an opposition between “faith and the commitment to justice.”

Where Do We Go?

Faggioli’s book is rich, insightful, and controversial. Surprising as it might seem, Catholicism and Citizenship lends credence to the basic aspiration behind the Benedict Option: the current “signs of the times” require a distinctive response from the Church. Faggioli emphasizes the necessity that Christians witness to the world in this time of increasing hostility and uncertainty.

Fraggioli cautions that witnessing to the Gospel in the context of pluralism within the Church and the world requires a deep and lasting commitment to discernment within a synodal process, acknowledging the reality of pluralism inside and outside the Church, and recalling that the form or manner in which Christians hold their beliefs is at times as important as the content of those beliefs. He cautions Christians to resist the temptation to define their fundamental goals in opposition to the world and instead to continuously strive to uncover common ground. For this is the mandate of “Vatican II, the most important moment in the development of the Catholic tradition in modernity… about the church and the world of secular institutions.”

Some may conclude that Faggioli is far too optimistic, or worse,  he cares little about many of the issues driving conservatives Catholics. Faggioli’s optimism is that of Vatican II, a hope that the Church will find willing dialogue partners among the most varied of interlocutors and that this dialogue will serve the good of the Church and the world. This might seem utopian, but for Catholics, at least, it is a hope that is linked with belief in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church through ecumenical councils.

Faggioli’s vision is that of a global Church, and his focus is much more on the way in which the Church can contribute to solving today’s most pressing geo-political problems. If he has says little about issues surrounding the “culture wars,” this does nothing to minimize the magnitude of the problems that he has identified or the danger that an exclusive focus on more narrowly moral issues will occlude the Church’s role in addressing such global issues.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • DavidM

    “Faggioli’s optimism is that of Vatican II, a hope that the Church will find willing dialogue partners among the most varied of interlocutors and that this dialogue will serve the good of the Church and the world. This might seem utopian, but for Catholics, at least, it is a hope that is linked with belief in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church through ecumenical councils.”

    This seems quite mistaken. As Christians we are not beholden to any kind of optimism directed toward the political future of worldly society. To think otherwise is to have thoroughly failed to take in some of the basics of Christian revelation. We are required to love the world and thus to seek out dialogue with the aim of serving the good of the Church and the world – yes. But that is not utopian in the least, any more than the Christ’s condition of discipleship is utopian (let alone optimistic!): “take up your cross and follow me.” The link between political optimism and “belief in the Holy Spirit’s (etc.)…” seems entirely spurious and contrived.

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      Pope Saint John XIII expressed his wish to call a council in terms of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and his opening speech he set the agenda for the council in terms of his fundamentally optimistic stance toward modernity. If the link is spurious Pope John didn’t think so.

      • DavidM

        If the link is spurious and Pope John didn’t think so, then the link is spurious and Pope John was wrong. And he was wrong. Read and wince: “Not that the need to repudiate and guard against erroneous teaching and dangerous ideologies is less today than formerly. But all such error is so manifestly contrary to rightness and goodness, and produces such fatal results, that our contemporaries show every inclination to condemn it of their own accord—especially that way of life which repudiates God and His law, and which places excessive confidence in technical progress and an exclusively material prosperity. It is more and more widely understood that personal dignity and true self-realization are of vital importance and worth every effort to achieve. More important still, experience has at long last taught men that physical violence, armed might, and political domination are no help at all in providing a happy solution to the serious problems which affect them.” Granted, that’s ‘optimistic.’ It’s also mushy foolishness.

        • Caleb Bernacchio


          • Caleb Bernacchio

            But on a more serious note, your comments are essentially irrelevant. Vatican II encourages us to seek God’s redeeming action in the world even now. Splitting hairs about optimism is really just a stance of disobedience toward the pastoral program outlined in Vatican II.

  • Thomas Storck

    “The commonality of interests between the Church and the world is strongly emphasized in Gaudium et Spes. Benedict XVI expressed similar sentiments.”

    This “commonality of interests” can mean two rather different things. It can mean that there is a commonality between the Gospel spirit and the thirst for justice and initiatives for peace. This is true, in fact, the Gospel spirit, if it is true to our Lord and his Church, must include a thirst for justice and for peace.

    But there is another way of understanding the idea of a “commonality of interests between the Church and the world.” This is that the world’s felt desires must be likewise desired and fostered by the Church. But in fact the Church has the task of telling the world what its most deep desires and needs are, the desire and need for God, for holiness, for true justice. Quite often the world does not realize that and seeks other things in a mistaken desire to find justice and peace apart from God.

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      These are both true at the same time. But i would go even further and stress the fact that ‘the world’ at times shows Christians what justice or charity really means, thus helping Christians to know better our deepest desires.

