Anniversaries can help us remember that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And this is particularly true for the Catholic Church. Massimo Faggioli looks ahead to 2019

Excerpt from Massimo Faggioli in LaCroix

…As William Faulkner famously wrote, anniversaries can help us remember that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And this is particularly true for the Catholic Church.

The First Vatican Council

One of the historic events the Church will be celebrating in 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the First Vatican Council. The commemoration will likely be marked by newly published books and a various conferences and other ecclesial events — often ways to signal a policy change under the guise of talking about past events.

Pius IX opened Vatican I in December 1869, but the assembly was suspended (not formally concluded) in September 1870. It was the last council held under a pope who was also a king.

Vatican I is known mostly for the dogma of papal infallibility. The bishops at the council voted along “party lines” — infallibilists versus anti-infallibilists. There was no real effort at creating unanimity, especially from Pope Pius, who made decisive interventions at the council’s most important moments.

But Vatican I was about more than just papal infallibility. The Catholic Church today should remember two other important aspects from this council.

First, Vatican I’s contribution to the growth of the papacy in the contemporary world was due more to its emphasis on papal primacy rather than infallibility, which was quickly revealed to be a highly impractical weapon in the hands of the papacy. It is because of the primacy that the Catholic Church is today much more papalist than ever before. This is both due to Vatican I and despite Vatican II (the Second Vatican Council).

On the other hand, as John O’Malley, SJ, notes in his latest book on Vatican I, the victory for the infallibilist majority at the council was also a posthumous victory for the minority in the non-extremist way in which the definition of papal infallibility has been interpreted in the Church and by the magisterium since 1870.

Second, Vatican I officially sanctioned and endorsed a theological-political movement in reaction to liberalism, which had started in the first half of the 19th century. The Ultramontane Movement (represented by intellectuals such as de Maistre, Lamennais, and Veuillot in France, Cortes in Spain, Görres in Germany and Manning in England) recentered Catholicism around the pope and Rome. It was against not only Gallicanism but also liberalism in general.

There are interesting parallels between the ultramontane movement that began 150 years ago and the neo-traditionalist movement in the early 21st century — that is, contemporary — Catholicism, evidenced through the role played by certain recent converts to Catholicism and the Catholic media.

The year 2019 will say something about the force and cohesion of this assault on the papacy from the small neo-traditionalist fringes in the Catholic Church, after the “shoot and miss” that was the clumsy coup d’eglise engineered by Archbishop Viganò and his network of visible and invisible supporters in the summer of 2018.

Catholics and politics

Another anniversary in 2019 from which today’s Church can gain insight is the centenary of the foundation of Italy’s Catholic-inspired political party, the Partito Popolare Italiano (PPI). It marks the first time in more than four decades that the papacy formally allowed Italian Catholics to actively engage in politics, after Pope Benedict XV lifted the 1874 ban imposed by Pius IX.

The PPI founder, Father Luigi Sturzo, was sent into exile by the fascists only a few years later, but not without encouragement from the papacy. The priest’s exile preceded an agreement between Mussolini and the Holy See to find a solution to the “Roman question” and fight against communism and socialism.

The centenary is an interesting anniversary because the foundation of the PPI marked the most important experiment of a political party inspired by the Church’s social doctrine. It also recalls the uneasiness of Vatican authorities, who saw Father Sturzo as too independent from their control. And it illustrates how the pope chose to deal with the overarching issue of the time — the threat of totalitarianism — and what kind of compromises the Church was willing to make in order to survive.

The cause of beatification of Father Sturzo is now underway and the 100th anniversary of the PPI could give a boost to the process.

However, the centenary is also a reminder of how much has changed since the days of Luigi Sturzo. A century ago Catholics were experiencing a brief period of freedom from the grip of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Though Sturzo went into exile in 1924 and the party was disbanded, at least for a time Catholics in Italy were given the autonomy to explore the complexities of dealing with the earthly city.

But after 20 years of his exile and with the conclusion of the Second World War, many of Sturzo’s intuitions about the Church and modern politics came back and contributed to the building of a new Italy and a new Europe. Catholics were able to dialogue and work together with democratic socialists and liberals. It was the beginning of the European social model, which is now in peril. And there could be even more in peril after the elections of the new European Parliament in May 2019.

It is a battle in which some Catholics — such as Steve Bannon and his allies in North America and in Europe — are trying to impose a new European political order. They are doing this through a network of intellectuals and influential figures, including some Catholic prelates, who are opposed to Pope Francis. Probably not even “St. Luigi Sturzo” could save the legacy of the international order created by Christian-democratic parties in the ongoing battle for Europe’s political future.

The beginning of the globalization of religions

A third anniversary in 2019 is concerned with the nexus between the crisis of globalization and the globalization of religions. It is related to two major events in 1979 that changed the world in which religions have been operating up until today.

The first was the Iranian Revolution. Led by Ayatollah Khomeini, this marked the overthrow of the last shah and turned Persia into the Islamic Republic of Iran. Four decades later, the balance of power between Shia and Sunni Islam in the Middle East has shifted greatly.

The rise of the Iranian Shia has had a major impact on the major actors in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and especially Syria. This has had huge consequences for the relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But it has most significantly impacted on the Christian minority in the region, especially after the wars involving Western coalitions in Iraq between 1991 and today.

The second event of 1979 took place in China. A new communist leader, Deng Xiaoping, forged a groundbreaking policy that triggered an economic renaissance and thrust China on the global stage — not just economically but also culturally — for the first time since the 1949 revolution.

This ushered China into the geopolitics of religion and of Christianity. The future of Christianity cannot be understood without looking at its presence in China, which is one of the reasons for the recent historic agreement between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of Catholic bishops.

Most observers at the time failed to grasp the magnitude that these events of 1979 had for the future of the world. This included those who interpreted everything through the lens of “secularization theory,” for which the resurgence of religion was just a short-lived chimera.

But the Holy See was among those few that immediately understood the geopolitical implications that these enormous changes would have on Catholicism.

The popes and the Vatican have shown over these last 40 years a remarkable political and intellectual independence from the West in dealing with the rising power in the Middle East (Iran) and in Asia (China). They have demonstrated a willingness to pursue even the narrowest and almost impossible paths of dialogue with powers perceived to be enemies of the geopolitical center of Western Christianity.

This is essential in understanding the Vatican and its role in this age of disrupted globalization.

Pope Francis, in particular, has promoted the Catholic tradition of healthy disenchantment with the Westernization of Christianity. Looking at his international travel plan for 2019, there are good reasons to believe that the papacy will continue to be one of the most interesting centers of thought and action in this age.

* Massimo Faggioli is an Italian-born professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and an award-winning author of more than a dozen books on Catholicism. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

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