In The Irony of Modern Catholic History, acclaimed Catholic scholar George Weigel offers a bold reinterpretation of the Church’s history since the nineteenth century, completely overturning conventional wisdom about the relationship between Catholicism and modernity.
For much of the nineteenth century, both secular and Catholic leaders assumed that the Church and the modern world were locked in a battle to the death. The triumph of secular modernity-democracy, liberalism, mass education, religious freedom-would finish the Church as a consequential player in world history, and it would lead inevitably lead to the death of religious conviction. But today the Catholic Church is far more vital, and far more consequential, than it was 150 years ago, when Pope Pius IX retreated into the Vatican, forced to surrender the Italian lands the popes had ruled for centuries. And even in today’s modern world, secularism is the exception, not the rule.
In The Irony of Modern Catholic History, Weigel reveals how the encounter with modernity, rather than killing Catholicism, ultimately made the Church more coherent and less defensive. While previous histories of Catholicism posit modernity as the sole protagonist and Catholicism as a reactive force, Weigel asserts that Catholicism was a protagonist in this drama in its own right. He introduces readers to a remarkable cast of churchmen, intellectuals, and public figures whose actions drive both Catholicism and modernity forward – from the revolutionary Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) to the still-disputed work of the Second Vatican Council to the close collaboration of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Weigel highlights two great ironies: the first is that modernity has led Catholicism to rediscover its own evangelical or missionary essence. And the second is that Catholicism, long derided as the antithesis of the modern project, has developed intellectual tools that can help rescue modernity from deconstructing itself into an incoherence today.
A richly rendered, deeply learned, and powerfully argued account of two centuries of profound change in the Church and the world, The Irony of Modern Catholic History ultimately reveals how Catholicism offers the twenty-first century truths-about the inherent dignity and value of every human being, about our moral obligations and responsibilities-essential for our survival and flourishing.