Two Faces of Modern Catholicism

Much has been written about the modernization of the Catholic Church—especially the crucial years from 1870 to 1970. These histories have been written from a number of perspectives, each with different definitions of modernity. James Chappel, assistant professor of history at Duke University, gives us a new interpretation which succeeds in revising some of these accepted narratives. He does this by focusing on the Catholics of France, Germany, and Austria, which are historically conservative Catholic populations that also experienced rapid social change during the 20th century.

Chappel begins by describing the dominant modernization narrative, whereby the Church begrudgingly accepted modernizing changes. In this view, while the Church had long upheld the separation of church and state, it also adhered to the old medieval idea that society and government policy should be guided by Catholic teaching. This was most evident in the Church’s jealous control over codes of morals and ethics, and its endorsement of the concept of the confessional state, which held that populations in any given country should always be majority Catholic.

This narrative also argues that modern institutions and ideas—especially democracy, capitalism, and individual rights—slowly eroded Catholic influence. Religion became a private affair. Most importantly, modernity was victorious because it was superior. Modernity guaranteed...

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