193. The Church is Burning, What Can Be Done? On Andrea Riccardi’s Insights on the Crisis of Present-Day Roman Catholicism

(AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (April 15, 2019) is a symbol of the church that burns in secularized Europe and, more generally, in the globalized world. Andrea Riccardi’s book, La Chiesa brucia: Crisi e futuro del cristianesimo (The Church Burns: Crisis and Future of Christianity) (Bari-Rome: Laterza, 2021) starts with the evocative image of the burning Notre-Dame.

Riccardi is well-positioned to bring forth his analysis, being professor of Contemporary History at the University of Rome III and a biographer of John Paul II. He is also known internationally for having founded, in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the most active ecclesial lay movements within the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to his social commitment and his many development projects in the southern hemisphere, Riccardi played a role in mediating various conflicts and contributed to attaining peace in several countries, such as Mozambique, Guatemala and the Ivory Coast. In 2003, TIME magazine included him onits list of thirty-six “modern heroes” of Europe, individuals who stand out because of their professional courage and humanitarian commitment. He is an insiders and scholarly voice on the inner dynamics of Roman Catholicism. 

The Notre-Dame cathedral is in the center of Paris, in the heart of Europe, embedded in its history and an emblem of its culture. It burned and, by burning, it represents the state of profound crisis in which (Roman and institutionalized) Christianity finds itself. This is not fake news, but a factual observation. Practitioners are declining across the continent, vocations are collapsing everywhere, traditions are eroding and entering the tunnel of oblivion, adherence to belief and morals are plummeting, and local parishes are in an identity crisis. The processes of secularization seem unstoppable and are dismantling the bricks of institutional religiosity one piece at a time. The church is certainly experiencing a period of decline. Does it even risk disappearing?

In painting this fresco in dark colors, Riccardi documents the indicators of the crisis of Roman Catholicism and he does so keeping in mind the various national quadrants (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) with their particularities. He also dwells on the forms of “national-Catholicism” (Hungary and Poland) which are attempts to intertwine religion and national identity to make Roman Catholicism and cultural Christianity a sort of religious-civil bulwark in the face of contemporary disorientation.

The crisis, according to Riccardi, starts from afar. In fact, the question of whether European Christianity was about to die had already been posed by Jean Delumeau in 1977 (Is Christianity about to die?) and, even earlier, by the French cardinal Suhard in 1947 when he spoke of “decline”. From this point of view, Vatican II (1962-1965), with its “pastoral” focus, was a response to the crisis. Indeed, Vatican II was an attempt to embrace the modern world by re-understanding it on the side of the enlarged catholicity of Rome, rather than stubbornly bringing it back to the Roman canons from which it seemed to have taken leave. With Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) Paul VI launched a call to “evangelization” as a method to regain ground after having lost it with Humanae Vitae on sexual morality (1968). The effort did not produce the results hoped for. The long wave of the 1968 revolution actually dug deeper the gap between Europe and the church (and inside the church itself). While Roman Catholicism has proven equipped to tackle the social question (e.g. mitigating Capitalism) and political ideologies (e.g. against Communism), it has not been able to stand up to contemporary individualism, sexual libertarianism, and unbridled and globalized consumerism. 

The long and energetic pontificate of John Paul II seemed to make up ground, but, in reality, it covered the crisis rather than solved it. With Benedict XVI, the crisis reached a culminating point with the shocking resignation of the Pope. Following the pastoral “spirit” of Vatican II, Pope Francis is trying to further widen the mesh of catholicity to build bridges with the “first unbelieving generation” (p. 116) on the basis of mercy for all, universal brotherhood, and care for the environment, all themes very distant from traditional “Roman” and institutional Catholicism. How effective this strategy will be remains to be seen, though it does not appear to have reversed the course.

As a Catholic scholar, Riccardi talks about the crisis and points out some ideas for a different future. He takes up the argument by French sociologist Hervieu-Léger that Roman Catholicism has characterized itself as a “cold religion” (top-down and moralistic) and should melt, learning to become “warmer”. This means, for example, living in the contemporary world with “multiple ecclesial presences, capable of charismatic, diversified, close encounters, and in dialogue with the people” (p. 207). It is not surprising that the founder of Sant’Egidio supports the role of ecclesial movements as horizontal Roman Catholic players, capable of interfacing with different niches of secularized society, intercepting particular needs, “freeing” the relationship with religion with respect to the only channel represented by the institutional church and, therefore, offering a range of different and more contextualized “Catholic” responses. Given that Roman Catholicism has the Eucharist at its center and that it takes a priest to administer the sacrament, to remedy the lack of priests Riccardi goes so far as to support the possibility of recognizing married priests (pp. 199-203).

