The eminent sociologist Peter Rossi was a world-class punster whose scholarly accomplishments fed a sometimes-whimsical view of the human condition—in which, Rossi memorably observed, “there are many ironies in the fire.”
Why the inversion? Because I believe the way the story is typically told—modernity acts, Catholicism simply reacts—is wrong. Things were much more complicated and much more interesting than that. So were the outcomes.
It is certainly true that, at the beginnings of what we think of as the “modern world,” thinkers like Voltaire declared Catholicism an “infamy” that must be “crushed”—a demolition project taken up with relish by the French Revolution, the German Kulturkampf, the Italian Risorgimento, and other quintessential expressions of political modernity. That assault provoked a sharp reaction, with Popes Gregory XVI (1832–1846) and Pius IX (1846–1878) lambasting the modern project in its various expressions.
But then came the pivot of my story: the election of Pope Leo XIII, who at the beginning of his pontificate in 1878 took a bold, grand-strategic decision—the Church would engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic intellectual tools in order to convert it. That decision set in motion what I call the “Leonine Revolution”: the search for appropriate Catholic methods to engage and convert the new world being built by science and technology, post-monarchical politics, and skepticism about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Had Leo made the right decision? If he had, how should it be implemented? Those questions were hotly contested in the Church for 80 years, not without a fair amount of ecclesiastical elbow-throwing. ….