The Vatican II Option: An Interview with Massimo Faggioli

by | Aug 6, 2018 | Faith & Politics, Global Catholicism, Interview

Today TJP presents an interview with Massimo Faggioli, church historian, professor at Villanova University and noted commentator on the public life of the Church.

TJP: Professor Faggioli, can you tell us about the crux of your work?

Faggioli: I was trained as a church historian. I started with studies in patristics for my BA/MA at the University of Bologna in the early 1990s. Then I moved towards the Council of Trent for my PhD dissertation, which I defended in 2002. Then, after my dissertation I started focusing on the Second Vatican Council and on the history of the Second Vatican Council and especially the theology of church institutions, especially the episcopacy, the diocese, the diplomatic service, the diplomatic activity of the Holy See, the Papacy. In these last 10 years, I have moved towards a slightly different aspect: the history of Catholic theology, especially the history of the ongoing reception of the Second Vatican Council.


How has your move to the United States affected your work?

It has affected my work greatly. Working in the USA has been – and still is – a great learning process for me, a great discovery not just linguistically but also because American Catholicism has a very different history from Italian and European Catholic history: there is a different set of issues, a different chronology and different relationship between the Church and other churches and the other religions, the whole problem of the Church vis-à-vis the government and the state. As we can see from the pontificate of Francis and its reception in the USA, the geopolitical imagination of the Catholic church in the USA is very different from the geopolitics of Italy and the Vatican.

Coming to America has been a great blessing, and also because it happened in a very particular time. In these last 10 years that I’ve been in the USA, the first five years were with Pope Benedict, and these last five years with Pope Francis. And so, I’ve seen this transition of pontificates from a very particular point of view and that has given me much to think about and to write from for those who see what I write in academic journals but also magazines for a wider public.


What do you find distinctive about the Catholic experience in the United States?

We should remember that the Western world becomes what we still see it is in the 20th century: it’s the American century when the whole world is centered around the United States because of democracy, of human rights, of capitalism and anti-communism. So that has attracted a certain Catholic view of things according to which in the USA there is a particularly successful version of Catholicism which according to them is essentially a Western religion. Of course, this is being rediscussed and re-evaluated not only in light of a non-European history of the Church, but also in light of the globalization of Catholicism and the emergence of the “global south” of the Church.

It is a fact that the Catholic Church in the USA is a church that is more vibrant, more militant, and more resilient vis-a-vis secularism than the churches in Europe. There’s also a risk in this in the sense that there’s the temptation sometimes to think that there is a perfect American solution for Catholic issues and Catholic problems – a solution that can be applied universally.

And I try to caution against this because there is a very particular history in the USA: it’s a Catholic church that has grown from a situation of minority in the 19th century, and slowly but steadily these last 100 years or less, towards becoming the single largest church in the United States. And that happened for a mix of reasons: economics, sociological, cultural, and migration of course.

I try in my writings and in my lectures in my courses also, to make a case for the necessity for nuance when we look at Catholic history and the Catholic models that we wish to apply. There is no one perfect model, especially today, because we have Catholics now filling big churches in Asia, in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in China, and in Africa of course.

I see my job as not giving easy answers but to ask questions that raise the complexity of issues. I try to be a theologian bound by the rule of academics but at the same time to serve the church. And so what I do is also meant to make my contribution with a cautious, I’d say also pastoral approach to complicated issues.


How did this public dimension of your vocation as theologian come about?

This is something that happened because I was asked to do that or invited to do that. Immediately after I left Italy in the summer of 2008, I started writing for an Italian newspaper on American affairs because what was happening here was the campaign and the election of Barack Obama, where religion played as we know a very important place. It is very complicated for Italians to understand how important religion is in the American politics and why.

I learned immensely by trying to explain religion and politics to Italian readers. I read a lot of things of American history and American religious history. So in the beginning I was telling Italians about the USA and slowly after a few years, I was invited to write something occasionally for America and regularly since 2015 for Commonweal.

After the election of Francis, there was the need to explain to American Catholics something of Vatican and Italian Catholicism at a very particular moment which was of the transition from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis who is Argentinian but whose culture is in part also  Italian. And there was the whole dimension of the Vatican governance and history that needed a new light.

