MANY OBSERVERS, liberal and conservative alike, see Pope Francis as an aberration from the norms of the Catholic Church. Broadly speaking, for the former group he represents the long-delayed fulfillment of Vatican II: a socially conscious prelate who emphasizes the humane aspects of his institution’s teachings in an increasingly divided world after decades of theological intransigence.

For the latter group, he personifies everything that is wrong with the modern Church, seemingly willing to cut loose centuries-old doctrines and traditions just to court secular plaudits. The old rhetorical question “Is the Pope a Catholic?” now provokes furious renewed debates in certain quarters.

Both perspectives stem from the fact that Pope Francis differs significantly, in his views and actions, from those of his two considerably more conservative predecessors — and whether this fact is cause for celebration or mourning. This ongoing debate over the future direction of the Catholic Church highlights an issue of perennial importance to the Vatican: while the Church conveys an image of studied permanence, reliant upon its long-established heritage, it also must shift, however imperceptibly, if it is to remain a force to be reckoned with, as it has to varying degrees over the past millennium and a half.

Indeed, the challenge, for an institution claiming universality and unchanging permanence in a chaotic world, is successfully projecting this image, no matter how much its doctrines and interpretations shift, from pope to pope and down through the ages. As a recent Guardian profile put it: “The feet may be dancing under the cassock, but the robe itself must never move.” It is the ability to square this circle that has allowed the Church to slowly evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, without forfeiting its ostensible solidity.

The results of this frantic dance are plain to see. The contemporary Church is a markedly different beast from the Church of the 19th century — a mere blip in time for an institution that has existed for some 20 centuries. Scathingly critical of the ideas unleashed by the chaos of the French Revolution, and struggling to deal with the fallout from the dawn of industrial modernity and mass politics, the Vatican harbored deep suspicions about a host of concepts now near-universally considered aspirational ideals in the West: democracy, human rights, liberalism, the separation of church and state, and modernity at large.

Presided over by a succession of increasingly reactionary popes, it was the Church of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that, clinging to its dwindling temporal power as dearly as to its spiritual authority, seized a Jewish child from his family, codified the dogma of papal infallibility, and introduced a mandatory “Oath Against Modernism,” to be sworn by every candidate for ordination until its abolition in 1967.

As late as 1921, Pope Benedict XV archly wrote that “the only true League of Nations” was that of medieval European Christendom, and not the Wilsonian institution then setting up shop on the shores of Lake Geneva. (This barb perhaps had more to do with the Vatican’s involuntary isolation from the postwar international order than with a heartfelt desire to return to an imagined medieval utopia.)

At the turn of the last century, then, it was by no means assured that the Catholic Church would reconcile itself with the established realities of modernity — indeed, at times it would have seemed almost fantastically unlikely. Yet that is what happened.

This same paradox of permanence thus serves as the basis for the question that James Chappel seeks to answer in his fascinating new book, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church. How did the 19th-century Catholic Church, in all its anti-modern grandeur and opulence, beget the 21st-century Church we see today, which accepts and promotes many of the same tenets it considered ungodly less than 150 years ago? What changed in the intervening century to allow such a shift to occur, and how did the Church undergo this metamorphosis, while simultaneously maintaining its image of unchanging permanence?

To answer this question, the author explores and categorizes the varied Catholic responses to modernity during the 20th century, addressing the debates that gave rise to this unexpected development. Chappel’s is a complex intellectual history, focusing not on popes and bishops, but on the lay individuals and movements of ideas that drove this sea change. His focus is on Austria, France, and Germany.

The crux of Chappel’s argument is that, contrary to the received wisdom, the great shift in the Church’s response to modernity took place, not in the 1960s of Vatican II, sexual revolution, and counterculture, but in the 1930s of creeping authoritarianism and approaching war, when most observers assume the Church was happily in bed with fascists and other nefarious bedfellows.

It was during this period of crisis, he argues, that Catholic actors began to retreat from the public sphere, shifting their emphasis instead to the private sphere, to the family in particular, as their central unit of concern. From this emphasis stems the contemporary Catholic focus on marriage, divorce, abortion, and other issues of personal ethics.

This is not to say that Catholics withdrew from public life entirely. Quite the opposite, as evidenced by the Catholic-driven emergence of the Christian democratic ideology in the years after World War II. But from the 1930s onward, a hard-fought consensus emerged that if the Church were to maintain its influence, it would have to finally make peace with the strictures of modernity. This consensus allowed for the Church’s continued engagement with the wider world, albeit housed within rather than pitched against the confines of democracy and secular society.

The great merit of this cohesive work is to demonstrate how broad and subtly ever-changing the Catholic Church is in its message and aims, even over the course of a short century in its two-millennium existence. Chappel’s is not a monolithic Church, but one of constantly shifting sands and opposing perspectives, of laity and clergy alike engaging in vigorous debates about the direction of the institution. In conveying this subtlety, the author displays a narrative skill not always evident in academic histories, deftly surveying the intellectual evolution of Catholic thought throughout the 20th century.

At the same time, however, Chappel’s overarching focus on intellectual debates sometimes obscures the wider political fray. His emphasis on intellectuals and activists within the Church, while a conscious and well-argued decision, necessarily omits a deeper consideration of papal and secular politics that might serve the general reader well. Nevertheless, his approach achieves the goal of recasting how we view the Church of the early 20th century, a period whose interpretation has very quickly calcified and changed little in the past few decades.

Quite apart from the ongoing theological disputes drawn along the borrowed ideological lines of the culture wars and pseudonymously fought on Twitter, in recent years a growing number of secular (in the strict sense of the word) historians have been busy revisiting problems in Church history. As such, it’s a pleasure to see Chappel’s book, with its focus on the Church’s equally turbulent recent past, emerge in a similar guise, pushing the reader to reconsider how this perennially powerful institution strode into the 21st century with such seeming ease. As Chappel puts it, “Catholic modernism has been a force for good, and a force for evil, but above all it has been a force that mattered” in the 20th century. And that, perhaps, is the greatest surprise of all.

¤

Cormac Shine is a freelance writer, researcher, and historian based in Europe.