  • campus minister

    The problem with Faggioli and others, including Papa Bergolio is that they are thoroughly modern men. The problem is that the world has moved beyond modernity. One reason many “conservatives” struggle with Pope Francis is because he is a pope who wants to engage modernity but is following a pope (Benedict) who was engaging post-modernity. The Church is now ensconced in old battles and debates that few have interest in (under the age of 70).

    • Thomas Storck

      This is a very interesting comment. Can you expand on it more?

      • campus minister

        First, to Caleb’s point, my observation is correctly described as oversimplified. It is just a blog post. Nevertheless, the point remains valid. Vatican II was the Church’s attempt to finally engage modernity on its own terms. The problem was that, just as the Church decides to engage modernity, modernity decides to move on (emerging post-modernity).
        Much of Vatican II (including the VII liturgy) is addressed to an engagement with modernity. But the world (and most Catholics under the age of 50) are emerging into a post modern mindset.
        Many active young Catholics loved Benedict because he spoke to their reality. The same group does not like Francis because he has returned the conversation back to modernity. Francis is not updating as much as he is trying to present modern arguments to a world and (younger) Church that has moved on.

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      You hear this kind of thing said on occasion but I think it is at best an oversimplification. We are all modern. You, me, and ‘Papa Bergolio,’ and to say that the ‘world has moved beyond modernity,’ sounds really nice but lacks adequate specificity. Try to cash this out in a way that would be falsifiable and I think you will find that it loses any real meaning. Again, the idea that Benedict engaged with post-modernity and Francis with modernity depends on a very specific and idiosyncratic meaning of these terms. The reality is that the Church is still learning how to deal with modernity, one way or the other, and these issues are still extremely pressing. Without an accurate survey it is really difficult to say that ‘few have interest’ in the issues raised by Francis (environment, marriage, economy, ect.) and it seems just flatly false.

      • Andrew Sorokowski

        Is there a confusion here between “modernity” and “modernism”? Modernity is always with us. But modernism and post-modernism are easily distinguished. For example, modernism saw the rise of ideologies, inherently anti-Christian, such as fascism, communism — some would also include liberalism and nationalism. Post-modernism questions all such over-arching schemes, and thus offers an opportunity for Catholics to not only critique those ideologies, but to re-state a world view that to their younger adherents may appear novel and unfamiliar.

      • campus minister

        I responded to Thomas Storck, but I wouldn’t say we are now completely post-modern, rather, we are in an emerging post-modernity.

  • Ryan Carruth

    Caleb — could you expand a bit on what you mean by “pluralism in the Church” as a positive good? Does it relate to what Pope St. John Paul II wrote in the final report of the 1985 Synod in which he compares “pluralism” [consisting, it seems, of fundamentally opposed viewpoints] with “pluriformity”:

    “On the other hand, the one and unique spirit works with many and varied spiritual gifts and charisma (1 Cor. 12:4ff), the one Eucharist is celebrated in various places For this reason, the unique and universal Church is truly present in all the particular Churches (CD 11), and these are formed in the image of the universal Church in such a way that the one and unique Catholic Church exists in and through the particular Churches (LG 23). Here we have the true theological principal of variety and pluriformity in unity but it is necessary to distinguish pluriformity from pure pluralism. When pluriformity is true richness and carries with it fullness, this is true catholicity. The pluralism of fundamentally opposed positions instead leads to dissolution, destruction and the loss of identity.”

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      Yes and I think this was emphasized in Lumen Gentium and other places. But I would also note that pluralism is good insofar at it involves the active appropriation and participation in the tradition, what is termed in the same document the sensus fidelium. This is inevitably a bit ‘messy’ but it should be a process of conscience formation at the same time as it is a development of the tradition. As we have talked about before, I think this requires hesitation to authoritatively condemn or censure viewpoints that seem outside of the mainstream, a willingness to live with more disagreement than we have been with the hope that time allow for clarity.

  • Pueblo Southwest

    The Church has struggled with it’s relationship to the world for two millennia despite the rather simple dictum from its Founder to “render unto Ceasar”. We are now in a somewhat reactionary period in the sense that the state is once again attempting to assert primacy when Church practice and doctrine interferes with those in power. The Church is not wholly blameless when it presumes to insert itself into areas beyond its competence and forfeits respect in the secular world. It would appear that this relationship is destined to be strained for some time if not indefinitely.

  • How does pluralism fit in with 2Corinthians 6:14-18 which says: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty”.
    There is no unity with the world at large. The Church has to be truly Christian in order for it to have an effective impact on the world for the good.