A Unified Theory of “Backwardism”

What was so awful about the pre-Vatican II Church that its memory needs to be obliterated and those who hold to doctrines that are ancient in provenance must be labeled as “rigid” and psychologically damaged?

Pope Francis has presented many of his key initiatives as pope as efforts to “move the Church forward,” as the saying goes. As you probably also know by now, he is vehemently opposed to anything that takes the Church “backward.”

In recent months, he started using an Italian neologism—“indietrismo” or “backwardism”—to describe those Catholics who are opposed to progress in the Church. Francis’ torrent of abuse and invective has been quite consistent, and it matches up increasingly with his actions, especially since the crackdown on the Latin Mass began in 2021. 

This verbal onslaught is aimed at those who “reject Vatican II,” though he never fully clarifies who is rejecting what precisely. There are certainly those around Francis who view the existence of the old liturgy as a symbol of the pre-Vatican II Church, which the postconciliar Church has left behind. Given his choice of appointments to the Pontifical Academy for Life, this likely includes those who do not want the Church’s doctrine on contraception to “develop.” Apparently, he sees things the same way, or at least wants to signal that he does. 

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But the question remains: Why? What was so awful about the pre-Vatican II Church that its memory needs to be obliterated and those who hold to doctrines that are ancient in provenance must be labeled as “rigid” and psychologically damaged? I should be clear, I don’t think there are any good reasons for this, and some of this must be attributed to ill feeling on his part. Francis clearly sees people who are somehow “backward” as opponents, and he clearly wishes they would go away.

However naive it may be, I am not willing to leave it at that. It may be that there is no rationality at all in this attack on the Catholic past, but somehow I doubt it. In part, it is because this attack is selective. Only parts of the past come in for this sort of treatment and not others. Because there are so many different parts of Catholic teaching and tradition that “progressive” Catholics call into question, it is difficult to pin down one set of motives; but I think the motivation is political, in the broadest sense of that term. 

The clergy who participated at Vatican II came of age during the 1930s and ’40s, when fascism and communism were ascendant. In Italy, the battle between Christian Democrats such as Alcide De Gasperi (1881-1954) and Italian fascists was particularly acute for obvious reasons. Many young Catholics of that era were dismayed by the Vatican’s diplomacy with fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany, as it signed concordats with both.

Among them was Giovanni Montini, the future Paul VI. Many of these clergy must have seen the struggle against fascism as the defining political question of their time and that the Church was seemingly on the wrong side of it.

As did many Catholics in France, such as Jacques Maritain, who went from being an anti-modernist member of L’Action Francaise (a fascist, nationalist organization) to an “integral humanist” wanting to reconcile Catholicism with modernity. More significantly, a number of French clergy spent time ministering to soldiers in prisoner of war camps, or else fighting in the French Resistance. This included key members of the Nouvelle Théologie who were crucial in overturning the old Scholastic theology after Vatican II. Yves Congar (1904-1995) spent time in a prison camp, and Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) fought with the French resistance during the war, suffering lifelong wounds for his troubles.

Some of these theologians fell under suspicion by Rome or their own religious orders in the 1930s and ’40s, several being disciplined by them as well. Not only Rome, but bishops in general could be quite authoritarian (they still can be, obviously) in the way they treated clergy prior to Vatican II. One suspects this is why so many clergy engaged in the throwing off of old customs after the council, or in some cases, their outright destruction. To some, it must have seemed like they were destroying the symbols of a corrupt regime.

I say this because many of the theologians disciplined before the war associated this authoritarian approach to governance with fascism or other forms of tyranny. In his memoirs of the council, Congar referred to Pietro Parente, the head of the Holy Office who condemned the work of Marie-Dominique Chenu, his mentor, as “the facist, the monophysite,” and wrote in his journal, following the vote on collegiality during Vatican II, that “the Church has peacefully undergone its October Revolution.”

Cardinal Suenens of Belgium voiced similar sentiments after the Council in a 1969 interview in which explained the postconciliar chaos in the Church by comparing Vatican II to the Russian and French Revolutions: “no one can understand the French or Russian Revolutions without knowing the kind of old regimes they were destroying…similarly in the Church a reaction can only be judged in relation to the state of affairs which preceded it.” 

