Theorizing Modernities article

Introduction to Symposium on A Twentieth-Century Crusade

In A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe, Giuliana Chamedes presents the heretofore understudied history of Catholic international diplomacy in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Training her attention especially on the periods around the two world wars, Chamedes shows how the Vatican sought to shape the political and social life of Europe by signing concordats—“bilateral treat[ies] that would bind the Church and nation-state together under international law” (3)—with various European nations. These concordats lent legitimacy to both the status of the Vatican as the spiritual and political center of Europe and to the burgeoning nation states that came into being following the first world war and were eager for international recognition. The Vatican’s goal through the signing of these concordats was indeed to “remake Christian Europe” into something that mirrored a medieval past where the Vatican stood at the center of Europe. For these concordats often stipulated that the state would implement laws that reflected Catholic contemporary Catholic doctrine (concerning marriage and divorce, for example) and maintain Catholic educational systems.

During this time period, the Vatican perceived that communism was the primary threat to implementing this goal. During World War I, while the Vatican also expressed anxiety around the rise of political and economic liberalism, as well as socialism, communism was its primary concern. As Chamedes also demonstrates, quite often this anti-communism was imbued with older forms of antisemitism that had been given new life in the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism” during this time period. In its bid to combat the rise of communism, Chamedes shows, the Vatican played an active role in shaping the nation-state, defining the boundaries between public and private religion, and demarcating the meanings of the religious and secular.

As the book demonstrates in careful detail, the Vatican’s obsession with communism was in fact what led it to sometimes aid, and at other times remain silent on, the rise of fascism in the lead up to World War II. Indeed, while there were internal debates surrounding how the Vatican should respond to Mussolini and Hitler’s rise, more often than not in its public facing documents the Vatican ignored the atrocities being committed by these leaders, and instead returned to communism as the primary evil that the Church should focus on eliminating. The Vatican’s complicity in the rise of these brutal regimes, and the Holocaust, remains a ghost that haunts the Church to this day.

As Chamedes notes, even if the center of institutional power of the Church did not address the rise of fascism, lay Catholics and theologians did at times speak out, condemning fascism and seeking points of dialogue with communists and socialists. There was indeed during these times “A War for the Soul of Catholicism” as the title of chapter 7 of the book reflects. It is the tension between how one might have wanted the Church to act, and how it did in fact act, that drives two of the responses to this symposium.

Scott Appleby, drawing on Atalia Omer’s concept of the critical caretaker, reflects on how the theologian or scholar of Catholicism might confront and indeed offer alternatives to the authoritarian vision of Catholicism that animated the views of the Vatican during the early- and mid-twentieth century. In his essay, Toussaint Kafahire, himself a priest and theologian, also grapples with these questions and confronts the fact that the Vatican’s political maneuvering led it to make alliances with fascist governments that betrayed what he sees as the true mission of the Church.

Approaching Chamedes’s book as a fellow historian, Paul Hanebrink reflects on the dynamic relationship between political and religious rhetoric. More specifically he contends that it is important to not only attend to the way political rhetoric is often influenced by religious convictions, but also the reverse, that is, how political convictions influence the way one understands religion. He also suggests that even though the official days of concordat diplomacy are now past, the idea of “remaking Christian Europe” survives to this day in figures like Viktor Orbán, the current Prime Minister of Hungary. Cara Burnidge likewise approaches the book as an historian, contending that Chamedes’s book can be of aid to religious studies scholars seeking to understand how religious institutions have changed in the modern world in light of novel political and social situations. Bringing her own research on Woodrow Wilson into conversation with Chamedes, she also suggests that different notions of “Christianizing” were contending with one another at this time.

Finally, in her response, Chamedes reflects on the notion of the critical caretaker, as well as Burnidge’s concern with competing notions of Christianity and Hanebrink’s attention to the dynamic ways that political and religious language have influenced one another.

In his first blog post for the Contending Modernities project, Scott Appleby wrote, “Neither Catholics, Muslims, or Seculars have been passive recipients of the developments and processes associated with modernity. Rather, each has shaped, resisted, accommodated and adapted to the growing explanatory powers of science; the encompassing reach of the modern nation-state; the differentiation between religion and state, public and private realms; the dynamics of global markets and mass media communication; and other constituent elements of ‘the modern world.’” By uncovering key dynamics of how powerful representatives of the Catholic tradition “shaped, resisted, and accommodated” the modern nation state, and indeed continues to do so, Chamedes’s work, and this symposium, continue the work of unpacking the forces of secularism, religion, and modernity.

Joshua Lupo
Joshua Lupo is the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Soundings, Reading Religion, Sophia, and Religious Studies Review. His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.

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