John McGreevy


“Catholicism Will Be Reinvented in the Twenty-First Century”: John McGreevy on the Global History of Catholics and Democracy

By: Siobhan Cooney

April 26, 2023

On April 5 the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs welcomed John McGreevy, Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of the University of Notre Dame, as the keynote speaker for the 2023 installment of the Berkley Center Lectures, which since 2007 have been a premiere showcase for global thought leaders in religion and global affairs.

Drawing on his recent book, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis (2022), McGreevy explored the surprising history of Catholics and democracy in the modern era, drawing on the examples from around the world.

In introducing McGreevy, Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff emphasized the contemporary relevance of his scholarship:

“With democracy under threat, its relationship with Catholicism—the world’s largest single religious community—is as critically important as it has ever been.”

Nineteenth-Century Catholic Authority and Justice

One of McGreevy’s goals in writing this book was to enhance Catholic self-understanding. Having spent most of his life studying in, teaching at, writing about, and administering Catholic institutions, he has been asked and has personally wondered, “How did we get here?”

He opened his lecture admitting that the answer to his book’s big question of whether Catholics should endorse democracy was not always obvious. For some time, democracy was, as McGreevy put it, “the dog that did not bark in Catholic social thought.” In fact, whatever nascent alliance between Catholicism and democracy that had previously existed began to unravel during the nineteenth century.

McGreevy related how Pope Pius IX retreated into a defensive stance after the Revolutions of 1848, a series of political upheavals that rippled across Europe: “The need to defend the Church against liberal governments willing to expel priests and seize Church property seemed more pressing.”

Likewise, building up a Catholic milieu of schools, churches, universities, and associations within this hostile world seemed more important than democratic politics, said McGreevy.

Authority and justice became the Catholic keywords of the nineteenth century, definitely not representation or voice.”

Maritain and Twentieth-Century Democratic Personalism

Rolling into the twentieth century, McGreevy described how ideas of representation, voice, and identity have circulated between the political and religious realms.

Although the dominant pattern after World War I was for Catholic intellectuals and politicians to express doubts about democracy’s future, French philosopher Jacques Maritain shifted the conversation in a new direction with his book Integral Humanism (1936), a work McGreevy described as “one of the core documents of twentieth-century political thought.”

McGreevy then summarized Maritain’s Catholic and democratic vision, one in which the flourishing of the human person requires respect for embeddedness in communities such as the family, professions, and churches.

“Catholics should not translate theological categories into politics and should welcome pluralism. Democratic governments—with universal suffrage for women as well as for men—followed from this distinction between religious and political authority.”

Though McGreevy believes that we need a new version of Maritain to embrace the challenges of our current moment, he also emphasized how this notion of democratic personalism remains instructive in the twenty-first century.

“Change of Era” in the Twenty-First Century

The democratic crisis in the United States, McGreevy observed, has sparked a scholarly outpouring, as Catholics are now strategizing how to repair fractures within both the Church and the nation.

Another one of McGreevy’s goals for this book was to position the Catholic church as a significant, modern global institution, fitting this story of democracy and Catholicism into the larger narrative of global history. He echoed Pope Francis’ words from a 2015 pastoral visit to Florence that we do not live in an era of change but a change of era.

“I think we do need a new articulation of the importance of democracy for Catholicism and vice versa,” said McGreevy. Catholic institutions “should not be hermetically sealed off from a world which, after all, Catholics helped create.”

Following the lecture, audience members posed questions on contemporary issues of religious freedom disputes in a secular society, abortion, political polarization, and roles for women within Church leadership. These discussions linked back to McGreevy’s final point on impending transformation in global society.

“Something fundamental is shifting in our political, religious, and even ecological habitats. Catholicism, as an institution, will be reinvented in the twenty-first century, much as it was in the nineteenth. We just don't know how.”

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