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THE ROLE OF UTOPIA

What, then, may ultimately explain the conjunctural importance of progressive Catholicism in the long sixties? To be sure, the happy circumstance of Vatican II occurring just a few years before the explosions of ‘1968’, discussed in the opening sections of this Conclusion, is the obvious and easy answer to this question. But there is another possible explanation. There exists an intellectual attraction and a distinct fascination with the thoughts and deeds of Catholic activism and associated Catholic intellectuals of that time, which goes beyond their involvement in the multiform social movements of their age.

When assessing the original contributions of conciliar declarations and post-conciliar developments in theology, traced in Chapter 1, it is astonishing to note the regularity with which the messianic, eschatological, utopian dimension comes to the fore. If there is a red thread which links Yves Congar to Jose Maria Gonzalez Ruiz via Karl Rahner and Johann Baptist Metz, it is their emphasis on the importance of the link between salvation and liberation, the need for equal attention to the tasks of human liberation in the present and the utopian Kingdom to Come. Moreover, time and time again it becomes clear with regard to all the theologians whom I earlier discussed that the real driving force in this creative admixture of earthly and millenarian pursuits is their firm belief in ultimate redemption. The utopian goal is what energized Catholics to devote their actions to the improvement of their present circumstances and their concrete socio-cultural and political environments in the here and now.

And this is where the utopian, messianic dimension of Catholicism overlapped with secular ideals prominently at work behind the scenes in the long sixties. Utopian goals were all the rage in the social movements and political battles of that period. Marxist and/or anarchist dreams of classless societies were then common currency in many countries across Europe and the wider world, precisely at the same time that his apocalyptic eschatology propelled Johann Baptist Metz to front-line status in the galaxy of European radical Catholicism. Both messianic Catholicism and utopian Marxism captured the imagination of an entire generation and mutually influenced each other. There is no better proof of purchase of this creative confluence than the conjunctural radiance of a figure such as Ernst Bloch, the philosopher of the West German New Left who, in turn, crucially shaped the outlook of the Protestant Jflrgen Moltmann and the Catholic Johann Baptist Metz.

In that sense, the long sixties can be compared to another period in modern European history, the period known in German-speaking areas as the Vor- marz, the period between the 1815 Vienna Congress and the Revolutions of 1848. In particular the 1830s and 1840s were decades of great expectations and hopes in the coming springtime of peoples and a radically different organization of life. Not only Marx and Engels—as well as Heinrich Heine and Georg Bdchner—then came of age, but so did Bakunin and Proudhon. Some of the earliest shoots of organized feminism (Flora Tristan) can be traced back to this period as well. Even the comparatively quieter first half of the Vormarz had seen its share of visionary projects. The entire panoply of utopian socialists in France and England (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen) then developed and put into practice their respective schemes. In short, the Vormarz, in particular the years between 1830 and 1848, saw a similar proliferation of utopian dreams and concrete plans as did the dozen years preceding and immediately following 1968.

As long as those hopes and aspirations appeared to incorporate real possibilities, the associated ideologies continued to hold sway over ever-larger segments of the relevant generations. Once those dreams were dashed, the formerly influential belief systems were rapidly discarded. It would be interesting to see what role the failures of the revolutions of 1848 and the revolts of 1968 played in this process. For, in neither case were these moments of crisis and opportunity successful in obtaining the much-invoked dreams, which had energized countless activists and thinkers in the preceding years. Once the realization settled in that the springtime of peoples and the revolts of 1968 had not ushered in the New Society, the plug was pulled and the energies, tirelessly amassed in prior decades, dissipated into thin air.[1]

Second wave Left Catholicism was, thus, part and parcel of a period of rising expectations fuelled by utopian goals. Developing in synchrony with concrete social movements assembling secular and religious actors, both cohorts benefited from this synergy. (It may be useful in this context to draw attention once again to the internationally significant inspiration and pioneering role performed by the United States Civil Rights Movement in the long sixties, a social movement in which religious leaders and messianic visions played primordial roles.) Once the bubble burst—or, as the case may be, once defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory—utopian visions rapidly lost their purchase. When, by the early-to-mid-1970s, the painful realization set in that redemption might be further away than imagined, Left Catholic utopian ideals became increasingly unattractive—much as nonconformist New and Far Left ideologies lost their audience at the very same time.

Symptomatically, the definitive closing moment of Spanish Left Catholicism as an influential social movement, slowly revitalized after the curia- induced backlash and paralysis of the period 1966-70, was—figuratively speaking—the morning after Franco died. When it became clear that the new society following the much-anticipated death of the dictator was not exactly the New Jerusalem eagerly fought for by generations of anti-Franco activists, the apocalyptic visions quickly perished along with the associated cherished ideals. A similar process affected secular utopian ideals. It should provide food for thought that the long period during which notions of selfmanagement (autogestion) had fuelled secular and Left Catholic activists in post-1968 France came to a sudden halt precisely in the wake of the 1981 victory of the Union of the Left. Confronted with the mismatch between long- cherished ideals and the humdrum results of the Mitterand years, the hopes died along with their utopian ideals.

Second wave Left Catholicism was a sign of the times. As a serious mass movement, it vanished along with the hopes and ideals of the long sixties. Who is to say where the next empowering set of utopian goals will come from, which ‘signs of the times’ will inspire future generations? What would be utterly surprising, however, would be a scenario where such a revitalization of system-transcending ideologies—be they secular and/or religious—would simply no longer occur. For, as Marie-Dominique Chenu, following Hegel and Marx, astutely observed: ‘History consists of collective, yes indeed, massive leaps forward by human beings, leading to qualitatively new levels of consciousness, a reorientation by means of which humanity suddenly steps into mental spaces of whose existence it had, for very long periods, not the faintest idea.’

  • [1] Daniel Francisco Alvarez Espinosa has put forth some stimulating remarks to this effect inhis ‘Cristianismo y marxismo. ^Un dialogo de otro tiempo?', Historia Actual Online 18 (Winter2009), pp. 161-77, where he casts light on the Spanish dimension of this problematic.
 
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