Telling the Story of a Global Catholic Faith: An Interview with John McGreevy

By Marie Griffith | November 8, 2022

Pilgrims flock to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Few institutions are both as successful and as embattled as the Roman Catholic Church. Today it reaches over a billion adherents across the globe—roughly 17.7 percent of the world’s population, by some estimates—and, as John T. McGreevy writes in his latest book, “No institution is as multicultural or multilingual.” Throughout the world, the church wields political power, often unofficially but still robustly, so that its influence far transcends its own flocks. All the while, its members wrestle with the push and pull of reform and tradition, debating issues around authority, politics, gender, and, most recently, the clergy sexual abuse crisis. McGreevy’s Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis is a sweeping and vivid historical portrayal of the faith’s deep tensions and consequential turning points.

McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the author of Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban NorthCatholicism and American Freedom: A History, and American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global. He serves on the board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal. Religion & Politics’ Editor Marie Griffith, the director of the Center, interviewed McGreevy by phone. Their interview has been edited and condensed.

Religion & Politics: One of your central arguments is that no institution is as multicultural or reaches as many people as the Catholic church. I’m curious how your own engagement and understanding of this aspect of Catholicism has evolved over time.

John McGreevy: One of the big themes of the book is that in 1900 roughly two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe and North America, and now over half of the world’s Catholics live in the Global South and are people of color. I think, as Catholics in North America, we are still coming to grips with that. That’s a big shift and it’s part of the story of Christianity becoming less vivid in the day-to-day life of North Americans and Europeans as a general rule—but in some ways exploding especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and also parts of South Asia over the course of the twentieth century. And that’s a big story. I wanted to try to tell it as part of the bigger picture of the book, which is the history of Catholicism since the French Revolution.

Catholicism certainly has national inflections. but it very much crosses national borders pretty easily through the mechanism of religious orders and devotional practices and other things. So that was one goal: to try to tell the story of this global, multicultural, multilingual institution in a fresh way. The other goal is to get Catholics to think about themselves. I feel like I am living a little bit of that every single day, especially in this job as provost here at Notre Dame, where we talk about should we—and how do we—blend both a multicultural and a Catholic identity. How do we think about the fact that the majority of young Catholics already in this country are Latino? And Notre Dame doesn’t represent that as well as it might. I am thinking about that practically all the time in my new role as provost. I didn’t know I was going to end up in this role, but I was already thinking about some of those issues just to write the book.

R&P: You also showed that while the majority of Catholics are people of color residing in the Global South, the number of observant Catholics is shrinking in other historic strongholds, like Ireland. How do you make sense of this trend?

JM: I think we’re still trying to figure that out. There are some obvious explanations for that, and the decline is dramatic. In a country like Ireland, it’s stunning. As late as the mid-1970s, something like 90 percent of Irish people when polled said they went to Mass every week. And so, it was an incredible number. When John Paul II visits in 1979, the next year one in 10 boys born in Ireland were named John Paul. Until the late 1960s in the main university library at UCD—the University College of Dublin—everyone would stand up at noon and say the Angelus, a Catholic prayer.

This deeply saturated Catholic culture has not entirely evaporated, of course, but much of it has. What has happened? Part of it is growing detachment from religious institutions in Europe and North America generally. So, it’s not all unique to Catholicism. This is the story of Protestantism, and we’re even starting to think of Islam too in some ways. Part of it is the distinct and fraught questions around gender and sexuality. I emphasize the fact that the institutional leadership of Catholicism became more male (because of declining numbers of nuns) at exactly the moment that other major institutions in the West were beginning to have more women in leadership. That has been a fraught tension. Now, someone will immediately respond and say “yes, but the more liberal denominations that have ordained women and have been more sympathetic to the aspirations of gay and lesbians, they haven’t flourished either.” That’s true, so it is deeper than simply those issues. But I know that’s a part of it. Public opinion polls and surveys and sophisticated instruments reflect that. So, one is detachment from institutions, and another is the fraught questions around gender and sexuality. Distinctive within Catholicism is the impact of the sexual abuse crisis, which is hard to measure, but I think it’s going to be very significant.

Then, just more broadly, the Catholic entrepreneurs and innovators of the nineteenth century figured out a set of devotional and institutional forms that spoke to the masses, that were populist. People in the 1960s become suspicious of a lot of those forms, knew that they were tired. But they were extraordinarily successful in the nineteenth century, and it feels as if again in the developed world, we’re searching for some of those institutional and devotional forms. Things like the rosary, things like the devotion to the Sacred Heart—they were powerful and popular as were institutional forms like the parish and the massive emphasis on parochial schools. Looked at from an organizational standpoint, those are pretty successful innovations. Catholics were extraordinarily gifted at building institutions in the age that craved them. And we just don’t have that in the twenty-first century yet.

R&P: You mentioned the sexual abuse crisis, and I wondered in what way do you think that crisis relates to other problems of authority and accountability in the Church in the modern era.

JM: There’s no question they’re linked. The clerical sexual abuse crisis has actually migrated from shock and despair over the actions of individual priests predominantly to dismay at the institutional cover-up and the structures and the relationship between those individuals and the institutions. I think we’re almost at the point where we can identify a phase. We’re at the end of one phase in this process, and it has had the powerful effect of accelerating that detachment from institutions that was probably already going on. And just putting it on a kind of a turbocharge because of dismay at how the institution handled this particularly fraught problem. I think we’re going to be living with that the rest of our lives.

