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Catholic Modern:
The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church

by james chappel
harvard, 352 pages, $36

In the last fifty years, most writing about modern Catholicism has treated Vatican II as the great watershed. According to the standard narrative, the Church before the Council was wedded to a stultifying scholasticism and sunk in soul-crushing authoritarianism. After the Council, a new spirit emerged, one of openness and dialogue. At long last, Catholicism shed its defensive, anti-modern mentality and began engaging the contemporary world. In Catholic Modern, James Chappel demolishes this conceit.

Chappel describes how, in the course of the twentieth century, Catholicism accommodated itself to political and social modernity. Although he does not adopt the more precise term, the modernity ­Chappel speaks of is liberal modernity, as distinct from fascism and communism, two decidedly modern political forms. Liberal modernity is characterized by three elements: religious pluralism, the secular state, and human rights.

Since the French Revolution, ­Catholicism had largely resisted these principles. Acceptance of religious pluralism had been denounced as a sign of “indifferentism.” Defense of the confessional state had been an important plank in Catholic apologetics. And Catholics had insisted that a society ordered by the Church’s doctrine, not a secular doctrine of rights, was the best guarantee of ­human dignity. The prevailing spirit was one of opposition, epitomized in Syllabus of Errors (1864), which ends with a rousing repudiation of the proposition that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Even today, there has been no reconciliation between Catholicism and modernity, if by “reconciliation” we mean a comfortable marriage of the Church to the intellectual and political conditions of the modern West. Yet as Chappel shows, Catholic leaders in the mid-twentieth century did come to terms with modernity. They abandoned efforts to restore an integral Catholic political culture and formulated principles for political engagement that operated within rather than against the prevailing assumptions of modern civic life.

Chappel’s story begins in the aftermath of World War I. That conflagration cast doubt on the political and cultural verities of late-nineteenth-century European culture. Modernity seemed to have failed. Many of the faithful took this as a vindication of the Church’s anti-modern intransigence. Catholic intellectuals experimented with new ideas, but in Chappel’s telling, they remained resolutely anti-modern.

A neo-medievalist movement saw the disasters of World War I and the dislocations of modernity as symptoms of a disintegrated social body. Its proponents pictured pre-modern society as a harmonious world of guilds, corporations, and social ­classes knit together by reciprocal duties and united by their Christian spirit. Neo-medievalists advocated an adaptation and restoration of these social forms, arguing that they would guard against the materialism and competitive individualism of modern liberal societies. Charles Maurras and his disciple, the young Jacques Maritain, were proponents of this integralist vision for France. Austrian neo-medievalists denounced “the pagan state” and called for the restoration of the Holy Roman ­Empire.

The 1920s saw the emergence of another trend, one Chappel calls “ultramodern.” Like the utopian futurists, anarchists, and socialists of the decade, avant-garde Catholics theorized entirely new forms of life. In Germany, Catholic thinkers proposed a “solidarism” that would transcend class conflict. Catholic convert Max Scheler called for “prophetic socialism.” Though more inchoate than neo-medievalism, ­ultramodernism likewise evinced an antipathy to materialism and individualism. Ultramodernists envisioned a ­society characterized by solidarity and ­cooperation rather than by party conflict and economic competition.

Economic depression, labor unrest, and political paralysis in the early 1930s changed the political terrain. The utterly modern and ruthlessly secular movements of fascism and communism arrested the public imagination. Both movements promised to solve the problems of social fragmentation, class conflict, and meaningless materialism. It is ­Chappel’s main thesis that, in the face of these competitors, Catholicism changed course in the 1930s.

Catholic thought went in new directions because Catholics were facing new threats. “In the 1930s,” Chappel writes, “the Church transitioned from an antimodern institution into an antitotalitarian one.” Catholics on the right stressed anti-communism, while Catholics on the left stressed anti-fascism. But their common judgment was that the Church must be a bulwark against the totalitarian conquest of the West. Though it was not apparent at the outset, the battle against totalitarianism required mid-century Catholicism to shift toward an affirmation of liberal modernity. This turn marked the beginning of a distinctively modern Catholicism, which extends to the present day.

By Chappel’s reckoning, there are two kinds of Catholic modernity. The first and most widespread he dubs “paternal Catholicism.” This approach focuses on Church and family as pre-political institutions, and as the deepest sources of moral and spiritual renewal in society. Concerned to limit state power, paternal Catholicism also embraces human rights, emphasizes human dignity, and defends the freedom of the individual.

