Is the Reformation Over? Not According to Italian Catholics!

The Second Vatican Council, St. Peter’s Basilica

In a previous post, I aimed to show how, from the perspective of Italian Protestants, the Reformation is far from over, at least in Italy where the Reformation had little lasting impact on the country. In this post, I intend to provide another Italian perspective on the question “Is the Reformation over?”, but this time I would like to do so in conversation with various Catholic theologians, philosophers, journalists, etc. What could give us a better insider perspective on the current condition of Roman Catholicism than Roman Catholics who live closest to its heart and center?

However significant may be the historical and cultural reasons for which Italian Protestants refuse to concede that the Reformation is indeed over (you can read about these here), issues such as these may not, in the minds of many, suffice to justify the continued “protest” of Protestants. Indeed, from the viewpoint of the outside world, these issues may actually reinforce the importance of rapprochement of some kind, or even reunification, especially in light of the changes initiated by Vatican II and seemingly furthered by Pope Francis. It is interesting, however, that while many Protestants outside of Italy are increasingly positive about Catholicism, many Italian Catholics, as represented by a number of influential writers, unanimously agree that the Catholic Church finds itself in the throes of a terrible crisis, the like of which has not been seen in centuries. While some blame the moral and financial scandals of recent years,[1] many believe that the true causes run much deeper, ironically flowing from the very developments that instil hope in others: Vatican II and Pope Francis.

Vatican II

Although many years have passed since Vatican II, controversy over its proper interpretation continues unabated. For the purposes of this post, it is not necessary to detail these debates as they are amply described elsewhere.[2] It suffices simply to observe that many Italian Catholics, such as Cristina Siccardi, criticise Vatican II for being “the first time in the history of the Church that a Council divides instead of unites…[and] creates problems instead of resolving them”.[3] This claim seems indisputable given the serious rift now dividing conservatives like Pasqualucci who lambaste Vatican II for its perceived violations of tradition[4] from progressives such as Alberigo who praise it for the very same reason.[5] Attempts to mitigate the impact of Vatican II by interpreting it in continuity with the past[6] or by denigrating its authority[7] only seem to fuel the contention. For this and other reasons, many Italians are left disillusioned and increasingly prefer to be Catholic on their own terms or leave Catholicism altogether.[8] Thus, although it may sound strange to ears accustomed to hearing the term ‘mission’ only in relation to traditionally non-Christian lands, the Catholic Church has itself become, as Pope John Paul II even acknowledged in Redemptoris Missio (sec.33), a mission field in places such as Italy where a “new evangelization” is needed to reach “entire groups of the baptized” that “live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel”.

Pope Francis

According to many, however, the pontificate of Pope Francis heralds a new day, promising to effect necessary reforms and heal Catholicism’s wounds. Ironically though, Francis has, at least in Italy, driven the wedge of division even deeper, for in seeking acceptance from those outside the Catholic Church, he has alienated many of the faithful within.[9] Journalist Antonio Socci, for example, expresses concern over the fact that opponents of Rome acclaim Francis as a revolutionary intent on subverting traditional dogma and morality.[10] As evidence of this, many point to dialogues (as far as I know only) in Italy in which Francis assures atheists that they need not believe to be saved and that good and evil are relative to individual consciences.[11] However these statements may be adjudicated, philosopher Enrico Maria Radaelli notes that perceptions of Francis’ doctrinal laxity and moral relativism are widespread due to his predilection for style over substance, unity over truth, and feeling over discernment.[12]

It would be incorrect, however, to infer that Francis lacks convictions. In a revealing book published in Italy, Francis elucidates his vocation in terms of the counter-reforming efforts of the early Jesuits. He blames the Reformers, particularly Calvin whom he identifies as a “heretic” and “schismatic” that “decapitate[d]” the church, for inflicting most of the psychological, social, political, economic, and religious ills that still plague the world today. Francis views himself as recapitulating the struggle of the early Jesuits to reunite what the Reformation tore asunder by employing key stratagems such as cultivating familial bonds with those he hopes to reclaim and overcoming divisions by downplaying their significance.[13] For this reason, journalist Giuliano Ferrara considers Francis to be the consummate Jesuit whose “relativism” and “rejection of doctrinal rigour” constitute “an essential, Machiavellian component” of his mission; by emphasising what unites rather than what divides and by welcoming rather than condemning, he endeavours to “‘conquer’ the heretics of today” by gaining their love.[14] According to Catholics like Radaelli, however, such tactics have only harmed the Church by instigating a crisis of error and division on a historic scale.[15]

Assessment & Conclusion

It is evident, therefore, that a remarkable number of Italian Catholics, regardless of the differences among them, agree that Catholicism faces a historic crisis that will not end until its errors are corrected and its ruptures healed. It is ironic that while many Protestants  increasingly ‘Catholic’ in their calls for unity, many Italian Catholics sound increasingly ‘Protestant’ in bemoaning the plight of the Catholic Church and in resisting its leadership for reasons of conscience.[16] The tragedy, however, is that none of them seem capable of offering coherent solutions. On the one hand, those who champion radical reform are, like Hans Küng,[17] typically critical of the infallible authority still claimed by the Church. Ironically though, the revolutionary changes that they advocate can only occur through an exercise of the very power that they contest. How can Rome infallibly declare to be fallible or reform what is “irreformable”?[18] Moreover, if the Catholic Church diminished the pope’s “full, supreme and universal power”, it would lose an indispensable element of its own identity, for together with its confessional unity and sacramental system, the fact that it is “governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” is essential to its self-understanding as the only true Church in the fullest sense.[19]

