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Catholicism: A global history from the French Revolution to Pope Francis by John T. McGreevy

13 January 2023

Christopher Hill reviews Roman Catholic history after the Reign of Terror

AS THE subtitle indicates, this is very “wide-angle”; yet it avoids sweeping generalisations. Each aspect of a tumultuous history is well illustrated by local vignettes which make this (large) book a delight to read.

John McGreevy is Professor of History at Notre Dame University in the United States. His research embraces Central and Southern America, sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, China, and Japan, as well as other examples from the global South. At the same time, the turmoil of Catholic Europe from the French Revolution onwards is both described and convincingly analysed.

We begin with an eyewitness description of the guillotining of King Louis XVI. McGreevy then illustrates both the openness at the time of many French clergy to democracy and the reaction against it because of the horrors of the Revolution. He charts the story of “Reformed Catholicism” not only in France, but also in Austria-Hungary, Poland, Spain, and Portugal (and in their Empires). This included a cautious espousal of political reform, as well as opposition to papal authoritarianism.

Ultramontanism emerged in reaction, and with it arose a popular piety that emphasised miracles and devotion to the saints, as well as absolute loyalty to the papacy. Napoleon’s conquest of Italy reinforced the Ultramontanes, who insisted on the freedom of the Church from any national control. Ultramontanism also fostered new religious orders with vocations to serve the poor and to evangelise the non-Christian world, besides championing a universal Neo-Thomism.

McGreevy notes the part played by the restored Jesuit order in all this (the subject of an earlier book), though clearly he is not himself an Ultramontane. A significant achievement of Ultramontanism, made possible by developments in transport and communication, was the recognition of a truly universal Church — yet at the cost of Vatican centralisation, not least in the (modern) appointment of bishops.

Looking at the emergent democracies of the 19th century, McGreevy demonstrates how Roman Catholicism alternately both fostered and inhibited democratic change and representative government. Daniel O’Connell’s Ireland is also well covered, as well as the unlikely-sounding “Liberal Ultramontanists”, such as the French thinkers Lamennais and Lacordaire, and the failure of their project of Catholic democracy, denounced by Pope Gregory XVI.

With the French occupation of the Papal States, Pope Pius IX became more visible to ordinary Catholics, and duty of obedience to the Pope was emphasised. But, in Germany and Belgium, a new Social Catholicism emerged, while, conversely, slavery was still colluded with in the US. Ultramontanism also resulted in the growth of RC institutions such as schools and hospitals, especially in the US.

The second part of Catholicism recounts the better-known battles between nation-state nationalism and the RC Church, epitomised by Bismarck’s Germany, but echoed also in France, the US, and Mexico. Freemasonry and civil marriage were further issues. RC anti-Semitism is also catalogued, illustrated by the Dreyfus affair in France. Confessional political parties arose in Europe and South America, and European colonialism spurred huge missionary enterprises in Africa and Asia, and even experiments in Catholic nationalism in China.

With the turn of the century, the Roman anti-Modernist campaign became fervent, to be followed by underground academic resistance and the beginning of ressourcement (return to the sources), which laid the ground for the Second Vatican Council.

Ambiguous RC response to the rise of the dictators is illustrated: communism was usually perceived in the 1930s as a greater danger to the Church, and only later were Mussolini and Hitler seen as evil. The part played by Jacques Maritain, French philosopher and friend of Pope Paul VI, is described, with his important philosophical defence of a Catholic democracy, which the Church, somewhat tardily, came to espouse.

Part III covers the transformation of Vatican II. Although this has been well recorded, McGreevy’s succinct account of the Council and its oscillations is an excellent introduction in its own right. Then followed Humanae Vitae and the crisis over contraception, and later the now familiar debates about gender and sexuality — and the exodus from the Church in Europe and even in North America, though not the global South.

Pope John Paul II’s charisma is well captured, together with the significant part that he played in the demise of the Soviet Empire. But, while John Paul II supported revolution in Europe, he opposed liberation theology in Latin America, in effect backing the US’s bolstering of right-wing governments.

Pope Benedict XVI’s preference for absolute moral categories (intrinsic evil) is noted, in contrast with the moral theology developed in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. Sexual abuse and its cover-up are honestly covered, not least from Australia, with its Royal Commission of Investigation. The final chapter is devoted to Pope Francis, in hope for the future, while noting right-wing RC opposition in the US. I did, however, miss here something about the importance of ecumenism for John XXIII and his successors.

This work is to be highly recommended. Readers of the Church Times who enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Road, with its wide-angle portraiture, will similarly like Catholicism. McGreevy’s survey of the 19th century is comparable to Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century and Alec Vidler’s A Century of Social Catholicism.

Anglicans concerned about the rise of neo-conservative and authoritarian forms of Christianity in the UK, the US, and elsewhere would do well to ponder McGreevy’s story of the swings of the Catholic pendulum in relation to democracy and modernity since the end of the 18th century. Is there a type of Christianity which hankers after forms of authoritarianism, and, if so, why?

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and former co-secretary of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.


Catholicism: A global history from the French Revolution to Pope Francis
John T. McGreevy
W. W. Norton £25.99
Church Times Bookshop £23.39

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