Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church, by James Chappel

This charts with scholarship and originality the final renunciation of a synergy between church and state and a shift to the sovereignty of conscience, John Cornwell writes

February 15, 2018
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In his biography of Paul VI (who reigned from 1963 to 1978), the late Peter Hebblethwaite describes that pontiff as “the first modern pope”. He cites Paul’s advocacy of the vernacular over Latin, his jet-propelled papal trips and his extensive exploitation of modern media. For Paul’s predecessor, John XXIII (1958‑63), “modern” meant aggiornamento, the development of doctrine and practice, engagement with society and respect for other religions – notably Judaism.

Yet for Pius X, the stridently anti-modernist pope elected in 1903, “modern” principally meant historical criticism of doctrine and liberalism in general. Ironically, he resorted to modern communications and a modern-style codification of canon law to attack modernity in all its manifestations.

In Catholic Modern, James Chappel, who teaches history at Duke University, focuses on the final renunciation of a synergy between throne and altar, church and state, and a quantum shift from the rule of dogma to the sovereignty of conscience. He argues that Catholic modernity began in the 1930s with the conflict, at least for a minority, between Catholics and totalitarian regimes. Ousted from its traditional privileged position in the western European public space, the church sought to defend religious freedom in the private sphere, thus promoting religious pluralism by default. By the 1960s, the church had developed a perspective on the common good that was in many respects in alignment with universal human rights.

The book argues that the revival of a medieval notion of distributed political authority, “Gothic space”, explicated by the French neo-Scholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain in the 1940s, made democracy more acceptable to Catholic thinking. In the sphere of sexual ethics, Chappel stresses the impact of the German moralist Bernard Haring, who from the 1970s counselled individual conscience on the issue of contraception, even though this had been reconfirmed as a mortal sin by the allegedly modern Paul VI in 1968.

The author plays down the links between the Catholic Church and corporatist political thinking, evident in the views of Pius XI (1922‑39). And he does not emphasise the distaste for democracy in the diplomacy of that pope’s secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII (1939‑58). More strangely, he minimises the profound effect of the Second Vatican Council (1962‑65). The conciliar document on religious freedom, Of Human Dignity, was drafted by an American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray. The decree, passed at the end of the council in 1965, promoted the principle of religious pluralism in a way that silently endorsed the great American experiment.

The strengths and weaknesses of Catholic modernity can be judged today, as Chappel notes, by the conduct of the papacy of Pope Francis and the reactions of the faithful. Francis is reluctant to condemn homosexuality, thus raising the hackles of traditionalists who insist that it is still a mortal sin. Moreover, he preaches distribution of wealth to the poor, protection of the environment and criticism of capitalism, upsetting those Catholics, mainly on the American right, who accuse him of ignoring wealth creation.

Chappel has taken one facet of the Catholic modern and explored it with exemplary scholarship and originality. Yet lacking broader historical narratives, including the struggles for and against modernity following the unification of Italy, and the changing attitudes of the laity during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, his monograph fails to satisfy entirely.

John Cornwell is the director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, and the author of Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999) and The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy (2004), among many other books.


Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church
By James Chappel
Harvard University Press, 352pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674972100
Published 23 February 2018

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