On the other hand, those who in some way oppose Vatican II or Pope Francis usually do so out of allegiance to tradition. However, as Franco argues, traditionalists cannot resist the authority of councils or popes without contradicting the very principles that they seek to uphold.[20] How can they judge an authority that “is judged by no one”?[21] Moreover, how can they object to what they regard as deviant teaching when, according to Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, Catholicism is by nature an et-et (both-and) system, a complexio oppositorum whose distinguishing feature is its ability to absorb apparent contradictions and synthesise them into a harmonious whole?[22] As Karl Barth observed concerning disputes among Catholic factions in the past, traditionalists seem, like their progressive counterparts, unable to combat the problems that they perceive without undermining essential elements of what makes them who they are.[23] In sum, Italian Catholics widely attest that Catholicism desperately needs reformation; tragically however, such reformation seems unlikely to arise from within. Thus, given the increasing protests and calls for reform from within the Catholic Church, does it make sense for Protestants to surrender their historic protest and concede that the Reformation is truly over?

I think not.


[1] See for example M. Franco, 2013. La crisi dell’impero Vaticano dalla morte di Giovanni Paolo II alle dimissioni di Benedetto XVI: perché la chiesa è diventata il nuovo imputato globale. Milan: Mondadori; and A. Riccardi, 2013. La sorpresa di Papa Francesco: crisi e futuro della chiesa. Milan: Mondadori.

[2] See for example M. Faggioli, 2012. Vatican II: the battle for meaning. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

[3] C. Siccardi, 2013. L’inverno della Chiesa dopo il Concilio Vaticano II. Milan: Sugarco, p.17.

[4] P. Pasqualucci, 2013. Unam sanctam: studio sulle devizioni dottrinali nella Chiesa Cattolica del XXI secolo. Chieti: Solfanelli.

[5] G. Alberigo, 2012. Breve storia del Concilio Vaticano II. Bologna: Il Mulino.

[6] R. De Mattei, 2010. Il Concilio Vaticano II: una storia mai scritta. Torino: Lindau.

[7] B. Gherardini, 2009. Concilio ecumenico Vaticano II: un discorso da fare. Frigento: Casa Mariana, p.51.

[8] A. Gnocchi and M. Palmaro, 2011. La bella addormentata: perché dopo il Vaticano II la chiesa è entrata in crisi, perché si risveglierà. Florence: Vallecchi, pp.10, 232–234.

[9] G. Ferrara, A. Gnocchi, and M. Palmaro, 2014. Questo papa ci piace troppo. Milan: Edizioni Piemme, pp.10-13, 68.

[10] A. Socci, 2014. Non è Francesco: la chiesa nella grande tempesta. Milan: Mondadori, pp.19-21.

[11] P. Francesco and E. Scalfari, 2013. Dialogo tra credenti e non credenti. Torino: Einaudi, pp.41-42, 55-56.

[12] E.M. Radaelli, 2014. La chiesa ribaltata: indagine estetica sulla teologia, sulla forma e sul linguaggio del magistero di Papa Francesco. Verona: Gondolin, pp.49-50.

[13] P. Francesco, 2014. Chi sono i Gesuiti?: storia della compagnia di Gesù. Bologna: EMI, pp.20-89.

[14] G. Ferrara, A. Gnocchi, and M. Palmaro, 2014. Questo papa ci piace troppo. Milan: Edizioni Piemme, pp.21–22, 216.

[15] E.M. Radaelli, 2014. La chiesa ribaltata: indagine estetica sulla teologia, sulla forma e sul linguaggio del magistero di Papa Francesco. Verona: Gondolin, pp.17, 131.

[16] A. Socci, 2014. Non è Francesco: la chiesa nella grande tempesta. Milan: Mondadori.

[17] H. Küng, 2013. Can We Save the Catholic Church? London: William Collins, pp.92–97, 296–299.

[18] Lumen Gentium, sec.25.

[19] Lumen Gentium, sec.22; Catechism of the Catholic Church, para.830; Dominus Iesus, sec.16-17.

[20] M. Franco, 2015. Il Vaticano secondo Francesco: da Buenos Aires a Santa Marta: come Bergoglio sta cambiando la Chiesa e conquistando i fedeli di tutto il mondo. Milan: Mondadori, p.8.

[21] Code of Canon Law, can.1404.

[22] B. Gherardini, 2009. Ecumene tradita: il dialogo ecumenico tra equivoci e passi falsi. Verona: Fede & Cultura, p.71.

[23] K. Barth, 2004. Church Dogmatics II/1. London/New York: T&T Clark, pp.580–585.


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