From Aeon by James Chappel author of Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard UP, 2018)
The 20th century is littered with failed global experiments. The British Empire roared into the century with the wind at its back, only to fall apart. The Russian Revolution promised to inaugurate a century of communist insurgency, but that dream, too, expired. Of all the global projects afoot in 1900, only two really survived to the century’s end. Global capitalism is one, and the Catholic Church is another. The survival of capitalism should not surprise us, perhaps – even Karl Marx was aware of the system’s explosive dynamism. But the Catholic Church? An institution that, in 1900, seemed like the most hidebound and antimodern on the scene, and that was committed to overturning the modern project in its entirety? How did this happen?
Most people presume that the great transition took place in the 1960s, and specifically at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when the Church officially signalled its openness to secular statehood, religious freedom and human rights. This is a mistake. Historians are reluctant to issue laws of history, but here’s one that seems reasonable: massive institutions do not fundamentally transform themselves in moments of relative placidity. The process requires too much energy and too much buy-in from cautious elites. They transform in moments of crisis, destruction and fear. The early 1960s were not such a moment for the Church. The 1930s, however, were.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 signalled a new era in European politics. Across Europe, the liberal centre fell apart with a whimper, as voters flocked towards extremes of fascism and communism. Catholics were horrified. Liberals had threatened Catholic schools, or at worst to wrest control over the appointment of bishops. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler represented something new, and something even more alarming. From the Catholic perspective, they were ‘totalitarian’. They were claiming total allegiance over their subjects, body and soul. Both were critical of the Churches, which after all represented alternative principles of law and morality in states that were aggressively trying to turn a variegated population into a unified whole.
In the face of totalitarianism, Catholics confronted the very real possibility that their ability to receive the sacraments, let alone attend Catholic schools, might soon be abridged.