PopeWatch: Twilight of Catholicism

Sandro Magister has posted a fascinating article that PopeWatch believes is a real help in understanding the current Pontificate:

Much has been written in sketching an appraisal of the first five years of the pontificate of Francis and of his real or imaginary “revolution.”

But rarely, if ever, with the acuteness and extensive scope of the analysis published below.

The author, Roberto Pertici, 66, is a professor of contemporary history at the university of Bergamo and has focused his studies on Italian culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with particular attention to relations between Church and state.

His essay is being issued for the very first time on Settimo Cielo.



by Roberto Pertici

1. At this point in the pontificate of Francis, I believe it can be reasonably maintained that this marks the twilight of that imposing historical reality which can be defined as “Roman Catholicism.”

This does not mean, properly understood, that the Catholic Church is coming to an end, but that what is fading is the way in which it has historically structured and represented itself in recent centuries.

It seems evident to me, in fact, that this is the plan being deliberately pursued by the “brain trust” that has clustered around Francis: a plan understood both as an extreme response to the crisis in relations between the Church and the modern world, and as a precondition for a renewed ecumenical course together with the other Christian confessions, especially the Protestant.


2. By “Roman Catholicism” I mean that grand historical, theological, and juridical construction which has its origin in the Hellenization (in terms of the philosophical aspect” and Romanization (in terms of the political-juridical aspect) of primitive Christianity and is based on the primacy of the successors of Peter, as emerges from the crisis of the late ancient world and from the theoretical systematization of the Gregorian age (“Dictatus Papae”).

Over the subsequent centuries, the Church also established its own internal legal system, canon law, looking to Roman law as its model. And this juridical element contributed to gradually shaping a complex hierarchical organization with precise internal norms that regulate the life both of the “bureaucracy of celibates” (an expression of Carl Schmitt) that manages it and of the laity who are part of it.

The other decisive moment of formation of “Roman Catholicism” is, finally, the ecclesiology elaborated by the council of Trent, which reiterates the centrality of ecclesiastical mediation in view of salvation, in contrast with the Lutheran theses of the “universal priesthood,” and therefore establishes the hierarchical, united, and centralized character of the Church; its right to supervise and, if need be, to condemn positions that are in contrast with the orthodox formulation of the truths of faith; its role in the administration of the sacraments.

This ecclesiology finds its seal in the dogma of pontifical infallibility proclaimed by Vatican Council I, put to the test eighty years later in the dogmatic affirmation of the Assumption of Mary into heaven (1950), which together with the previous dogmatic proclamation of her Immaculate Conception (1854) also reiterates the centrality of Marian devotion.

It would be reductive, however, if we were to limit ourselves to what has been said so far. Because there also exists – or better, existed – a widespread “Catholic mindset,” made up of the following:

– a cultural attitude based on a realism with regard to human nature that is sometimes disenchanted and willing to “understand all” as a precondition for “forgiving all”;
– a non-ascetic spirituality that is understanding toward certain material aspects of life, and not inclined to disdain them;
– engagement in everyday charity toward the humble and needy, without the need to idealize them or almost make new idols of them;
– a willingness also to represent itself in its own magnificence, and therefore not deaf to the evidence of beauty and of the arts, as testimony to a supreme Beauty toward which the Christian must tend;
– a subtle examination of the most inward movements of the heart, of the interior struggle between good and evil, of the dialectic between “temptations” and the response of conscience.

It could therefore be said that in what I call “Roman Catholicism” there are interwoven three aspects, obviously in addition to that of religion: the aesthetical, the juridical, the political. This is a matter of a rational vision of the world that makes itself a visible and solid institution and fatally enters into conflict with the idea of representation that emerged in modernity, based on individualism and on a conception of power that, rising from the bottom up, ends up bringing into question the principle of authority.


3. This conflict has been considered in different ways, often opposing, by those who have analyzed it. Carl Schmitt looked with admiration to the “resistance” of “Roman Catholicism,” considered the last force capable of reining in the dissipatory forces of modernity. Others have made tough criticisms of him: in this struggle, the Catholic Church is seen as having ruinously emphasized its juridical-hierarchical, authoritarian, external traits.

