Emmanuel Mounier

It is a commonplace that the Second Vatican Council consolidated a radical revision in the Catholic Church’s stance toward the “modern world.” Images of battle gave way to ones of dialogue and common destiny. The church embraced “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of contemporary humanity. The church was embarked on the “same journey” and recognized the “good to be found in the social dynamism of today.”

How did this remarkable change come about? Well, there is a familiar story, to which I will shortly return. But that story, if James Chappel’s Catholic Modern is right, is at the very least incomplete, at the most in need of serious correction. And if Piotr H. Kosicki’s Catholics on the Barricades is right, that story needs serious expansion and, to complicate things, perhaps Chappel’s story also needs correction. These are young historians coming at old topics with fresh eyes and new perspectives. 

The standard narrative of this great Catholic transformation goes something like this: first, the Enlightenment put the church under stress, then the French Revolution and Napoleonic era traumatized it. For more than a century, Catholicism suffered from institutional post-traumatic stress disorder, reliving revolutionary flashbacks and acting out accordingly.  Every few decades a cluster of dissatisfied believers would propose treatment; they were led by figures like Lamennais, Montalembert, Dollinger, Acton, Newman, Blondel, Sangnier, Sturzo, Maritain, proponents of the nouvelle théologie, and John Courtney Murray, SJ. One after another, they were slapped down by popes from Gregory XVI to Pius XII.  

Nonetheless, bit by bit, their message of qualified reconciliation with this or that aspect of modernity won support, reinforced by the practical concessions that popes and bishops had to make to the political realities in nations from Belgium to the United States. Eventually Christian Democracy triumphed in post–World War II Europe, a bulwark against Communist totalitarianism but shorn of the anti-modern Catholicism discredited by complicity with Nazi totalitarianism and allied regimes. It remained for Vatican II to do the intellectual and theological mopping up.  

There are a number of snags in that story. One is how little attention it devotes to the 1920s and 1930s and the widespread Catholic turn to authoritarian, even totalitarian, right-wing movements and regimes, from Austria to Spain and Portugal, from Italy to Germany, and, after war broke out, from Slovakia and Croatia to Vichy France. Was this only an exceptional interlude, a momentary detour on the long march to Vatican II, a last gasp of a doomed Catholic war against modernity? 

No, says Chappel in his highly creative, massively researched, and eye-opening Catholic Modern. Anyone assuming that his subtitle, The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church, describes a church accepting modernity in recoil from totalitarianism would be mistaken. On the contrary, Chappel argues that Catholicism gave up its battle against modernity precisely in the course of collaborating with those totalitarian or totalitarian-friendly regimes—and only to a lesser extent in resisting them. 

For Chappel, the key feature of the modernity that the church battled was the emergence of a secular state and a public sphere open to a plurality of forces; Catholic authorities no longer enjoyed a privileged place as guardians of public and private morality. His narrative begins with the 1920s, when Catholics, he says, were still entranced by a quasi-medieval vision of a restored Catholic society, one that would be “structured by a dense web of Catholic institutions supplanting the secular modern state and the secular modern economy.” In the 1930s, the Great Depression and the fear of left-wing revolution rendered this rejection of the secular state and economy totally implausible. The Catholic debate “shifted from ‘How can we overcome the secular state?’ to ‘How can we shape secular modernity to our specifications?’”

Two rival strategies emerged among Catholic intellectuals and leaders. Both involved carving out a “private” zone where Catholic values and institutions would be protected from the secularism and dubious neutrality of the state. One strategy, which Chappel labels “paternal Catholic modernism,” focused on the patriarchal “reproductive family” as the protected zone of private religious values. In the 1920s, Catholics had envisioned economic life in terms of independent Christian-inspired associations uniting employees and employers into “corporations” reminiscent of medieval guilds. Now corporatism was reimagined as overseen by the state and subsuming workers and owners in various economic sectors regardless of religion. The secular state provided a reliable shield against class struggle and radical threats to the family and economy. 

