Conventional histories portray a stupid and stubborn Catholic Church standing athwart history yelling 'Stop' — to all of it. This is a partial truth. Weigel presents the story as Catholicism’s journey from reaction to a stance that was 'more coherent, less defensive, and more influential in shaping the course of world affairs.' As with all Weigel’s writing, this story is well told — richly illustrated with lively anecdotes, cogent summaries of complex ideas, and revealing quotations.
Mr. Weigel’s goal is to present a third way between modernists and anti-modernists, but the account in the first half of the book, covering the century leading up to Vatican II, feels one-sided. Innovators within the church are painted as heroes, traditionalists as stubborn obstacles ... In the 20th century, the church’s attitude toward modernity certainly became less hostile. More than that, according to Mr. Weigel, 'the Catholic Church helped the modern project to a deeper self-understanding.' This overstates the balance of power between the two sides. It is true that liberal democracy and human rights took central concepts from the Christian tradition, but does that make Christianity 'a creative and independent actor in this process,' as Mr. Weigel claims? Is a house in creative collaboration with its burglars? In truth, the church has been walloped by modernity ... Faced with this decline, Mr. Weigel remains wedded to the balance struck by John Paul II, about whom he has written several books. Mr. Weigel’s interpretation of the world, and the church’s proper place within it, was shaped by the Cold War and the unique role John Paul II played. But the conditions that created that world seem to be passing away.
In a work that will appeal to anyone with a genuine interest in church history, the author reintroduces readers to the embattled, and sometimes embittered, pre–Vatican II popes before exploring the more familiar church of today ... Weigel is at once highly intellectual and thoroughly accessible as a writer as well as balanced and opinionated. A must-read book for Catholics and devotees of religious history.