This identification of the Church hierarchy with totalitarian regimes no doubt led to a confusion of the preconciliar Church’s authoritarian governance with its official theology. Chenu, the elder statesman of the Nouvelle Théologie and teacher of Alberto Melloni, the founder of the so-called Bologna School (historians who interpret Vatican II as a radical break with the past), considered the Neo-Thomism dominant in the pre-Vatican II Church to be a “tool of this authoritarianism,” meaning the Holy Office that disciplined him. 

All of this illuminates progressive Catholics’ consistent association of French Traditionalists with L’Action Francaise and fascism more generally speaking. Despite there not being much overlap between the nationalist right in France and the Society of St. Pius X, the link tends to persist in the progressive theological imagination.

Supporters of the Nouvelle Théologie project have, likewise, sometimes accused pre-Vatican II theologians of fascist sympathies, most notably Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Lagrange was the major critic of the Nouvelle Théologie during the 1940s, and some of their defenders have charged him with antisemitism and support for the Vichy regime during WWII, despite Lagrange not being actively involved in politics.

My guess is that the clergy and theologians who came of age just after the council must have imbibed this association—between extreme right-wing politics and the “triumphalism” of the pre-Vatican II Church—secondhand from their teachers and mentors. And whereas the Vatican II generation perhaps applied it in polemical ways to specific cases in which people suffered actual abuse at the hands of the curia or their superiors, in the following generations it has metastasized into a universal discourse about anyone deemed insufficiently progressive. 

Thus, when Pope Francis wrote his letter of condolence on the death of the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, his praise of him as a man “open to modernity…never nostalgic for a glorious past” should be seen in this light. Any sign of “triumphalism” smells not only of a “sin obsessed, oppressive” form of Catholicism but also a politics that is its analogue, the kind that glories in the greatness of the past—like fascism, of course.

Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s 2017 article in L’Osservatore Romano that decried a putative “ecumenism of hate” practiced by Evangelicals and “Catholic Integralists” in America and proclaimed that “Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institutions, and the Church” is redolent of this way of thinking. 

Francis and his supporters talk and act as if any sort of reverence or devotion to the past in the religious sphere is somehow a contagion that threatens the freedom of the political realm. Spadaro admitted as much when he claimed that religious “fundamentalism” amounts to “a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.” Fr. Spadaro and others like him have absorbed the tendency of secular progressives to conflate all non-liberal ideas with totalitarianism, as if the only choice to be made were that between the forward march of history as interpreted by progressives (theological or political) and some sort of totalitarian nightmare.  Pope Francis and his supporters talk and act as if any sort of reverence or devotion to the past in the religious sphere is somehow a contagion that threatens the freedom of the political realm.Tweet This

This sort of either/or thinking is absurd, but they appear to believe this. Such is the only explanation I can conceive for why it is better to close down healthy parishes if the only way they can be salvaged is to fill them with Latin Mass Catholics, or to let seminaries and religious orders die if the only way to perpetuate them is to restore traditional theological or liturgical practices to them. Better to let the Church die off, apparently, than have it fall into the hands of people you think are fundamentally evil.

That, at least, is as much sense as I can make of this otherwise inexplicable tendency. There might be far less principled motives behind the words and actions of Pope Francis and his progressive supporters, but even if this were true, I doubt they would explain this tendency entirely. Everyone acts upon a whole view of the world—one which makes senses of the chaos that is so often our lives in this vale of tears—and not merely out of self-interest or passion alone.

I do not want to leave readers in despondency, and so I should remind them that not all or even very many “liberal” or progressive Churchmen see things this way. One can see this in the way Traditionis Custodes has been implemented. Several bishops, even close allies of the pope such as Cardinal Marx, have refused to implement it; and Cardinal Zuppi of Bologna, the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (and collaborator with Fr. James Martin), has celebrated Vespers with Traditionalists in Rome very recently.

Not everyone sees the world in such Manichaean terms. And for good reason: this ideology of “forwardism” is patently false, and no belief, no matter how coherent, can endure forever if it is based on such a distorted view of the world. 

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

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