A Short and Readable Survey of 20th-Century Popes

BOOK PICK: ‘Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity’

Author Russell Shaw reflects on how the eight popes of the 20th century confronted modern thought, primarily from its threatening implications for the human person.
Author Russell Shaw reflects on how the eight popes of the 20th century confronted modern thought, primarily from its threatening implications for the human person. (photo: Cropped book cover / Ignatius Press)

EIGHT POPES AND THE CRISIS OF MODERNITY

By Russell Shaw 

Ignatius Press, 2020

$15.95, 150 pages 

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531 


The worldviews of Catholics and of the “modern” (primarily, but not exclusively Western) world have been out of sync for a few centuries. That chasm and its consequences grew wider in the 20th century, during which — as Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly observed — the problem of the human person came to the fore. 

The Church has tried to grapple with that dissonance, first by fighting then trying to talk with modernity. Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on “The Church in the Modern World” exemplifies the latter approach.

Russell Shaw, former media director for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference, reflects on how the eight popes of the 20th century confronted modern thought, primarily from its threatening implications for the human person.

Pius X fought modernity’s efforts to deny man the ability to know truth and to sever his reason from his faith. Serving as Pope during World War I, Benedict XV struggled with the human implications of a “war to end all wars” (and it did, at least for the 21 years before World War II). Pius XI warned against the anti-human agendas of two rising totalitarianisms — fascism and communism — as well as attacks on the nature of marriage and the family (which in our own day threaten to feed a third totalitarianism). Pius XII led the Church through the horrors of World War II that arrogated a right to make a “final solution” of other humans. John XXIII wanted to heal as far as he could the rift between man’s Catholic world on Sunday and his world in which he lived the other six days, calling a Council to advance that task. Paul VI contended with the challenges that dialogue unleashed, not least of which was the continuity of the Church’s own defense of human dignity. John Paul I’s monthlong pontificate smiled on the enterprise, while John Paul II knew (as he wrote before his papal election) that “we are in a lively struggle for the dignity of man” and engaged it with gusto.

A little bit of everything, Shaw admits, his book “is not a work of history or theology or even biography, although it contains some elements of all three. It provides readers with an introduction to the eight men who occupied the highest office of the Catholic Church in troubled times and to the principal issues and problems they faced.” His general overview presents each Pope’s biography, focusing on the main highlights of his pontificate and ending with a substantial excerpt from a papal document illustrating that pope’s personalistic concern. If you want a short and readable survey of 20th-century popes, you have it here. An addition chapter summarizes the history and documents of Vatican II.

As an introductory synopsis, the book works. But it won’t satisfy the reader who wants more. Take Benedict XV. He worked for “the survival of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the last Catholic power among the Great Powers of Europe.” He vainly appealed for peace and was excluded from the peace conference. Well, the Allies were not going to invite an advocate of the vanquished status quo to Versailles, especially when that pope still didn’t recognize one of the victors (Italy). 

Shaw really doesn’t spell modernity out, although he claims that “somewhere amid the chaos of the twentieth century the modern age ended.” Defining “modernity” is important, because the problems that came home to roost in the 20th century go back arguably not just to “Darwin, Marx and Freud” (three people Shaw names) but also to William of Ockham, Descartes and Kant. Shaw also tells readers they are in postmodernity — a term he admits is “nondescript” — but isn’t clear what the real break between the two is. On these core questions causing contemporary civilizational distress, Shaw tickles readers’ curiosity — but others will have to do the deep dives. 

 

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

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