The Vatican II Option: a Review of Catholicism and Citizenship

By Caleb Bernacchio
December 11, 2017

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.