Pope John XXIII sends a radio message to Spain, October 21, 1961 (RealyEasyStar/Fotografia Felici/Alamy Stock Photo).

Catholics are obsessed with their history. In researching my own book on Catholic history, I met scores of Catholic laypeople and clergy across Europe and America. Never have I met people so fascinated by, and knowledgeable about, the history of their own institution. They are in some ways ill served by historians. For decades, there has not been a serviceable single-volume history of the modern Church: one that understood that the Church was now global, and that a history of the papacy is no stand-in for a history of the Church. This is not for lack of data. Historians of Catholicism, whether Catholic or not, have been doing truly exceptional work in the past few decades. And yet those findings are not always making their way to the many millions who hunger for them. Historians, it turns out, are not always the best storytellers.

This is the gap that John T. McGreevy, himself an eminent historian, has attempted to fill with his new book. Catholicism tries to cover the whole sweep of modern Catholic history in a brisk four hundred pages. It does not cover every theme that could conceivably interest the Catholic reader. The book is at its core a work of political and social history. There is little here about, say, Catholic music, or liturgy, or Biblical criticism; nor is there much about the Catholic engagement with technology (either older ones like newspapers, or newer ones like the internet). All the same, the breadth of material that McGreevy has managed to gather is stunning, and this is a book that is more interested in the Church on the ground than in the machinations of leaders and councils. “All Catholics dwell in local parishes and communities,” McGreevy notes, “not an abstraction called global Catholicism.” Those seeking to understand their local experience, and the way it’s been shaped by empire and war and feminism and immigration, should begin their reading here.

The book is, at its core, less a work of original scholarship than a synthesis of the best works in the field. This is not a criticism. McGreevy has done heroic work reading hundreds of detailed academic studies. And something interesting happens when you take all that work and ask how it helps us understand the Church of the present—a Church overshadowed, above all, by the sex-abuse crisis, which has not attracted much attention from historians. McGreevy is able to narrate that crisis as an organic evolution of the Church’s modern history rather than as the dastardly deeds of a few individuals and their accomplices. But to understand how he does that, we have to walk, with McGreevy, back to the beginning.


Catholics are obsessed with their history. Never have I met people so fascinated by, and knowledgeable about, the history of their own institution.

The book begins with the French Revolution: the event that, more than any other, shattered the dream of a unified Catholic society, in a uniformly Catholic Europe. McGreevy signals at the outset that he is not going to tell the standard narrative of a unified Church under assault from bloodthirsty atheists. Because in addition to showing us the Catholics who opposed the Revolution, or were killed by it, he introduces us to the Abbé Henri Grégoire: a bishop who was also an enthusiastic revolutionary. Grégoire was a supporter of the Haitian Revolution, as were many clergy, and he corresponded enthusiastically with Toussaint Louverture, who, McGreevy reminds us, was also a Catholic. And no less than the more familiar conservatives who were horrified by the Revolution, Grégoire emerged from a coherent strain of thinking—one that McGreevy calls “Reform Catholicism” and which was committed, in some way, to reconciling the faith with the democratic and scientific spirit of the age. 

The Revolution, and all it augured, was nonetheless an enormous threat to the Church. And in the bulk of his book, spanning from 1800 to about 1950, McGreevy explains how the Church responded—and what a smashing success it was. The basic idea can be summarized in two phrases: “ultramontanism” and “the milieu.”

“Ultramontanism” refers, technically, to the belief in the supremacy and importance of the pope. More broadly, it can refer to the idea that the Church should be hierarchically organized into a tight, quasi-military institution, with celibate parish priests at the bottom and the pope himself at the top. The powers of the papacy expanded a great deal during these years, and “papal infallibility” became dogma only in 1870. The Church could not have responded nearly as well as it did if it had effectively shattered into dozens of quasi-independent national churches. Ultramontanism was designed to centralize and solidify the Church, giving it a powerful base from which to negotiate its position with a quickly changing “world.”

But that was only half of the strategy, as any Catholic knows. The other half was the “milieu”: the idea that Catholics ought to build a network of institutions that could nourish Catholic living from cradle to grave, even in a world where politics was spinning free of the Church. Women religious played an important role here—people like Mary Catherine McAuley, the Irishwoman who founded the Order of Mercy. Like other innovations of this sort, the order was involved with founding schools and hospitals, creating a Catholic infrastructure that survives in some ways to the present. And while the notion of a “milieu” seems to denote spatial isolation, McGreevy shows time and again how Catholics were on the move in the nineteenth century. Polish, Italian, and Irish Catholics, especially, spread around the world, bringing new kinds of Catholic sociability with them (to the United States, of course, but he shows that they had an impact in Latin America, too).

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These innovations of the nineteenth century served the Church well in the chaotic decades around 1900. One of the gravest challenges of the era was nationalism: the idea that individuals should devote themselves body and soul to the nation. This presented obvious challenges for an international Church with its own claims on the soul. The conflict had concrete effects. States in these years were centralizing control over marriage, education, and other social spheres that many Catholic leaders viewed as their own turf.

The clash between Catholicism and nationalism was one of the leitmotifs of global history between 1870 and 1950. The great symbol for this was the Kulturkampf of nineteenth-century Germany, when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck embarked on a damaging campaign against a Church he regarded as something of an internal enemy. That kind of overt Church-state conflict, though, was more the exception than the norm. More often, the Church sought some kind of accommodation with nationalism, which it saw as less dangerous, at least, than communism. This led to more and more participation in democratic politics—and it led, more controversially, to various forms of accommodation with fascism. McGreevy is not especially interested in retreading that ground, and the sections on fascism and war are some of the sketchiest in the book. He does not take into account the newly opened archives from the World War II era. (For that, readers can turn to David Kertzer’s The Pope at War.)

