Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2023), Reviews, Volume 31

W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 9781324003885

Reviewed by Gerard O’Sullivan

Gerard O’Sullivan is a surveyor and a non-practising barrister. 

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As an Irish Catholic, I grew up in an era steeped in traditional religious ritual where clerical authority was unquestioned, and witnessed in my teens the effect on Irish life of the ‘reformation’ of Vatican II. Forty years later, the first non-Italian pope in 450 years, John Paul II, and his successor, Benedict XVI, sought to reimpose that central authority, which was ultimately undermined by the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up. Understanding the source and context of these events is the task that Professor McGreevy sets for himself in this easy-to-read modern history of a religion with over 1.2 billion adherents worldwide. The narrative follows the course of the changes and conflicts over 200 years, from the shattering of a powerful alliance of monarchical-based Church and State in revolutionary France to Pope Francis and his attempts to find a balance between tradition and reform, which has become a key issue for Catholicism in the modern world.

McGreevy states that his two aims are to enhance our understanding of Catholicism as a major global influence in the modern world, comparable to the EU or the Chinese Communist Party, and to attempt to answer the critical question of how Catholicism got there. The author admits that a global history is neither comprehensive nor a deep analysis of cause and effect.

Many influential Catholics, lay and clerical, appear in the narrative. He introduces us to significant Catholic women such as Barbara Ward, Dominique de Menil and Edith Stein, who successfully led a Catholic social, art and philosophical agenda in a modern world. Key Catholic influencers in modern post-war Europe are identified, such as Jacques Maritain, Conrad Adenauer and Aldo Moro. Further afield we have the story of Ma Xiangbo, promoter of a national Catholic Church in twentieth-century China; Léopold Senghor, founder of the negritude movement in Africa; and Gustavo Gutiérrez and liberation theology in South America.

McGreevy’s history opens with the guillotining of the Catholic king of France, Louis XVI, in 1793 by order of the Revolution’s National Convention, chaired by a French priest, Abbé Henri Grégoire, a leader of reform Catholicism, and so the theme of the history is set right there—that theme being the continuation of a reformation and counter-reformation within the Catholic Church since the formal split in the 1500s. He focuses on the increasing centralisation of power, with the build-up of papal bureaucracy across global boundaries through offices for doctrine, canon law, missionary works and a diplomatic corps, in contrast to the diminution of the papacy’s geopolitical power by the reduction of the Papal States to the Vatican City.

In the same period there were priests/bishops who sought to accommodate the revolutionary ideals of republicanism/nationalism to Catholic teaching in various parts of the globe, from Spain to the USA, Mexico and throughout South America. As the power of ultramontanism grew, the reform clergy became increasingly more isolated. Ireland’s Daniel O’Connell is the noted exception, both for his democratic achievement of Catholic Emancipation and the promotion among his followers of support for ultramontanism.

Further revolution in Europe in 1848 had Pius IX on the run from Rome, ultimately rescued by the intervention of the armies of Napoleon III of France. The resulting growth of nationalism/libertarianism drove this pope, with the support of 700 bishops, to summon the First Vatican Council, which passed a new code of canon law that assigned to the pope ‘the most complete and supreme jurisdiction over the universal church’. The council collapsed with the collapse of the Papal States, and Pius IX and his successors retreated into St Peter’s, with Pius declaring himself the prisoner of the Italian state.

McGreevy then considers the establishment of the Catholic Milieu era, 1870–1962, with a church openly hostile to democracy and libertarianism. This was a church that saw in ‘modern times nothing but prevarication and ruin’. There was, he points out, positive growth in missionary zeal, mass emigration of Catholics from Europe to the Americas and the growth of Catholic involvement in national political movements, notwithstanding the earlier attitude towards democracy. He rightly identifies the key influence of Catholic involvement with the modern world in the development of Catholic social doctrine under the guidance of Leo XIII, a more diplomatic character than his predecessor. That engagement with the modern world was met by attacks by the new states on Catholicism in Bismarck’s Germany, Calles’s Mexico and 1930s/40s fascist Europe.

The pivotal moment for church reform comes with the Second Vatican Council and the critical review of its outcome in the 60 years since, contrasting with a church growing in vibrancy in Africa and South Asia. This, however, is now a church with a structure not fit for purpose: in Ireland there were more bishops (2) than priests (1) consecrated in 2020.

On sexual abuse McGreevy opens with the independent investigation on Ballarat in Australia, with over 4,000 accusations of clerical sexual abuse reported, and continues to say that we are only beginning to assess the damage done to the Catholic institutions, leaving the people who run them with little credibility.

McGreevy finishes his very readable overview of this still-significant world religion with a hopeful quote from Pope Francis: ‘We are not living in an era of change but a change of an era’.


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