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

In the 1920s, Jacques Maritain was a rising star in the field of Catholic philosophy. Like most Catholics at the time, he had little love for the modern world. In a 1922 book, aptly titled Antimoderne, Maritain attacked “liberalism, Americanism, modernism,” and the “dogmas of necessary progress and humanitarian optimism.” He attributed these errors to the work of “three reformers”—Martin Luther, René Descartes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—whose work had conspired to destroy the foundations of medieval Christian thought. This critique of modernity found its political expression in Maritain’s support for the Action Française, a far-right movement whose hostility to liberal democracy went hand in hand with nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments.

The Church became modern when it renounced the goal of establishing Catholicism as the official state religion and embraced the principles of Church–state separation, religious freedom, and human rights.

By the 1940s, however, Maritain was singing a very different tune. Rather than trying to turn back the tide of history, he now believed that Catholics had to adapt to the political changes that modernity had inaugurated. No longer could the Church intervene directly in political affairs, as it had in the Middle Ages. It had to leave such work to lay Catholics and acknowledge that politics now took place in an autonomous sphere—one that was religiously plural rather than homogeneous. In 1942, while he was living in exile in America, Maritain expanded on these ideas to develop a highly-influential defense of democracy and human rights based upon the Catholic natural law tradition. After the war, he would get a chance to put these ideas into practice when he worked on the project to draft the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a result of these efforts, the author of Antimoderne is now largely known as a pioneer of the Catholic turn to modern values such as democracy, human rights, pluralism, interreligious dialogue, and anti-racism.

Maritain’s story is in many ways idiosyncratic, but it is also representative of the broader history of twentieth-century Catholicism. Although the Church’s engagement with modernity was complex and longstanding, at the dawn of the century, its attitude to the modern world remained essentially one of refusal. Since the French Revolution, the Church had faced a sustained assault on its power from anti-clerical and nationalist forces, while the unification of Italy wiped out its territorial sovereignty. Its response was to retreat into the anti-modernism made famous by Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), which rejected everything from rationalism and liberalism, to the principles of Church-state separation and religious freedom. But by the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1960s, the Church had recognized the need to “update” its teaching and embrace modern principles such as religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and human rights. What accounts for this remarkable about-face? How did Catholics come, not just to grudgingly accept modernity, but to positively embrace it? And how did this change the way they understood the relationship between faith and politics, Church and state?

These are the central questions that James Chappel seeks to answer in his authoritative new book, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church. It sets out to explain how, when, and why the Catholic Church became modern. As Chappel ably shows, the answers to these questions are to be found in the 1930s, when the specter of totalitarianism led Catholics to abandon their traditional anti-modernism and embrace the modern settlement. But this of course raises the question of what exactly it means to be modern. For Chappel, to be modern is to accept “the split between the private sphere of religion and the public sphere of politics and economics.” The Church became modern, then, when it renounced the goal of establishing Catholicism as the official state religion and instead embraced the principles of Church–state separation, religious freedom, and human rights. But did Catholics really embrace all of these principles? In addition to asking how Catholics made their peace with this model, as Chappel does, it is just as important to consider how they contested and transformed it. How, in other words, might the story of the “Catholic modern” lead us to think differently about modernity and the categories we use to make sense of it? Answering this question seems crucial to understanding not only the contemporary politics of the Catholic Church, but the role that religion plays in modern democratic societies more broadly.

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Chappel is not the first to ask these sorts of questions. There is a dominant narrative about how the Church became modern, he explains, which goes roughly as follows. After the shock of the French Revolution and the various assaults on Church power over the course of the nineteenth century, a few Catholics began to open up to modernity by forming a raft of confessional parties, associations, and trade unions that would work within the institutions of modern political and economic life. This flowering of Catholic modernization was cut short, however, by the turn to authoritarian politics in the 1920s and ’30s, when Catholics joined forces with far-right regimes in Italy, Austria, the Iberian Peninsula, and, later, in France, Croatia, and Slovakia. But the seeds of Catholic modernism were kept alive in the ranks of the Resistance and by embattled Christian Democrats, and it was their vision that would eventually win out after World War II, when the far-right dream of restoring a Catholic state was taken off the table for good. It fell to the Second Vatican Council to enshrine these modernizing principles in official Catholic teaching and draw the Church closer to reconciliation with the modern world.

