5 Questions With James Chappel about How the Catholic Church became Modern in the 1930s

I recently corresponded with historian James Chappel about his new book, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard, 2017). Chappel is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. For more information on his research and teaching visit his website

You define modern as accepting “the split between the public sphere of politics and the private sphere of religion.” You argue that Catholics accepted this spilt between public and private in the 1930s. How did you come to see what it means to be “modern” in this split of public and private?

For years, I avoided the term “modern” altogether. It seemed too normative and value-laden to bear much interpretive weight. The concept has a gravitational pull to it, though, and over the years I circled back to it. It helped me to solve a particular problem that arose in the course of my research. As I immersed myself in the archive of mid-century Catholicism, it became increasingly clear that something dramatically transformed in the 1930s (I hope that readers will understand that my book focuses on France, Germany, and Austria—I’ll say “Catholicism” as a shorthand, but I can’t say that the story was the same everywhere). Texts written in the late 1930s inhabited a different conceptual universe from those written ten years before. Through the 1920s, Catholic intellectuals were still dreaming of some kind of Catholic restoration, which might save Europe from the wounds of World War I. A decade later, this project had fizzled. Catholics were no longer struggling to convert a continent, but to save some semblance of their Church in a continent that was playing host to dangerous new political forces. A new set of keywords came into vogue: human rights, anti-totalitarianism, human dignity, and a few others. And a new set of commitments arose, too. Most prominently, many Catholics were more concerned with the health and security of the family than they had been before.

I struggled for a long time over how to characterize this shift, which seemed to me monumental. This led me back to the concept of modernity. I started reading scholars of religion like Elizabeth Pritchard, and queer theorists like Michael Warner. This helped me to three realizations. First, “modernity” can be a useful heuristic so long as it is rigorously defined as a real and imagined split between a private sphere and a public sphere. Second, this split is always contested, and can be investigated as a historical problematic. Third, and maybe most importantly, this split is always gendered, insofar as the modern split between public and private tends to code both the familial and the religious into the private sphere. Understood in these ways, the concept of “modernity” came to seem like a useful rubric to understand what was going on with my figures. It helped to explain both the shift towards human rights and individual dignity, while also allowing for a conceptual integration of the concomitant turn towards a particular familial order.

Your book helpfully identifies two different strands of the Catholic modern. A paternal modernism that accepted a robust state that protected and promoted the family, and a fraternal modernism that envisioned the private sphere as a space for civic associations governed by solidarity. Can you offer a brief explanation of the two modes of Catholic modernity for our readers? Where do the two modes overlap and where do they diverge?

This goes right to the heart of the book, and also to the explanation of the “modern” that I just gave. If we imagine that the split between public and private can be negotiated in all sorts of ways, we can tell a story of Catholic “modernization” that allows the Church to remain a space of contestation—as it has always been, and always will be. One of the most surprising aspects of my research is that I found surprisingly little contest between anti modern and modern Catholics. What I found, instead, was a long set of debates about how to oppose modernity, coming to a close around 1930, and a new set of debates about how to shape modernity, which began around 1930 and continue into the present. By the end of the 1930s, in other words, most Catholics accepted that a truly Catholic society was off the table, and that the Church’s mission was to influence a modern, interfaith world.

The basic theoretical question was this one: how do we define the private sphere? If we accept that religious jurisdiction only directly applies in private, then how is “private” to be defined? This framing of the question helped me to see what was really going on in the 1930s debates. The majority solution at the time, and probably still today, was to define the private sphere as the space of reproductive families. States and economies, in other words, can be left to their own devices, so long as the Catholic family is secured, and so long as Catholic teachings about the family are translated into law. As this already indicates, this understanding of the private authorized an activist politics (the privatization of religion never counsels an abandonment of the political, but only shapes what sorts of public action is legitimate). According to this view, the Catholic mission should focus on the health of the heteronormative family, and should call on the (secular) state to ban abortion, divorce, and homosexuality, while also adopting substantial welfare measures to provide a living wage (one that would allow the mother to stay at home).

I called that view “paternal Catholic modernism,” drawing attention to its gendered and hierarchical account of the private sphere. It has been extremely influential, and it has allowed the Church to play a significant role in shaping modern societies. Specifically, it helped to legitimate the curious mixture of robust family welfare and conservative family legislation that we see in postwar Europe, where Christian Democratic parties mobilized some version of paternal Catholic ideology.

As we can see in the headlines today, other Catholic visions are afoot. I refer to their competitors as “fraternal” Catholic modernists. They were always in the minority, but it’s important to recover their stories because they show that there have always been multiple, legitimate ways to conceptualize a Catholic modernity. They argued, and quite rightly, that the focus on the family to the exclusion of all else had led the Church into unsavory alliances with all sorts of evil political doctrines (most notably, fascism). They did not reject Catholic family teachings, and they were not feminists in the contemporary sense. They did argue, though, that family ethics should be seen as only one part of a more capacious and emancipatory Catholic vision. Healthy families, they argued, were impossible to imagine in a world of war, racism, and capitalism—Catholics, therefore, could not focus on the family alone. In some ways, they were more beholden than their competitors to the ancient Catholic dream of conquering society and redeeming the age. They hoped to do so, however, in a more modern and interfaith key, forging alliances with socialists, Protestants, and Jews in a struggle for justice.

 You introduce readers to a wide range of fascinating characters. You deliberately make your book a history of lay Catholic thinkers. Which was your favorite to write about and why?

