Reflections on John McGreevy’s New History of Global Catholicism

By Shaun Blanchard
March 02, 2023
10 min read
Reflections on John McGreevy’s New History of Global Catholicism

Catholicism by John McGreevy

John T. McGreevy, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis (New York: W. W. Norton, 2022).

When I first read the late Fr. John O’Malley’s survey text What Happened at Vatican II (2008), I was struck by a passage in the conclusion. O’Malley gave a tantalizing rundown of the “ghosts” present on the council floor—the popes, theologians, philosophers, and politicians whose lives and legacies had indelibly marked the Catholic world. These voices from the past had shaped, positively or negatively (sometimes both), the work of the council fathers:

“Hauntingly present in St. Peter’s were de Maistre, de Lammenais, Pius IX, and Pius X. Present as well were Guéranger, Beauduin, Migne, Mersch, and Lagrange. Alongside them were Möhler, Newman, and Teilhard de Chardin. In a dark corner skulked Darwin, Marx, and Freud … The ghosts of Mussolini and Hitler found entrance … Pius XII stepped into the spotlight at almost every crucial juncture.”

I knew that the debates, successes, failures, and compromises of the council fathers at Vatican II had shaped my life as a Catholic. What O’Malley’s book brought alive for me was the fact that the myriad ghosts that haunted the council floor—whether primarily of theological, political, or cultural import—also conditioned my intellectual, social, and spiritual life as a Catholic.

I was a grad student in theology and a lover of history, but before reading O’Malley’s book, the “event” of Vatican II had never come alive for me in such a richly textured way. What Happened at Vatican II imparted to me a sense of wonder: the global Catholic community, my national church, my parish, my family—all the way down to myself as an individual—were a part of an absolutely vast and yet tightly interconnected story. This was exhilarating. I hoped that one day someone would write a book that achieved a similar feat not just for Vatican II, but for the history of the contemporary global Catholic Church.

John McGreevy’s Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis is that book. I could not put it down. This new survey of global Catholic history achieves what its ambitious subtitle promises. It is a remarkable accomplishment for a single text of such digestible length. When I did put it down, I was haunted by a whole new array of spirits of the past—triumphant and tragic, laudable and detestable. While drawing on the best recent scholarship, McGreevy’s book is judicious in length and accessible for a wide audience (upon finishing the book, the first thing I did was order copies for my father and for an old college friend: neither are theologians, historians, or academics; both will surely love the book).

There are a number of good histories of Catholic theology or ecclesiastical politics in the modern age. But before this book, I had nothing holistic to recommend if someone asked for a good single-volume history of modern Catholicism. When constructing syllabi (with texts all in English), I have had to resort to a hodge-podge of different book chapters and articles to try to give students a sense of theological developments, varied political contexts, and the diverse cultural practices of global Catholicism. I have used the second half of Eamon Duffy’s beautifully written Saints and Sinners as a kind of backdrop text, but as a history of the papacy it has obvious limitations and drawbacks. The global history that McGreevy charts is synthetic and multifaceted—it weaves together what can be distinguished but not separated: theology, culture, war, politics, philosophy, and the history of race, gender, and sex.

One way McGreevy avoids the pitfalls besetting such a grandiose undertaking is using biographical tableaux in each chapter. From Catherine McAuley (1778–1841) in Dublin (the founder of the Sisters of Mercy), to Léopold Senghor (1906–2001; first president of Senegal), to Dominique de Menil in Houston (1908–1997), to Archbishop Hélder Câmara in Brazil (1909–1999), these tableaux feature characters whose careers illustrate key themes and events critical to the broader brushstrokes of the larger historical tale. This periodic focus on the personalities and lives of individuals (many of whom are not the usual suspects: powerful prelates, innovative theologians, infamous politicians, etc.) gives freshness to well-known tales such as the rise of ultramontanism or the lead-up to Vatican II.

