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Gerd-Rainer Horn: The Spirit of Vatican II. Western European Progressive Catholicism in the Long Sixties, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015, IX + 264 S., ISBN 978-0-19-959325-5, GBP 55,00
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Daniela Saresella
Università degli Studi di Milano
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Johannes Wischmeyer
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Daniela Saresella: Rezension von: Gerd-Rainer Horn: The Spirit of Vatican II. Western European Progressive Catholicism in the Long Sixties, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 6 [15.06.2016], URL:

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Gerd-Rainer Horn: The Spirit of Vatican II

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The "long Sixties" have recently rekindled the interest of historians, sociologists and economists, thus becoming central in the historiographical debate. The year 1968 has finally emerged as both origin and culmination of two political cultures: of post-1956 Marxist culture that, anxious to break loose from Soviet strictness, found inspiration in Marxist philosophers who had kept clear of that cultural and political experience (for example the Frankfurt School) on the one hand; and of that branch of Catholic culture that, under John XXIII's pontificate and, later, with Vatican II, was becoming increasingly interested in issues such as ecumenism and poverty of the Church and was eager to establish a dialogue with different cultures.

In his latest book, Gerd-Rainer Horn highlights how "Vatican II soon was used as a metaphor for any number of possible blueprints for radical actions. It was not the precise wording of council declarations which counted, but the intentions that may have been hidden behind those words". In his opinion, not only were the Vatican documents elaborated during the Council in a new way, but Vatican II also inspired new readings of those very documents, so that the "Catholic world was not only reshuffled by May 1968, but also by the spirit of Vatican II". In fact, "a large number of social movements were animated by Catholics" (254-254).

The Council's centrality finds further confirmation in the debate that it sparked off, even though Catholic scholars - and Catholics in general - still have very different opinions on the Sixties and, more in particular, on Vatican II. Some conservative Catholics blame the Council for the decline in church attendance since the Sixties; others blame not the Council itself, but its misinterpretation by many believers. Giuseppe Alberigo and others consider the new pontificate of John XXIII and the Council as a positive watershed within Catholic culture: they underline that the Council promoted a vision of the Church as a community of people awaiting the coming of the Kingdom of God, all the while accepting responsibility for its fulfillment in the present. In their opinion, during those years the Roman Church redefined its role, raising its voice and taking a position on economic justice, world peace and Third World issues. Such a position is witnessed by the fact that, during that period, the Church was particularly keen in supporting the fight for the rights of the poor living in First- and in Third-World countries and expressed its intention to influence public policies in the area of human rights and social justice.

Clearly, therefore, there are very different interpretations of the innovative function played by Vatican II, and those who tend to downsize its innovative capacity usually frame the Council within the longer history of the Church, thus denying its radical character. On the contrary, Horn focuses on the very novelty and change brought about by the Council. Horn's latest book, The Spirit of Vatican II. Western European Progressive Catholicism in the Long Sixties follows on from Western European Liberation Theology (1924-1959) (Oxford University Press, 2008), the first survey on the development of a progressive variant of Catholicism in twentieth-century Western Europe. The Spirit of Vatican II, in turn, is basically a work of synthesis that uses the huge amount of scholarship on the subject available in different countries. Horn's book is not the first contribution on the subject - in 2010 Hugh McLeod had already published his thorough and interesting The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford University Press) - but it undoubtedly offers a further occasion to investigate the complexity of those years.

Horn writes that in the 1960s "Hegel won out over Marx" (2): while this is certainly true, I think that during the Council - and in its immediate aftermath - it was Engels who won out over Marx, and that, in its choice to defend the interests of poor people, the Church was necessarily confronted with the political and philosophical perspectives of Left-wing culture. In fact, Engels, who, unlike Marx, had had a religious education, had a different approach to religion: he was deeply interested in the Church of the origins and he emphasized the considerable ground shared by early Christian experiences and the modern workers' movement: in both cases groups of poor and oppressed people were persecuted by those in power, who endeavoured to maintain the status quo. Unlike Marx, who considered religion mainly a tool of the ruling class for controlling the lower social strata, Engels did not express a negative view of Christianity, believing that it might perform a positive function in the evolution of the lower classes, as had happened, for example, in Germany at the beginning of the 1500s during the peasant uprisings. Karl Kautsky took the same line and in 1902 wrote that the socialist movement had many features in common with early Christianity, since its origins, like the latter's, were proletarian.