One of the strengths of Catholic Modern is the attention ­Chappel pays to Catholic lay activists and intellectuals who were engaged in the struggles of the moment. ­Catholic Modern is not a study of papal encyclicals or theological monographs. During the crisis years of the 1930s, paternal Catholics such as the Austrian writer and bureaucrat Mina ­Wolfring encouraged the development of family-friendly government policies, including state-funded welfare schemes. The economist Theodor Brauer played a role in the Nazi reorganization of labor relations in Germany. Since the French Revolution, Catholicism had regarded the secular state as an illegitimate modern invention. Now Catholics were working within those states toward self-­consciously Catholic ends.

After 1945, this species of modern Catholic joined with secular liberals and Protestants in forming Christian Democratic parties. These parties passed laws and formulated economic policies that supported the family and struck a balance between labor and capital. Politics was no longer framed in confessional terms. The common cause was said to be based in the shared values of “the West.”

Chappel gives a detailed account of how Christian ­democracy—family-­oriented social policy, a social market economy, and anti-­communism—predominated in the 1950s, then lost its grip in the 1960s. It faded largely due to its own success. Postwar prosperity and the entrenchment of liberal democratic norms in Germany seemed to bring the project of Christian democracy to completion, making it simply a synonym for the broad political consensus. The cultural transformations triggered by ’68 made its social ­conservatism off-putting.

Chappel’s use of “paternal” is fitting. As he shows, Catholics of this stripe were concerned to protect the family from erosion, whether by modern sexual mores or under economic pressure. Yet Chappel does not fully grasp the liberal logic of paternal ­Catholicism.

Paternal Catholicism adopted a “counter-authority” strategy for resisting totalitarianism. The father at home and the Father in heaven governed “alternative public sphere[s],” as Chappel puts it, which became bases of anti-totalitarian resistance. Paternal Catholicism envisions a cultural separation of powers not unlike the political separation of powers in the American constitution. Although Catholic social doctrine teaches a harmony of the three “necessary societies,” in the twentieth-century context, Church and family must blunt the power of party and state, the instruments of fascist and communist totalitarianism.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, communism was the godless threat countered by paternal Catholicism. But over time, paternal Catholics adapted this approach to new threats. Against the culture of death, John Paul II appealed to the authority of moral truth, most forcefully in Veritatis Splendor. The paternity of moral authority nourishes resistance, just as the paternity of the natural family or of the Church stands against the totalitarian claim that History or the Leader is one’s true father.

As Chappel rightly observes, paternal Catholicism did not regard fascism with the same antipathy as it did communism. He details instances when German and Austrian Catholic activists and intellectuals cooperated with fascists in order to promote the interests of the Church and of families, and to secure good public order. To some extent, this cooperation can be explained by the fact that Nazis held power in Germany, not communists, which meant that German Catholics had to deal with them in addressing the practical realities of the moment.

But there is a deeper reason. Fascism is an anti-liberal expression of political modernity, a paternal secular integralism, if you will. The singular concentration of power in movement, party, and leader promised to dissolve competing ­factions, end class war, and unite the nation in a common purpose of transcendent significance. That promise was not empty. As ­Chappel notes, Hitler’s National Socialism was the first party in German ­history to transcend confessional and ­regional differences. It destroyed what ­remained of aristocratic privilege, leveled social classes, and generated a powerful mythology of collective destiny.

There can be no doubt that many Catholic intellectuals and activists were attracted to fascism, seeing in it a secularized realization of their old dreams of a restored confessional state and foolishly imagining that they could infuse National Socialism with their spiritual principles. It was only after the fascist form of modern integralism ended with the cities of Germany flattened and millions of Jews murdered that paternal Catholicism fully embraced liberal modernity: limited government, a pluralist society of competing confessional and economic interests, and a secularized public square.

The second species of Catholic modernity is “fraternal Catholicism.” Less clearly defined and more diffuse, this approach resists totalitarianism by appealing to the spirit of brotherhood, cooperation, and reciprocity. Paternal Catholicism tended toward a practical, limited politics within the constraints of mid-twentieth-century economic and social life. By contrast, fraternal Catholics proposed anti-totalitarian ideals, even spiritualities, that aimed at wholesale transformation.