McGreevy is more interested in stories that are less frequently told, but arguably more important to the long development of the Church: the Catholic engagement with empire, which provides the crucial prehistory to the epochal shift to the Global South that has remade the Church in recent decades. While there had long been Catholic missionaries, the whole enterprise was expanded in the late nineteenth century. The Church was just one of many European institutions, from states to armies to corporations, that ramped up global operations in this period, sometimes known as the first wave of globalization. In China, for instance, the number of missionaries more than quadrupled from 1860 to 1900.

When these missionaries arrived in foreign lands, they brought the ultramontane, milieu-style sensibility with them. They were spreading devotion not just to Jesus, but also to the pope; they were spreading not just a religion, but a way of life. This was especially true in the empire, where control from the metropole was often tenuous. In the Congo, for instance, the Belgian missionary and bishop Victor Roelens was exercising enormous control over schools and municipal governments. And while Catholic missionaries at first claimed independence from imperial projects, by 1900 that was impossible to do. While there were, of course, differences across time and space, the general impression is that Catholics were surprisingly congenial to empire. In France, for instance, the Church at home was under assault at the same moment that it was working hand-in-glove with the state in the empire.

When it came to both nationalism and imperialism, then, the general story is that Catholics were enormously creative in finding ways to coexist with secular institutions and carve out influential niches for themselves. They could not do so, however, without getting their hands dirty and linking the Church to one of the central commitments of both nationalists and imperialists: racism. In Europe itself, Catholics across the continent were highly susceptible to anti-Semitism, while in the American South, many Catholics worshipped in segregated churches. In the empire, meanwhile, it was impossible to associate with imperial projects while remaining distant from the racial hierarchies that animated them. This reached its horrific apogee with the boarding schools that Catholics ran for some Indigenous populations. It is hard to square these institutions, which banned traditional dress and separated children from their parents, with the language of Christ. But it is also hard to see how the Church could have been so at home in the empire, and so committed to an educational mission, without ending up running schools like these.


In Europe itself, Catholics across the continent were highly susceptible to anti-Semitism, while in the American South, many Catholics worshipped in segregated churches.

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?

Humane vitae 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.

McGreevy does not offer a direct answer to this question, but the great bulk of evidence in his book does suggest one. By the time the council rolled around, the Church had been struggling with a set of questions about modern society for two centuries. One of those questions was always formulated this way: “How should the Church relate to the world?” Hence all the metaphors about the Church throwing open its windows and opening its doors to the world. As for the Church itself, the emphasis had seldom been on reform, but rather on creating a monolithic structure: an ordered house with the capacity to enter relations with the “world.” That house would be run by a hierarchy of celibate men stretching from priest to pope, mediated by thousands of hospitals and orphanages and schools and newspapers. While such a house might countenance democracy in the world, it would itself be governed as a monarchy—and would have no need of such revolutionary principles as transparency, or a free press, or clear and public structures of accountability. Such had been the very nature of the ultramontane revolution, which underwrote the Church’s enormously successful response to the French Revolution.

This particular model of the Church, for all its earlier success, was disastrously ill suited to the challenges of the later twentieth century. In McGreevy’s telling, the sex-abuse scandal was the result of various pathologies that emerged directly from the ultramontane model. Priestly celibacy, like female ordination, was untouched by the council. This, among other factors, led many priests to leave the Church, and to a crisis of recruitment—and this, in turn, led to a global reluctance to dismiss anyone who could fill a cassock. Meanwhile, and especially under John Paul II, the global Church hierarchy was centralizing its power, and McGreevy shows how decentralized decision making, even at the parish level, was floundering in these decades. The outcome was a male-dominated institution, suspicious of sexuality and the press, committed to the authority of the priest and the hierarchy. This was a disaster waiting to happen—and the disaster came, with traumatic consequences for untold numbers of victims.


While McGreevy’s book sometimes feels like a textbook, it’s much more than that. It’s a gripping story of how one of the world’s most important institutions has evolved over the past two centuries. He spans the globe, from the Philippines to Indonesia to Canada, providing welcome polyphony to a story that can often feel hermetically European. We hear the voices of those who dedicated their lives to the poor; we hear the voices, too, of those who suffered at the hands of the Church. This is, by far, the best single-volume history of the modern Church currently available.

And while it’s written by a professional historian, McGreevy is also a Catholic who cares deeply about the fate of his Church. He is worried, clearly, but cautiously optimistic. He does not think that the sex-abuse crisis is the last word on the Church. As his book shows, the Church has been in crisis before, and has found a way out. But the Church is going to have to find new strategies, because the ones that worked last time were the preconditions for the current impasse.

It is certainly plausible that, Francis notwithstanding, the global institution will double down on old solutions, with all the risks that entails. In some ways, after all, the Church is just as it presents itself: the rock of Peter, slow to change and with an eternal essence. But at the same time, the Church of today would be unrecognizable to a Catholic born just a century ago. For the institution looks back not only to Peter, but also to the Isaiah who counseled his listeners to “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.” The Church has for millennia been a global conglomeration of people animated by the frankly revolutionary teachings of Christ, creating an institution that is surprisingly agile and fleet-footed in its response to global crises. 

McGreevy’s genius is that he shows us both these Churches: the rock and the peregrine, the stolid purveyor of tradition and the agent of revolutionary change. It is anyone’s guess which of these will prevail in the crucial decades to come. For no matter how prodigious his gifts, McGreevy’s lights as a historian point only backward. The path forward is uncharted, and it will have to be blazed by a new generation of Catholics: a generation more global, and more diverse, than any that has steered the Church before.

A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis

John T. McGreevy 
W. W. Norton and Company
$35 | 528 pp.

James Chappel is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. He is the author of Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard University Press, 2018).

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Published in the November 2022 issue: View Contents
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