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5 Questions With James Chappel about How the Catholic Church became Modern in the 1930s

I recently corresponded with historian James Chappel about his new book, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard, 2017). Chappel is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. For more information on his research and teaching visit his website

You define modern as accepting “the split between the public sphere of politics and the private sphere of religion.” You argue that Catholics accepted this spilt between public and private in the 1930s. How did you come to see what it means to be “modern” in this split of public and private?

For years, I avoided the term “modern” altogether. It seemed too normative and value-laden to bear much interpretive weight. The concept has a gravitational pull to it, though, and over the years I circled back to it. It helped me to solve a particular problem that arose in the course of my research. As I immersed myself in the archive of mid-century Catholicism, it became increasingly…

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