Jacques Maritain was among the most important spokesmen for fraternal Catholicism, and he figures prominently in Catholic Modern. In his early years, Maritain followed ­Maurras. He inveighed against capitalism and concentrations of power. He advocated monarchism and federalism. The modern state would be united from above by the warmth of personal rule and restrained from below by the dispersion of power to the regions. In the 1930s, he updated this vision, calling for “­civic fraternities” and other collectives. A new spirit of brotherhood, a political personalism, as it were, would overcome divisions, while pluralism would break up power and resist “­totalitarian paternalism.”

Maritain helped develop the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and fraternal Catholicism shared with its paternal partner a defense of human dignity. Pius XII put rights at the center of his first encyclical in 1939. But ­Maritain’s vision was more expansive than the pope’s. In his view, rights do not just limit the state. They are the foundation of a new world order. Maritain ­championed global government. He insisted that the perils of the nuclear age required a transformed political imagination capable of transcending the competition among nations, just as modern man must free himself from the ­small-minded competition of the capitalist system.

Whereas paternal Catholicism leaned on counter-authorities to resist totalitarianism—the moral culture of the family underwritten by natural law and the authority of the Church grounded in divine truths—fraternal Catholicism called for an anti-authoritarian ethos. It envisioned “fraternal humanity without a father,” cooperation without ­authority, pluralism without a dominant center, and a world without nations. These ideals retain their force today, finding expression in gender theory, multiculturalism, and end-of-history globalism.

Chappel dwells on the fraternal reinterpretation of marriage. For paternal Catholics, the family is a way of life ordered by authoritative moral norms, a domestic society with its own laws. For fraternal Catholics (among whom Chappel places ­Dietrich von Hildebrand), marriage is the sacred arena of reciprocal love, the embodiment of free, interpersonal self-giving. Companionate marriage was thus the template for a new social order. Maritain sought a fraternal politics, one in which a diverse and cooperative array of social organisms would arise spontaneously once the dead hand of paternal politics was lifted.

Fraternal Catholicism was antifascist rather than anti-communist. This stemmed in part from the exigencies of the 1930s and wartime resistance. But there were deeper reasons. After 1945 and throughout the Cold War, fraternal Catholics resented the Church’s ardent anti-communism. Their sympathy for communism arose from a hope for fundamental transformation. ­Maritain rejected Marx’s metaphysical materialism and his theory of class conflict, yet he spoke of “the great lightening flash of truth” in Marx. Communism ­promised the withering away of the state. It claimed to end economic competition and give birth to the deep ­solidarity that has eluded the modern West.

Communism has been extraordinarily brutal in practice. This was true not just in the Soviet Union, but in every country or movement where it has gained power. But because it is fraternal in theory, it has long attracted idealistic men. Like fascism, it operates as a modern secular integralism, one that envisions a singular, unified body politic. But unlike fascism, communism claims to use power only to remove oppression. That Maritain and other fraternal Catholics would find this promise alluring was very nearly inevitable. They insisted that Catholics had a great deal to learn from socialists and non-Stalinist communists.

Chappel’s sympathies lie with fraternal Catholicism, which he sees as the tradition ­continued by Catholic progressives today. Perhaps because of those sympathies, he fails to see the integralist logic of modern progressivism. ­Maritain and his allies were less reconciled to modernity, as he defines it, than were paternal Catholics. 

Pluralism in politics means resisting high-minded syntheses and accepting the often small-minded politics of interests, whether based in regions, classes, ethnicities, or religious confessions. In liberal ­modernity, rights reflect a moral baseline, and in Christian Democracy they played a largely negative role in public life, limiting politics rather than inspiring new and transformative movements. In liberal modernity, and for paternal Catholicism, the galvanizing authority of high ideals is reserved to family and religious communities. These realms of life—not the state—are sources of selfless reciprocity and deep solidarity.

Fraternal Catholicism did not accept this limited view of politics, any more than do contemporary progressives. As the French personalist ­Emmanuel Mounier gushed in 1950, “If Christianity is going to be mistaken, it should err in a spirit of grandeur, bravery, defiance, adventure, and passion. What we cannot abide is that it should be confused with social timidity, the spirit of balance, and a faint fear of the people.”

The leading proponents of fraternal Catholicism were not trying to restore the confessional state. They were modern in that respect. But they retained an integralist ambition. Chappel cites their visions of society remade top-to-bottom in accord with the very highest principles. In 1939, Gaston Fessard called for a “new Christendom” based on a fraternal spirit that rejected the fascist desire for “ersatz father figures.” During World War II, Maritain wrote a pamphlet urging the construction of a “more human world oriented toward an historic ideal of human brotherhood.”

