The battles for the soul of Catholicism

Catholic Modern

James Chappel

Harvard, hb, £25.00

A furious debate is raging in part of the Roman Catholic Church. Conservatives are attacking Pope Francis and accusing him of plunging the Church into one of the biggest crises in its history. They believe a footnote in a recent papal document, amoris Laetitia, which opens the way to divorced Catholics receiving communion, represents a departure from Catholic teaching on marriage and undermines the credibility of the Church.

One of the people making this charge is new York times columnist Ross Douthat in his book to change the church: Pope Francis and the Future of catholicism. Defenders of the Pope take the line that he has not changed teaching on marriage, only recommended a more pastoral approach to divorced Catholics.

This may be true but it is a mistake to concede Douthat’s point that the Church cannot change its teaching. The truth is the church can change and has changed. Anyone who doubts this should read this excellent new book that looks at how the Catholic Church came to terms with modernity in the 20th century as well as how it confronted the challenges of communism and fascism and, towards the end of the century, of secularism.

Chappel’s focus is on France, Germany and Austria. Given the role the Church has played in Europe in the 20th century, not least through the creation of Christian Democrat parties, his book is an important contribution to European history.

But it is also of great interest to theologians and to anyone seeking to understand how the Catholic Church changed in the period Chappel covers. In the 19th century, popes and many theologians taught it was the duty of the state to ensure that Catholicism was the official religion and that the economy and popular culture were shaped by Catholic principles. Other religions were to be discriminated against or repressed.

It was sometimes said that ‘error has no rights’. As Chappel points out, this had been the accepted dogma for most of the history of the Church. Chappel shows how change took place. He stresses the importance of the laity and although priests are sometimes important players not too much attention is paid to popes.

This should not surprise anyone. Although Douthat never acknowledges the fact, papal teaching is generally supposed to reflect the consensus fidelium in the Church and to be received by the faithful. For some readers the detail Chappel gives and the information he provides about schools of
thought and thinkers who may be unfamiliar to British and American readers may be hard to absorb but it is worth persevering. He opens by describing Catholic antimodernism and Catholics who wanted to go back to the middle ages.

This was an influential school of thought in the 1920s. He is never mentioned, but most British readers will think of Chesterton. As the century progressed however, Catholics of different schools of thought came to terms with modernism by which Chappel means not the theological school condemned by Pius X but the acceptance of pluralism, human rights, the separation of church and state and respect for the rights of conscience.

Before 1944 he identifies ‘anti-communist paternal Catholic modernism’ that emphasised the family and wanted to empower the state to protect the family and ‘anti-fascist fraternal Catholic modernism’ that placed more emphasis on the struggle against fascism and was prepared to learn from and work with the communists in securing social justice.

Jacques Maritain, a towering figure in Catholic thinking in this period, belonged to the second group. After 1944 Chappel traces the emergence of Christian Democrats as major political forces in Germany, France and Austria.

If the Christian Democrats in Germany today appear to have shed most of their Catholic inheritance this was not true of the 1950s although an important feature of the German CDU was their readiness to include Protestants. They largely abandoned Catholic fears of the market and consumerism although they did champion ‘co-determinism’, which involved putting workers on company boards and may be one reason why Germany had better industrial relations in this period than the UK. The CDU never became a Reaganite or Thatcherite party, completely devoted to the free market.

Chappel is honest about anti-Semitism and the degree to which some Catholics cooperated with the Nazis and fascism. After the war De Gaulle appointed Maritain as French representative to the Vatican and demanded the removal of bishops who had cooperated with Vichy.

A final chapter looks at developments in the 1960s and offers an interesting discussion of Bernard Häring and the reception (or nonreception) of humanae Vitae. Douthat will probably not be surprised that Chappel suggests Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI would be most at home in the ‘anti-communist paternal Catholic camp’ but thinks Pope Francis belongs in the ‘anti-fascist fraternal Catholic’ camp.

Paul Richardson