Book Review By Tim Walch
“Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis” by John T. McGreevy. W.W. Norton (New York, 2022). 528 pp. $35.
“Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.” Attributed to St. Augustine, this phrase was often used to capsulize the central authority of the Vatican. But with this assertion to the contrary, John T. McGreevy shows how the international development of Catholicism has changed the Church over the past 250 years.
McGreevy, the provost and a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, begins with a straightforward goal — to show how a better understanding of Catholicism will enhance our understanding of the modern world.
“No institution,” he notes of the Church, “is as multicultural or multilingual, few touch as many people.”
He divides his story into three broad eras. First are the decades of turmoil from the French Revolution in the 1790s through the nationalist uprisings across Europe and the Americas in the 19th century. There were calls for reform, but the Vatican resisted and remained dominant into the 20th century.
Second are the years from 1870 to 1962, the decades between the First Vatican Council and the Second Vatican Council. Although the power of the Vatican was not seriously challenged during these years, there was a perpetual conflict over the need to reform the relationship between Catholic values and a growing secular nationalism.
Both the laity and the clergy pushed Church leaders to take a stand on social, economic and political equity.
These were decades of great migration within the church. Revolution and poverty across Europe led tens of millions of Catholics to migrate to the Americas.
Among those migrants were the ancestors of both President Joe Biden and Pope Francis. The Church became less Eurocentric and more global with each decade.
The third era focuses on the impact of the Second Vatican Council on Church membership around the world. The council was, simply put, one of the most momentous events in the history of the 20th century.
In fact, McGreevy depicts the council as the “hinge” in the changing nature of authority within the Church.
The six decades that followed Vatican II were dramatic and consequential. Changes in liturgy and language came first. Church attitudes toward ecumenism and the role of the laity in the Church soon followed.
The charisma and international travel of St. John Paul II captivated the world, but restrictions on contraception and abortion and a sexual abuse crisis caused persistent turmoil.
That the Church was changing was evident from the demographics of its membership. Mass attendance in Europe and North America declined. In those same years, however, Church membership in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia flourished. We are now a church of 1.2 billion members; many are people of color living below the equator.
McGreevy captures the contours of these decades with judicious balance. Most important, he recognizes the value of the institutional Church.
Catholic schools, hospitals, asylums and other social institutions continue to shape the quality of life in almost every country in the world. “In countries or regions where governmental presence is minimal — or corrupt,” he adds, “Catholic institutions remain crucial.”
He writes with a clear command of an exceptional variety of source materials. More important, he has a style that will engage a general audience. Each chapter is divided into multiple sections laced with interesting vignettes that aid in understanding larger themes.
At its core, this book shines a light on the crucial role of the Church in the modern era. “The world desperately needs institutions that aren’t rigidly ideological, that cross national borders,” McGreevy said in a recent interview.
“At a time when we see national tensions in our world, along with global crises like climate change that cannot be solved by one nation-state, Pope Francis is strongly urging international cooperation, and he’s right to do that.”
This is an important book worthy of the attention of readers of all faiths. McGreevy reminds us that the Catholic experience is both intimate and international, linked by a common faith. We are many cultures, but we are all one Church.
(Timothy Walch is a lay director for St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of The Catholic Messenger’s board of directors. He is also the author of “Irish Iowa,” 2019.)