Aggiornamento: An Historical Analysis

It is hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church is in a period of decline almost everywhere — Africa being the major exception. Nuns, monks, and priests leave their vocation. Seminaries are depleted. Bishops and the clergy often seem more interested in social work, social justice, and questions of war and peace, than in the world to come. Theologians try to justify social revolutions with strained religious arguments, and quite a few priests have been converted, overtly or covertly, to various kinds of Marxism. Some even participate in Marxist governments or lead guerrilla wars, while their orders, far from expelling them, defend their activity. In most places the solemn Latin liturgy has been replaced or adulterated by motley guitar strumming and folksongs.

Can the Church be turned around? The task seems superhuman. But then, so is the institution — an institution which has declined often but never fallen. Consider what has made it different from other Christian churches, and, on the whole, more coherent and resilient.

Protestant ministers do not claim to be priests mediating between God and man. Accredited in various ways, they usually are hired and fired by the congregations they serve. In contrast, a Roman Catholic priest is sent to his parish by a bishop and depends on the ecclesiastical hierarchy for advancement. To be sure, the bishop will weigh the priest’s success in his parish in deciding on promotion. But the bishop decides. The Roman Catholic Church is a centralized hierarchy, presided over by the pope, who names other bishops who name parish priests. Orders, such as the Jesuits or the Benedictines, are hierarchically organized as well.

In contrast, Protestant churches are, with few exceptions, decentralized. Their ministers depend on the decisions of local congregations and must try to satisfy them. Certified by central bodies, they have to adapt their activities, including their preaching, to the demands of their congregations. Ministers must act as suppliers: they must sell their services and adapt them to the market. This has led to considerable product diversification: Protestants receive a variety of Christian messages in their churches. If the range within their own denomination is not sufficient, they may switch readily to a different denomination which supplies what they do want. As a result the Christian message in Protestant denominations is diversified, modernized and, above all, secularized. Clergy often appear more preoccupied with political, economic, or social reforms, and with psychological problems, than with heaven and hell. Salvation either is neglected, or, contrary to historical Protestantism, treated as though achieved more readily by works than by faith. In many cases ideas about the proper order of this world have not so much been added as become part of, or a replacement (in all but form) for, the original salvationist faith.

In recent times a reaction to secularization has set in within Protestantism. Revivalist and fundamentalist movements have sprung up locally; they preach a return to old-fashioned salvationist faith and oppose not only secularization but also the liberal and reformist politics of much of the clergy united in such bodies as the National Council of Churches. Evangelical movements, often involving TV preachers, have had considerable popular success in their competition with traditional Protestant denominations. These movements appear to respond to a profound longing for the old-fashioned gospel message. Fundamentalists too are involved with politics — usually conservative politics — but the political message is added to the religious one and does not replace it. On the contrary, the political message gains its strength from biblical beliefs.

Until Pope John XXIII, the Roman Catholic Church was, on the whole, immune to secularizing tendencies. It celebrated faith according to dogma. Although it tried to make the dogma palatable to local congregations, it did not diversify, or adapt its traditional message to secular demands. Because the clergy was essentially independent of local markets, depending instead on the bishops and ultimately on Rome, Roman Catholic priests could offer an unchanged dogma and an unchanged liturgy, both centrally defined and monitored.

All this has changed. Regardless of how much was intended, or decided by Vatican II, its effects include:

(1) Doctrinal diversification; increasing emphasis on political and social matters and secular concerns. Less stress on salvation, more on social reform.

(2) Greater independence from Rome and Roman Catholic orders, of local bishops, and of national bishops conferences.

(3) Replacement of Latin by local languages and of traditional by newly invented rituals.

(4) Abolition of much of the traditional liturgy, in favor of more participatory and informal services.

Some effects, such as the abolition of the Latin Mass, were intended. Others happened. They may have been ex-foliations of council decisions or interpretations, or additions to them. However, the general purpose of the council was clearly stated: aggiornamento, to bring the church and its practices “up to date.”

Many priests and bishops had long felt that they were standing pat, relics of the past. They were tired of repeating traditional formulas, of liturgies which the faithful and perhaps the clergy itself, did not quite understand; tired of feeling isolated from the contemporary world, confined to a defense of rituals many had ceased to believe in, and which no longer seemed alive. They felt stranded in a backwater and they very much wanted to be in the swim.

