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Orsi contra Ecclesiam


In Citizens, Simon Schama’s narration of the French Revolution, he describes the revolutionary government’s suppression of the popular rebellion in the Vendée. Far more than a military maneuver, he recounts, the operation sought “the wholesale destruction of an entire region of France.”  In a “sinister anticipation of the technological killings of the twentieth century,” the revolution’s armies exterminated women, children, entire villages, and ultimately some one third of the inhabitants of the region.  Among the massacres’ chief targets was the Catholic Church, which the revolution sought wholly to destroy and to replace with its own parallel hierarchy, priesthood, rituals, and theology: the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being. Throughout the nineteenth century, even while advancing the rights of man­—free assembly, free speech, a free press, and the franchise—the liberal republican heirs of the revolution, along with unholy allies like Germany’s Bismarck, sought to close Catholic schools, shut down monasteries, and dissever the Church’s bishops from the authority of the pope, all with the hope and expectation of hastening the Church’s inevitable exit from history.

This slice of history might seem to complicate judgments about the “brave opposition of secular modernity to Catholicism” or about the “deep hostility of the church for the modern world and [this hostility’s] dreadful consequences.”  But these are precisely the summary judgments that historian Robert Orsi delivers on the Church in his recent blog post on The Immanent Frame in a forum on the launch of Contending Modernities.  He attacks directly the very premise of the project: that Catholics, Muslims and secular people can engage in an ongoing scholarly conversation about modernity that would increase the sphere of justice and mutual understanding.  The problem, he explains, is that one party to the conversation, the Catholic Church, is implacably opposed to modernity’s achievements.

Orsi’s bilious broadside is a strange one for a historian of Catholicism.  Holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, Orsi is an accomplished scholar, widely and rightly lauded for his textured histories of Catholic life, including The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (Yale University Press, 1985; 2nd ed., 2002).  But in his determination to cast the Church as an almost perfect foe of liberal modernity, Orsi offers little more than scant acknowledgment of liberal modernity’s historical campaign against the Church—and hence, modernity’s illiberalism, for one mark of liberalism is surely religious freedom.

The Church’s long—and deep—engagement with modernity


He ignores, too, the Church’s own assiduous and sincere engagement with the modern world through its series of social encyclicals beginning in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and continuing right up through Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.   In this engagement the Church rejects some dimensions of modernity but conditionally endorses others.  Much of its teaching and ministry has been directed towards those who have fallen into modernity’s shadows: workers caught in the gears of modern industry’s machines; immigrants and refugees left homeless by modern sovereign states; the elderly whom modern families have left isolated; the orphans whom modern cities have left on their sidewalks; and millions of unborn children who are denied the chance ever to make a choice by modern legal regimes that enshrine the reproductive choice that Orsi “cherishes.” Orsi ignores the Church’s advocacy of international law and cooperation since the early twentieth century; Pope Benedict XV’s call for forgiveness among European nations at the end of World War One; the Church’s predominant role in the “third wave” of democratization from 1974 to 2008, when it helped to toppled dictatorships in Poland, Chile, Brazil, and the Philippines; the work of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta; and the Church’s provision of one quarter of the resources that go to fight AIDS in Africa.

Orsi fails to allow, too, that the Church has sometimes learned from modernity, as Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged in his 2006 Christmas address when he credited the Enlightenment with prompting the Church to arrive—eventually—at its own endorsement of religious freedom (though on grounds that differ sharply from modernist positivism and skepticism).  In this connection, the Jesuits are a striking case that fits awkwardly in Orsi’s scheme. In many ways, the Society of Jesus—the Pope’s own shock troops—epitomized anti-modernist Catholicism. Yet, as John McGreevy subtly recounted at the launch of Contending Modernities, in the course of the nineteenth century, many European-born Jesuits serving in the U.S. who were originally horrified by American religious freedom came to see the virtues of a system that enabled them to build strong, independent Catholic institutions. Rather than reject or embrace modernity wholesale, these Jesuits—in McGreevy’s rendering—were instrumental in producing an alternative, Catholic modernity that enabled the Church to flourish in the new, hyper-modern American context.

