A conventional move to undercut your ecclesiastical opponents is to attribute their concerns to “the times.” Their convictions are not timeless truths, the argument goes, but spring from the either unwholesome or ordinary concerns of the here and now. Short-sighted is one way to put it.
Massimo Faggioli employs this tactic to conservatives or traditionalists or critics of Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic world:
The growing neo-traditionalist movement in U.S. Catholicism in some ways echoes the development of the SSPX. There is a similar rejection of Vatican II, for instance, which has also manifested in radical theological dissent against Pope Francis. And just as the 1985 Synod seemed to be a trigger for Lefebvre, the 2014–2015 Synod (along with Amoris laetitia) seemed to trigger contemporary traditionalists. And both movements have seized on interreligious dialogue and religious liberty as key issues. But the context has changed significantly since the 1970s and ’80s. Catholic media and social media have helped in amplifying oppositional voices and weakening the sense of unity in the church. These “para-schismatic” voices have effectively been mainstreamed and globalized, harnessed politically against Pope Francis and the Catholicism emerging from the Global South in an effort to undermine the church’s influence on issues like the environment and migration.
The intra-ecclesial context has also changed. A feature of contemporary Catholic neo-traditionalism today is concern over teaching on the family and marriage, and over the rise of the LGBT movement in the church—something that simply was not there in decades past. If Lefebvre’s movement cannot be understood outside the context of French Catholicism, the French Revolution, and laïcité, the U.S. neo-traditionalist movement is incomprehensible outside the history of the American culture wars. A growing media ecosystem of cable TV outlets, internet channels, and bloggers acting as self-appointed watchdogs has helped nurture the movement, while acting in almost guerilla fashion against Pope Francis.
As much as I appreciate Faggioli’s push back against the anti-liberals and integralists now sprouting up among conservatives who are Roman Catholic, I also know the Villanova University professor is a good enough historian to understand that Roman Catholicism would not be what it is without context. As opposed to the notion that this is the church Jesus founded, you don’t have the power of bishops without the establishment of Christianity under Constantine, or the supremacy of the papacy without the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, or Tridentine faith without Protestantism.
In fact, Faggioli’s own preference for Vatican II Roman Catholicism, hardly the church for all time, is the product of a church that decided modernity — finally — was good and the church needed to catch up. You certainly don’t see that desire for relevance in the apostles, monastic reformers, or pope’s who aspired to divine right monarchy.
In which case, Faggioli’s charge of historicism is not in good faith.