The Third Possibility

Presented with a strong challenge to one’s deepest convictions, three basic psychological possibilities present themselves: rejecting the challenge through a tenacious defense of those convictions; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and adjusting one’s ideas and behavior as a result; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and rearticulating one’s convictions in an effort to demonstrate that they satisfy the aspirations of the challenger better than the proposed alternatives.

Applied to the collision between Catholicism and modernity, one could say in extremely broad strokes that the first possibility dominated most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the Syllabus of Errors and the anti-modernist campaigns. It was a largely defensive reaction against secularism that still has echoes in influential circles of Catholic thought. The second possibility carried the day at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and has defined the project of Catholic liberalism ever since: the drive to reform the church to better reflect some of the core values of modernity, such as tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.

Much of church politics in the post-Vatican II era, again painting with a very broad brush, can be understood as a clash between these two impulses. To some extent, the third possibility has remained a path not taken, which is what makes the emerging outlines of Benedict’s magisterium especially intriguing.

– John L. Allen, “2007’s neglected story: Benedict XVI and ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy'” (January 3, 2008)