Chappel labels the competing strategy “fraternal Catholic modernism.” It was egalitarian. Marital love between spouses was its starting point for discussing the family. Economic life required free trade unions. Political life demanded a free press and liberty to organize and collaborate across ideological lines. The state had to protect, not constrain, a pluralist civil society. In a sharp break with traditional anti-modernity, both contending perspectives mobilized a very modern vocabulary of human rights, religious freedom, and anti-totalitarianism in defense of their contrasting concerns. In the 1930s, Chappel writes, “the church transitioned from being an anti-modern institution into an anti-totalitarian one” (his emphases). But for one camp, anti-totalitarian meant anti-Communist; for the other, anti-fascist. In Chappel’s eyes, postwar Christian Democracy (especially in Germany) was largely the heir of paternal Catholic modernism. It was militantly anti-Communist; it advocated welfare policies and economic growth not primarily on behalf of the individual or working class but for the family as a consumer unit.

All this may sound abstract or schematic, and at moments it is. Yet Chappel fills out this story with a formidable amount of research. While acknowledging that including Italy and the Iberian countries might modify the picture, he focuses on France, Germany, and Austria, and on one or two leading Catholic intellectuals in each, representatives of neo-medieval restoration in the 1920s and of both paternal and fraternal Catholic modernisms in the 1930s and war years. Chappel’s achievement includes adding Germany and Austria to a narrative more typically centered on France, ground zero for modern secularization, and on the papacy, command central for opposing it. Alongside Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain, Waldemar Gurian, and Dietrich von Hildebrand, he introduces many less familiar actors. His history is transnational and brings to bear historians’ recent attentiveness to issues of family, gender, and capitalist consumer culture. All this in service to a provocative thesis about Catholic complicity with right-wing authoritarianism not just as a lingering case of anti-modernity but a decisive phase in rejecting it. 

Like any fresh recasting of history, Catholic Modern raises questions. Are Chappel’s definitions of modernity, secularization, and paternal and fraternal Catholic modernism really adequate? Is a structure organized around the poles of anti-fascism and anti-Communism overly simple? At times, he seems to have constructed an historical Excel sheet in which leading Catholic intellectuals are neatly entered in their proper boxes.  Nuances and ambiguities are minimized—a disservice, in fact, to the remarkable depth and sweep of his research.  

Along with this tight conceptual framework, Chappel has circumscribed his story not only in space—France, Germany, and Austria—but in time. He quickly dispatches nineteenth-century precedents for Catholicism’s confrontation with modernity. He dismisses the extensive Catholic political participation before 1920, e.g. the Center Party in Germany, as only “pragmatic strategies” lacking the “robust, conceptual reasons” required to change Catholic attitudes toward secular modernity. He has little room for the wider European context of his book’s critical decades. 

After August 1914, for example, the union sacrée in France and parallel patriotic fervor in Germany and Austria undermined Catholic estrangement from secular national governments, as did the military tensions arising in the mid-1930s. And after November 1917 and the subsequent launching of the Comintern, a profound schism opened between Moscow-directed Communists and parliamentary or other non-Communist socialists. Chappel scarcely notes that schism and how it complicated the willingness of fraternal Catholic modernists, always antagonistic to capitalism, to reach out to the Marxist left, something dividing them from their zealously anti-Communist paternal counterparts. 

At times, he seems to have constructed an historical Excel sheet in which leading Catholic intellectuals are neatly entered in their proper boxes.

The political and moral issues raised by that schism are central to Piotr H. Kosicki’s Catholics on the Barricades. Even more than Chappel’s, Kosicki’s book is a work of transnational history. He traces the enormous impact of French Catholic prophets of “personalism”—especially Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain—on Poland’s Catholic intelligentsia as it struggled with a modernity that arrived first in the form of the independent Poland resurrected after World War I, then in the invasions, bloodbaths, and genocide of World War II, and finally in a regime installed and controlled by the Kremlin. 

France had long provided physical succor and intellectual inspiration for Poles. Different strands of Polish Catholic thought drank deeply from the wells of French Catholic personalism. Some imbibed it as the latest vintage from the Thomist vineyards that Maritain tended. More, it seems, downed it straight from Mounier’s incendiary manifestos for personalist revolution.  Personalism, according to Kosicki, was in fact the basis of left Catholics’ new vision of a just and peaceful society—an understanding of the human person as both body and spirit, naturally communal, and called to some transcendent destiny. It was an understanding that personalists contrasted to what they considered liberalism’s materialist view of the atomized individual, rationally but compulsively acquisitive and self-seeking.

