April 14, 2022

An Epic Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism

John T. McGreevy’s exhaustive “Catholicism: A Global History From the French Revolution to Pope Francis” explains how debates within the church got so fierce.

When I was a tween kid in salt-and-pepper corduroys at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary school, the only thing I feared more than an authoritarian nun with a stiff ruler was the prospect of that class known as church history. All those monarchs and ministers, the papal edicts and parsing of purgatory, the vast inexplicability of the doctrine of infallibility. In Latin, no less.

It was torture, yes, but also a spiritual muddle. As the Irish Catholic comedian George Carlin noted, the priest who was supposed to have all the answers responded to a student’s perplexed queries with the inevitable, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

Now comes John T. McGreevy, a professor of history at Notre Dame and author of three books on Catholicism, with an attempt at making narrative sense of one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the oldest institution in the Western world.

If he doesn’t answer the questions that a curious 12-year-old in Spokane, Wash., once had, he does a remarkable job of explaining how the epic struggle between reformists and traditionalists has led us to the present moment in the Roman Catholic Church.

And what a moment it is. A church that has survived Christian-on-Christian wars, corruption on a scale that would make Satan blush and state campaigns to crush everyday Catholicism is still mired in what may be its worst crisis ever — clerical sexual abuse and the institutional cover-up.

The crimes against innocents have been a big contributor to the cratering of membership in much of the world. But this same church is vibrant and growing steadily outside of Europe and North America. “No institution is as multicultural or multilingual, few touch as many people,” writes McGreevy. A majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he says, “are people of color living in the global South.”

Of course, that vibrancy is due in part to a legacy of spiritual imperialism — cross and sword at the head of armed colonizers. And yet, what a turnaround it was this summer to see Pope Francis, frail on his “pilgrimage of penance,” apologizing to Indigenous people in Canada for some of the awfulness of church-run schools on Native ground. Such gestures, rooted in the humility of the Christian Gospel, may be one reason the Catholic Church has remained so resilient in a world where it is usually three steps behind the times.

McGreevy begins his story with the near-death experience of the French Revolution, when a very Catholic country turned with bloodlust on the keepers of the faith. Priests were murdered, convents and monasteries closed, property seized. For a time, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was renamed the Temple of Reason. Clergy members were required to take an oath of loyalty to the new regime or risk the guillotine. During this period of “dechristianization,” as it was called, the revolutionaries created new calendars, and renamed streets and public squares.

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Not all of this rage came from atheistic Jacobins. Loyal parishioners who had gone hungry while church coffers fattened joined the uprising. Little wonder, given that the clergy owned about 10 percent of all French property.

Though Napoleon would shrewdly bring the church back into society, he did so on his terms. He was crowned emperor under Notre-Dame’s vault, the clerical powers kneeling before him, and he put one pope under house arrest for five years.

A faith that had long relied on kings and despots as staunch allies took a more cautious view of the many democracies that sprouted between the American Revolution and the various revolts of the 19th century. It’s no surprise that a top-down, insular institution did not know what to make of government by the people. In an 1832 encyclical, Pope Gregory XVI said freedom of conscience was likely to “spread ruin,” and freedom of the press seemed “monstrous.” In 1864, Pope Pius IX formally rejected the idea that the Vatican should come to terms “with progress, liberalism and modern civilization,” as McGreevy notes.

Pius IX was by turns tyrannical and delusional, a not unusual personality pairing for certain popes. At one point he declared, “I, I am tradition; I am the church,” while overseeing a document that claimed “historical facts” could never disprove a “divinely revealed truth.”

The reformers thought otherwise, and never stilled their voices. McGreevy cites the case of a bishop in Ireland, John MacHale, mischievously offering a toast to “the people, the source of all legitimate power.” He was rebuked by Rome, but his words guide the Ireland of today. In South America, reform Catholics were influential in the movement to abolish slavery.

McGreevy does a particularly good job describing how Catholic institutions — schools, hospitals, universities, houses of charity — were founded throughout the New World. Church growth followed. In 1910, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe. By the end of the century, the global South was home to two-thirds of church members.

McGreevy is dutiful — and, at times, outraged — in sections that show how the contagion of antisemitism infected so many Vatican leaders. Social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism turned into ugly and undisguised tropes against Jews. It was the same story in criticism of the rise of communism.Father Charles Coughlin, the most famous Catholic priest in the United States, promoted conspiracy theories of Jewish global cabals and defended the 1938 Nazi violence of Kristallnacht.

The aforementioned Pius IX condoned the forced conversion and kidnapping of a Jewish boy from Bologna. A pair of notorious Vatican agreements — one with Mussolini in 1929, the other with Hitler in 1933 — were designed to protect Catholics. They were quickly broken and gave the Nazis and Fascists cover for some of their crimes.

Thanks to the dogged scholarship of David Kertzer, we know much more now about the unholy alliance between fascism and the Catholic Church. McGreevy could have incorporated more of this work into his otherwise exhaustive account.

The author concludes with another revolution, the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, from 1962 to the present day. Rather than build a fortress against modernity, the church would engage the world. Out went the Latin Mass — and many other ritualistic formalities — and in came rock ’n’ roll, or at least folk music and the “absence of condemnation,” in McGreevy’s words.

There is still much debate over whether Vatican II is responsible for the stunning decline in the number of practicing Catholics in Europe and North America (following a trend in Protestant faiths), or if much of the world simply has little use for religion in modern life. The sexual abuse scandal, with its ongoing waves of official hypocrisy, surely shoulders much of the blame.

This history of Catholicism’s last 230 years or so is a lot of ground to cover, and McGreevy, unfortunately, tries to cover it all. There’s too much infighting among long-forgotten church gatekeepers wielding Latin encyclicals and proclamations on sex, and not enough on the simple spiritual philosophy at the center of the world’s largest faith. Why were so many generations in so many corners of the globe drawn to a man whose time on earth was so short and seemingly inconsequential?

The answer has less to do with directives from Rome and more to do with a story told over and over, in many languages. Or perhaps it’s all a mystery.

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