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The Pope and history

“Is the main point underlying the decisions to be made once again in the kind of relationship the Church of Rome wishes to establish with history?. To be more specific, is it in her way of seeing herself  in history: does she recognize that she is fully part of it, just as she belongs to the Gospel to which she refers, or does she withdraw from it, since,  she brings a message, intangible to human contingencies, which she has been able to keep intact and unchanged in the course of 2,000 years?”.

With these words Giovanni Miccoli, a historian, sums up his long and critical discourse on Benedict XVI in his recent book La Chiesa dell-anticoncilio. I tradizionalisti alla riconquista di Roma (Laterza). His judgement is based on the consultation of a mass of texts and documents and on an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council as a moment of rupture with an age-old fossilization.

With the Council, at last, the Church was to catch up with history, accepting modernity in those years. So it was, in the scholar's opinion, that the Church agreed to re-examine the whole of her culture and the whole of her tradition in the light of that radical change which marked Western society in the 19th- and 20th-centuries. The accent on the lack of attention to history and the refusal to take it into consideration by  Benedict XVI  who, precisely because of this presumed dismissal, is accused by Miccoli of shunning distinctions and hence of indulging in a “trivializing simplification”, constitutes the backbone of this book.

It is surprising to find in a well-known historian – who, as may be deduced from the footnotes, has read at least a few of Ratzinger's works  – the utter inability to recognize that the theologian who today is Pope has always paid extraordinary attention to the historical aspects of issues and problems, always seeking moreover, also in his discourses,  to make a historical interpretation of the moment we are living in, full of references to reality and to its transformations. As if speaking of the quest for truth and accusing contemporary thought of relativism meant denying history. On the contrary, it means giving history an interpretation that the book's author does not like, but this is something quite different.

It is as if, for Miccoli, history were solely identified with the 1960s, that is, with the cultural climate that formed the context of the Second Vatican Council and its documents. As if everything that happened afterwards – in other words the application of those texts but also the failure of the modern utopias then preached in society, as well as the emergence of new and serious problems, such as bioethical issues – were not also part of history and did not deserve attention and criticism today. And, consequently, did not appeal for a different perception of the Council from that of its contemporaries. A historical overview, exactly.

Just as the perspective in which to see  the divisions and opposition that came into being in the years of the Second Vatican Council is likewise a historical one. The fact that half a century has passed since those times obviously means that we may attempt to draw a conclusion that employs not only necessarily dated theoretical proclamations as elements of judgement but also the behaviour of its opponents in the post-conciliar decades.

The history which, according to Miccoli, should form part of the Pope's discourses, is always that of the past and, more precisely, the time of the Council that naturally influenced  decisions; as if only events that are popular and shared deserved to be considered historical. Other events must be archived as resistant, contrary and ultra-conservative

This is a concept of history which is at the least disputable; it is not only the message of Miccoli but also of other Church historians and in particular of the Second Vatican Council, who in this way easily come to the conclusion which matters most to them: namely, that traditionalists, headed by the Pope, are endeavouring to reconquer the Church.

Yet why is it that all too often Benedict XVI's reflection, expressed clearly  in his books and in interventions, hence accessible to anyone who seriously seeks to understand, is not interpreted with its originality and newness? Why does everything he says necessarily have to be framed in the worn out moulds of progressists and conservatives who, basically, were already thrown into a crisis by the Pope of the Council himself, Paul VI, with the publication of Humanae Vitae ?

It is as if the sketchiness of the political vision of our time were to conceal a true and free interpretation – which of course may also be a critical one –  of this pontificate which people want to condemn in any case, its proving ever more surprising and interesting.

Will historians take 100 years to understand it? Let us hope not.

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