Provost McGreevy speaks on his new history of the Church

The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (dCEC) and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies (NIES) hosted a panel on Provost John T. McGreevy’s recent book, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis.

The panel discussed McGreevy’s hermeneutic for interpreting the last two hundred years of Church and world history. 

dCEC director Prof. O. Carter Snead noted, “Provost McGreevy is widely considered to be the preeminent historian of the Catholic Church of his generation. … We chose to focus our discussion on the Global South, both because of the robustness of the Church there, but also because this theme had not yet been the focus of any of the numerous past or scheduled events exploring and celebrating the Provost’s book.”

The discussion panel included Provost McGreevy himself, as well as Prof. Jeremy Adelman of Princeton University, Prof. Stan Chu Ilo of DePaul University, and Prof. Anna Moreland of  Villanova University. 

The latter three professors each offered comments on the book, then McGreevy spoke for 15 minutes before answering audience questions. 

McGreevy noted the importance of the panel focusing on the Global South: “There are more Catholics who will attend Mass on Sunday in Nigeria this upcoming week than there are in almost the entirety of Western Europe. We need to learn a lot more in the Anglophone world about the history of Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa.”

In attempting to understand the rise of Catholicism in Africa, McGreevy identified the different schools of Catholic thought driving Church development over the past 200 years. He explained: “Early in the book, I say there’s really two models of Catholicism for the 19th and early 20th century. One model is ultramontane: that is the devotional world of the Sacred Heart, of Lourdes, of Neo-Gothic churches, of novenas—it has a particular kind of piety. It’s also a world of intense focus on the papacy and papal authority as opposed to national churches.”

The other model, McGreevy noted, is that of “reformists”: “In the late 18th century … there was a deep effort—not populist; elite, highly intellectual: princes, kings, intellectuals and bishops—that wanted something different. They wanted, amazingly, in 1786, the liturgy in the vernacular; they wanted a closer alliance of Catholicism with modern science; they wanted to follow Catholicism to be a loosely allied group of national churches, not with a focus on the papacy.”

He explained, “Missionaries came from Europe and North America to Africa, and the lives that they led were often very intense, very grueling, lots of early deaths. It is fair to say, though, [that they] brought to Africa, the Philippines, and other areas as a Global South, a Catholicism [of which] they were exporting one branch. They did not anticipate that Catholicism would change in the encounter with sub-Saharan Africa.”

“This is why we have Neo-Gothic churches in Kampala. This is why we had Latin textbooks. This is why we had the whole range of Catholic popular devotions developed in Europe and in North America being brought to the Global South in the 19th and 20th century.”

This method of evangelization was dominant until the 1940s and 1950s. However, McGreevy posited, this “changed in the context of the Second Vatican Council.” 

Since the 1950s, Catholics have seemed to hold that they “should not be exporting a religion they do not want to change, but in fact, building local churches, indigenous churches, not refusing to allow indigenous people to speak their native language, for example. That’s the world we’re living in much more now.”

After the panel, Prof. Clemens Sedmak, Director of the NIES told the Rover that he “felt encouraged to think about the future of the Church and was strengthened in my hope for a truly global Church with a larger and larger footprint in the Global South.” He also added, “I am so grateful to work at a university where the Provost has such a uniquely deep knowledge of Catholicism and its global nature.”

Junior Joe Carper, who is a Sorin Fellow at the dCEC, told the Rover that from the panel he “got the sense of how important our current era is in the history of the Church [and] how the 21st century of Church history will likely see changes that rivaled the scope of those following the French Revolution.”

Fr. Txema Díaz Dorronsoro, Professor in the School of Church Communications in the University of Santa Croce in Rome and visiting scholar at Notre Dame attended the panel. 

He spoke with the Rover, explaining his initial impressions: “This titanic review of the history of the Church from the French Revolution to the present day pivots excessively on the idea that the contemporary course of the Church has been marked by the struggle of two great groups of Catholics, which the author calls ultramontanists and reformists. As a thread running through such a long and complex narrative it works very well and may even be necessary, but it presents some problems.”

“It is true that since Vatican II we are accustomed, thanks to the press, to speak of factions within the Church … [but] inside the Church there have always been groups, factions and diversity of opinions. When it was just taking its first steps, there were Judaizers in favor of maintaining the traditions lived by the Lord, but also Hellenists in favor of abandoning them. It took a council, that of Jerusalem, to resolve the differences. Or, better said, to clarify what the Holy Spirit wanted to be done.”

“But I have the impression that today we are prisoners of a certain dialectic when it comes to analyzing history, which leads us to consider that the course of events, the evolution of people and institutions, is irremediably marked by confrontation, factional struggle, action and subsequent reaction. I wonder if applying these schemes is not strange for an institution as particular as the Church, of a supernatural nature—you know, it is the Holy Spirit who really makes it move forward—but of course, saying this is or may seem very unscientific.”

Despite his worries, Fr. Dorronsoro emphasized the importance and great value of the research that McGreevy has done, and suggested, “If we are to speak of two groups of Catholics, perhaps it would be better to talk about Christians of the rearguard and Christians of the vanguard. That is, Christians who watch over the forms and traditions we have inherited—Tradition—and innovative Christians who explore new paths of evangelization by reading the ever-living word of the Spirit. Both groups are important and in both groups we could incorporate many of the characters that have marked the history of the Church and that appear in McGreevy’s book.” 

Sedmak told the Rover that his main takeaway from the panel was “the insight that the Church is even wider and more colorful than the already impressively rich book suggests. I felt encouraged to think about the future of the Church,” he continued, “and was strengthened in my hope for a truly global Church with a larger and larger footprint in the Global South.”

McGreevy concluded his remarks, “I think Catholicism as an institution will be reimagined in the 21st century, much as it was after the French Revolution in the 19th century and much as it was courageously at the Second Vatican Council. … If this book, and the commentary that’s been provided on it today, provides a baseline as that reimagining occurs, it will have certainly served its purpose.”

Joseph DeReuil is a junior from St. Paul, MN studying philosophy and classics. After riding the Amtrak back to school from home, he is a recently converted train-lover. Reach him at

Photo Credit: W. Joseph DeReuil

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