To John McGreevyit is Surprisingly, the history of Catholicism has become a hot topic lately. But then, maybe it always has been. In his latest book, McGreevy, the provost of Charles and Jill Fischer, explores how we got here and what challenges the church currently faces. This long conversation on the subject starts at the very beginning – with an inspiration to dive into a vast and emotional topic.
What inspired you to write a world history of Catholicism?
So it’s not a book that I could have written 20 years ago, but it was the right time to do it.
When I started, I never thought I would write four books on Catholicism. I really started just out of intellectual interest. I was at Stanford when I wrote my first book about race relations in northern cities and the Catholic dimension of that, bringing religion into the story. But it was also very race-oriented. And from there it evolved into a deep interest in the history of Catholicism, which became, to my surprise, a hot topic.
There are so many historians from all walks of life here at Notre Dame and other institutions writing about the history of Catholicism in China, Chile and Poland. The book imposes itself in this sense because no one had yet tried to synthesize all this great work. There is also a tendency to give courses on global Catholicism, and I would like to see more courses like this. My hope for this book is that it’s not the end of something, but the beginning of something.
What are your goals for the book?
One of the goals is to ensure that historians and scholars understand the importance of modern Catholicism to world history. World history has become a priority, and I think that’s a good thing. It is important not to just look at the history of the nation state. Catholicism is the most multilingual and multicultural institution in the world, and I wanted to explore how we integrate it into our historical narratives.
And then there is a personal dimension. I am catholic. I worked in this Catholic institution with wonderful colleagues, and, you know, I often wonder, how did we get here? We are at an unusual time in American history, world history, and Catholic history. How did we come here? That’s what this book is about.
This is the first time you’ve written a book while teaching a course on the same subject. How did this affect your research process and the book itself?
It was very fun. We have such good students here. I have taught the Global Catholicism course three times to undergraduate students and had three research assistants who came out of that class who were wonderful. And I was thinking about course challenges – like, how do I make this accessible? How can I get students to have a sense of change over time? – just as I was thinking about the same challenges for the book, which was helpful. We also had excellent discussions in class with students who had experiences with Catholicism outside the United States.
In the book, you address many of the challenges the Church faced between the French Revolution and today. What do you think is the greatest challenge for the Church today?
It’s difficult. Even if we don’t necessarily see it, the number of Catholics is increasing all over the world – mainly in the Global South, in places like the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa and parts of East Asia and India. But in North America and Europe, there is a real membership crisis among young people. And I think we have to find new forms of devotion, new institutional forms, that will attract them. So, in Western Europe and North America, the biggest challenge might be: “What will speak to young people in the 21st century? And Catholics are not alone in this; other religious traditions also struggle with this.
The second challenge – and opportunity – is where I start the book. This is the way to ensure that this global institution continues to thrive. This is important not only for Catholics, but for all who do.The world desperately needs institutions that are not rigidly ideological, that cross national borders. At a time when we see national tensions rising in our world, as well as global crises like climate change that cannot be resolved by a nation state, Pope Francis strongly urges international cooperation, and he is right to do so. .
You included a quote near the end of Pope Francis’ book, saying that we are not so much in an era of change as in a change of era. What does this quote mean to you?
I love this quote. This is not an era of change. It’s a change of era. And it can be difficult in a changing era to know where you are, but I hope this book can serve as a reference. I said in the introduction that Catholicism will be reinvented in the 21st century. I’m sure. And we may not be here in 2100 to see this, but I absolutely believe it’s just like the 19th century.
What do you think is the next step for the Catholic Church? Where does he go from here?
You know, I’m a historian. So we’re not very good forecasters. So, I really don’t know, but I’m a strong supporter of Pope Francis, and I hope that the direction he has set can be followed. In terms of social issues, Pope Francis continues a great Catholic tradition of working beyond the nation-state. It focuses on climate change and the environment, which is a global issue – what we do here in the United States affects people in the Amazon. And it focuses on migration and refugees, which of course is a global issue as well.
What do you think is the role of Our Lady in the Catholic Church?
I think that’s a great role. Catholic universities are an incredible resource for the Church. If you didn’t have a place like this for people to reflect, research and explore the issues we face, the history and sociology of this institution, you would be very impoverished.
I’ve said before that Notre Dame is perhaps the most interesting experiment in American higher education, and perhaps the most influential of any Catholic university in the world. In that sense, the stakes are high here. We have a real responsibility to be, first and foremost, an excellent research university, but also a responsibility to be the best Catholic university possible. And that’s a good thing for Catholicism, but also a good thing for academia.
Learn more about McGreevy’s book, “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis,” in the full story by Carrie Gates.