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.