‘Brand Catholicism’ creates significant damage to the individual and to the community
“The feeling of universality has always accompanied that of the unity of the church. There can be no true Christianity without it.”
The great French Dominican theologian Yves Congar used these words to begin his essay for The Episcopacy and the Universal Church (1962), one of the most important books published during the preparation period of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
It was one of the books that made Vatican II. Yet today it evokes in us a feeling of distance from the council. It was at a time, so different from our own, when the institutional dimension of the Church was not perceived as worse or even superfluous for Catholicism. It was a time when a certain amount of institutional loyalty was accepted as a requirement for being and remaining in communion with the universal church.
All institutions are currently going through a time of crisis. And the Church is no exception.
What is remarkable is that disenchantment with the Church is visible also in young members of new ecclesial movements and monastic orders with whom I have spoken over the past few years. Despite their commitment to a life of prayer and service in a Catholic community, their mindset is: “Jesus Christ yes, but about the Church … I am less interested.” Loyalty to their own community comes first, before any emotional, spiritual or intellectual investment in the Church in its universality.
This is a new stage in a development that began at the dawn of the 19th and 20th centuries: from the Church as an institution to the personal charisma – first of the papacy according to Ultramontanism, then to the new “ecclesial movements” in the mid-20th century on the coattails of the post-Vatican I papacy. Now we have reached a new stage: brand Catholicism. We are witnessing what happens when we let a mere brand substitute for an institution — not only in politics but also in the Catholic Church.
“This is the contemporary situation in which Christian discipleship is embedded, at least where consumer capitalism and its technologies prevail. Various forms of contemporary Catholic dogmatism — or, better put, attempts to reduce Catholic identity to a single identity-marker or a brand — are capitulations to this inertia, even while claiming to resist the social changes that provoke it,” according to Anthony Godzieba, professor of systematic theology at Villanova University.
Godzieba defined this “brand Catholicism” in a keynote address at the 2014 convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
“If there is to be any critique of contemporary culture by Catholic theology (I refuse to use the term ‘culture war’), the issue is not liberal-vs.-conservative, pre-Vatican-II-vs.-post-Vatican-II, traditionalist-vs.-progressive,” he said.
“The real point is to critique the eclipse of time and narrative that affects our experience of discipleship, and the temptation to detemporalise Christian faith.”
This brand Catholicism identified by Godzieba is present in different religious and intellectual quarters of Catholicism in the Western hemisphere. It is the tendency to define one’s Catholicism with a particular magazine or pope (“I am a JP2 priest” or “I am a Benedict XVI priest”); to tether it to a certain theologian or leader of a theological movement; to identify with this or that liturgical movement.
What these brands really say is beside the point. It is not about the ideas but about the brand. This creates significant damage to the individual and to the community. The brand has a short life and tends to respond more easily to market logics than ecclesial ones. It does not create communional dynamics, but is competitive. It tends to become “heretical” in the sense of idiosyncratic and divisive.
This is more visible in self-professed “(neo-)traditionalist” or “anti-liberal” Catholic circles. But it is also true to some degree for self-identifying “liberal” and “progressive” Catholics. In an age of biopolitics and “culture wars”, intellectual independence from the ecclesiastical institution becomes sometimes independence from the tradition itself.
This impacts the struggle for the Church’s future. There is clearly an asymmetry in the way different Catholic brands relate to the institutional Church. Self-identifying “conservatives” appear to care more for the institution itself. There is a certain clerical mentality and an inclination to see Catholicism more in juridical terms that are constitutive of that worldview. Many of today’s seminarians come from this kind of post-liberal, anti-liberal and post-secular Catholicism.
At the other end of the spectrum, self-identifying “liberal” Catholics tend to seek refuge in the “Catholic imagination” and a post-institutional Catholicism. What they seem not to realise is that “post-institutional” can be a dangerous prelude to the “post-ecclesial”.
The so-called Catholic liberals will always be at a disadvantage in forging the future of the Church because anti-liberals, who are less anti-Church than them, will naturally have a greater command of the ecclesial levers of power. We can note the irony of an alliance between Steve Bannon and Cardinal Burke, but the choice of a canon lawyer as the “ecclesiastical sponsor” of Bannon’s base in Rome indicates that opponents of Pope Francis have long-term expectations concerning the kind of Catholic clergy and intelligentsia that will be in control of the institution in the next generation.
This is not just about the ongoing rift between different factions in the Catholic Church in the United States. It is about the sustainability of the Catholic communion. There is no universal communion in a Church dominated by ideological brands — a brand that downgrades Catholicism to a narrow set of “settled doctrines”, on the one hand, and a brand that vaporises the specificity of the Christian message and reduces it to Catholic social thought, on the other hand.
The Church does not need a return to juridicism and institutionalism. Scripture and tradition tell us that “charism” and “structure” are both necessary in the Church in a balance. But so-called liberal Catholicism must assess the adequacy of a certain anti-institutional or post-institutional mentality that became typical after the Second Vatican Council.
The Church of Vatican II embodied by Francis — characterised by mercy, synodality, a church for the poor — needs institutions. It also needs Catholics who are not afraid of the institutional dimension of the Church and that are willing and able to maintain and develop that vision of the Church.
Institutions keeps things in extended time and in a shared experience. Liberal and progressive Catholics must take seriously what Anthony Godzieba calls “the disturbing eclipse of time and narrative in contemporary culture [where] the temporal duration necessary for discipleship’s implications to unfold and be discerned is becoming literally inconceivable.”
The theological vision of Vatican II needs time and a narrative that cannot take place and have space without institutions. Otherwise, the dream of a post-institutional Catholicism could become a post-ecclesial and post-Church nightmare. And even worse, the genuine appeal of the “ecclesial” and the “Church” could end up — especially in the Western world — as the monopoly of the rising tide of anti-Vatican II Catholicism.
By Massimo Faggioli, reproduced with his permission and La Croix International.