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What all these natural and unnatural alliances also brought about was a climate of growing division within the Catholic Left. For by no means every Catholic parishioner was willing to go along all the way in this process of free- flowing reinterpretations of the spirit of Vatican II. The clearest indication of such new divisions internal to the Catholic Left could be found within the community of theologians who had initially closed ranks to defend and publicize the change of course announced at Vatican II. By the late 1960s, the erstwhile bloc of reform-minded theologians began to unravel. As the process of radicalization began to become seemingly irreversible, several leading theologians within the progressive camp—Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger come to mind—began to form their own more moderate network, separate from the ardent defenders of a more radical course. And a similar reshuffling of allegiances took place in the world of Catholic parishes and communities as well—and not all of them had been affected by the proverbial spirit of Vatican II in the first place.

I have elsewhere described in greater detail how such second thoughts, in the face of the seemingly boundless radicalization of some Catholic believers in the wake of 1968, led to a moderation of course by the Catholic church under Pope Paul VI, who had earlier on—notably in the decades prior to Vatican II—been a steadfast defender, if not a direct supporter himself, of the first wave of the Catholic Left.[1] And this new division within the camp of advocates of the spirit of Vatican II naturally put wind in the sails of conservative groups in the curia. The Italian and Spanish hierarchy had, for instance, never been seriously affected by the spirit of Vatican II in any of the latter’s multiple and conflicting manifestations. Now, in the wake of a partial retreat by Paul VI and others in the aftermath of 1968, the conservative networks began to regain the upper hand. Long before the advent of the period of open reaction characterizing the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the spirit of Vatican II had become an evanescent dream.

The crushing of the Spanish Catholic Left after 1966 was thus merely a precursor of what happened elsewhere in Europe in subsequent years. A promising period of open-ended experiments was artificially cut short. The link-up between progressive Catholics and the nonconformist secular Left thus never occurred, understandably leading ever-greater numbers of formerly Catholic grassroots activists to concentrate exclusively on family, career, and the private sphere, abandoning social movement engagements, and, frequently enough, discarding their faith along the way. If they did continue to be active in socio-political affairs, they now quite often carried out such work in secular organizations of the political Left.

In the short run, then, the spirit of Vatican II led to a renewal of Catholic engagements with progressive social issues on a scale unprecedented in recent history. In the medium term, the rising curve of activism was followed by disillusionment and resignation, and a powerful reinforcement of the trend towards secularization, which had begun to affect European societies for quite some time prior to Vatican II. But, inasmuch as many erstwhile Catholic activists now shifted their attention and their energies towards the secular Left, a new set of consequences can be discerned.

  • [1] Gerd-Rainer Horn, ‘Les Chretientes catholiques a l’epreuve des sixties et des seventies’, inYvon Tranvouez (ed.), La Decomposition des chretientes occidentales 1950-2010 (Brest: Centre deRecherche Bretonne et Celtique, 2013), pp. 23-35.
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