Beyond these opposing evaluations, it is certain that in recent centuries “Roman Catholicism” has been pushed onto the defensive. What has gradually brought its social presence into question has been above all the birth of industrial society and the consequent process of modernization, which has opened a series of anthropological mutations that are still underway. Almost as if “Roman Catholicism” were “organic” (to say it the old Marxist way) to a society that is agrarian, hierarchical, static, based on penury and fear and instead could not find relevance in a society that is “affluent,” dynamic, characterized by social mobility.

A first response to this situation of crisis was given by the ecumenical council Vatican II (1962-1965), which according to the intentions of Pope John XXIII, who had convened it, was to effect a “pastoral updating,” looking with new optimism at the modern world, which meant finally letting the guard down: no longer carrying on with an age-old duel, but opening a dialogue and effecting an encounter.

The world was swept up during those years in extraordinary changes and in an unprecedented economic development: probably the most sensational, rapid, and profound revolution in the human condition of which there is any trace in history (Eric J. Hobsbawm). The event of the council contributed to this mutation, but was in its turn engulfed by it: the rhythm of the “updatings” – fostered also by the dizzying transformations in the surroundings and by the general conviction, sung by Bob Dylan, that “the times they are a-changin’” – got out of hand for the hierarchy, or at least for that part of it which wanted to effect a reform, not a revolution.

Thus between 1967 and 1968 one witnessed the “watershed” of Paul VI, which expressed itself in the preoccupied analysis of the turbulence of ’68 and then of the “sexual revolution” contained in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” of July 1968. So great was the pessimism to which that great pontiff came in the 1970’s that, conversing with the philosopher Jean Guitton, he wondered to himself and asked him, echoing a disquieting passage from the Gospel of Luke: “When the Son of Man returns, will he still find faith upon the earth?” And he added: “What strikes me, when I consider the Catholic world, is that within Catholicism there sometimes seems to predominate a type of thinking that is not Catholic, and it could happen that this non-Catholic thinking within Catholicism could tomorrow become the stronger one.”


Go here to read the rest.  One of the striking features of Pope Francis is his frequent outbursts against aspects of traditional Catholicism.  Recall this for example from 2013:


I share with you two concerns. One is the Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council… One feels in 1940… An anecdote, just to illustrate this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns me; when I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but this thing of counting… And these groups return to practices and to disciplines that I lived through – not you, because you are not old – to disciplines, to things that in that moment took place, but not now, they do not exist today…

Go here to read the rest.  One of the most perilous events that can befall any institution is when a person is in charge who clearly has little fondness for the institution.  Perhaps the easiest way to understand the strong desire of Pope Francis for changing the Church is to understand that traditional Catholicism has little appeal for him.  It has been truly said that no man is a patriot who loves his country only on the condition that it be completely transformed.  Likewise, loving some future hypothetical Church of the future is small substitute for feeling hostility to the Church today.



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  1. My simple mind still cannot get over the sulphuric-laden concept that there can be more than one legitimate type of “Catholicism.” I rest my peace-filled understanding upon one message from Christ–we are either with Him, or against Him. I recall no revisiting of the material world by the Messiah, to establish a new “modern or post-modern church.”

  2. I transitioned to the TLM from the NO about six months ago, entirely as an act of rebellion against mediocre Catholicism. And that includes hipster Steubenville “conservatism.”

    I think the NO is going to die out, eventually. I am still barely understanding what is happening with the TLM, but even in my podunk river town this Mass is overwhelmingly superior to the social gab-fest of the NO.

  3. You would have to show that clip!!!
    Disgraceful imo.

    The easiest litmus test is vocations.

    How well did the “new” Catholic Church do in vocations to the priesthood and Religious life? George’s home country per se. Poland? Nigeria?
    I believe that the orthodox Catholic traditions are leading the way to new vocations….. perpetual Eucharist Adoration Chapels, TLM, consecration to Jesus Through Mary.. parental enthusiasm and encouragement being #1.
    Is it my bias, or am I on to the truth?

  4. The Pontiff equates traditional Catholics with the Argentine economic and political class that was opposed to Peron – he holds them in contempt.

    I hope the cardinals who elected him are happy with their deeds. I know i’m not.

  5. This sums up the Frankenchurch pontificate:

    “One of the most perilous events that can befall any institution is when a person is in charge who clearly has little fondness for the institution.”

    And, that, followed by this jewel of observation:
    ” Likewise, loving some future hypothetical Church of the future is small substitute for feeling hostility to the Church today.”

    One who would rather love something that doesnt yet exist, and likely never will, tells all one needs to know about his/her contempt for what does actually exist in the here and now.

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