Such an interpretation of a Christianity close to the needs of "the Least" - and therefore not so distant from the socialist message - had already been endorsed by the Catholic Modernist movement at the beginning of the Twentieth century, in particular by the Roman priest Ernesto Buonaiuti. Acknowledging Vatican II's debt towards Modernism is, in my opinion, the starting point for any investigation of the radical innovation brought about by the Council. Still, Horn does not hold it necessary to highlight the nexus between the reflections developed in the early Twentieth century and those developed during the Sixties. This means that he does not consider the modernist intellectuals' attempts to find new ways of meeting the cultural and political challenges of contemporary society and the reflections that emerged during the Council as related facts. Yet, the Urbino's school - in particular Lorenzo Bedeschi (founder, in 1964, of the Centro per la Storia del Modernismo [Centre for the History of Modernism] and a keen promoter of the changes brought about by Council) - has interpreted Modernism as an underground river running across Twentieth-century history and gaining momentum during the Sixties and Seventies, albeit inspired by the new values and ideas of that period.

Relying on Bruna Bocchini Camaiani's contribution, however, Horn does not fail to stress Ernesto Balducci's debt towards Modernist culture, in particular towards Maurice Blondel (43). For it was through Blondel that Balducci began investigating theological issues, and in particular to focus on the historical evolution of dogmas. Furthermore, Horn points out that Balducci "embraced Marxism as a sociological tool towards an understanding of society" (47), which was typical of some exponents of early Twentieth-century Modernism (for example Romolo Murri).

For that matter, throughout the Twentieth century, catholic intellectuals interested in Marxism always stressed the difference between historical materialism and dialectical materialism, using the former as a tool for social analysis and voicing their misgivings about the second. During the Sixties and Seventies in particular, while some Catholics embraced a political and cultural perspective inspired by Marxism, others limited themselves to establish a dialogue with that philosophical and cultural world. For "Dialogue" was perhaps the issue during the Council and in its immediate aftermath. An interest of some circles in the prospect of Catholic and communist exchanges was manifested at a workshop in Salzburg in late April and early May, 1965, organized by the Paulus-Gesellschaft and directed by its secretary, Fr. Erich Kellner. It was in the course of this event that the Italian Salesian, Giulio Girardi (professor of philosophy at the Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano in Rome) emerged as one of the most sophisticated advocates of the dialogue between Marxism and Christianity. In April 1966, a further step was taken via a workshop in Herrenchiemsee, Bavaria, entitled "Christian Humanity and Marxist Humanism" (Christliche Menschlichkeit und marxistischer Humanismus), once again organized by the Paulus-Gesellschaft.

During these years, the most successful of such works were probably Giulio Girardi's Marxismo e cristianesimo (1969), in which the Salesian priest offered a summary of his reflections, and Ruggero Orfei's Marxismo e umanesimo (1970), in which the author, after a long discussion of the concept of humanism and its historical evolution, questioned the very possibility to talk about Marxist humanism. Orfei, following along lines developed by Maritain and Mounier, and on the basis of a decade's long work on Marxism and on Gramsci, came to the conclusion that the working class existed not as a revolutionary vanguard in a political sense, but as a human vanguard. Marxism, therefore, was offering an important approach for interpreting human beings in the work of civilization and a contribution to expressing hypotheses for its development.

The post-Conciliar emphasis on the difference between the communist movement, which followed erroneous doctrines, and the doctrines themselves was a novelty, and this facilitated relations between these two very different cultures. On the Catholic side, the dialogue was grounded in the intention to separate Marxism, which represented an abstraction, from Marxists; to separate communism, a doctrine founded on an error, from the workers' movement, which represented the healthy backbone of society. While Marxists and Christians could, and did, meet on the basis of their shared interest in the values of human dignity and social justice, not all of their differences were resolved.

Horn does not seem to be interested in such theoretical issues but rather in investigating crucial experiences such as the ones of "worker priests", Ecclesial Communities and the trade unions. In this perspective, he devotes particular attention to the Turin context under Michele Pellegrino's episcopate. Man of faith, advocate of dialogue and encounter, Pellegrino was professor of Classics at Turin University and a prominent intellectual: he played a key role in the renaissance of the Theological faculty in Turin and he actively promoted the implementation of Vatican II. He also stood out for his attention to the condition of the poor and of the working classes and for claiming that the testimony of Christian faith implied condemning injustice, sharing the poor's condition and fighting to overcome injustice. In Turin, the first industrial city in Italy, he also supported "worker priests", who were looked upon with suspicion by many members of Church hierarchies.

Horn also dwells on Monsignor Luigi Bettazzi, former assistant to cardinal Giacomo Lercaro in Bologna and, since 1966, bishop of Ivrea; sympathizing with "worker-priests", in 1977 he wrote a letter to Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist Party. Among the most radical advocates of Vatican II's innovations and of a Church serving the world (and not of a world serving the Church), Bettazzi raised the issue of the voters' drift towards the Communist Party. Berlinguer answered Bettazzi's letter with an article inspired by Franco Rodano (member of catholic-Communist movement in the period of Resistenza) and published in the PCI journal Rinascita, where he reclaimed the party's Marxist legacy, but still he made clear that Marxism was to be "considered and used critically, as teaching, and not accepted and read dogmatically as immutable text" (D. Saresella, Cattolici a sinistra, Milan-Bari, Laterza, 2011).

