Liberal Catholics Have Lost the Culture War (But Refuse to Admit It)

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Liberal Catholics Have Lost the Culture War (But Refuse to Admit It)
Prof. Faggioli said that the Francis pontificate’s reforming momentum had run out. Is he right?

Credit must be given to Prof. Massimo Faggioli on at least one count: he shows candid frankness by saying what his liberal Catholic comrades refuse to admit while hiding their heads in the sand.

The Villanova University scholar wrote two articles in La Croix International shortly after the publication of Querida Amazonia (2020), the post-synodal exhortation in which Pope Francis failed to heed the Pan-Amazonian Synod suggestion to bestow the priesthood on married community leaders. In short, Prof. Faggioli said that the Francis pontificate’s reforming momentum had run out. From now on, we will witness its decline. “One has the impression that during the last several months, the dynamism of his pontificate has begun to reach its limit,” he asserted.

Faggioli’s diagnosis unleashed a crisis in liberal Catholic ranks. Six months later, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a close collaborator of Pope Francis, decided to publish a long article in Civiltà Cattolica, of which he is the director, to explain “what is the driving force of his pontificate.”

In an apparent reference to the above-cited articles, Father Spadaro recognizes in the first paragraph that “some commentators and analysts have wondered if Francis’ drive still exists.” He then explains at length how the Pope follows Ignatian spirituality, which requires interior conversion before reforming structures. Thus, “the Pope has neither pre-packaged ideas to apply to reality, nor an ideological plan of ready-to-wear reforms, but he advances on the basis of a spiritual experience.” He creates “the structural conditions for a real and open dialogue” with the faithful since “reality is always superior to the idea.”

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Father Spadaro tries to explain to his liberal Catholic friends that the Pope cannot advance further without discerning whether the vast majority of the faithful is prepared to accept radical changes such as abolishing priestly celibacy or introducing female diaconate. Francis himself affirmed this strategy in a personal note he shared with Civiltà Cattolica and first quoted in an article on the Pan-Amazonian Synod: “There was a discussion… a rich discussion… a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different from arriving at a good and justified consensus or relative majority.”

According to Father Spadaro, the result of this discernment of reality is that “if the conditions are not met, the pope simply does not proceed, without however denying the validity of the proposals. Instead, he asks that the discernment continue and leaves the discussion open.” In other words, the preparatory work to transship the fold ideologically to his position must continue before the desired revolution can proceed without arousing too much resistance.

Massimo Faggioli recently returned to his frankness with a new article in La Croix International that will undoubtedly make waves in liberal Catholic ranks. Skeptical about the possibility of Pope Francis imposing an ecclesiological revolution from above, he titled his article: “The Unhealthy Obsession with the Papacy and the Future of Catholicism.” The article states that many “Vatican II Catholics” are victims of “self-delusion” and are “stuck on a Roman strategy with little hope of near-term ‘success.’”

With great lucidity, the scholar says that “Vatican II Catholicism often became complacent and saw itself as the inevitable future.” Thus, it did not see “the need to invest resources in the younger generations of clergy and those working for the institutional Church.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, “neo-conservatives (first) and neo-traditionalists (later)” got deeply committed to a catechetical and apologetic effort adapted to a “popular audience.”

Drawing an eloquent parallel with American politics, the U.S.-based Italian theologian and historian argues that liberal Catholics behave like Democrats who seek only the presidency and aim for the long term. At the same time, traditional Catholics, like Republicans, engage in local work and strive for gradual and short-term advances. “It is mostly local ecclesial experiences that determine the dynamics of Catholicism,” he acknowledges, displaying lucidity absent from many of his fellow travelers. The latter cannot recognize the vitality of conservative parishes and communities where they celebrate the Traditional Mass.

Faced with this reality, Faggioli sounds the alarm to awaken complacent and deluded liberal Catholics: “If you think that neo-traditionalist, anti-Vatican II Catholicism is just an ephemeral, seasonal disease, you are wrong, especially in some countries. Just look at the ideological tendency within the majority of the U.S. bishops and the young clergy.”

Showing contempt for and a lack of knowledge of the reality of traditional Catholicism, he bitterly expresses the perplexity of lucid liberals: “How did right-wing Catholics, angry converts, Catholic Barthians, Burke-ists, Francis-haters & Co.—a minority of voices—happen to scream the loudest and wield such influence with ordinary Catholics and their kids?”

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His answer is naturalistic and superficial: “It’s the simplistic, objectivistic apologetical training that right-wing Catholics received before they discovered social media.” This explanation seems inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1947), in which the Italian Communist intellectual tried to explain to his atheist confreres that the Catholic Church’s “cultural hegemony” results from the constant repetition of the truths of Faith and the catechism for children.

Faggioli states this “bottom-up interpretation of how power gets results.” It explains why traditional Catholicism “can suck all the air out of the room and be ‘received’ as ‘orthodox Catholics,’ while Pope Francis can be condemned as a Satanist and heretic.”

To counter the conservatives’ growing hegemony, Faggioli says that liberal Catholics should emulate them by “working from the ground up rather than moaning about what they’re doing or not doing at the top… The parallel to election boards and city clerks—the lower-level action—is thus truly the pastoral bottom line: homilies, catechetics, apologetics.”

Equally expressive is the Faggiolian warning about the contents of the new liberal pastoral policy that should prioritize—mirabile dictum—religious teaching as such: “An exclusive focus on the on-the-ground work for social justice issues and Catholic social thought, without a concern for the ‘canonical’ theological formation (Bible, liturgy, sacraments, history of the tradition) of the younger members of the Church, is a losing strategy,” the Villanova academician insists.

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Massimo Faggioli’s Gramscian conception of the Church’s internal dynamics fails to capture the role played by the sensus fidei in the flock’s resistance to novelties incompatible with traditional teaching. This role was assumed in the fourth century when, in the words of Cardinal Newman, “the Divine Tradition as entrusted to the infallible Church was much more proclaimed and preserved by the faithful than by the episcopacy.” At an April 2018 congress in Rome titled “Catholic Church, Where Are You Going?,” Walter Cardinal Brandmüller—one of the four signatories of the dubia about Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia—gave a scholarly explanation of this fact.

By being in the state of grace and thus practicing the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, the former President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences explains, the lay faithful can acquire “a deepening understanding of revealed truth,” which works as a “kind of spiritual immune system which induces the faithful to recognize and reject instinctively all error.” In the cardinal’s view, the Filial Correction signed by more than 200 scholars and the Filial Appeal to Pope Francis, promoted by Tradition, Family, Property (TFP) and signed by nearly one million Catholics worldwide were prominent examples of how this spiritual immune system works regarding Amoris Laetitia.

Four years later, his words maintain all their relevance. Immunized by Faith, Catholics loyal to traditional Church teaching become involved in parishes and movements to resist the efforts of Faggioli’s liberal followers. The Villanova theologian’s pessimistic hunch will come true: “Without a reclamation of the Catholic charism at the local level—schools and universities included—this Vatican II pontificate will be wasted, especially for Churches like the one in the United States.”

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The current pontificate’s failure to permanently revolutionize the Church is inevitable. The Holy Spirit bestows Catholic charisma from above to preserve the integrity of the Deposit of Faith and explain it adequately to new generations of Catholics so they don’t follow what the Germans call Zeitgeist—the evil spirit of the times. As Our Lord said, “the evil tree brings forth evil fruit” (Mt 7:18).

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