Chappel’s key intervention is to argue that, far from a detour on the path to modernization, the upsurge of Catholic authoritarianism in the 1930s was itself a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Chappel offers a different account of how Catholicism became modern. The main difficulty with the standard narrative, he argues, is that it struggles to account for the 1930s, when so many Catholics seemed to deviate from the triumphal path of modernization and instead embraced the illiberal alternatives offered by authoritarian regimes such as that of Catholic dictator Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria. Chappel’s key intervention is to argue that, far from a mere detour on the path to modernization, the Catholic authoritarianism of the 1930s was itself a distinctly modern phenomenon. Indeed, he argues that the 1930s were the crucial moment when Catholicism became modern, as it grappled with the challenge posed by totalitarianism. With the onset of the Great Depression, European politics became increasingly polarized and Catholics suddenly faced a much more formidable threat than the secular liberal state: the very real possibility of a Communist or Fascist takeover. It was in this context that they made their peace with the secular state, Chappel argues, and “the Church transitioned from an anti-modern institution to an anti-totalitarian one.” Instead of trying to overturn modern institutions like the secular state and the market economy, Catholics now asked themselves, “How can we shape secular modernity to our specifications?”

Not surprisingly, there was more than one answer to this question. How Catholics answered it, Chappel argues, depended largely on which they considered to be the greater threat to Catholicism: fascism or communism. For those who embraced authoritarian regimes in the 1930s, it was atheist communism. To counteract it, they rallied around a strong state in an effort to defend the sanctity of the patriarchal family and a vision of “Western civilization” that often went hand-in-glove with anti-Semitism. Chappel calls this approach “paternal modernism,” and he shows how it inspired not only the authoritarian Catholic corporatism of the 1930s, but also the Cold War ideology of Christian Democrats such as Konrad Adenauer, who sought to build a bulwark against communism in the form of a family-friendly welfare state. More recently, Chappel suggests that this paternalist model has found expression in the Catholic mobilization around questions of sexuality and reproduction under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Fraternal modernism” offered Catholics a different path. Faced with the rise of totalitarianism, these Catholics were more concerned with the threat of fascism than any danger on the left. These concerns made them much more suspicious of the state and capitalism than their “paternal” counterparts and they looked to various forms of worker solidarity and a robust civil society to limit the unchecked power of the state and the market. They were also strong critics of racism and worked to open the Church to those beyond its borders. For Chappel, no one embodied this model better than Jacques Maritain, with his commitment to a pluralist civil society and interfaith collaboration. But Chappel also identifies the Catholic “new left” of the 1960s as an expression of fraternal modernism—a tradition, he suggests, that Pope Francis continues today. Nevertheless, it is clear from his account that paternal Catholicism has been by far the dominant paradigm for most of the twentieth century.

This distinction between “fraternal” and “paternal” modernism may well seem overly schematic, and of course there were many Catholics who did not fit neatly into either of these categories. But there are certain advantages to Chappel’s taxonomy. The history of twentieth-century Catholicism is full of ambiguous characters, such as Maritain, who seem to defy conventional political distinctions between right and left, or liberal and conservative. Even though it does not fully break with these categories, Chappel’s fraternal/paternal typology goes further than most in capturing the protean nature of Catholic politics. It allows us to glimpse the surprising continuities between the authoritarian “paternal” Catholics of the 1930s and the Christian Democrats of the 1940s and 50s. Most importantly, it allows Chappel to dispense with a triumphalist definition of Catholic modernization—one that simply equates it with the process by which Catholics came to embrace liberal democracy. In fact, as he persuasively shows, the first Catholics to make their peace with modernity were no lovers of democracy. It was possible to embrace the modern state and the market economy without embracing liberalism.

But Chappel does not quite push this critique far enough. In fact, his definition of modernity remains remarkably close to a secular liberal one. As I see it, this definition conflates the separation of Church and state with what Chappel considers a key feature of modernity: the privatization of religion. To be modern, he argues, is to accept that religion must restrict itself to a private sphere that is distinct from the public sphere, where political life is carried out. At first glance, these two ideas seem to be closely connected and central to the standard liberal definition of modernity. Chappel treats the two as roughly interchangeable. But is it the case that the separation of Church and state necessarily also entails the privatization of religion? There is good reason to think not. The sociologist of religion José Casanova, for instance, has argued that secularization brings about the first of these things but not the second. While it is certainly the case that religious and political institutions have become disentangled in modern societies, he argues that “we are witnessing the deprivatization of religion in the modern world.” Writing in 1994, Casanova pointed to examples like the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Iranian Revolution, and the rise of the religious right in the U.S. as proof of religion’s return to public life. If anything, this resurgence of public religion has only increased in the years since then.

