Paul Christopher Manuel, Lawrence C. Reardon, Clyde Wilcox, editors, The Catholic Church and the Nation-State: Comparative Perspectives, Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2006.

Paul Christopher Manuel, Lawrence C. Reardon, Clyde Wilcox, editors, The Catholic Church and the Nation-State: Comparative Perspectives, Georgetown University Press, Washington,  DC, 2006. ISBN 1 58901 114 7 (hardback), pp. vii + 283.


Reviewed by: Margaret M. McGuinness, La Salle University, January 2010

This collection of fourteen essays explains and interprets ‘how the Vatican and…national

Churches influence politics and public policy debates in a variety of countries across the globe’ (2). In order to accomplish this task, the Catholic Church’s role in political life is examined in eleven countries on five continents—six if one considers East Timor part of Oceania—with a twelfth essay devoted to the Latin European Church. Each essay is grouped according to a specific challenge faced by the Church in the country under discussion: secularization (Catholic Europe, the United States and Chile), opposition (Poland, Ireland and Northern Ireland and East Timor), justice (Brazil, Rwanda and Angola) and accommodation (India, China and Congo), allowing readers to make comparisons that transcend geography, political systems, and culture. In addition to chapters focusing on specific nations, the volume includes two essays on the ‘theological and political challenges faced by the Vatican’ (15) by Kenneth Himes, O.F.M. (‘Vatican II and Contemporary Politics’) and Lisa L. Ferrari (‘The Vatican as a Transnational Actor’).

It is sometimes tempting, and perhaps even advisable, to read collections of essays selectively, paying little attention to those outside one’s area of interest. Although readers could choose to treat this collection in such a way—and would gain a good understanding of the place of the Catholic Church in a particular nation by doing so—one would benefit from reading the entire volume cover to cover for two reasons. First, the reader will gain deeper insight into the story being recounted if it is understood within the context of the section in which it is placed. Part Three, ‘The Challenge of Opposition’, for example, demonstrates ways in which the Catholic Church has acted ‘as an indigenous institutional and cultural expression against an outside occupying force’, (101) including foreign governments, hostile religious forces (Islam, Protestantism) or cultural forces such as modernism or secularization. Timothy Byrnes’ essay on Poland examines ways in which the Church in that country facilitated the revolution of the 1980s; participated in debates concerning the relationship between church and state after the demise of communism; and voiced its opinions on the entrance of Poland into the European Union. The institutional Church in East Timor faced a very different situation from that of its Polish counterpart.  For many years, the Catholic Church in this small Asian nation was an ally of Portuguese colonial officials but when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, an attempt was made to place the Catholic Church under the authority of the state. As a result of Indonesia’s actions against both the Church and the people of East Timor, the two groups discovered a common interest in rebuffing Indonesian control. The Church in Ireland and Northern Ireland offers a third example of the ‘Challenge of Opposition’. William Crotty ably demonstrates that the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland is in a different position than its southern sister, playing a role—along with Protestant churches—in supporting the peace process and condemning violence (127).

Part Five, ‘The Challenge of Accommodation’, provides examples of relationships between church and state with which many westerners are somewhat unfamiliar. In India, despite its attempts to provide educational and social services to those in need, Catholicism is seen by many as a religion actively involved in luring people away from Hinduism.  The situation in China is more complicated. There are really two Catholic Churches co-existing in that country: one under the authority of the Vatican, and one answering to the government. Relationships between Rome and Beijing have alternated between cool and warm ­­­during the past six decades

depending on government policies and the Vatican’s reaction to them. Lawrence C. Reardon concludes that relations today can best be described as tense due to Rome’s ‘divisive pastoral strategy of engaging the open Church and aggressively promoting the underground Church’ (240). The final essay in the section—and the book—by Yvon C. Elenga, S.J., focuses on ways in which the Catholic Church has contributed to the creation of a more just society in the Republic of the Congo.

A second reason for reading the book in its entirety is that the authors frequently refer to other essays within the volume. In his chapter on the Church in China, for instance, Reardon mentions several essays, including Himes’ discussion on Vatican II and contemporary politics. Although each essay could stand alone, it is helpful when authors refer the reader to other chapters that support or contradict a particular part of his or her thesis.

In the Foreword, Thomas Massaro, S.J., and James Morone write, ‘We are distinctly aware of the many ways in which this volume invites controversy'(xi). Some readers, Massaro and Morone explain, may find aspects of the discussions ‘delicate,’ or even ‘uncomfortable’ (xi). Indeed, selected readers may disagree with the ways in which some authors present their views of controversial events within the history of the institutional Catholic Church. This reviewer, however, was not offended by any of the fourteen essays. Although the Church is not always portrayed in the most positive way, the authors do not set out to denigrate either the Catholic Church or its governing arm in the Vatican. In their essay, ‘The Latin European Church: ‘Une Messe Est Possible’, for instance, Paul Christopher Manuel and Margaret MacLeish Mott explain the three models of church-state relations found in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Each model—authoritarian, secular anticlerical and strategic actor—has been used during different historical periods in each of the four countries. Although the authors acknowledge the argument that Latin Europe has been de-Christianized, they are optimistic about the future of the Catholic Church in these countries, arguing it can be a strategic actor in political and moral debates.

There is no one conclusive appropriate model advocated by the authors and editors; as readers will quickly discover, there are many ways—all of them valid—for the Church to enter into moral debate and advocate for the poor and dispossessed. Overall, The Catholic Church and the Nation-State is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the myriad ways in which the Vatican interacts with governments and political parties throughout the world.