There has been much commentary on Archbishop Carlo Viganó’s recent bombshell letters, including from many who have strongly criticized both Archbishop Viganó’s motives and the contents of his testimonies. My interest here is to draw out a more explicit assumption, or first principle, at work in many of the writings of Vigano’s critics. This is not a critique of Pope Francis, but an attempt to show that those who have sought to undermine Vigano’s account do so by portraying Francis’ papacy through a lens that is imitative of Francis Fukayama’s “End of History” dialectic.
Two recent criticisms set the stage for this argument. The first comes from a comment made on Twitter by Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli:
I am afraid alt-right figures are using this—Vigano and not only—as an opportunity to destroy the institution in order to gain control of it. Turn bishops against one another. Get the laity to mistrust the leaders and work for their demise.
A second was given by the English priest James Alison. Alison considers what the Catholic Church can do in light of the recent sex abuse scandals, most especially within the context of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Writing in the Tablet, Alison ponders:
What is to be done, and what is quietly happening? In my view the first thing is for the laity to be encouraged in their fast growing majority acceptance of being gay as a normal part of life. This, despite fierce resistance from elements of the clerical closet. Pope Francis’ reported conversation with Juan Carlos Cruz (a gay man abused in his youth by the Chilean priest, Fr Karadima) is a gem in this area: “Look Juan Carlos, the pope loves you this way. God made you like this and he loves you”. This remark led to much spluttering and explaining away from those who realize that the moment you say “God made you like this” then the game is up as regards the “intrinsic evil” of the acts.
Nevertheless, it is only when straightforward, and obviously true, Christian messaging like Francis’ becomes normal among the laity themselves that honesty can become the norm among the clergy. (Emphasis added)
Faggioli and Alison’s comments (as well as similar remarks given by Jesuit priests Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Fr. James Martin) display an attempt to understand the Francis Pontificate that is remarkably akin to Francis Fukayama’s “End of History” narrative. For Fukayama, the notion of the “end of history” does not mean that history is now over. Rather, the notion refers to “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In this rationalist account, history is understood as an entity, a Being that has given to the world a totalizing system that can solve the problems of human living in this world. According to the “end of history” dialectic, the various problems associated with living in a modern liberal democracy are not the result of democracy’s own internal problems. Rather, there is a misunderstanding or misapplication. The solution is to have more, not less, democracy.
Many of Vigano’s critics seem convinced that the Francis pontificate is analogous to modern liberal democracy. They presuppose that the problems facing the church can never stem from Francis himself. Francis’ actions and words can never be understood as a source of confusion or discord.
This coincides with an additional component of the “end of history” dialectic witnessed in many of Vigano’s critics. Anyone who would call into question the overarching narrative are ultimately conceived as enemies of an inevitable force that is unstoppable. If one opposes the trajectory of history as an entity, defeat is the only possibility. Similarly, the force that seems to be moving Francis’ pontificate as well as the issues that many of Vigano’s critics deem fundamental to the faith are believed to be unstoppable. As Fr. Spadaro recently wrote, “…the Franciscan revolution is under way and in spite of his vehement critics the revolution will roll on and new horizons will be opened for the one and a half billion Catholics in the world today”.
This presentism and historicism is certainly at work in Alison’s defense of the church changing its teaching on homosexuality: the laity are “to be encouraged in their fast-growing majority acceptance of being gay as a normal part of life.” From such a viewpoint, the most serious problem is what Alison calls “fierce resistance” to what is already accepted by so many.
It is for this reason that when topics related to faith, mercy, compassion, or marriage are spoken about within the Catholic Church, it is rare to hear anything different from what everyone else is saying. Fr. James Schall, S.J., in Christianity and Politics, has addressed succinctly this very temptation for contemporary Christianity:
Christians are forbidden to define happiness or virtue in exclusively this-worldly terms. When they do, they are disloyal precisely to the world itself as well as their faith. Probably, if there is any constant temptation in the history of Christianity…it is the pressure to make religion a formula for refashioning the political and economic structures of the world.
Much of what goes for Christian thought today has really succumbed to the temptation to which Fr. Schall speaks. The trans-political character of the Christian faith is so often replaced with a this-worldly orientation.
Ironically, Fukayama contends that the end of history will be a sad time. And many of Vigano’s critics seem to have a deep-seated anxiousness that is revealed in their openness, or perhaps determination, to see reality and the order of things “changed for the better”. More often than not, what comes through in their remarks is a recognition that the world can no longer be tolerated and accepted as it is.
This is certainly an apt description of the often depressing state of contemporary Catholic moral, spiritual, and intellectual life. What Catholics have been left with, in far too many cases, is a faith that is devoid of robust content. We simply “live” our faith as an activity that has no real intellectual potency to be related to anything else except our own desires. Worse than this, there is a rather close affinity between what the Catholic faith ought to be and what the contemporary culture deems good. For many, the Christian faith has become, in most respects, merely a means to change our social and economic structures. Fukayama’s insights are prophetic in this regard, since even much “dialogue” in the church is politicized, wherein salvation becomes univocal with modern social justice.
Alas, Fukayama was right: we are living in sad times.
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