The traditional mission of the church had been to help in the salvation of mankind in the life to come, to elevate men’s gaze from the secular world to the heavens. But, although they continued to believe, many priests seemed no longer to believe in the priority accorded to salvation. They became more interested in economics, in equality, socialism, decolonization, social conflicts, the threat of war, and reforms in this life. They wanted to be involved in this life, to right its injustices and defects, to engage in practical and immediate action. They wanted to be in the mainstream. Some became politicians, revolutionaries, social workers; few were content to remain reminders of heaven and hell, of the life to come.

Although there was no major loss of members, the popular influence of the church in its European homeland had deteriorated in the last century. France, Italy, and Spain remained basically Catholic countries. But fewer and fewer people went to church; even among those who did the quotidian influence of Catholic doctrines declined. Elsewhere, the church still gained converts but no longer was a very dynamic institution. In Spanish and Portuguese America the Church remained influential only within a narrow range.

When the bishops decided to give up Latin, and to play a greater role in the secular world, they may have thought that the fuller participation of the church in social and political matters was necessary if the church was to appeal to modern man. Perhaps it was no longer enough to extol charity; distributive justice had to be advocated even at the cost of revolution. It was not enough to preach peace; nuclear arms and strategies of deterrence had to be opposed, even if it would lead to unilateral disarmament. Compassion for those punished by secular justice was no longer enough; the death penalty had to be opposed. Resistance to despotic government was no longer enough; liberation had to be organized, even if it was in association with Marxists of various colors.

The effect of the aggiornamento was disappointing, even counterproductive. The appeal of the church declined precipitously. In the countries in which the influence of the church was deteriorating, the trend accelerated. In South America the influence of the church became more ambiguous but did not increase. In the U.S. aggiornamento was a catastrophe. Many priests and religious left their vocations. Church attendance declined. Aggiornamento shocked and alienated many of the faithful and did not attract converts. The religious who remained in their orders abandoned their distinctive dress, and quite often their distinctive life as well. Their sacramental role deemphasized, priests started to wonder why they could not get married and divorced as the Protestant clergy did. Nuns suggested that they too should be able to celebrate mass. To the extent that the attempt to involve the church more closely and directly in modern social and political life was successful, it paradoxically reduced the church’s influence. The church lost members. The move toward social activism and reform, intended to foster evangelization, actually hindered it. Having taken on many new missions, the church was perceived to have lost its old mission. It lost much of its mystique and its mystery, and therewith much of its prestige. If not needed for salvation what indeed is the church needed for? Aren’t there enough political and social agencies already?

Why, then, did the church, instead of becoming more appealing, become less so? Let me hazard three convergent explanations.

Before aggiornamento the church was perceived to offer the certainty of an infallible dogma in a rapidly and bewilderingly changing world. Part of the certainty did lie in the mystery of the church, in its enduring revealed message and in the traditional rituals which celebrated it. Aggiornamento, if it did not abolish any of these, weakened the importance of revelation and made the magisterium of the church debatable and controversial. With that weakening, faith in redemption and in the importance of salvation, indeed in religion, was weakened. A traditional institution seemed to renounce its own traditions. The diversification of ritual further reduced the aura of certainty. Latin as a universal church language had contributed to the aura of ancient mystery. The vernacular does not. Nor does guitar strumming.

The church had always pointed to the life beyond, to salvation achieved by faith, prayer, and virtue. Now, however, it seemed to stress life on this earth, in danger of becoming one more agency trying to make mundane life more just and comfortable by proposing and endorsing partisan economic, social, and political policies. In all of this the Roman Catholic Church diminished what had differentiated it from Protestant bodies. Oddly the Roman Catholic Church started to follow the Protestant example, just as many Protestants once rebelled against the secularization of the Christian messages by the clergy.

Yet, Protestants can back a fundamentalist revival. They depend entirely on local congregations. Such a rebellion is harder in the centralized Roman Catholic framework; any return to the distinctive characteristics of Roman Catholicism, if it occurs, will have to be led from Rome. It will be backed by the faithful. But the clergy which favored the reforms will be reluctant to give them up. Wherefore Rome has a most formidable task. In the past it has succeeded more than once in imposing its discipline on a rebellious priesthood. It may again succeed. It will have to, if the Roman Catholic Church is to retain its identity and its mission.


  • Ernest van den Haag

    Ernest van den Haag (1914 – 2002) was a Dutch-American sociologist, social critic, and John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy at Fordham University. He was best known for his contributions to National Review.

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