In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, fellow Catholic Ross Douthat criticized one of Pope Francis’ most consequential decisions: the July 16 motu proprio—or order—that reimposes restrictions on the Latin Mass preferred by many right-wing Catholics, thus reversing Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 order.
Douthat is the most prominent American public intellectual critical of Francis’ pontificate but he’s certainly not alone in his criticism of the new restrictions. Still, Douthat’s argument merits a response because it reveals a particular cultural myopia unique to American Catholic conservatism.
Douthat may be right about the clashing narratives regarding the fact of American Catholic decline. That Catholic world is in serious decline, despite the pathetic efforts of the restorationists to pretend we’re still in the 1950s, and despite the wishful thinking of old-guard American Catholic liberals who haven’t yet figured out why their children and students don’t share their concern for the church.
But reducing the dialectic of cultural and theological forces in contemporary Catholicism to “Latin Massgoers and German Protestantizers” is a caricature that wasn’t true even at the time of Vatican II. A conservative thinker like Douthat should know that the movement that prepared the theology of the liturgical reform at Vatican II in the 1920s and 1930s had clear features of conservative, anti-liberal, and even nationalist Catholicism—especially in Germany. The movement leading to the reform of the Mass at Vatican II proceeded from a rediscovery of the Fathers of the Church of the first centuries, but also from an anti-modern Catholic theology (e.g. Romano Guardini, one of the most important thinkers for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis). Who could have predicted that authentically “conservative” liturgical insights could have sparked the anti-Baroque, minimalist style of liturgy that eventually took over the 1970s in many places?
But leaving aside these historical-theological minutiae for a moment, Douthat is shockingly overlooking the most massive development in Catholicism today; that is, its globalization. The long game for the future of Catholicism is not in the hands of “Latin Massgoers and German Protestantizers,” but of Catholics in Latin America, Asia, and especially Africa. Douthat should also know that the globalization of Catholicism is happening in the West as well: U.S. Catholicism is no longer dominated by the concerns of white Catholics, and the same will soon have to be said for European Catholicism.
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Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, and has published extensively on Vatican II and contemporary Catholicism. His most recent book is Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (Bayard, 2021). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.
Religion Dispatches is an independent, non-profit, award-winning source for the best writing on critical and timely issues at the intersection of religion, politics, and culture.
With thanks to Religion Dispatches and Massimo Faggioli, where this article originally appeared.