In his essay “The Six Ages of the Church,” the great English Catholic historian Christopher Dawson dissented from the three-fold division of history in the Christian era into ancient, medieval, and modern. Instead, he proposed, perhaps based on a line of John Henry Newman, that Christian history is composed of roughly 300- to 400-year periods. Each age begins in crisis but also with intense spiritual activity and a new sense of mission to evangelize the world. It then has a “period of achievement in which the Church seems to have conquered the world and is able to create a Christian culture and new forms of life and art and thought.” Each age ends with decay and pressure from without and within.
It doesn’t mention Dawson, but George Weigel’s new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, might be considered a history of Dawson’s Sixth Age of the Church. The perky subtitle, “How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform,” might sound like Catholic triumphalism, but the past-tense formulations are significant. “Rediscovered” implies truths covered over during the period before. “Challenged” hints at the possibility that the contemporary Catholic Church has entered a phase of decline and decay.
Weigel’s history is a drama divided into five “acts” in which the Church deals with modernity, that multi-faceted transformation of societies that included political, social, technological, and cultural changes. Conventional histories portray a stupid and stubborn Catholic Church standing athwart history yelling “Stop” — to all of it. This is a partial truth. Weigel presents the story as Catholicism’s journey from reaction to a stance that was “more coherent, less defensive, and more influential in shaping the course of world affairs.” As with all Weigel’s writing, this story is well told — richly illustrated with lively anecdotes, cogent summaries of complex ideas, and revealing quotations.
Weigel begins, as Dawson’s Sixth Age does, with the French Revolution, which smashed the inherited wealth and privilege of a Church that had lost its Counter-Reformation fervor and had settled into a “desultory” intellectual life characterized by a leadership with a “dulled” imagination and by clergy and monastics more interested in sinecures than in the care of souls. Altars had become less important than the thrones that made service at them very comfortable.
Weigel somewhat flattens the picture here. As the historian Ulrich Lehner’s book The Catholic Enlightenment (2016) showed, alongside the cynics and sloths, serious Catholic intellectuals of the period attempted to do justice to Catholic tradition and modern understanding. But the Revolution’s violence and Napoleon’s kidnapping of Popes Pius VI (1775–99) and Pius VII (1800–23) caused a papal reaction that was stern yet successful. By Pius VII’s death, the papacy, thought in 1800 to be finished, seemed like “a moral authority supported by popular sentiment and respect.”
In Gregory XVI (1831–46) and Pius IX (1846–78) we see a magnification of this reaction and the beginning of the modern papacy, with its pilgrimages to Rome and personal devotion to the pope. Both popes took largely reactionary political positions but also made strides in presenting the Church’s human side. Gregory condemned Catholic Poles for revolting against their Russian overlords but also condemned slavery and the slave trade. Pius, whose initial instinct was to find a modus vivendi with the new world, was mugged by the revolutions of 1848. His papal documents, especially the 1864 encyclical Quanta Cura and its appendix, the Syllabus of Errors, pushed back hard, though not always wisely, against modernity. His rejection of the omnicompetent state seemed attended by a notion of an omnicompetent papacy, something perhaps encouraged by the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility and supreme and universal Church jurisdiction. This emphasis on and teaching about papal authority did, however, keep the transnational and universal understanding of the Church at the forefront.
Leo XIII (1878–1903), one of Weigel’s heroes, “gingerly explored” modernity with new energy and changes in emphasis. He encouraged study of the Bible in original languages with (some) modern methods. He promoted Thomas Aquinas’s texts and, particularly, Aquinas’s understanding that true freedom needed to be grounded in the truth of the human being as opposed to mere will. He encouraged Catholics to think “on the new things,” as he titled his groundbreaking 1891 encyclical (Rerum Novarum), with sophistication. Thus modern Catholic social teaching began with an emphasis on justice as more than freedom of contract but also with a declaration of limits on the powers of government.
While it had hitches (Pius X’s iron-fisted pontificate), Leo’s revolution largely succeeded, leading to the next dramatic act: the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Weigel argues for its necessity — despite the lack of a burning doctrinal issue or Church crisis to call it forth — and its success. The 16 documents it produced are orthodox, filled with a new kind of evangelical fervor, and largely successful, in his view, at proposing Catholic faith in ways both traditional and modern, teaching Catholic dogmas without a “dogmatic” manner. The Council’s winsome focus on Christ himself proposed to answer the human search for freedom and truth that modernity claimed to seek. It made a case for religious freedom on distinctly Catholic grounds and for a principled pluralism in public life.
Even on Weigel’s telling, however, one might question Vatican II’s success. First, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), the most direct attempt to address the modern situation, was, as Weigel acknowledges, a mixed success at best. In addition to latching onto the notion of global overpopulation and other myths, it depicted a “modern world” that was already passing away in 1965. Second, the Council documents as a whole didn’t have a “key” to reading them. Without concrete doctrines to be believed or anathematized, their beautiful but sometimes imprecise language came to seem a charter for radical liturgical, doctrinal, and moral changes made in the name of an amorphous “spirit of the Council.” There was no “key” proposed until 1985’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops — a bit late. These points might make one ask whether the Council itself was timed right. Ten years later, the assembled bishops might have judged the “modern world” more soberly and left less textual ambiguity.
Weigel’s next two acts can thus be read as either a fulfillment or a partial correction of the somewhat naïve Vatican II “embrace of modernity.” John Paul II and Benedict XVI are the heroes of this period. The pair, through their papal and personal writings and speeches, made clear in the fourth act that the good things of modernity could be enjoyed only if a healthy public culture sustained political and economic life, reason was grounded in metaphysical reality, and freedom was treated not as the ability to choose anything but as the duty to choose the good. The irony was that, long seen as the enemy of modernity, the Church was proposing a way to save it.
The fifth act (our own), in which an “Evangelical Catholicism” stands as a public witness to truth (without uniting altar and throne), Weigel labels “Catholicism Converting Modernity.” But he ends, ironically, somewhat mournfully. The Church, now with the intellectual wherewithal to provide this public witness, is mired in 1) yet more revelations of sexual-abuse cover-ups and 2) in a papacy that even Weigel (who in his writings rarely criticizes Francis directly) admits seems to be “encouraging” both “confusion” and the “deconstruction of doctrine” that is still pervasive in Catholic life.
We might take a different view, then, of this fifth act. Perhaps it is more properly seen as the final act of Dawson’s Sixth Age. In addition to the decay Weigel chronicles, the Catholic Church’s influence in world affairs now pales compared with what it was in 1948, when Jacques Maritain helped draft the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, or in the 1980s, when John Paul challenged the Soviet Union. The 1980s perhaps also marked the end of a midcentury Catholic revival in literature and the arts.
Catholics might be not in a “Franciscan stall,” a pause in the advancing conversion of modernity, but rather in the death throes of an age that reached its apogee in the middle of the last century. Catholicism in a Seventh Age will no doubt learn from this age’s engagement with and critique of modernity, but it may also operate in a different way. It may return to earlier models of more-traditional liturgy, more-exact conciliar speech, and a view of the Church in which the popes are important but not the main protagonists. Of necessity, it may also see the Church step back temporarily from the public role it assumed in this age until it better orders its own house. Conversion, like judgment, begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).