“It is risky to write about an ongoing series of events, in this case the Catholic church’s history in the second half of the twentieth century,” writes Thomas Molnar in the introduction to The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries. After finishing Professor Molnar’s iconoclastic and often penetrating analysis of the Church’s position in the modern world and how it came about, one can only second this initial judgment.

The book traces two interconnected developments: the triumph of the secular in the capitalist West; and the Church’s response, in the form of the Second Vatican Council, to that meteoric rise. Molnar’s analysis of the ascent of “civil society” and the corresponding decline in the influence and power of both church and state provides a much needed corrective to pat conservative broadsides against “big government” as the source of all modern afflictions. While he recognizes that the state has become “the only visible ‘high authority’ directing citizens’ lives,” and a “substitute religion” that is both the focus of hopes and the ultimate arbiter of justice, Molnar argues that the actual power of the modern democratic state is largely illusory, since it merely serves as the functionary of the various interest groups that run society. In other words, the power of the state has been supplanted over the last two hundred years by that of civil society, which he defines as “the non-political area of transactions among citizens” that is “built on the premise of a limitless increase of human rights, rights of consumership, leisure, and moral emancipation.”

Recognizing this new order, the Church has abandoned its traditional alliance with the state and turned to civil society in an attempt to retain some of its diminishing influence. But since civil society is not a single entity with a vested interest in maintaining public order (like the state), the Church has only succeeded in joining the myriad of interest groups competing for attention in the secular realm. As Molnar puts it, “Civil society is not a historical and organic successor of the state, but its opposite. Its interest is not focused on the moral consolidation of the community; instead it expects some kind of morality to emerge as the haphazard result of its individual members’ material success.” This means that the Church works at an inherent disadvantage since it must now operate according to the tacit agreement of the interest groups vying for position in civil society: namely “the premise that there is no truth and that this agreement guarantees civil peace and prosperity.” This, of course, is a self-defeating stipulation for an institution that claims to be the divinely ordained repository of Universal Truth.

Molnar sees three choices for the Catholic Church as it enters the new millennium: one, to continue along the same line of accommodation and secularization that he claims was initiated by Vatican II; two, to abandon the unworkable alliance with civil society and to forge a new, more ideologically coherent partnership with socialism (following the lead of liberation theologians and other post-Vatican-II radicals); and three, to abandon politics altogether and return to the eternal mandate to evangelize the world: a “re-spiritualization at the expense of politics.” Molnar contends that the continuing secularization of the sacred and the alliance with socialism are being actively pursued by various groups within the Catholic Church, while the third choice, the “missionary” option, has been almost entirely abandoned (with a few notable exceptions such as Mother Teresa). Although it is clear that he feels the Council to have been motivated by misguided notions of realpolitik, it is difficult to determine which political option (secularization or socialism) he believes the Council expressed—since he makes a case for both.

The problem with this type of sociological approach is that the many (sometimes necessary) generalizations that emerge allow Molnar to avoid taking up the specific mandates of the Council, in preference to which he presents anecdotal evidence of the Church’s accommodation to secular culture. In his outline of the crisis and choices facing the Catholic Church, he seems about a decade behind the course of events. With the advent’ of John Paul II (and the recent collapse of the Communist Empire, due in large part to his inspiration), the liberation theologians and other aging radicals are proving to be increasingly irrelevant, despite the inordinate coverage they receive in the press. And the desacralizing of the Church’s liturgy and popular piety, while still a problem, is providing its own solution: to the extent that certain elements have sought to make Catholic worship and belief conform to the notions of secular culture, they have become indistinguishable from that culture and lost their appeal, indeed their raison d’être, as a sign of opposition to the standards of the world. The only movements within the Church that show signs of vitality (Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Charismatic Renewal), are the orthodox movements, as are the growing number of seminaries that are at or near capacity. They are also firmly committed to the Council’s teachings.

For the great irony is that what prevents Molnar from noticing these encouraging trends is the same relentlessly political outlook he (rightly) blames for most of the post-Council aberrations. Unfortunately, that outlook also skews his view of the Council itself Since, in his view, “civil society” is “impermeable to conversion” because of its very structure, the result of the Church’s “strategy” in Vatican II of “sacralizing the whole world and every aspect of daily life” was “the acceptance of the values of profane civilization” by the Church. In this context he quotes Cardinal Ratzinger’s complaint that “many . . . deliberately raised ‘desacralization’ to the level of a program . . . on the plea that religion, if it has any being at all, must have it in the non-sacredness of daily life.” But Ratzinger’s point was precisely that this is a misguided conception of the Council (a conception that Molnar seems to share with the radicals). In fact, Vatican II ordained ending clerical involvement in, and direction of, secular politics, and emphasized the responsibility of laymen to bring good doctrine and well-formed consciences to their daily responsibilities (the “reevangelization” of culture)—which is precisely according to Molnar’s prescription. The Second Vatican Council is the third option—a quarter century before Professor Molnar proposed it! A book that attempts to chart the present position and future course of an institution that, in Chesterton’s words, has “died many times and risen again” is, as the author admits, risky.


[The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries, by Thomas Molnar (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 182 pp., $15.95]