The book is divided into three chronological sections. “Revolution and Revival, 1789–1870” gives important eighteenth-century context before moving from the French Revolution to the ultramontane triumph at the First Vatican Council. The second section, “The Milieu and Its Discontents, 1870–1962,” carries the story from the aftermath of Vatican I to the eve of Vatican II. The focus on ressourcement is, appropriately, not just a theological conversation: art, culture, and politics are interlaced. The third and final section considers “Vatican II and Its Aftermath, 1962–2021.”

The first tableau is a mournful and poignant one: the sad character of Louis XVI mounts the scaffold, leaning on an Irish-born chaplain for support. The beheading of the French King in 1792 both symbolized the death of the old regime and helped bring that death about. For well over a millennium, the ministers of Catholic altars had been eager to unite with the thrones that, at least ostensibly, protected them. The Revolution’s turn against the father of the French nation quickly led to a turn against the Holy Father in Rome. Soon, Pope Pius VI languished in French captivity. When he ultimately died in prison in 1799, his death was famously recorded as “Citizen Braschi. Occupation: pontiff.” Some forecast, with or without glee, that the papal office would die with Pius VI.

But rather than limping quietly into obscurity, the Catholic Church, and the pope who headed it, underwent its own revolution of sorts. McGreevy call this process the “ultramontane revival.” It was a fusion of reaction with innovation, and a stunning success, at least by the metrics that counted to most Catholics at the time: religious vocations, missionaries in the field, converts gained, schools built, churches overflowing. But probably most importantly, in light of the confusion and humiliation of the Church during the Age of Revolutions, a profound confidence and pride permeated much of the Catholic world.

The path from the Bastille to the proclamation of papal infallibility in 1870 is well-trodden. One important aspect of the story that McGreevy adds—too uncommon in Anglophone scholarship—is the presence of a strong counter-narrative to ultramontane “orthodoxy.” Preferring to employ Dale Van Kley’s resurrection of the term “Reform Catholicism,” McGreevy draws on recent scholarship to show that the papacy and its supporters were just as concerned with Catholic opponents as they were with rationalist, secularizing, or Protestant antagonists. Stigmatized by ultramontanes as Gallicans, Jansenists, and Josephinists—rightly or wrongly as each case may be—this Catholic challenge to ascendant ultramontanism spanned from Mexico City to Lima, from London to Vienna. McGreevy’s version of this well-known story of ultramontane victory is worth consideration, especially for the many Catholics who have heard only apologetic or teleological accounts. For better and for worse, the triumph of ultramontanism decisively conditioned the Church that my grandparents were born into. Understanding this fact also frees us from convenient myths—like the persistent canard that “Jansenism” shaped Irish Catholicism, and was then imported to the US, Canada, and Australia. In fact, an ultramontane vision shaped not only devotional life in much of the Catholic world, but also a series of relations: between clergy and laity, church and state, and hierarchical authority in general. The rector of the (Roman) Irish College’s stated goal of “introducing Roman maxims into Ireland” was a resounding success (39).

McGreevy’s second section (c. 1870–1962) illuminates an era of contradictions. As mentioned, by many metrics, the Catholic Church attained a great deal. But these successes, which yielded a kind of confidence, also hid insecurities and more serious dysfunctions and problems. While McGreevy does not blame the ultramontane revival for the Catholic sex abuse crisis, he makes the sobering (and compelling) argument that “the parallel church structures built up in almost every country” conditioned key aspects of the crisis (406).

But if McGreevy eschews triumphalism, he also avoids a tale of decline and fall. The ultramontane revival must also be credited with sustaining the growth of a truly global church. The United States, McGreevy points out, housed the most ethnically diverse Catholic Church in the world. Around the turn of the twentieth-century, Catholics in Detroit were listening to Sunday homilies in 22 languages (125). Catholicism was becoming more and more of a global faith in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a process cemented by the increasing acceptance of native clergy. Centralization still ran deep. Synods, which in the eighteenth-century were “vehicles to oppose Roman authority” as at Utrecht, Pistoia, and Paris, “became mechanisms for Roman control” (137).