Gradually I was called, in the sense that I was asked to write more regularly for a larger audience. In these last three years, I have been writing very regularly for Commonweal and for La Croix International, which is an English language but Asia-based Catholic, global media aggregator. It’s in English but it’s based in Asia and it has a global outreach and perspective on all things Catholic. This has become as something that was totally unexpected because I had no idea that would be something that is now a key part of my work.


What do you see as your role or presence on Twitter?

That’s a complicated question. Between your online presence and your academic profile there is a very delicate balance because Twitter can be really destructive of personal relationships and of your balance in terms of the proper way to talk in public. And I try really, really hard not to make statements against a particular person.

When I travel internationally I am most of the time away from social media and all the time every day I am in touch with real people. It is very interesting, for example, the impression you have of Pope Francis’s pontificate on Twitter on one side and in a few days with Catholics in Brazil or Germany or Australia on the other side. It couldn’t be more different. So there is a distortion there that we should be aware of.


A theme that’s been of great interest to you is Catholic illiberalism and the crisis of Catholic confidence in liberal democracy. What explains the rise of this Catholic anti-liberalism, and what is at stake with it?

What explains the rise of Catholic anti-liberalism are reasons that are multiple and complex, of course. But as an historian, I can see some similarities with the rise of Catholic anti-liberalism in Europe in the 1920s, 1930s and today: that should make us very concerned because one of the similarities it’s the idea that modernity and liberal democracy are inherently an enemy of Christianity, of Catholicism, of the Church and of religion.

This anti-liberal and anti-modern culture are an expression of the moral outrage of many Catholics for the abortion issue, the rise of a technocratic mentality, about what kind of lives are worth living, are worth caring for and the lives that can be destroyed. These are very, very serious issues. But I’m concerned with the attempt of saying all this is happening because of liberalism: because this is historically not true and it’s ideological.

Because if we look at history, the assault on the sanctity of human life in modernity is very visible also in anti-liberal or illiberal regimes. Fascism, communism, Catholic or Christian authoritarian regimes – don’t not have a better record in protecting human rights or even abortion or euthanasia.

I think that this anti-liberal or illiberal Catholic temptation is the voice of a minority, but it’s a minority made also of intellectuals who teach in important universities, they write, they are listened to, respected. I believe it is simplistic the attempt to equate secularization and technocracy with liberalism. I would make a case that technocracy and hatred for religion, for a non-spiritual view of the human person, has worked really well in non-liberal systems, non-liberal democracies, non-constitutional democracies.

This concerns me because of the enormous contribution made by Catholics in the 20th century – contribution made in ink but also in blood – to make us understand that to be witness of the gospel you do not have to have an agenda that is trying to take away the fundamentality of the freedom of the human person created in the image of God.

This is something that has become more evident in these last few years because what we now see this global chaos – it’s the evident crisis and disruption of globalization. We live in an age of destruction which is social, economic, political, constitutional. And I’m very afraid that some Catholics might be tempted to say, “Well, we have abortion laws. We have this disregard for human life and this is because of what happened in this last few decades. So let’s go back to the 1930s or 1920s or the 19th century and we will not have abortions anymore.” I think this is naïve or disingenuous, and very dangerous.

Also because this anti-liberal argument that we should restrict our idea of freedom has a certain appeal to, for example American Catholics who are disgusted with the abuse of individual liberties. But if you talk to Christians who live in countries where they never enjoyed a system of constitutional freedom, they would look at you as if you’re crazy: the absence of a culture of rights protected by the constitution means for them that they do not have religious liberty, for example.

So if we take seriously the global nature of Catholicism, we cannot be so casual about the importance of the idea of freedom for the Catholic church – which is clearly not the same idea of freedom that American liberal culture has. Freedom is a complicated business because it can be dangerous, of course. But I see that it’s a very dangerous moment for Catholics when they try to make an explicit direct argument for anti-liberalism because it might be exciting to say, “Let’s tear down the system where liberals gloats when they score a victory against Christians on abortion.”

I understand the rage of the pro-life culture, but I’m deeply skeptical at the idea that an anti-liberal regime would be more friendly to the issues they care deeply about – and I care deeply about. I think it’s very naïve and historically false. Moreover, if Catholics want to be counter-cultural, there’s nothing more counter-cultural today than advocating or defending constitutional democracy protecting the rights and freedom of the human person, especially religious minorities. Look at the world where strong men are in charge: Russia, China, India, the Philippines … and the USA. The rules and ethos of constitutional democracy are not very popular today. And all these strong men are not doing what they’re doing because they like religion or they are anti-abortion. They do that for different set of issues.