Post-conciliar Catholicism was also concerned with the problems of Third World countries and it stressed the urgent need to combat relations of exploitation which dominate the world. Horn underlines the relevance of the Amsterdam assembly, held in September 1970 and devoted to Latin American affairs as well as of the third Synod of bishops, held in Rome in 1971, which was a turning point for Catholic social teaching. In a document entitled Justice in the World, the bishops adopted positions that went far beyond Vatican II, introducing the notion of "social sin": they claimed that the Gospel of Jesus Christ redeems us from sin, including "social sin". Horn further directs his attention towards base communities in Italy; they existed also in the Fifties, but evidence suggests that it was the years of Vatican II when things began to truly stir (113). The historian underlines the relevance of Turin's base community, in particular he remembers that the origins of the Gruppo Abele can be traced back to the base community in the mean streets of 1960s Turin. The historian underlines the relevance of the Comunità di Bose, whose earlier group was based in Turin: only in 1965 the members of the community, led by Don Enzo Bianchi, moved to Bose. He speaks about the Sant'Egidio community, rooted in the Roman context. Its core group originally attended a Roman high school. The community, led by Andrea Riccardi, can now claim a worldwide membership of roughly 50,000 members.

Horn also underlines the "Florentine exceptionalism", witnessed by the relevance of Testimonianze - a journal founded by Ernesto Balducci in 1958 - and by the foundation of the Comunità dell'Isolotto, which in 1968 showed its solidarity with the parishioners in Parma who decided to occupy the cathedral to protest against the Church's ties with financial and economic centres of power in Italy. Florentine cardinal Florit sent a letter to Don Enzo Mazzi - leader of the group - in September 1968 to condemn the open defiance of Church authorities. These facts were provoked the conflict between Isolotto parishioners and Cardinal Florit.

In his book Horn devotes much attention to the case of Italy as well as to the peculiarities of Italian politics and society, writing that "the polarization of Italian society and politics as such, with the western world's most powerful Communist Party confronting a staunchly conservative Christian Democracy in a quasi-permanent stand-off from 1950s to 1970s accounts for much of the local color of conflicts throughout the Italian boot" (255).

The Italian situation is definitely particular, since, in spite of being a Catholic country, Italy has always been distinguished by the presence of deeply-rooted left-wing parties. All through the twentieth century Italian Catholics tried to open up to a dialogue with the Socialist and Communist world. It should be remembered how at the end of the Nineteenth century, in times of rampant positivism, the philosopher Antonio Labriola questioned the mechanical interpretation of the relationship between base and superstructure and chose to devote greater attention to man's role in history. Labriola's perspective was later adopted by Antonio Gramsci, whose philosophy abandoned the fatalist and positivist conception of Marxism, according to which Capitalism was necessarily bound to collapse and to make room for a socialist society, and advocated the establishment of the social hegemony of the proletariat.

Such features of Italian Marxism were paralleled by a strong interest in the "social question" within the catholic world, which led to a fruitful exchange of views between the two different political cultures. Not surprisingly, the anti-fascist fight in Italy saw a close collaboration between exponents of the Left and Catholics, as the case of Catholic Communists shows. Further, in the aftermath of WWII, left wing parties enjoyed a great success among the population: in fact, until its disbandment in 1991, the PCI was the most voted Communist party in the Western world, which also happened thanks to Catholic votes.

Still, it is not true that, as stated by Horn, the DC was a "conservative" party, because it actually provided a space for the coexistence of diverse political cultures: some of them were indeed conservatives but others were open to dialogue with the Left, as witnessed by the political experience of the "centro-sinistra" ("centre-left") and by the dialogue between Berlinguer and Moro during the Seventies. In fact, the majority of historians who studied the "catholic party" (for example Agostino Giovagnoli) have highlighted how, while the DC certainly attracted conservative votes, its policies were far more "progressive" than the ones of its electorate. This should not come as a surprise, since Alcide De Gasperi spoke of the DC as a centre party looking left.

Horn's book undoubtedly rekindles interest in themes and have recently resurfaced under Pope Francis' pontificate, providing an occasion to further reflect on issues such as the relationship between Catholicism and the social question. However, the dialogue between the catholic world and other confessions and/or religions, which was an essential feature of the "spirit of Vatican II" and is still crucial and debated nowadays, is left in the background.

Horn's book is also important for the questions that it leaves open, which is often the case with goods monographs, in that it succeeds in whetting the reader's curiosity and it proves inspiring for fellow-scholars working on catholic dissent in Europe.

Daniela Saresella