The analysis of the crisis suggested by the book is honest and without reticence. And yet, the imagined way out remains within the intangible framework of the pillars of Roman Catholicity. It seems that, for Riccardi, in the face of the ongoing fire, the answer must beat the level of a “pastoral” attitude, without providing for a doctrinal rethinking of the self-understanding of the Church of Rome. 

The Church is burning, to borrow Riccardi’s language, but in the end is untouchable in its core elements. The hierarchical structure, the sacramental framework, the theology founded not on Scripture alone but on Tradition (that both includes Scripture and is bigger than Scripture), the non-biblical dogmas, the absorbed spurious devotions, etc., all this cannot be changed. In the end, faced with a very serious diagnosis, the imagined cure seems to be a placebo. If the church burns, the best minds of Roman Catholicism (and Riccardi is one of them) are not compelled by the need to go deeper into understanding the reasons for the crisis. They are not open to a biblical reformation. 

For all churches and for all Christians, the turning point is not a greater pastoral attention nor a new missionary strategy (however important these factors might be), but a return to the Word of God accompanied by repentance from sin and a response of faith ready to call into question all the compromised structures built over time. These are the steps towards the “future” of Christianity as is evoked in the subtitle. The fire of secularization risks incinerating the church, but to borrow the title of a book by Michael Reeves, the unquenchable flame of the reformation according to the Gospel can eliminate the accumulated toxins and open the way to a path of conversion. The ultimate issue is not to switch from a “cold” to a “warm” religion; it is to faithfully respond to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ in truth and love.

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192. Who Will be the Next Pope?

There is a general perception that Pope Francis’s pontificate has entered an irreversibly declining phase, a sort of late autumn that is a prelude to the end of a season. It is not just a question of age: yes, Pope Francis is elderly and in poor health. But aging aside, the pontificate finds itself navigating a descending parable. It started with the language of “mission” and “reform”. Francis’ reign, now nearly 10 years old, was immediately engulfed in a thousand difficulties, particularly within the Catholic Church. Many of these problems were caused by the ambiguities of Francis himself, to the point that the push envisaged at the beginning turned out to be broken, if not wholly inconclusive.

Given the predictable end of a season, the question is therefore legitimate: after Francis, who is next? Who will be the next pope? This question is asked not by some bitter secularist or even a seasoned bookmaker, but by the devout Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel, former biographer of John Paul II (Witness of Hope. The Life of John Paul II, 1999) and author, among other things, of a book in which he proposes a change in the meaning of the term “evangelical”: from being a descriptor of the Protestant faith grounded on Scripture Alone and Faith Alone to an adjective describing a fully-orbed Roman Catholicism (Evangelical Catholicism. Deep-reform in the 21st Century, 2013, see my review here). Weigel is a bright intellectual and an exponent of the conservative American Roman Catholicism that has often been outspoken against Francis.

In his book The Next Pope. The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020) Weigel draws a composite sketch of the new pope.[1] The next pope will be a man who was either a child or very young during the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). For the first time, Rome will have a pope more “distant” from the controversies of the 1960s-1970s. For this reason, perhaps he will be more free from the interpretative wars over the Council, i.e whether it was a Council that continued with tradition or broke from it. However, as Weigel admits (but it doesn’t take much acumen to recognize it), “there are profound divisions over Catholic doctrine and identity, praxis and mission, within the Church itself” (p. 9). The next pope will find these divisions on his desk. How will he deal with them?

According to Weigel, the next pope will have to find inspiration from Leo XIII (1810-1903), whose papacy from 1878 to his death in 1903 generated a ferment in the life of the then tormented church: Leo anchored its life and thought to Thomist philosophy; he developed its social doctrine; and launched a challenge to the modern world at the cultural level instead of adopting a defensive attitude towards it. The reverberations of this vitality were then channeled by John XXIII in convening Vatican II and by John Paul II in the Great Jubilee of 2000. For the American scholar, this is the militant Roman Catholicism that the next pope will have to embody and promote: faithful to its traditional doctrine, integral in its moral teaching, consistent in its ecclesial practices, made up of devout Catholics. For Weigel, taking inspiration from Leo XIII and John Paul II, the agenda of the new pope needs to be the “new evangelization”. Here is the way he puts it: the new pope “will have to devote himself fully to the new evangelization as the great strategy of the Church of the 21st century” (p. 23).

