I am providing, here, the barest summary of McGreevy’s intensely detailed, and intensely human, account. His narrative is sutured together through human stories of individual Catholics, men and women, Black and brown and white, crossing borders and trying to make their faith work in the modern world. Each chapter is organized around a few individual stories, giving a human dimension to the grand and global themes of the chapter. The account of high imperialism is organized around the life of Mbange Akwa, a German-educated African who became important to the Church in Cameroon. And for his journey through Catholic nationalism, McGreevy uses Ma Xiangbo, a Chinese priest and supporter of the 1911 Revolution, as his guide. This is decidedly not a history of “old white men,” just as the Church is not made up, primarily, of old white men.
Thus far in the book, McGreevy’s work has been primarily to synthesize and narrate. He does not step beyond the scholarly consensus, and on the most burning questions, he offers something like a middle ground. This changes a bit in the last third of the book, when McGreevy trains his attention on Vatican II and the Church in the late twentieth century.
Because McGreevy has labored so much to decenter the Vatican from his account of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) is able to appear in his book as one facet of a sweeping reorientation of the Church after World War II. In Europe and America, new consumer cultures and the Cold War led to a more reformist kind of Catholicism, less interested in struggle with Protestants. In the Global South, waves of decolonization shifted the calculus of power and led Catholics toward a new awareness of their complicity with racism. In the Philippines and Vietnam, among many other places, Catholicism became more “indigenous” than before, and more in league with anti-colonial forms of nationalism.
By the time Vatican II started, therefore, the Church had already been changed, and the easy relationship between the Church, the milieu, and the “West” had already begun to break down. This is not to say that Vatican II didn’t matter: it did, enormously. McGreevy tells the dramatic and surprising history of the council, but it’s hard to escape the impression that many of the resolutions more or less affirmed what had been going on in the Church for some time. In any case, that affirmation mattered. For with it, in McGreevy’s words, “the phase of Catholic history beginning with the ultramontane revival of the late nineteenth century had concluded.” No longer would Mass be celebrated in Latin; no longer would the Church position itself as a bastion of Western, imperial values; no longer would Catholics be told to hunker down into a milieu and erect barriers against the modern world.
Most immediately, this allowed the Church to participate more fully in the ongoing struggle between capitalism and communism. This took multiple forms. In Latin America, most prominently, many Church leaders and intellectuals spearheaded new forms of Catholic socialism, some of which became known as liberation theology. On the global stage, meanwhile, Pope John Paul II became the face of anti-communism, and he played a central role in the end of the Cold War. And while he was personally lukewarm toward free-market capitalism, his antipathy to socialism led many Catholic thinkers, in the United States and elsewhere, to try to reconcile the faith with the new economic order in ways that would not have been possible a few decades earlier.
In McGreevy’s telling, though, the council was nonetheless answering the questions posed by the Church’s past, while ignoring the ones that would define its future. Historians are addicted to studying the things that do change, but it can be just as important to understand those that don’t. Perhaps it is time, McGreevy suggests, to stop marveling at the vast array of things that were on the agenda of Vatican II, and ask about those things that weren’t and should have been.
One of these is the minor issue of the dignity and rights of half the human race. “Women,” McGreevy explains, “barely registered at the Second Vatican Council.” This was the era, of course, of second-wave feminism, which could not but impact the Church to its core. The “milieu” had largely been organized by women—remember Mary McAuley—but now that women were working, they were less inclined to spend their free time laboring in an institution that placed them in a subordinate role. Women in this era were beginning to question the institutions, whether domestic or public, that were built upon their undercompensated labor and deprived them of authority. The glass ceiling in the Church remained intact, and efforts to allow women into the priesthood, or even the deaconate, went nowhere.
At the same time, the Church was almost flamboyant in its refusal to countenance the other demands of contemporary feminists, notably around family planning. The whole issue of contraception was punted from the council, and resolved by the pope himself. Humanae vitae (1968), which banned the use of artificial contraception, lacked the legitimacy of an ecumenical council while reaching deep into the bedrooms of millions. This was an enormous blow to the Church, and helped create the world we know now, where many Catholics are perfectly aware that they are opting to ignore clear papal guidance. Traditional teaching about divorce was also left untouched, even as divorce laws were being liberalized around the globe.
So, while it certainly helped the Church update its liturgy and accept modern Biblical criticism, the council utterly neglected the issue of women and the family, which would prove to be just as crucial, if not more so. And this was not the only omission. The other explosive issue that was essentially untouched by the council concerned Church hierarchy. “What the bishops had not done,” McGreevy judges, “was assess the structures of the church they had inherited.” In other words, for all of its celebration of the laity, the council did not inaugurate a thoroughgoing rethinking of the Church’s structures of authority. To the contrary, in McGreevy’s telling, clerical power—and the power of popes especially—was only enhanced. After all, it was only during and after the council that popes became global celebrities. This unchecked power would soon become a linchpin of the sex-abuse scandal.
Less honest accounts of the modern Catholic Church might end with the election of Francis and tell a sanguine story about the globalization of the Church. McGreevy opts, instead, to devote his last substantial chapter to the sex-abuse crisis—a crisis that, as a matter of narrative, appears as the culmination of modern Catholic history. Why was this the case? Many accounts presume that there is something eternal about the Church’s culture of impunity for the powerful. But in that case the interesting question becomes: Why did that culture not change at a moment when many other institutions, from governments to universities to sports teams, were becoming more transparent and democratic than ever?