R&P: You talk about the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 as the hinge point in how Catholics got from the French Revolution to the current moment. And you write a little bit about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as the last living member of his generation to have played a major role in the council, which is so interesting. How have interpretations of the Second Vatican Council shifted since then? And are interpretations still shifting?

JM: I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on everything about the Second Vatican Council. The reason I say it’s the hinge point is that I do think you can organize the history this way. The disarray and chaos caused by the French Revolution, and the resulting devotional institutional culture that was set against the modern world. A sense of the modern world as dangerous, and threatening, and corrupt, and Catholics need to be protected from it. And that’s why we built independent intellectual currents and everything else because the modern world had betrayed Catholics, and so the thinking went in the French Revolution, and very quickly it was forgotten that many faithful Catholics had advocated for the revolution, at least in its earliest phases. So that’s one phase in the mid-nineteenth century. Vatican Council I in 1870 is a key turning point, a kind of consolidation of the ultramontane revival. And between the 1870 and let’s say the 1940s and 1950s.

I talk a lot in the book about how the political crisis of the 1930s and World War II helped create a new set of ideas. And a new conviction that maybe things weren’t quite working. There was some dismay that Catholics had not resisted fascism more forcefully. And that they had seen their religion as private and not public. There was a sense that maybe it was too ritualistic, too conformist, that we needed new ideas. And all of this is going on and the ordinary Catholic doesn’t know anything about it. But then, for reasons that no one can explain, John XXIII calls the Second Vatican Council to get a fresh new airing and these ideas triumph at the council. So, it is a hinge point in that sense. And what comes out of the council of course is the vernacular liturgy—that is hugely important and practical and that’s about a multicultural church too.

There was a conviction that for better or for worse, and it was both, that Catholics needed to more powerfully and firmly engage the world. The better part of that was the whole Catholic movement around human rights. This includes support for democratic revolutions in Poland and the Philippines, and currents such as liberation theology. At the same time, that engagement with the world made Catholic identity less clear cut. It led to unprecedented soul-searching among priests and nuns in the context of the late 1960s and the sexual revolution, about their ministry, who are we, what are we supposed to be doing. All that to say, I really do think it is a hinge point. And Benedict XVI’s death, I have that line in the introduction where I say I think his death can mark the post-post-Vatican II era.

Pope Francis definitely has a view of the council. He lived through it, although he didn’t experience it as a participant. And he’s trying, I think, to recover a sense of the council much closer to Paul VI than John Paul II or Benedict XVI. So, the council as engagement with the world, as accompaniment with poor people—all themes at the council but not as much emphasized by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

R&P: Of course, Pope Francis himself has been the target of criticism in some conservative quarters, and much of this vision you’ve attributed to him is contested there.

JM: No question. That vision is surprisingly contested. It is very contested and we’ll see how it all turns out. My sense just watching and reading is that Francis is winning, and his vision is probably more appealing because he’s also quite culturally conservative to that vast body of Catholics in the Global South who are very worried about how capitalist economy works in their part of the world. At the same time, he is more conservative than most American liberals are on hot-button issues around sexuality, gender, and abortion.

R&P: What do you think Pope Francis’s legacy will be ultimately in shaping modern Catholicism?

JM: I think it is a little bit of what we just talked about. That he will be the pope whose interpretation of what was called for by the Second Vatican Council has set us on an altered course. That includes what he has said about the Vatican and church governance. More of a focus on the poor and humility and an absence of kind of liturgical pomp, if I can put it that way. A huge focus on inequality. Paul VI talked about that very powerfully in 1967. But that was an encyclical that was kind of forgotten in the 1970s and 80s and 90s when very well-meaning people would have thought that the best way to bring people out of poverty was to extend a capitalist free trade economy. And now I think that’s less compelling and Francis has picked up on these themes, which seems more prescient.

Especially with the addition of climate change, I think you could argue Francis is the most important environmentalist in the world right now. And no document written by any pope has had I think the impact of Laudato Si’ over the last 60 years.

R&P: What do you think people, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, most fail to understand about the church?

JM: One is that the church’s very contested and fraught vision of sexual ethics from birth control to abortion, and everything else also had surprising consequences in the early twentieth century. So, for example, in the early twentieth century when most good, liberal, forward-minded, progressive thinkers were huge enthusiasts for eugenics, Catholics and the Church were the group and institution opposing them. And that was because of theoretically “backward views” on the nature of sexual intercourse and sexual acts. So that’s one irony. That’s not an argument for the Catholic sexual ethic; it’s just to say that history is full of these ironies. And that’s one of them.

A second would be the Catholic commitment to democracy. And it’s episodic. If you would have looked around the world in the 1930s and thought about democratic practice, you would have seen that Catholics were also allied with authoritarian governments across Europe and Latin America and indeed were leaders of some of those governments in Austria, Brazil, and elsewhere. That makes the Second Vatican Council with its endorsement of democracy even more amazing. So that would be a second thing.

The third surprise would just be if there’s one person who’s mentioned more than anybody else in the book, it’s Jacques Maritain. You know I came out of my research amazed by his capacity to persuade Catholics that democracy came from the gospel, and it was the kind of government that Catholics should support. He is amazingly prolific. And on the other hand, he had very strong views on modern art. I begin the ninth chapter with a long discussion of the relationship between Catholics and the arts. And Maritain helps inform the movement that leads to vernacular hymns, modernist church architecture, and a lot of other things. Now at the very end of his life, he regrets a lot of this, it went too far for him. But gosh, he was an amazing figure. I hope—if there’s one thing—I hope the book helps people get a renewed appreciation of him.

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