In order to “evangelize”, the Roman Catholic Church must, according to Weigel, regain its identity as a sacramental and hierarchical church, combining this with its consolidated cluster of doctrines and practices handed down by tradition, i.e. the “fullness of the Catholic faith”. Weigel warns Roman Catholicism against going down the bankrupt path of liberal Protestantism which, by way of adapting to modern times, has lost its convictions and has also seen its churches empty. From his North American point of view, Weigel says that “the growing branches of Protestantism in the world are evangelicals, Pentecostals or fundamentalists” (p. 56), all characterized by “clear teaching and firm moral expectations”. It is as if to say: Roman Catholicism can follow the path of liberal Protestantism, become “light” (that is, confused in doctrine and mixed with the world) and die, or it must recover its “full” identity and flourish again. For Weigel, “light Catholicism will lead to zero Catholicism” (p. 59), the loss of faith and a dissolutive process. For this reason, he hopes that the next pope will be the expression of a full, convinced, devoted Roman Catholicism that aims at “evangelizing” (that is, Catholicizing) the world rather than being penetrated by the world.

This language of “light” versus “full” Catholicism helps explain why Weigel is critical of Francis. The present pope is seen as embroiled in proposing a “light” form of Roman Catholicism: he speaks of “mission” (e.g. in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium), but he works it out in a very different way from the “new evangelization”. For Francis, mission is to go out to meet “all brothers” (i.e. Francis’ latest enclycical argument for a universal brotherhood) with mercy, highlighting the unity that already exists among all human beings without lingering over differences. The strategy is to avoid facing disputes, not to challenge anyone, and to express mercy without a doctrinal backbone. Quite the opposite of what Weigel is hoping for. It is clear that Weigel’s new pope will have to make a vigorous shift away from Francis’s trajectory.

Weigel often uses a kind of “evangelical” language to describe the pope of his dreams. He speaks of fervor of spirit and solidity of convictions, all indicators not so much of doctrinal contents, but of the experiences of the evangelical faith. At the same time he speaks a very Roman Catholic language: he refers to salvation through baptism, Roman hierarchy, papal primacy, and Marian devotions. As a traditionalist Catholic, Weigel believes that everything Roman Catholicism has collected througout history (e.g. the Council of Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, etc.) should be kept and nothing lost. All of this is very Catholic. He wants to make people believe that Roman Catholicism can (indeed must) also be “evangelical” without losing its Catholic tenets. He has in mind a pope who is very traditional in doctrine (anti-evangelical), yet very passionate and committed like an “evangelical”. This is the kind of pope he hopes for.

When he was elected in 2013, Francis too was presented as very close to the “evangelical” ethos. Spontaneous prayer, experiential language, and a certain fervor in spirituality seemed to make him a different pope. Many evangelicals were impressed, only to discover some time later that Francis was and is also very Marian, universalist, Jesuit, and anti-evangelical. Now Weigel, indirectly criticizing Francis, hopes for an “evangelical” Catholic pope, even if a very different pope from the present one. Both Francis and Weigel have an experiential (non-doctrinal) meaning of “evangelical” in mind. They want to appropriate the evangelical ways of living out the faith, while remaining anchored to the traditional (Weigel) or “outgoing” (Francis) doctrine of Roman Catholicism. Both of them distort the evangelical faith and want to dissolve it in the dogmatic-institutional synthesis of Roman Catholicism.

Whoever is elected, the next pope will unlikely be an “evangelical” if the word “evangelical” retains its doctrinal and historical meaning. The “evangel” is not the paramount commitment of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, its head will never be an “evangelical” pope if the Roman Church will not undergo a reformation according to the “evangel”.


[1] I had access to the Italian translation of the book Il prossimo papa. L’ufficio di Pietro e la missione della chiesa (Verona: Fede & Cultura, 2021) and quotations will be taken from it.

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