You have presented a negative task of disabusing people of a sort of nostalgia or illusions about anti-liberalism, but what would the positive task look like? Is there a responsibility of Catholics to bolster the liberal order? With what resources would they do that? 

The constructive part is to say that there is a kernel, there is a core of Catholic ideas that we can really use to aim for a re-discussion of what democracy is, what constitutional democracy is. So we need that debate. I’m not saying that everything is fine with our system. On the contrary – look at social and economic inequality in America and not only. I just don’t think that a demagogic argument for something new as long as we can destroy this system, whatever will come will be better. I think this is very dangerous and irresponsible.

There is a patrimony of ideas and of experiences of Catholics that I believe is still valid. The fact is that there are some Catholic ideas about the economy, for example, that are very unpopular, even with those who advocate for a post-liberal order. So they tend to be very adamant on the fact that the some aspects of the liberal order are against respect of human life and I totally agree. But they are not so keen on considering what Catholic social doctrine says – for example about progressive taxation, or war, or guns, or workers’ unions.

So I don’t think you can translate immediately Catholic social teaching into a political platform or a party. My job is to remind ourselves that we have a body of teaching that is Catholic and is compatible with constitutional democracy. Actually, some scholars who advocate that key ideas of constitutional democracy are an expression of the Catholic social teaching in the 20th century. On the other hand, Catholicism is not a liberal framework. There are some differences with the liberal framework but at the same time, Catholicism is not simply the negation of liberalism. So this is part of the American reduction and simplification of everything to liberal/anti-liberal and the Catholic element gets lost in this.


You talk in the Introduction to your book Catholicism and Citizenship about what I think you’re saying is a failed desacralization of politics: “Thus far, the desacralization of politics did not mean taking distance from the idolatry of ideologies and of identities. Rather, the sacralization of politics today translates into the loss of the sense of a mutual commitment to others.”

I think that we have seen in these last few decades not only a secularization from religion but also a secularization from that sacred bond that was politics as a commitment to one another. This is why I’m concerned when I see theology being used in an anti-liberal fashion or in an illiberal fashion because what we need is a new theology of democracy: not in the sense that truth is up to vote, but of democracy in the sense that we are responsible for one another and there are institutions that keep us together and there is a constitutional system that is the best thing we have for now to keep this thing working. Empty pews and empty polls, they go together. 

Francis is not advocating as a lobbyist for one particular group of people, one particular Church. He’s saying we are in this together. His speech on synodality of 2015 is masterful because he says the Catholic church has to set an example about how to govern our world in an age where decisions are more and more made by small groups of selected few who act disregarding the voice of the people. Francis has captured exactly what the problem is globally, politically and theologically. Francis is not a liberal theologian. But he understands that there is a way of being church and a true theology that can give an answer to what’s happening.


You tweeted recently: “Among other things, the clerical sex abuse is setting back the Catholic discourse on Church reform: until recently we were convinced that the problem was mostly the institutional delay in dealing with new issues, and no longer the problem of deep corruption of individuals.” What is the nature of this setback, and how can it be overcome?

In one of the classics of Catholic ecclesiology, True and False Reform in the Church, the most important theologian of Vatican II, Yves Congar, O.P., wrote that the Church had to face the problem of reform not in terms of corruption or abuses, but mostly in terms of the delay of the ecclesiastical institutions in dealing with the need to update their structure and practices in light of the changed social, cultural, and political context. In 1950, the year the first edition of the book was published, Congar assumed that the problem of moral corruption in the Church was no longer the most important. Now, if we look at our situation, and especially at the clerical sex abuse and financial scandals, we see the difference between Congar’s world and ours. Looking at the scandals in the Church of today, the temptation is to go back to a pre-modern approach to the issue of reform, that is, purely in terms of corruption of individuals. This problem is certainly there and we need to address it; but it shouldn’t become a way to avoid the issue of structural changes that are made necessary by the fact that the Church lives in a global and multicultural world.  Purifying the Church from corruption and abuses is not a partisan issue, but the way we do the purifying says a lot about our ecclesiology.


Image courtesy of author at Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture.


Bill McCormick, SJ   /   All posts by Bill