Catholicism: A book discussion with John T. McGreevy

Author: Susanna De Stradis

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John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of several books, including Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago, 1996) and Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (W. W. Norton, 2003), and his writing has also appeared in outlets such as Commonweal, the New York Review of Books, and The New Republic. In late 2022, Susanna De Stradis corresponded with McGreevy about his newest book, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis (W. W. Norton, 2022).

At 12 noon on Friday, January 27 in the Downes Ballroom of Notre Dame's Corbett Family Hall, the Cushwa Center, the Department of History, and other campus cosponsors will host a gathering to mark the publication of Catholicism. This book launch is free and open to all. Learn more.


Susanna De Stradis: You have accomplished an impressive feat: writing a capacious yet eminently readable synthesis of over two centuries of Catholic history across the globe. What would you say is your main interpretive spin in retelling the story? Is this a “how-we-got-here” type of book? What major challenge in Catholic history do you see it explaining or addressing in particular? 

John McGreevy: A good question. I hope to reach two audiences. The first is scholarly, and here I hope to consolidate and make more accessible the extraordinary burst of writing on modern Catholic history over the last quarter century. Often this writing is segmented by national histories and I wanted to tell a more global story for the world’s most global institution. A second and related audience is among Catholics themselves. In this sense it is a “how we got here” story since any Catholic above the age of, say, 70 has seen remarkable changes within Catholicism within their own lifetime. I wanted to help explain that. If there’s a major challenge it is helping both audiences understand that the Catholic world built after the French Revolution, now crumbling, was in its way very successful and, we can now see, very fragile. What remains is a global institution of over one billion people but moving on a different historical arc.


SDS: To a great extent, you seem committed to telling a dual story, a “history” and “counter-history,” if you will. You show how competing answers to the question of how Catholicism should relate to the modern world ushered in by the French Revolution have been sparring ever since (as exemplified by the clash of “Ultramontane” and “Reform Catholicism”). What would you want your ordinary-Catholic and generalist audiences to learn from this element of contingency in Catholic history and self-definition?

JM: Contingency is crucial. The extraordinary energy unleashed by the ultramontane movement in the 19th century helped create the global church of today. But that very global church works against the 19th-century ideas of Catholic uniformity (in doctrine, liturgy, church architecture, and politics). Or, to take another example: that the Second Vatican Council occurred when it did, from 1962 to 1965, helped determine its unexpected outcomes. The council was much concerned about war and peace during the Cold War, less about the role of women just before second-wave feminism. These outcomes are crucial for the current Catholic moment.


SDS: You take great care to show that the Reform/Ultramontane divide can often, but not always, be grafted onto a liberal/conservative Catholic divide. How do you hope your narrative will complicate the debate within a deeply fractured Church?

JM: You’re right to say that the Reform/Ultramontane divide is not exactly conservative/liberal. Ultramontanists in the 19th century, for example, had a much more sure touch on popular devotions and piety. Reform Catholics or more liberal ultramontanists were much more likely to acknowledge the injustice of slavery but less quick to criticize the instability provoked by the new industrial economy. 

These 19th-century divides are not ours. Reform Catholicism as an elite movement dies, more or less, with the First Vatican Council. What’s remarkable is how a different kind of reform emerged out of the Catholic milieu—on topics as diverse as the liturgy and religious freedom—and then triumphed at the Second Vatican Council. We’re still grappling with the consequences of that triumph. 


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SDS: As one of your reviewers has noted, your book does not dwell as much as might perhaps have been expected—especially in light of the current lively debate surrounding David Kertzer’s controversial scholarship on Pius XII and the Holocaust—on the question of Catholicism and Nazi-Fascism, or what you term “the political crisis of the 1930s.” Why is the latter not as crucial a pivot in your narrative? 

JM: I actually think the political crisis of the 1930s is central to my narrative. I did devote a whole chapter to how so many Catholics found authoritarian governments alluring, and how fragile a commitment to democracy many Catholic leaders possessed. What I did not stress, admittedly, was the question of Pius XII’s activities during World War II and the Holocaust. Perhaps I should have done more. But I still think that’s a narrow topic. The core question— then and now—is what about the Catholic milieu made support for democracy an uncertain thing in the 1930s, not something at all to be taken for granted. This has implications for the debates at the Second Vatican Council, Catholic support for democracy around the world in the 1970s and 1980s, and current tensions in an era of authoritarian populism.


SDS: You discuss in the introduction and then show throughout the book that highlighting the “global” dimension of Catholicism is no convenient way of eluding the reality of “national” Catholicism(s) as either a descriptive matter or a site of normative tension with Rome. What place does the “American Catholic experience” occupy in your narrative? In what ways do you hope your global synthesis will inform future histories of American Catholicism? 

JM: I struggled with this. My hope is that readers will see the book as close to a genuinely global history, not simply a United States story with other national experiences mixed in. We’ll see. Global history has its disadvantages, too, but the primary advantage is simple: it places U.S. (or Italian or Australian or Nigerian) Catholicism in a wider, more comparative context. This enables us to see what really is distinctive about the U.S. Catholic experience and what is more common to the Catholic experience generally.


SDS: You wrote this book while teaching a large undergraduate class of the same title at Notre Dame. How did your students’ challenges and responses in the classroom shape your thinking and writing? 

JM: I had never before taught a class on the same subject as a book I was writing. Turns out it’s fun. Our Notre Dame students asked good, tough questions and forced me to become more clear in my arguments. The first time I taught the Second Vatican Council, for example, I stumbled around and then realized I needed to do a much better job of summarizing the day-by-day (or at least year-by-year) drama of that extraordinary event.


SDS: Your lifelong experience as a member, a scholar, and an administrator of Catholic institutions admittedly shaped your interest in questions of Catholic history and identity. Has your recent appointment as Notre Dame’s provost already pointed you towards your next project?

JM: No! I’m still feeling my way into this new role. For now, I don’t have a big project on the horizon. But I’d like to think I have some writing left in me, perhaps on higher education or the intersection of religion and contemporary politics. We’ll see. 

Susanna De Stradis is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, and beginning in fall 2023 she will serve as assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University. In 2020, she won a Peter R. D’Agostino Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center.