by James Chappel, Harvard, 352pp, £25
On the first page of this book, James Chappel states that the Catholic Church has “embraced modernity”. Jaws hit the floor across the secular West. The Church that opposes contraception, divorce and abortion, that clings to an all-male priesthood, has embraced modernity?
What Chappel means, though, is that over the course of the 20th century, the Church has embraced and sought to shape certain structural features of modernity as positive goods – pluralism, religious freedom, interfaith cooperation and human rights – thus reversing many of its previous positions.
Catholic Modern sets out to explain the how and the why of this transformation, crucial to the Church’s resilience in an era otherwise inimical to it.
In doing so, Chappel wants to challenge the “accepted story”, which fixes World War II as the turning point after which anti-modern Catholicism was no longer viable. The flaw in this account, he argues, is that it underplays the full complexity of what was going on during the 1930s, when most Catholics pursued a strategy of “paternal Catholic modernism”.
In the 1920s, by contrast, Catholic thought was still “almost entirely committed to uprooting the modern order”, with World War I having proved once again that “modern and secular states were turning God’s continent into a slaughterhouse”.
Paternal Catholic modernism entailed accepting the split between the private and public spheres, but on the grounds that “the private sphere of religious jurisdiction was constituted primarily by the reproductive family”. Accepting that powerful nation states were here to stay, Catholics began to think about which kinds of statehood would best cultivate a Catholic modernity.
This form of modernism gave grounds for critiques of fascist regimes whenever they usurped control over things such as education or marriage legislation. But it was far more committed to anti-communism. As such, Chappel argues, it “served as an important rationale for Catholic collaboration with fascist or authoritarian regimes”. Even if they uprooted many Catholic institutions, these regimes “also promised to defend the family against communist enemies”. Dismayingly, the whiff of anti-Semitism is never very far away.
However, paternal Catholic modernism did not go uncontested within a “raucous” Catholic intellectual culture. What Chappel calls “fraternal Catholic modernism” saw the private sphere characterised not so much by the family as by a robust civil society “including most notably trade unions, youth movements, and a vibrant press”.
The forging of a Catholic anti-fascism during the 1930s by the likes of Dietrich von Hildebrand and Jacques Maritain was a “monumental intellectual achievement”. For Maritain, the problem of Catholic anti-communism was that, by dragging in geopolitical struggles, it shut down space in which Catholics and workers could find common cause.
After the war, the contest continued. The paternalists retained the upper hand, but the dominant position continued to evolve. During “the long 1950s” (1949-1965) largely Catholic parties “oversaw the creation of a fundamentally capitalist and consumerist Europe, despite the tradition’s long suspicion of capitalism and consumerism alike”.
Chappel argues that Catholic modernism was able to legitimise the new Europe by viewing the happy and united family as the agent of consumption, and by seeing individualism as a bulwark for freedom of conscience. Christian Democrats laboured to create welfare states because the family needed social welfare to recover from the war. They supported trade unionism and forms of workers’ management because these things promised to provide “some measure of social justice and equality without recourse to class struggle or aggressive state management”.
They backed economic growth, again because the family required it. Figures such as the German priest and economist Joseph Höffner, later archbishop of Cologne, championed the social market economy. A “novel and coherent social Catholic vision” thus gathered together the conservative and progressive wings of the Church. Much of this consensus was to come unstitched, however, during and after the tumultuous 1960s.
My guess is that, politically, Chappel leans to the left. He is noticeably sceptical of the value or even the existence of something called Western civilisation. And he never goes very far in acknowledging that conservative Catholics were in any way vindicated in concluding that the threat from communism was enormous, real and deadly. But this is not a book ruined by partisanship. Chappel’s scholarship is too great, his intellectual curiosity too avid and his style too supple to paint himself or the reader into a corner.
Catholic Modern is an endlessly fascinating analysis of Catholic social thought in turbulent times, which I imagine we will be turning to for years to come. Essential reading.
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