The third and final section of the book (c. 1962 to the present) is masterful. This is no small feat given the nearness of the events, and the numerous ideological minefields present. Taken together, McGreevy’s final section illuminates contemporary Catholicism in its many dimensions—reform and renewal, postconciliar chaos, tragedy and decline, conflict and compromise, wondrous creativity and innovation.

The treatment of Vatican II (chapter 11) can stand alone as an excellent overview of the Council. Vatican II by no means began the transition from a missionary religion to a truly global faith, but the Council did greatly accelerate it. For example, only 20% of the 311 African bishops at Vatican II were native-born (as opposed to missionaries). But by 1970s, a majority were native (371). In 1910, two-thirds of Catholics lived in Europe. By the year 2000, this ratio was flipped (136).

A discussion of Catholicism and politics runs through the entire book. This discussion begins with familiar insights regarding the Church’s shifting and insecure place in an age of absolutism and revolutions, republican governments, Risorgimento, and Kulturkampf. In the final section, great light is shed on how twentieth-century Catholicism saw everything from concordats with Mussolini and support of Franco and Salazar to an encouragement of de-colonization and support for democratic socialism (McGreevy quotes a statement of Joseph Ratzinger that might surprise many American Catholics: “democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine,” 390). The First World War helped bring about a kind of reconciliation between Catholics and nationalism—a fact with both auspicious and ominous consequences (134). Tragically, an anti-communist obsession at times eroded resistance to a nascent fascism (or even led to its embrace). The great protagonist of the political thread running through McGreevy’s book is, appropriately, Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), who perhaps more than any other thinker marked twentieth-century Catholic political thought, most of all in Europe and Latin America. While an anti-communist philo-capitalism gained steam during the Cold War pontificate of John Paul II, so also did Liberation Theology and an accompanying anti-capitalist socialism. Both tendencies are still at ideological war within global Catholicism. This was manifest in the days of Reagan and John Paul II and is again today in the age of Francis.

Each of the book’s three sections provide excellent discussion material for an undergraduate or graduate class session or a parish discussion group. A great strength of McGreevy’s work is the interdisciplinary appeal—people who are primarily interested in theology, literature, or politics and culture should all find the text engaging, thought-provoking, and challenging. Another intriguing thread running through the book is attention to the patrimony and coinage of terms—human rights, social justice, preferential option for the poor, inculturation (a Belgian missionary coined the latter in 1962, see 283). Finally, given the deep ideological polarization within the Catholic Church and the wider culture, the manner in which McGreevy frames challenging episodes in the history of the church and the world—not least contemporary issues—could serve as a productive conversation starter in a variety of ecclesial, educational, and social settings. For example, John Paul II and Ratzinger are neither painted as Darth Vader and the Emperor, crushing progressive freedom fighters, but nor are they the two witnesses of conservative hagiography. They are, in McGreevy’s telling, gifted leaders and thinkers who were also limited and flawed, and who must be understood on their own terms in their own contexts. McGreevy engages in some myth-busting, but the book is neither iconoclastic nor polemical. However, it is admirably, if uncomfortably, unblinking in its treatment of depths of the sex abuse crisis. It is to be hoped that this kind of nuanced and graceful treatment of church history can help displace both the naïve triumphalism and bitter cynicism that has taken root in contemporary Catholicism, especially in the United States.

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Shaun Blanchard

Shaun Blanchard

Senior Research Fellow, NINS, and Associate Editor, NSJ

Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies and Associate Editor, NSJ. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II (OUP, 2020). With Ulrich Lehner, he co-edited The Catholic Enlightenment: A Global Anthology (CUA, 2021), and, with Stephen Bullivant, co-wrote Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2023). Shaun is currently working on a monograph study of Catholic ecclesiology in the English-speaking world from the Cisalpines to Newman.


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