For Polish Catholic intellectuals, as for their French inspirers, personalism implied a Christian socialism and openness to potential Marxist allies. Could this personalist vision, incubated during years of anti-Nazi resistance, be interjected into the postwar Communist-led society? Could it be freed from the ethnonationalist and religious, even anti-Semitic, prejudices that some of its adherents still maintained? Kosicki recounts, in sometimes daunting but to me fascinating detail, the struggles among contending camps. One faction, led by ex-fascist Boleslav Piasecki, won the support of French philo-Communist Catholics like Mounier, but eventually twisted its personalism into craven rationalizations of the Stalinist police state. A saving remnant was grouped around the lay-edited Tygodnik Powszechny, known for publishing early writings of Karol Wojtyła and incidentally a journal with some personal ties to Commonweal

Catholics on the Barricades illustrates how in Poland’s immediate postwar years, before the Stalinist grip was tightened, radical Catholic hopes for a new beginning could grease the skids toward moral compromise. The book also suggests that Chappel’s fraternal Catholic modernism, strongly personalist, had a more ambiguous profile than the one he sketches. Chappel does not mention Mounier’s peculiar calm in the face of Nazi Germany’s 1940 triumphs or the initial readiness of Mounier and other personalists to work with Vichy. These were reactions rooted in a visceral contempt for the “bourgeois liberalism” of France’s Third Republic and the fancy of replacing the grubby work of politics with a rhetorically soaring but ill-defined dream of “revolution.” Such sweeping disdain for Europe’s tottering liberal institutions was common to both anti-capitalist Catholic intellectuals on the left and authoritarian ones on the right. Chappel and Kosicki take this anti-liberalism as a simple fact of life (more understandable in the Polish case) rather than a possibly toxic inheritance of Catholic anti-modernity deserving more exploration.

Insofar as Chappel’s account advances a challenging new thesis about the church’s changed attitude toward modernity, his book’s oddest lacuna is Catholicism itself—Catholicism, that is, as a lived religion and not just a current in political ideology or social theory. Catholic anti-modernity and affinity for fascist or other authoritarian regimes were embedded in a gestalt. Catholic life blended defensiveness with triumphalism, emphasis on theological doctrine with a suspicion of intellect, and grassroots mobilization with centralized and personified authority. The church insisted on traditional codes and practices while welcoming powerful new devotions; it made opposition to modernity the basis for a separate Catholic subculture that was, in mirror fashion, very “modern.”

Beyond frequently mentioning the extensive web of Catholic associations, Chappel pays scant attention to the church’s inner life of belief, devotion, authority, and allegiance. His scattered references to two or three Vatican II documents give no sense of the council’s impact or its reconfiguring of Catholics’ mental world. Over four years an institution priding itself on claims of immutability instead changed, in ways brought home to the faithful at every Mass.

I can understand the desire not to reheat internal church developments when Chappel is pursuing the admirable goal of integrating Catholicism into the larger European story. Yet failure to register, for example, the impact of Vatican II results in a final chapter with a lame treatment of the contraception debate and an idiosyncratic choice of three intellectuals born between 1904 and 1916 as representatives of a “Catholic New Left” and a “return of heresy.” Chappel ends with a generous shout-out to fraternal Catholic modernism, suddenly shifting his gaze, however, from its precarious state in France, Germany, and Austria to Pope Francis, Laudato si’, and the “global South.” 

Chappel and Kosicki belong to a post–Cold War generation of historians who are expanding our views of Catholic and European history. For Chappel, this means analyzing Catholic social thought in a way that gets beyond the dichotomy of Konrad Adenauer and Jean Monnet (good) versus Franco Spain and Vichy France (bad). He strives to sort out elements encompassing family values, welfare protections, and economic growth as well as egalitarianism and a deep-seated discontent with capitalism. Kosicki not only stretches our view to Central Europe but reminds us of an immediate postwar leeway in which Catholic hopes and choices were not as limited or obvious as they would all too soon become. And not insignificantly both scholars have also offered thoughtful political commentary in various journals of the democratic left. 

It is easy to see these two historians already in dialogue with one another, complementing or correcting their respective projects. We should look forward to seeing others join in.


Catholic Modern
The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church

James Chappel
Harvard University Press, $35, 352 pp.


Catholics on the Barricades
Poland, France, and “Revolution,” 1891–1956

Piotr H. Kosicki
Yale University Press, $40, 424 pp.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: View Contents
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