As part of the Vatican’s war against “modernism” in 1899, Pope Leo XIII condemned as heresy the set of principles known as “Americanism”. But, in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church had begun to embrace these so-called odious ideas: pluralism, the separation of Church and State, the primacy of conscience, the preference of experience on dogma and, moreover, freedom of the press. It was a historic reversal of the Church’s panicked 19th-century repudiation of, in the words of Pope Leo, “modern popular theories and methods.”
Today, five Catholic Supreme Court justices are reversing the Church’s reversal. (Neil Gorsuch, who is now an Episcopalian but was raised and educated as a Catholic, joined his five colleagues in overturning Roe v. Wade.) These justices not only undermine fundamental elements of American democracy, such as the “separation wall,” but also the essential spirit of the great revival of Catholicism in the twentieth century. It is no secret, of course, that the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which was convened by Pope John XXIII, concerned about renewal, generated a powerful pushback from traditionalists within the Church.The reforms set in motion by the council – made up of more than two thousand Catholic bishops, who met in St. Peter’s Basilica in four sessions, between 1962 and 1965 – overturned sacrosanct doctrines and traditions, ranging from the language used at Mass to the idea of ”no salvation outside the Church”, to the repudiation of the ancient antisemitic slander christ killer indeed vatican He took a step away from monarchy and towards democracy.
An ultra-conservative blowback ensued, defining the papacies of Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and he proved obsessed, above all, with issues related to the sexuality and the place of women. This focus appeared even before the end of Vatican II, when a nervous Paul VI, who had succeeded Pope John after his death in 1963, made an extraordinary intervention in the debates by prohibiting the Council from taking up the question of contraception. Paul’s saying signaled what was to come when, in 1968, he challenged an emerging consensus among Catholics – even among bishops – to accept birth control, and formally condemned it in his encyclical “Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”). . As if he had foreseen this clash, during the council’s deliberations, one of its most powerful leaders, Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens of Belgium, protested the pope’s intervention by standing in St. Peter’s and saying, “I beg you, my brother bishops, let us avoid another Galileo case. One is enough for the Church.
But a new Galileo case is what the Church got. This one, however, is about the relationship not of Earth to the Sun, but of women to men. Moving from the condemnation of birth control to a new absolutism on the question of abortion, a succession of backpedaling by increasingly reactionary prelates ignored the warning of the Belgian cardinal. In recent decades, the Church hierarchy has effectively transformed the female body into a bulwark against the changes that the Vatican II generation embraced.
The elevation of the abortion issue as the alpha and omega of Catholic orthodoxy echoes the anti-modern battles that the 19th century Church fought. A pair of dates tells the story. In 1859 Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, and the idea of biological evolution began to capture the Western imagination. In 1869, Pope Pius IX, in his statement “Apostolicae Sedis”, prohibited the abortion of a pregnancy from the moment of conception – an effective localization of the human “soul” at the junction of the ovum and sperm, an almost explicit rejection of the theory of evolution.
Yet dynamic change was beginning to be seen as the rule of life, transforming ideas not just about how humanity came to be, but also how individual humans act. Traditional ways of reading the Genesis story, of course, posed an immediate obstacle to any substantial reversal of assumptions about human origins. But, with Darwin as a starting point, many religious believers, including Catholics, have been able to view Genesis and its seven-day timeline of creation as a metaphor, and to see that God’s creative act s was, in fact, unfolding over many aeons. Still, the idea that people were created in a single instant by miraculous divine intervention proved tenacious. Michelangelo’s image of God’s finger touching Adam’s, endowing the creature with the instant gift of human life, seemed fixed in Western consciousness.
However, despite Pius IX’s 19th-century rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the idea that the soul unfolds during the process of fetal development, at some undetermined time weeks or months after conception , more or less corresponds to long-standing understandings – expressed by authors like Aristotle and Saint Jerome, in the ancient world, and Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the Middle Ages. But the great purpose of the Genesis story is not necessarily to explain life but to account for human suffering: its most consistent assertion is that the inevitable miseries of human existence are the fault of Eve, who serves as a stand-in for all the women. It was Eve who would have yielded to the temptation of the devil and, in turn, tempted Adam, thus condemning them and all their offspring.
This story gives us the concept of “original sin” – a phrase that does not appear in the Bible – and represents the ultimate form of fraudulent originalism. To read the book of Genesis as a literal account of how the world and human life began is pure fundamentalism and a danger to the rule of reason on which the common good depends. Likewise, do ahistorical readings of the US Constitution. “Originalism is a legal philosophy of stasis, which reifies a historical moment,” writer Siri Hustvedt points out in a recent piece for Literary Hub. But such historical fundamentalism, she argues, also applies to attitudes toward the creation of the individual: “The reduction of a dynamic, metamorphosed conceptus to a single abstract entity – ‘the unborn ” – negates both time and change.” And that denial has led to the legal, medical, economic and personal calamities facing a post-Dobbs America, with women bearing the brunt of the threat.
The Catholic experience of such fundamentalism is a warning. In the fourth century, Saint Augustine, whose influence on theology surpasses even that of Aquinas, centered the story of Adam and Eve on sex. The forbidden fruit, he believed, was the pleasure the first couple took in sexual arousal. From then on, the sanctioned Catholic imaginary is radically corrupted by fear and contempt for autonomous female sexuality. The Church’s unfettered campaign against women (elevating virginity, requiring women’s submission in marriage and at the altar, limiting women’s ability to control their own bodies) was launched. He has now been joined by the Catholic majority on the Supreme Court.
For decades, this campaign has wavered among Catholics in the United States. Shortly after Pope Paul VI condemned birth control in 1968, a group of ten priests and theologians from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC, resoundingly denounced this papal teaching. It was, they said, “based on an inadequate conception of natural law” and on “a static worldview which minimizes the historical and evolutionary character of mankind”. And most American Catholics agreed, showing that a transformation of attitudes toward sex and women had already taken root among them; in the years that followed, polls showed that a large majority of Catholic women use birth control. Declining birth rates among Catholics, mirroring that of the general American population, confirm what the faithful thought of this papal statement.