HHistory never repeats itself, but human thought and behavior patterns repeat themselves all the time. William Faulkner captured this well when he said that “the past is never dead; it didn’t even happen. And that simple fact informs the work of Carlos Eire and Brad S. Gregory in their studies of the sixteenth century and its troubles. As Gregory notes in The Involuntary Reform, “what happened five centuries ago [in Europe] continues today” to influence the lives of people around the world. This applies whether they are religious or not, and whether they know it or not. Eire says much the same thing in his Reforms. He argues that “no Westerner can ever hope to know themselves, or the world they live in, without first understanding this crucial turning point in history”.
History follows us and shapes us. A personal example: My paternal grandfather was born exactly 360 years after the excommunication of Martin Luther. His home was a village in Baden-Württemberg. He grew up on the dividing line between Catholic Germany and Lutheran Germany. Raised Catholic, he immigrated to New York in 1905 at the age of twenty-four. He met a young woman, a Lutheran. He converts to marry her. My father, born in 1910, was raised a Lutheran. And he grew up on a New York street with an invisible DMZ in the middle, separating German Lutherans on one side from Irish Catholics on the other.
Naturally, he fell in love with the girl opposite. To marry my mother, he became a Catholic. . . and her Protestant parents refused to recognize the couple for years. Note that my mother’s family was no warmer than my father’s to the idea of an intermarriage. And for understandable reasons. Belief provides a framework and a cement for the long term of a shared life. Over time, every marriage has challenges. The unity of a family under pressure is fragile. Divided creed loyalties – differing convictions about what is right and wrong, what is true and what is not – threaten this unity. Many exceptions exist, of course. But these are exceptions. We are each a tangle of memories and assumptions fueled by the past. And one of the lessons learned from the past is that conflicts over faith, both personal and cultural, can be a wrecking ball.
Which more or less describes the sixteenth century. And also ours. Scientism, for example, is not the successor to religious belief; it’s just another competing form of it. And the social sciences are probably not a science at all, but a form of moral philosophy. This does not detract from their usefulness for certain tasks. But their truth claims tend to come from beliefs about the nature and purpose of the human animal that are vastly different, but no more “rational” than biblical faith.
All systems of reasoning develop from ultimately unprovable axioms. A high-tech society produces the tangible results, along with the anesthetics and distractions, to make materialism plausible. That doesn’t make it true though. So when a cardinal of the Roman Church suggests, then returns, but again seems to imply that Christian sexual morality is untenable in the light of science – as Jean-Claude Hollerich did – one might wonder what he really believes; where he really bases his faith. So many of the most vocal supporters of this pontificate are ambiguous about questions of sexual identity and behavior that one can miss the larger problem of the current papacy: the confusion it sows at a time when the confusion has a very high cost.
When Karl Polanyi published The great metamorphosis in 1944, on the effects of the industrial revolution, transistors and computer chips were unknown. They were still in the future. So has the massive change they have brought about. He thus captured just one disruption in a growing wave of transformative social disruptions that date back, at least in part, to the rifts of the 16th century. In these times, the last thing Christians need is what this pontificate seems to encourage: more ambiguity in matters of faith. Christians need reasons to trust the Word of God, the teachings of their Church, and the meaning of their lives. They need a revival of zeal. They need clarity of mission. And they need leaders who can respond convincingly to all of the above. They do not understand. A global listening process, with modest grassroots participation, to prepare for a 2023-24 “synod on synodality” is unlikely to produce any of this. This may have value, but it is difficult to see how it serves the words of Matthew 28:19-20.
To be fair, Pope Francis follows a string of popes who have endured the bloodiest century in history. It is a difficult act to follow. Jorge Bergoglio’s journey is very different, but he has his own strengths and pains, rooted in the Latin American experience. Comparisons can therefore be unfair. His apostolic exhortation of 2013, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), remains a beautiful, exhilarating read. All of his published teachings have moments of spiritual power. But they are undermined by contradictions in his temperament and leadership, and by a lack of organic coherence.
The irony is that this pontificate has created as much anxiety and bewilderment as joy. Francis often criticized legalistic “doctors of the law” and the rigidity of the Church. Yet his own manner towards anything resembling disagreement is often shy and overbearing. His irritated closing comments to the bishops gathered at the 2015 synod on the family were, to put it mildly, awkward. The delegates had apparently failed to give him what he wanted. And his realignment of priorities at the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences – beginning with the appointment of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as President and Grand Chancellor respectively, a less than ideal man for either job – to have long-term negative effects. None of this absolves Catholics from praying for the Holy Father and supporting him in his legitimate service to the faith. But this does not authorize the deactivation of the critical spirit either.
History never repeats itself, but its lessons transcend time. Unity in a family, including the Church family, can be fragile. Confusion is toxic. And ignoring it, activating it or feeding it has consequences.
Francis X. Maier is Senior Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
first things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to donate.
Click here to subscribe to first things.
Image by Alfredo Borba under Creative Commons license. Cropped image.