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Cover: Catholic Modern
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Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church

Ann Hassan —

by James Chappel. Published by Harvard University Press, 2019. Reviewed by Ann Hassan

James Chappel’s Catholic Modern is a thorough, rigorous and exceptionally well-researched account of the relationship between Catholicism and politics — church and state — in Europe during the 20th century.

Chappel’s argument, broadly speaking, is an upending of the narrative about Catholicism that sees it a “closed shop” until Vatican II — resisting all change until the doors were thrown open and the Church encountered the world and vice versa.

Instead, Chappel describes — in great detail — Catholicism’s reaction to and relationship with the political ideas and structures of the 20th century: how the Church experienced and was changed by communism, fascism, anti-Semitism and so on. In doing so, he shows that the Church was “modernising” long before Vatican II — that, as Chappel says, it has a rich and responsive history of “social transformations . . . that will inform its future”.

I was initially confused by Chappel’s use of the term “modern”. In Catholic Modern it doesn’t refer to the aesthetic movement (of the 20th century, adding to the confusion) or to any theological idea, but rather to “the different ways that people and institutions have tinkered to make themselves secure in the dangerous zones of a constantly changing world.” Modernity, then, isn’t necessarily equated with progressive ideas — but it is about maintaining survival and meaning in a changing world.

The book is a dense and intellectual read, but it will appeal to readers of history and Church thought alike. And now, when Catholicism is responding to serious issues from within and without — and when there is a strain of thought that resists the notion of change itself — Catholic Modern offers a timely reminder that the Church is a longstanding “space of contestation and argument”, its relationship and responses to the world not set in stone but always being questioned.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 242 October 2019: 31