In addition, Orsi ignores the fact that the Church has often come to acknowledge and repent of the failures of its leaders and members in their engagement with the modern world, as did Pope John Paul II in the more than one hundred mea culpas that he voiced during his pontificate towards over 21 groups and historical episodes, and as has Pope Benedict XVI in his numerous apologies to victims of clerical sexual abuse.

At times Orsi hints that the traffic between Catholicism and modernity might run along a two-way street, alluding to “the shortcomings and failures of liberal modernity” and to the Catholics who sometimes “stood in courageous and necessary opposition” to modernity’s horrors, but these references are parenthetical and prefatory to his stentorian verdicts.

A better, broader conversation

It is just such a one-way street Contending Modernities takes pains to avoid.  The Catholic part of the conversation will involve a tradition that opposes, teaches, learns from, apologizes to, and argues with the modern world, always according to the criterion of its eternal commitments.  Islam is similarly situated, manifesting its own multivalence towards modernity.  When secularism joins these two traditions, the conversation becomes more complex than a two-way street, perhaps something more like a metropolitan traffic system with its mergers, roundabouts, freeways, and perhaps a blind alley and one or two dead ends.

So let Contending Modernities’ conversation proceed.  Numerous good questions will be raised.  Here is one.  Orsi charts a historical vector in which modernity struggles but succeeds, while the Church resists.  Schama, too, tells of modernity’s march and the Church’s resistance, though for him modernity is ruthless rather than heroic while the Church is outnumbered rather than obtuse.  But if the Church really is as hopelessly out of step with modernity as Orsi imagines, or if it really is as hopelessly overwhelmed by modernity as Schama suggests, it leaves one wondering: Why on earth is the Church still around?

Daniel Philpott is associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.  He is a coauthor, with Monica Duffy Toft and Timothy Samuel Shah, of the forthcoming God’s Century: Resurgent Religion in Global Politics, and author of the forthcoming Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Janine Giordano Drake December 12, 2010, 12:02 am

    I like that you are not critiquing Orsi’s right to make the conclusions he is making, but challenging instead the conclusions he reaches. Thank you, so much, for this excellent response.

    I am frustrated that there are fewer and fewer places for Catholics to learn the history and culture of their faith from people who will explain, support and uphold Catholic tradition. I know of only a few places where this kind of education is available (Notre Dame, Catholic University, Duke University, where else??), but not many, and certainly not without a very very expensive pricetag.

  • John Seitz December 17, 2010, 3:09 pm

    I read Orsi’s comments in a different light. Rather than sabotage the work of the project, Orsi hopes to deepen it by insisting on honest and thorough assessment of religions’ willingness to stand in opposition to liberal modernity. If we insist that Catholicism or other religions are all varieties of “modernity” we lose the opportunity to understand religious people who act in anti-modern ways. The conversation then turns into an exercise in self-congratulation: only the “good” stories come to the table. By highlighting Catholic anti-modernism, Orsi is trying to provoke us into conversation that stretches us beyond the simple affirmation of our hopes and into honest engagement with reality.

  • Brenna Moore December 18, 2010, 2:28 am

    You certainly don’t have to be anti-Catholic or “bitter” or “bizarre” or “foolish” [see First Things blog on Orsi’s comments] to acknowledge the ways in which Catholicism has been hostile to modernity. Orsi isn’t the only Catholic scholar to make this assessment. Check out the Jesuit historian Joseph Komanchak’s “Modernity and the Construction of Roman Catholicism,”. Cristianesmo nella Storia 18 (1997): 353-85.

    Of course, Catholicism has been at once illiberal and liberating, enslaving and progressive, just as all religions inevitably are. Orsi was just describing a part of the full picture, a part that can be easily occluded in morally neutral conversations describing “multiple modernities.” Good for him. He sharpened the conversation, as usual.