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Ironies in the fire

I believe the way the story is typically told — modernity acts, Catholicism simply reacts — is wrong. Things were much more complicated and much more interesting than that.

(Image: Paul Robert |

The eminent sociologist Peter Rossi was a world-class punster whose scholarly accomplishments fed a sometimes-whimsical view of the human condition — in which, Rossi memorably observed, “there are many ironies in the fire.”

 That’s certainly true of the interaction between Catholicism and cultural, social, and political modernity over the last 250 years. The multiple ironies in that complex relationship, and their surprising results, are explored in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books), in which I turn the conventional telling of this tale inside-out and upside-down.

Why the inversion? Because I believe the way the story is typically told — modernity acts, Catholicism simply reacts — is wrong. Things were much more complicated and much more interesting than that. So were the outcomes.

It is certainly true that, at the beginnings of what we think of as the “modern world,” thinkers like Voltaire declared Catholicism am “infamy” that must be “crushed” — a demolition project taken up with relish by the French Revolution, the German Kulturkampf, the Italian Risorgimento, and other quintessential expressions of political modernity. That assault provoked a sharp reaction, with Popes Gregory XVI (1832-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) lambasting the modern project in its various expressions.

But then came the pivot of my story: the election of Pope Leo XIII, who at the beginning of his pontificate in 1878 took a bold, grand-strategic decision — the Church would engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic intellectual tools in order to convert it. That decision set in motion what I call the “Leonine Revolution”: the search for appropriate Catholic methods to engage and convert the new world being built by science and technology, post-monarchical politics, and skepticism about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Had Leo made the right decision? If he had, how should it be implemented? Those questions were hotly contested in the Church for 80 years, not without a fair amount of ecclesiastical elbow-throwing.

Then, in 1959, the newly-elected Pope John XXIII took another bold, grand-strategic decision: he would gather the energies set loose by the Leonine Revolution and focus them through the prism of an ecumenical council. And as he made clear in his magisterial opening address to what we know as Vatican II, the council’s purpose would be conversion: The Church would engage the modern world in order to offer it truths essential to satisfying the modern quest for freedom, solidarity, and prosperity.

That Johannine intention got lost in the 20-year brawl that followed Vatican II, as some Catholics interpreted the council as a call to embrace the modern world unreservedly, just as the late-modern world was slipping into incoherence: freedom misconstrued as license, and human beings considered as nothing more than twitching bundles of desires. Beginning with Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi [Proclaiming the Gospel], however, the Church’s teaching authority began to reclaim the evangelical, missionary imperative that had animated Leo XIII and John XXIII. That recentering on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 was given depth and breadth by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two men of Vatican II whose authoritative interpretation of the council summoned the Church to a springtime of evangelism, sharing with the world the gift of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ that every Christian is given in baptism.

So what were the ironies in this particular fire? The first and most important is that, through the twists and turns of its encounter with modernity (which began with both sides hurling condemnations and anathemas), the Catholic Church rediscovered the basic truth about itself: that we are a community of disciples in mission, whose purpose is to convert the world. The second, related irony is that, in the course of that rediscovery, the Catholic Church developed a social doctrine — a way of thinking about freedom, solidarity and prosperity — that could help save the post-modern, 21st-century world from self-destructing.

And today’s crisis of Catholic self-confidence? Viewed through this interpretive lens, the abuse-and-leadership crisis comes into focus as a time of essential purification, so that the Church can be a persuasive evangelist and a compelling advocate for the truths that make us truly free.

There are, indeed, many ironies in the fire. Grasping their providential character, as I try to do in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, suggests grounds for hope in this wintry Catholic season.

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About George Weigel 429 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. George Weigel sets the historical record straight and even offers “grounds for hope in this wintry Catholic season.” And yet, part of this wintry season is a synod for steaming Amazonia and another in Germania. . .

    Later this month, instead of converting the world, part of the Amazonia agenda is to REVERT the Church—back to Mother Nature.

    As a possible portend for the future, this degree of accompaniment/ accommodation is almost Islamic. . . Mohammed adopted earlier pagan practices directly into his SYNCRETIC religion (incidentally: to be categorically distinguished from the Christian “Faith”). Co-opted were such pagan features as the earlier warrior code (jihad), plunder, and pilgrimage to the (usurped) Ka’ba in Mecca. Likewise, he adopted the Judeo-Christian practices of prayer, alms (three more of the “five pillars of Islam”).

    For the record, parallels of such GRAFTING-ON are to found in early Christian history as well—e.g., adoption of the Roman civil basilica as a Church form in the West. And a few centuries later (601 A.D.) Pope Gregory even instructed that pagan temples in Britain could be cleansed of their pagan idols and dedicated and used for Christian worship (Bede the Venerable, History of the English Church and People). The calendar for Christian holy-days, too, sometimes might have replaced pagan ceremonials—-the exact date for Christmas falls on December 25, previously the solar feast of the Unconquered Sun celebrated throughout the Mediterranean world (“…the early Fathers transmuted heathen revelry into Christian joy,” writes Frederich Wilhelmsen, in his Citizen of Rome).

    But now, we are dallying with reversion RATHER THAN conversion. . .

    In addition to the totems of Amazonia, the ghosts of early Germania are also in play. Amazonia: co-opted as a proxy skirmish for Cardinal Marx’s larger agenda—-a polyglot/nationwide/tribal synod in Germania, now jousting with Rome as to who speaks for the historical and ecumenical/Catholic Church.

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