*** DEBUG END ***

Catholic Modern, by James Chappel

05 October 2018

Jeremy Morris looks at how Roman Catholic social ideas developed

MOST church people, I suspect, have a notion about Roman Catholic social teaching and attitudes to democratic politics which runs something like this.

For much of the 19th century, and well into the 20th, the RC Church was locked in conflict with modern ideas and developments in critical thought, and with the development of liberal representative government. It turned inwards and cultivated its separation from the world outside.

Pius IX condemned liberalism and a host of other “errors” in his infamous “Syllabus of Errors” in 1864. Pius X mounted a crusade against Modernism in the Church in the early 20th century. The Church was suspicious of the ecumenical movement, restricted and penalised its theologians who broke with the dominance of an arid neo-scholastic theological synthesis, and cultivated its own alternate agencies and movements — RC trade unions, welfare associations, youth movements, and so on.

This institutional “lockdown” was sustained right up until everything was thrown open at the Second Vatican Council. It was only then that a new and more open approach to contemporary society in the West really took hold in Rome.

This ground-breaking new book from James Chappel, his first, completely overturns this idea. It was always liable to over-simplification anyway, and Chappel is building on the work of many other scholars, such as John Pollard and the late Émile Perreau-Saussine, who have chipped away at it. But he both pulls together the results of their work, and adds to it in a highly original way.

Chappel surveys the history of RC attitudes towards modern society and politics from the beginning of the 20th century, drawing on an impressively wide range of published sources in English, French, and German. He shows how the “anti-modern” strand of RC thought, essentially a neo-Gothic appreciation of medievalism, was already fading by the 1920s, to be replaced by attitudes that emphasised the modernity of the RC Church.

But these attitudes were influenced above all — at least at first — by opposition to communism, and suspicion of liberal democracy; and that made them particularly susceptible to various forms of totalitarianism.

In Italy, for example, it was tempting to think, after the Concordat and the recognition of the Vatican State in 1929, that Mussolini was a friend of the Church. In France, the turbulence of the Third Republic convinced many Catholics that democracy was bankrupt.

RCs argued in favour of corporatist approaches to politics, elevated the family (and especially reproduction) as the ideal form of Catholic association, and were often susceptible to anti-Semitism. Chappel labels this approach “paternal Catholic modernism”, though, in doing so, he readily acknowledges the diversity of opinion among RC theologians, politicians, and church leaders.

But there were always other, divergent strands. Through the life and thought of figures such as Jacques Maritain, he marks out another approach, “fraternal Catholic modernism”. This tended to emphasise opposition to fascism, acceptance of ideological and even religious pluralism, and, above all, “relationships of solidarity and cooperation found between brothers” rather than the authority of the father. This was, before the war, a minority position in Catholic politics and social thought. But it grew in strength.

The growing conflict between the Churches and the Reich government in Germany, the persecution of the Jews, and the course of the Second World War mostly ended whatever affinity Catholics may have felt for totalitarian government. After that, through Christian Democratic parties, through support for the principle of human rights, and through a brief but, none the less, influential convergence of “paternal” and “fraternal” Catholic modernism, Chappel argues, RCs forged a political and social consensus in Europe which for a time enshrined anti-totalitarianism, human dignity, and religious freedom as central values that could be shared with others.

It was only in the 1960s — the very decade of Vatican II, of course — that this consensus began to break up, as more militant convergences on the Right and, especially, the Left divided Catholics once again.

This bare summary does not do justice to the sophistication and breadth of Chappel’s book. It is vital reading for anyone interested in the RC Church’s engagement with politics in the 20th century. It is not, I am afraid, an easy read. A vast range of material is referenced, and you can get a bit lost in it, and the prose is sometimes clunky and jargonised. His use of the term “modernism” bears no relation to the theological modernism condemned by Pius X, and some people will find that confusing.

The argument seems to me broadly convincing, but I suspect that others will pick away at Chappel’s categories, and point out that there are other dimensions of Catholic history to which he pays little attention. At several points, for example, he mentions that Catholics had already had to come to terms with the rise of democratic politics and parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he doesn’t really integrate this acknowledgement with his wider argument.

Some will miss a more sustained engagement with the liberal Catholicism of Lamennais and his followers; there is very little attention to developments in Britain and America; and a strange omission in that context is the work of Christopher Dawson, who doesn’t feature in the book at all; one could go on. But that doesn’t take away from the main achievement, which is considerable.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.


Catholic Modern: The challenge of totalitarianism and the remaking of the Church
James Chappel
Harvard University Press £25.95
Church Times Bookshop £23.35

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)