A Unified Theory of “Backwardism”

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.

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.”

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