Chappel is well aware of all this. He is careful to point out that, if Catholics accepted the privatization of religion, this did not mean that they simply abandoned political life. Once they accepted that “religion would in some sense have to be restricted to the private sphere,” he explains, “then the task for the state was to protect that private sphere. Catholics, therefore, began to use a new set of concepts to rigorously delineate the private sphere into which the state could not intrude.” But there is something of a paradox here. On the one hand, Chappel shows us that paternal Catholics appealed to the family as a sacred private space separate from political affairs. But on the other hand, they constantly transgressed this boundary by lobbying the state to make Catholic teaching on divorce and sexuality the law of the land. This raises the question of what makes something a “private” matter. When Catholics called for state laws against abortion, homosexuality, or divorce, can we really call these things “private” affairs? When they sought to advance a particular model of the economy—whether it be authoritarian corporatism of the 1930s or the social market economy of the postwar period—or they engaged in labor activism, or worked to promote European integration, does it make sense to say that they were mobilizing in the name of the private sphere? The only thing these various sites of mobilization seem to have in common is that Catholics understood them to be properly religious concerns. But this does not mean that they were necessarily “private,” unless one assumes that religious matters by definition occupy the private sphere.

Once Catholics accepted that ‘religion would have to be restricted to the private sphere,’ Chappel explains, ‘then the task for the state was to protect that private sphere.’

This assumption is of course central to a secular liberal vision of modernity. But there is good reason to resist it, not least because many of the leading voices for change and modernization in the Church absolutely rejected the notion that religion was a private affair. Take the example of Henri de Lubac, the Jesuit theologian whose ideas laid the groundwork for many of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council and who also played a key role in the resistance to Nazism when France fell under German occupation during the Second World War. De Lubac blamed the rise of totalitarianism on the progressive evacuation of religion from public life since the sixteenth century. By creating a spiritual vacuum, he argued, the privatization of religion had opened the way for the rise of “replacement religions” like Nazism and Communism. This was a sentiment echoed in the 1960s and 1970s by leftwing Catholics like Johann Baptist Metz and Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of Latin American liberation theology. For Metz, the fact that many Catholics had come to perceive their faith as a private affair was evidence of the degree to which bourgeois ideology had penetrated the very heart of Catholicism. Its effect was to promote an “uncritical reconciliation” with the prevailing political and economic order, when the point of the salvation message was precisely to critique such forms of power. Metz therefore made it his mission to “deprivatize” Catholicism.

Both Metz and de Lubac grappled with the key quandary that so many European Catholics faced in the twentieth century: how to maintain a public role for the Church after the institutions of Church and state had been separated. That so many of them refused to accept religion’s confinement to the private sphere is proof that to be Catholic and modern was not to embrace a secular definition of modernity. And this suggests that the story of how Catholics became modern should change not only how we understand twentieth-century Catholicism, but also how we define what it means to be modern.

This is because Catholics did not just accept secular modernity; they also sought to contest and transform it in crucial ways. Even when they adopted modern principles such as human rights, for instance, they often understood these rights in ways that were very different than their secular peers. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI made human rights a core component of their moral vision, but they also chastised liberals for privileging a subjective rights model rooted in the will of the individual, at the expense of what they perceived to be objective rights, such as the right to life. In making these claims, they deployed the typically modern language of human rights while anchoring it in the pre-modern traditions of natural law—a testament to the way Catholic modernism tends to fuse modern and medieval or ancient modes of thought. Even the Second Vatican Council, for all its emphasis on updating the Church, sought to modernize precisely by returning to the sources of the Catholic tradition.

Few expressed this ambivalence better than Jacques Maritain, whose engagement with modern ideas and institutions was always filtered through his reading of the medieval philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Long after Maritain broke with the Action Française and embraced democracy and human rights, even this great pioneer of Catholic modernism never fully abandoned his earlier suspicion of modernity. In fact, shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council, he wrote a scathing critique of the “frenzied modernism” unleashed by a Council that had conceded far too much to the forces of secular modernity. That even this great modernizer continued to have his doubts suggests there was perhaps more continuity than we might expect between the traditional anti-modernism of the Church and the vision of modernity it came to embrace in the course of the twentieth century. But it also suggests that Catholics understood modernity in ways that were often radically at odds with their secular counterparts. There were (and remain) modes of being that are deeply modern but far from secular. They include the many ways religion continues to shape public life in America and around the world—from Jeff Session’s recent appeal to Romans 13 in his efforts to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy, to the election of politicians in Poland and Hungary who aim to “re-Christianize” Europe, to the backlash against secularism in Erdoğan’s Turkey. In these and so many other ways, religion refuses to confine itself to the private sphere, and this too is part of the story of how religion became modern.