Maritain was influential in the Catholic Church after the war in large part because he proposed a new fraternal integralism: a worldwide reconstitution of economic and political life in accord with notions of pluralism, dialogue, and brotherhood. This vision dovetailed with the old ways of thinking. Maritain did not return to the neo-medieval hope for the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. In that sense he was modern. But his calls for “world government” echo the older dream of a world knit together by a benevolent power that transcends competing interests. The creed uniting people was to be found in human rights. Pluralism was a transformative social therapy, not a fact of ­political life.

Paternal Catholicism aimed to govern in the new circumstances of twentieth-century Europe. This led to many compromises, some ugly. It also encouraged convenient blindness to injustice and oppression, which in some circumstances turned into complicity. Chappel eagerly describes how some paternal Catholics cooperated with the Nazis and were indifferent to anti-Semitism. By contrast, fraternal Catholics sought to transform society, not govern it. Their mode of engagement was prophetic rather than practical, which meant that they kept their hands clean. For the most part, they did not grasp the ­levers of power.

Chappel concludes with ­Friedrich Heer, an Austrian Catholic who carried the fraternal Catholic project forward. In the early 1960s, Heer pronounced the dawning of a “new age of encounter.” In 1968, he urged the Church to affirm “global responsibility, love, sex, fraternity, political partnership, national and international responsibility, humanity, universal mankind.” Fraternal Catholicism strove for an ­anti-authoritarian utopia. In that respect it can seem the very ­opposite of the pre-modern world Pius IX wished to restore. But the utopian ­ambition, so characteristic of fraternal ­Catholicism, proposes an ­integralism more thoroughgoing than anything a Renaissance pope could have ­imagined.

The failure of Catholic Modern rests in the way Chappel defines modernity. He limits it to its liberal expressions. In truth, political modernity has been convulsed on many occasions by utopian promises of an integral reconstruction of society. Seeking to update the older ideals of Christendom, fraternal Catholics thrilled to those ­promises—even as they were being falsified by societies dedicated to their ­fulfillment.

Paternal Catholicism, which continues to this day in modified forms, is anti-utopian. It sees politics as a contest of interests constrained by moral principles but rarely in their service. It suspects the progressive mindset of harboring totalitarian tendencies, which is why it seeks the modest solidarity of shared citizenship rather than a unity arising from supposedly noble movements that promise to transform the world. It promotes a strategy of ­counter-authorities in order to defend human dignity. Dispersing authority to family, church, school, and marketplace, as well as courtroom and legislative chamber, will prevent the concentrations of power that too easily can become instruments of ­oppression—including the oppression wrought by high-minded reformers who want to mobilize all of society. Paternal ­Catholicism regards pluralism as a fact, not a ­redemptive power. It refuses to sanctify politics with an all-conquering moral mission, and looks to God for final justice, not to the engines of history or the crusades of men.

Critics of liberal modernity argue that it, too, drives toward a liberal integralism, making its secularism and individualism obligatory. While preaching pluralism and diversity, liberals insist that they alone can ensure justice, peace, and prosperity. Because it cannot tolerate any authority but its own, liberalism inevitably turns toward the destruction of Church and family.

I remain agnostic about the logic of liberalism, skeptical that the messy realities of civic life can be mapped onto theories, whether one calls them liberal or not. But it is clear that progressives in our time seek to establish a new secular Christendom intolerant of dissent. Pronoun policing and professional assassinations of those deemed “bigoted” or “phobic” are instruments of integralism. Our political systems remain liberal, perhaps, but our societies are in the grip of a powerful cultural ­totalitarianism. Universities and corporations sponsor struggle sessions to root out “privilege,” while dissidents anxiously guard their words. The contemporary heirs to fraternal Catholicism have little to say against this moralistic and liberationist integralism.

In our contemporary circumstances, we will not be protected by classical liberalism and its principles, which are no more likely to be respected by today’s progressives than they were by fascists and communists, who likewise claimed to serve the future. Paternal Catholicism knows better. The only reliable guard against totalitarianism—hard or soft, enforced by punishment or advanced by seduction, coming ­under the guise of liberalism or under some other political label—are powerful counter-authorities ­rooted in fierce loyalties to natural and ­revealed truths. 

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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