Beware of ideological efforts to reinvent a mythical medieval Church
There is also an intellectual crisis concerning models from the past that the Catholic Church should ponder when thinking about its future.
The shocking testimony that a former nun from Germany recently offered when she accused an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of making sexual advances on her during confession is a page straight out of the Middle Ages.
The crime of sollicitatio ad turpia (indecent proposals taking place during confession) was well-known in the medieval Church. But neo-traditionalists and neo-medievalist Catholic intellectuals who extol this particular period of history do not often talk about its sordid aspects such as this.
The reason is clear. Their goal is to retrieve a medieval version of Christianity (of Catholicism in particular) that is pre-modern and anti-modern, as a remedy to the present state of affairs.
In this agenda, the complexity of the past is deliberately ignored. Catholics should be aware that this is just the latest attempt to revive the myth of medieval Christendom, which is continually repurposed in light of the emergencies of the day.
In 1977 the world renown French medievalist Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014) published a book titled, For a different Middle Age (Pour un autre Moyen Age) in an effort to renew our understanding of medieval times.
Le Goff saw the Middle Ages as a necessary way to recapture our reading of history — away from the Scylla of the ancient times of Athens and Rome, prisoners of erudition and excessive imagination, and away from Charybdis of the contemporary period which tends to deconstruct unifying worldviews (“vue d’ensemble”).
Le Goff was a political leftist who saw the Middle Ages as a pivotal period in European history when extraordinary social and economic progress combined with the vast influence of the Catholic Church to create the modern world.
His attempt was to rescue the Middle Ages from both detractors and apologists.
To say that the Catholic Church still needs this kind of healthy assessment of the Middle Ages, is a vast understatement.
In the current crisis of globalization there is also an intellectual crisis concerning models from the past that the Catholic Church should ponder when thinking about its future.
A very modern phenomenon
The Middle Ages still provide the most influential and appealing model for conservative and anti-liberal Christians, and for Catholics in particular.
Thus, we are still dealing with the problem Le Goff tried to solve some 40 years ago.
On one side, there is the progressive-modernist narrative, which identifies the Middle Ages with the crusades, feudalism, wars, the Knights Templar and magic.
On the other side, there is the narrative of Catholic neo-medievalism (widespread not only through anonymous Twitter accounts, but also among important Catholic intellectuals and Church leaders), which sees in the Middle Ages the closest of the possible points of return to a pre-secular and pre-liberal age.
For Catholics who are troubled by liberal modernity, the Middle Ages seem to be the only option.
The early modern period won’t do since it represents an unusable or complicated past.
Except for being a rich period for Catholicism and the arts, the period between the 16-19th centuries brings to mind less desirable moments of history such as the split within Western Christianity hastened by the Protestant Reformation, the sack of Rome, the papacy’s loss of temporal power and the advent of liberalism and modernism.
Catholic neo-traditionalism points to the Middle Ages as the period where one finds the elements of Christendom’s lost paradise: papacy, monasticism, mendicant orders, Scholastic philosophy, the arts and chivalry.
One thing that is often missing from this ideological picture of the Middle Ages, however, is the rise of European cities and their secular governments; in short, the beginning of the separation between Church and State.
Catholic neo-medievalism has re-emerged today in the Western hemisphere out of nostalgia for the period before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) when the Church enjoyed an omnipotence over politics, society and culture.
But like other neo-traditionalist ideas, it is a very modern phenomenon.
Christendom is a myth that was born in the 19th century and dominated the official teaching of the Church until the first half of the 20th century.
It is well known, moreover, that Catholic nostalgia for Christendom is dominated by political conservatism.
Yves Congar wrote in his True and False Reform in the Church (1950) that Catholic neo-medievalism had a “right-wing mentality.” He expunged that section from the book’s second edition, published in 1968, but the connection between medievalism and the “right-wing mentality” has not faded. On the contrary.
A book of essays edited and published a few months ago by two Italian medievalists retraces the history of neo-medievalism in the Catholic Church in the decades after Congar published his work on the topic.
Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri and Riccardo Facchini clearly show that nostalgia for a return to the Middle Ages begins after Vatican II.
In Europe especially, medievalist thinkers of the 1960s and 70s were right-wing activists with no special interest in the Church or theology.
It would not be long before Catholic intellectuals picked up this medievalism from those circles, but without severing ties to the right-wing political mentality.
The political and civilizational motives are still dominant. Four or five decades ago, the appeal of the Middle Ages was due largely to the challenges coming from Soviet Communism.
An ideological refuge
In more recent years and in our own time, it has been due to the geopolitical challenge coming from Islam and the crisis of the liberal international order.
The mythical and overly idealized Middle Ages serve as an ideological refuge for Catholic neo-medievalists.
It seeks a politically strong papacy to ensure a dominant role for religion and the Church. It evokes the crusades as a commitment to religion while ignoring its bellicose elements.
It uses the language of chivalry as a pushback against gender theories and the sexual revolution and the myth of a hierarchically ordered society as a bulwark against identity politics.
Communitarianism becomes the cure for liberal individualism. And the unity of the medieval Christian “ecumene” provides the answer to today’s fragmentation of global Christianity.
There are now — in 2018 — a number of influential theologians who openly advocate for a return to Christendom.
This kind of theology is quite popular with those who are disgusted with the current state of affairs in our politics and the economy, and those who are worried about the future of Christianity.
It is part of the picture of this “post-secular” moment that is captured effectively in a recent book by Michelle Dillon, especially regarding the role of Pope Francis.
This revival of medieval Christendom is far from being purely theoretical. It is influencing a new generation of Christians and Church leaders, especially intellectuals and members of the clergy.
The equation between the crisis of the liberal order and the return to Christendom is a dangerous fantasy. It is also ignorant of history. But this fantasy is not going to go away unless there is a convincing alternative argument.
Looking at the history of Catholic medievalism in the last half century, it is clear that it is a cultural-political idea, not a theological one. But it clearly appeals to a sense of tradition.
What the Catholic tradition says on the tradition itself — for example, in the Vatican II constitution on divine revelation Dei Verbum — is very different from the ideas of the neo-medievalists, who are trying to make tradition captive of their conservative narrative.
They are succeeding partly because liberal-progressive theologians have largely abandoned tradition, as if the Second Vatican Council legitimized a de-traditionalization of Catholicism.
Traditionalism is a reaction to this and it poses significant dangers for both the Church and our social and political communities.
Fighting against this fantasy will require theologians and historians to work for an alternative to Christendom and a way out of the present ecclesial and political disruption.
Catholicism will not be saved from the fantasies of neo-medievalism with its purely literary, artistic and mystical appeal to the Catholic imagination.
Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli
Massimo Faggioli is an Italian-born professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania area and an award-winning author of more than a dozen books on Catholicism.