This is an interesting question. I’ll answer it in two ways, saying first whose story was most interesting to track, and then whose ideas I found most compelling. To the first question: one of the characters I follow was a German Catholic economist named Theodor Brauer. I found him to be a sympathetic figure: he was one of the first working-class Catholics to receive a doctorate in economics, and his early writings (from the 1910s and 1920s) show us a man who was genuinely trying to see how modern capitalism could be made compatible with the ethical demands of the faith. He was a major figure in the Catholic trade unions, in an era when the very idea of trade unions was still controversial in some circles. Then the Depression hit. For reasons that I go into in the book, but can skip over here, the Depression made all of the old Catholic solutions to economic injustice seem inappropriate. Catholic social thinkers, Brauer included, were casting about for new solutions. And Brauer, specifically, was prolific enough, and enough of his archives were salvaged, that we can watch him month-by-month grapple with the realities of a Germany that was falling apart. He ended up becoming a Nazi sympathizer, before being thrown into prison by the Nazis themselves. The brevity of his affiliation does not save him, morally: the Catholic flirtation with Hitler, however short-lived, was crucial to his coming to power. He does, though, help us to see how a basically humanist Catholic thinker could be pulled into the fascist orbit. It was sad to watch, but it was instructive to see in granular detail how an apparently decent man could be pulled towards fascism, even if only briefly.

Brauer was not, though, my “favorite.” The answer to that question might be an unsurprising one for readers here. Over the years, I became entranced with the figure of Jacques Maritain. At first I did not want to write about him at all. He seemed too well-studied, too banal, and too enamored with America. Those preconceptions were all wrong, especially for the Maritain of the 1930s. Maritain has, I think, been misremembered as a liberal democrat with a vague interest in social injustice. From his first (monarchist) writings to his last ones, in which he grappled with the Cuban Revolution, he was much more radical and mercurial than that. The Maritain of the 1930s was an absolute firebrand, as excoriating towards liberal democracy as he was towards the paternal modernism that was, in his view, leading the Church towards heretical alliance with sovereign authorities. Maritain arrived at a form of Catholicism that was rigorously anti-racist and anti-capitalist, and one that was more in dialogue with Marx than with Mussolini. It took, I think, incredible creativity and bravery to arrive at such a position at such desperate times.

You describe Catholic Modern as a conceptual history. What does that mean? How did you track the changes in ideas over time?

I am trained as an intellectual historian, and there is no getting away from the fact that my book is mainly a study of intellectuals and texts. I think, though, that the Catholic Church is especially amenable to this type of study. Because what is the Church, in the end? Especially in the twentieth century, it relies for its power on the plausibility, attractiveness, and utility of a certain set of ideas about what it means to live a good and moral life. The historian of the Church, therefore, can focus on those ideas. I came to prefer the term “conceptual” history, though, because this is not really a story of particular “ideas” or “philosophies” (neo-Thomism, say). I tried to tell a richer story of how the meaning of the Church, and of the faith, evolved along multiple dimensions: race, sex, gender, and citizenship evolved together. One of my findings was that neither the papacy nor famous theologians were as important to this process as I thought they would be. Catholicism lives and breathes in local contexts, and the ideas are forged in spaces and venues that the Holy See cannot control very well.

My project began as a history of theology, but became a conceptual history of Catholic modernism. This inflected my method in two ways. I focused, first, less on monographs than on periodical literature and newspapers, which in an era before television and Twitter seemed to me to be the crucial venues. I gathered together literature from trade unions, women’s groups, youth organizations, employer’s associations, and more, in an effort to gather as capacious of a source base as I could. This begs the question, secondly, of what to do with such an unwieldy archive. I focused less on specific debates and controversies than on the slower, but more certain, introduction of a new set of assumptions and keywords into the debate. Conceptual change does not really happen via “debate.” It is not as though Catholics wrote books in favor of, and against, human rights. And yet, over the course of a few years, human rights became a lingua franca of Catholic discourse. I was more interested in that process, and contextual reconstruction of its motivations, than I was in genuinely intellectual or theological change.

What are the implications of your study for US Catholic modernity? Did American Catholic thinkers embrace modernity on similar terms?

I recognize that this is a blog in US history, but I am firmly a historian of Europe. I sincerely hope that my approach casts some light onto what is happening in American Catholicism. One thing I learned, though, is that it is perilous to make claims about a context that you have not specifically studied in depth. The story that I tell in the book is not the story that I set out to write. The European sources surprised me, in a way that I have not allowed American sources to do. My hunch is that some version of this story did take place in the United States. It squares with what I’ve learned from historian like Lizabeth Cohen, Kenneth Heineman, and John McGreevy. The stories were certainly connected: as McGreevy shows, European émigrés like Maritain had outsized influence in Catholic circles, and journals like Commonweal and the Catholic Worker are clearly in dialogue with European ideas. Meanwhile, the economic and political crisis of the 1930s was global in nature, and it seems to me that Catholics like John Ryan and even Charles Coughlin responded in ways not dissimilar to their peers in Europe. Catholics were entering the Democratic coalition in the USA just as they were entering similar political alliances in Europe (and with similarly complex alliances between economic progressivism and racial nativism). But do the models of fraternal and paternal modernism that I uncovered in Europe exist, in the same ways, on this side of the Atlantic? Were the 1930s as crucial to American Catholics as to European ones? I could hazard guesses to these questions, but if I’ve learned one thing in studying Catholic history, it’s that the guesses we hazard are likely to be wrong. I would be very interested, then, to hear what American historians make of the story I tell in the book.


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