John McGreevy’s story calls into question the future of the Church itself
Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis by John T. McGreevy. Norton, 2022. 528 pp., $35
The winners write the history. In the modern West, the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the biggest losers. The Reformation broke the Church’s monopoly on the interpretation and governance of Christian life. In kingdoms that remained Catholic, absolute monarchy undermined the independent public authority of the Church and reduced it to a branch office of the monarchy. Finally, the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions initiated the shift to religious pluralism and privatization that has rendered the Church just one of a variety of voluntary associations vying for the allegiance of citizens within the civil society of modern liberal democracies.
The Church has generally resisted these trends, or at least tried to set the terms for its own engagement with the modern world. Historians who write this history of the Church from the perspective of the Church have been dismissed as, well, mere “Church” historians. Historians seeking professional legitimacy and a broader public voice have tended to accept and affirm these trends. Perhaps stopping short of celebrating the Church’s losses, they nonetheless hold the Church to the standards set by the modern world and at best try to show that the Church has made valuable contributions to the main currents of modern history. John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis is the latest, and perhaps the best, work in this venerable tradition of historiography, a confessional history of modernity.
In the field of American Catholic history, McGreevy is without a doubt the leading historian of his generation. He has achieved this standing by the excellence of his scholarship, the clarity of his writing, and his choice of topics. Parish Boundaries (1996) examined the Catholic Church and race relations in northern cities during the Civil Rights era. Catholicism and American Freedom (2003) covered familiar topics in American Catholic history but re-framed them in the context of “transnational” history. His Catholicism again covers the very familiar thematic ground of the Church “contending with modernity,” yet again reframes the story to fit with a current scholarly trend, this time “globalization.” In all these works the Church achieves its significance by its relation to something that is assumed to be significant in its own terms: race, transnationality, and globalization.
Any work of history should provide some rationale for its existence, but Catholicism begins abruptly with a blunt, almost defensive, statement of purpose. Why write such a book? Because “a better understanding of Catholicism enhances our grasp of the modern world.” Once again, the study of the Church is instrumental to the study of something else. The Catholic Church matters because of its scale and scope: “1.2 billion baptized members” comprising “extended networks of people and institutions in Warsaw, Nairobi and Mexico City”; moreover, a majority of its members “are people of color living in the Global South.” The actual faith of these self-identified Catholics matters primarily in this context of globalization: “doctrines, people and devotional objects . . . crossed borders with ease.” McGreevy is true to his stated priorities, but if you can imagine a history of international abolitionism in which the tracing of personal and institutional networks overshadows the burning moral issue of the abolition of slavery, you would have some sense of McGreevy’s treatment of the Catholic faith itself.
All this being said, the information McGreevy provides on the Church outside of Europe and the United States is, well, very informative. At its strongest, the book provides the proximate backstory to the phenomenon of “inculturation,” a term indicating the process of adapting Catholic practice to local cultures, one often associated with the outreach of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to Catholics in the non-Western world. This process is as old as the first century, when the first Jewish Christians turned to the gentile world for converts and struggled to discern how far the faith could accommodate pagan culture. Still, histories of the Church since the French Revolution have generally focused on the Church’s struggle with modern politics in Europe and the United States. McGreevy shows how, despite anti-clerical suspicions, the imperial powers of Europe relied on Catholic religious orders to “civilize” subject peoples and incorporate them into the European order. Catholic missionaries understood their political role, but also insisted on their independence from nation states.
McGreevy notes that Bishop François Lavigerie, who founded the Missionaries of Africa or the “White Fathers” (due to their distinct white religious garb) in 1868, insisted that his priests think of their converts as “Christians and Apostles,” not “Frenchmen or Europeans.” So too, McGreevy provides surprising accounts of the Church’s early commitment to training native lay catechists to help spread the faith among non-Europeans. Several of these catechists, such as Mbange Akwa of Cameroon, would even go on tours of Europe to help raise funds for the missions. At a time when the leading powers of Europe invoked Social Darwinism and scientific racism to justify their empires, Ludwig Windthorst, leader of the Catholic Center Party in Germany, could proclaim: “We can clearly see that [Black Africans] are capable of developing . . . because they are our fellow men, because, like all of us, they have God-given souls.” By the early twentieth century some missionaries, such as the Lazarist priest Vincent Lebbe, began to question the notion of development. Working in China, Lebbe insisted on the need for missionaries to adapt to Chinese ways. He signed letters with his Chinese name, Lei Ming-yuan, spoke Mandarin, braided his hair in a pigtail, and ate his food with chopsticks.
Sadly, much of the rest of the book reads like a replay of Catholicism and American Freedom, with emphasis on parallel conflicts in Europe. To its credit, Catholicism is more balanced and nuanced on the relative virtues of the Church and Modernity. The intransigent anti-modernism of Pope Pius IX is on full display, but so are the persistent violent assaults on the Church by rising ”modern” nation-states: The First Vatican Council (1869-70) ended abruptly when Italian nationalist troops surrounded the city of Rome. On still-live, hot button issues related to sex, McGreevy concedes that the Church’s arguments against contraception in the 1960s “now seem prescient about the ways in which changing mores might repackage sexual exploitation, not end it.” He even concedes that poor Catholics were the most likely to support the Church’s traditional opposition to contraception because they understood population control as just another way in which the rich oppress the poor. Still, like Catholicism and American Freedom, the arc of modern Catholic history ends with the sex abuse crisis, yet one more symptom of a Church adrift, stumbling cluelessly through a world that seems to have no need of anything it has to offer.
Toward the end, McGreevy obscures this predictably dark assessment of the current state of the Church with breathless accounts of globalization. The Church seems to matter simply because it is global: “What happens in Lisbon or London must now be understood in the context of what happens in Lagos.” Still, McGreevy’s weighty tome leaves one with the impression that even this presence is doomed to extinction. Though the book is very light on causal explanation, it suggests to me that the relative strength of the Church in the Global South could be understood as a reflection of the same institutional void that enabled the surprising Catholic Revival in Europe and America of the 19th century. In the latter case, modernization destroyed the structures of traditional society, and the Church stepped in with spiritual solace and social institutions to provide stability and purpose—until secular institutions used the power of the state and the market to supplant Church institutions and provide alternative sources of spiritual and cultural inspiration. When European powers decolonized after World War II, the Church stayed behind to continue its spiritual and social work. Will its presence suffer the same fate as these countries “develop” into full global citizenship?
McGreevy concludes his history with a brief treatment of Pope Francis that seems to answer “yes.” In the first years of Francis’s papacy, liberal Catholics looked to him as a savior who would return the Church to the liberal high-water mark of the early years following the Second Vatican Council. McGreevy eschews this liberal Catholic triumphalism for what I can only interpret as a globalist triumphalism. In reference to the political, cultural and theological issues that continue to divide the most active and involved Catholics, McGreevy speculates (hopes?) that in the rush of globalization “many of the arguments now animating Catholics may dissipate . . . because the world, and the church, will have moved on.”
To what? Apparently from the idea of a universal Church to an ideal of universal citizenship. He concludes with Pope Francis expressing hope that Catholics of the future may be “citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond.” McGreevy fails to capture the fullness of Francis’s vision; absent from his account is the Francis who insists that the Church is not just another NGO. Still, he proves without a doubt the old adage that the winners write the history.
Christopher Shannon is associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of several works on U.S. cultural history and American Catholic history, including American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey Through Catholic Life in a New World (2022), available now from Ignatius Press.