Catholic Modern

by James Chappel, Harvard, 352pp, £25

On the first page of this book, James Chappel states that the Catholic Church has “embraced modernity”. Jaws hit the floor across the secular West. The Church that opposes contraception, divorce and abortion, that clings to an all-male priesthood, has embraced modernity?

What Chappel means, though, is that over the course of the 20th century, the Church has embraced and sought to shape certain structural features of modernity as positive goods – pluralism, religious freedom, interfaith cooperation and human rights – thus reversing many of its previous positions.

Catholic Modern sets out to explain the how and the why of this transformation, crucial to the Church’s resilience in an era otherwise inimical to it.

In doing so, Chappel wants to challenge the “accepted story”, which fixes World War II as the turning point after which anti-modern Catholicism was no longer viable. The flaw in this account, he argues, is that it underplays the full complexity of what was going on during the 1930s, when most Catholics pursued a strategy of “paternal Catholic modernism”.

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