book cover imageThe Church and the Culture of Modernity
by Richard Divozzo.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011.
Paperback, 404 pages, $13.73.

Richard Divozzo’s The Church and the Culture of Modernity provides a insightful study of the root causes of the decline in public influence of the Catholic Church over the last century. Throughout the book Divozzo focuses his analysis on “formal” causes; he traces changes in ideas that inform the Church’s presentation to the world. The basic theme of the work is that the Catholic Church stands in a very different relationship to the culture of modernity than it did to the pagan cultures of the past and that that difference is the basis of the decline of its influence. As he puts it early on:

Modernity … does not recognize the transcendent order; it does not acknowledge its existence whose reality is independent of man and which lays claim to his devout attention in all that he does. In so far as the first principle of modernity is man’s autonomy from any authority above his own, it and Catholicism are not merely in conflict; they are mutually exclusive views of reality. For the first lesson of Christian (or any realist) metaphysics is that man is a contingent being. Catholicism and modernity differ in the same way as do a teacher of Thomistic metaphysics and a lunatic who thinks he is God.

Divozzo explicates this theme over the course of nine chapters. In the first three, he discusses the relationship between the Church and cultures (present and past). In the middle three he develops a genealogical account of modernist ideas, and in the final three he explores modernity and its saturation of Catholic twentieth century theology and philosophy.

In his introduction, Divozzo distinguishes “modernity” from what is simply current or contemporary. He uses the term to refer to the set of ideas that comes to constitute Western culture from the middle of the sixteenth century into present times (or that informs the minds of Western intellectuals during that period).

The first two chapters show that the framers of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council understood modern culture to be essentially benign and hospitable to the evangelizing efforts of the Church. In fact, some of them appeared to regard modern culture as superior to previous cultural forms (in precisely the same way that secular moderns conceive of themselves and their culture). Divozzo quotes John XXIII’s opening address to the council:

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations, which by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the good of the Church.

Divozzo explores in depth one of the central pillars of this modern way of thinking—the total secularization of the public sphere and the removal of all elements of faith from the political, economic, and cultural orders. He shows that crucial players in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes (a constitutional document from the Second Vatican Council specifically focused on politics, economics, culture, and war) simply assumed that any society informed by the idea that faith can be relegated to the private sphere would thereby provide a space in which faith could flourish and in which evangelizing efforts could proceed. However, as he demonstrates, this notion of a truly “naked” public square was mistaken: culture is at root religious and the “religious” ideas that constitute the culture of modernity are hostile to Christianity.

The opposite of modern secularization is traditional sacralization. As Divozzo reminds us, the Church’s traditional way of sacralizing the world was by taking the elements of social, political, economical, and cultural life as signs pointing to their creator beyond this world. This position has been opposed both to a pantheism, of believing the material work itself to be divine, as well as to a conception of the created world as completely devoid of any spiritual or religious significance or as having negative religious meaning.

Divozzo draws heavily upon the work of British historian Christopher Dawson in portraying the contrast between the relation of modernity to the modern Church and the relation of the classical cultures of antiquity to the ancient Church. Those older cultures were saturated with the religion of the people and were informed by metaphysical and epistemological conceptions that were not (entirely) inimical to the fundamental conceptions of the Christian revelation. Accordingly, many philosophical ideas of the Greeks and Romans could be and were appropriated by the Church Fathers to aid in the explication, elaboration, and communication of that revelation. The argument of Divozzo’s book, in short, is that this sort of appropriation by the Church is ultimately not possible with respect to the philosophies of the modern age precisely because they are so radically at odds with fundamental principles of Christian thought.

A standard defense of modernity is that modern conceptions of freedom and autonomy have precipitated great emancipations of people from political servitude (in the democratic movements that swept away old regimes of privilege), from economic destitution (in the unleashing of production and distribution of goods from restraint by guild-like structures), and from slavery to superstitions (in the scientific understanding that displaced metaphysical speculations). Divozzo argues that, while the material benefits of modernity cannot be denied, they carry with them theological and philosophical assumptions that are themselves dangerous. Thus, for example, the scientific revolution also rationalized a materialistic-agnostic point of perspective that was then used to justify the complete removal of humanity from the natural world (culminating in our immersion in virtual computer generated worlds).

Divozzo also reminds us that material advancement has also been accompanied by a massive substitutionary movement of human concern from the “transcendent and eternal” to the “immanent and temporal.” This temporal focus allows for the growth of the state unchecked by any concern for the spiritual freedom of man. And thus, as Divozzo disturbingly shows, the Church has always been the object of modernity’s antipathy because it represents a non-materialist conception of human freedom beyond the power of technology or the state to control.

For Divozzo the driving theme of modern thought is its abandonment of social and ontological reality, an abandonment he names the “Principle of Autonomy.” This principle is expressed in naturalism (defined as autonomy from the “super”-natural, since there is nothing beyond nature) and in rationalism (defined as autonomy from authority and tradition, since the workings of any individual human mind are sufficient to grasp all that is). These cognitive expressions of antirealism lead as well to the rejection of natural law. And rejection of the natural law and of natural law theorizing, Divozzo argues, is due to liberalism as it evolved throughout the twentieth century—a political conception that glorified the individual and democratic will.

In the last two chapters the author turns his attention to the Church and her theologians. The penultimate chapter focuses on the development of twentieth century Catholic theology, but it begins by examining the influence of the philosophy of Kant on nineteenth-century theologians, specifically Rosmini, Hermes, and Gunther, all three of whom wrote works that were eventually condemned by the Church and put on the Index. He then shows the influence of Henri Bergson’s philosophy on twentieth century Catholic thought, specifically in the philosophical pragmatics of Maurice Blondel, in the “new theology” of Marie-Dominque Chenu, and in the collegiality theses of Edward Schillebeeckx. Divozzo demonstrates how, under the influence of modernist thought, these thinkers moved toward an immanentistic metaphysics that collapsed the distinction between the natural and the supernatural and how the Church, in the Council deliberations, failed to grasp the essence of the culture to which it intended to accommodate itself. That culture, “modernity,” is not unified by a systematic body of thought. And to the extent that Catholic theology has been influenced by any such jumble, to that extent the theology has been intellectually, spiritually, and morally corrupted.

For Divozzo then, the Church cannot make any sort of peace with modernity—modern culture must simply be replaced by a Christian culture that saturates the whole of human life (and is not relegated to some artificial private sphere created by governments). In order to work this transformation, there must be a reaffirmation of the most basic principles of being so that evangelizers will be equipped with adequate means of expressing the absolute demands of the objective realities of human nature and of the objective reality of God’s revelation.

Divozzo’s book is a dense and thorough account of the multiple lines of fundamental formal causes that culminate in the current ideological situation of the Church vis-à-vis contemporary culture. It is not a call to action but rather to reflect upon the most fundamental characteristics of modern culture and whether they can be reconciled with the West’s historic religion.  

Mark Pestana teaches in the philosophy department at Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Moral Virtue or Mental Health? and several articles on action theory.