It is commonly believed the Catholic Church and modernity are opposed to each other. It is also commonly believed that modernity’s gain is Catholic Church’s loss. In The Irony of Modern Catholic History, George Weigel busts this myth ad argues that the Catholic Church is far more vibrant and influential today than it was 150 years. He argues that, as it confronted modernity, the Catholic Church rediscovered and re-invented itself. Consequently, it developed intellectual tools that turned it stronger. George Weigel says that secular modernity’s false premise was that Catholicism, intransigent in its truth claims and often allied to authoritarian power, was inimical to the modern project in its cultural, economic, social, and political forms. So, when Pius IX lost Rome, thought that the Catholic Church was finished as an inflential player in history. That turned out to be exactly wrong. For in the twenty-first century, the Catholic Church is more vital and more consequential than it was when Pius IX sought refuge on Old Ironsides.
George Weigel argues that, as for the Church, its leaders’ false premise was the mirror image of that held by modern secularists and was neatly captured in the last of the eighty condemned propositions in Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Error.” According to the Syllabus, it was inconceivable that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” And because Pius IX identified the office of Peter with the Catholic Church in a virtual one-to-one correspondence, Proposition 80 in the Syllabus meant that the entire Church was at war with modernity in all its forms. In Pius IX’s view, the triumph of secular modernity would inevitably lead to the death of religious conviction. That also turned out to be entirely wrong because religious conviction was a major factor in the late twentieth-century world affairs. There is little sign in the early twenty-first century that history will confirm the old secularization hypothesis in its hard form: that modernization inevitably involves the demise of religious faith, religious practice, and religious communities. Some of that is obviously happening. Viewed globally, however, the secularized parts of the world are the outliers.
Between Pius IX’s flight to Gaeta and the Aparecida meeting of Celam, these two false premises unraveled in a strange and unexpected way. George Weigel says that Catholicism became more coherent, less defensive, and more influential in shaping the course of world affairs. George Weigel argues that the encounter with modernity led the Catholic Church to rediscover the deepest truths about its essentially evangelical character while developing a rich, complex proposal for ordering modern public life. George Weigel says that the history of modern Catholicism is rather ironic. With modernity acting sometimes as midwife and at other times as amazed observer, Catholicism in its third millennium has reclaimed its birthright as a Gospel-centered, missionary enterprise. Even more ironically, the church’s discovery of those truths might put Catholicism in a position to help secular modernity save itself from its own increasing incoherence.
George Weigel explores almost 200 years of Catholic Church’s recent history from a new vantage point, revisiting how the Catholic Church faced and engaged with modernity. He busts several myths and provides new insight and perspectives on recent Catholic history. It is both highly a scholarly work and accessible book for lay people. The Irony of Modern Catholic History will confirm George Weigel as the leading American Catholic thinker with a commitment. He convincingly shows how part of the modernity was inspired by Catholicism. This meticulously researched and nuanced book will change the way you thought of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.