An Era of Change?  Or, a Change of Era?: A Conversation with Provost John T. McGreevy

Monday, September 12, 2022 8:00 am EST

Between completing his tenure as the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and his appointment as the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost, John T. McGreevy ʻ86 embraced the monumental challenge of composing a global history of the Catholic Church.  Beginning with revival efforts in the early 1800s that led, for example, to the formation of the Congregation of Holy Cross, McGreevy strove to make sense of the complex web of relationships the Church shares with the state in locales around the world.

May 10, 2016; John McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts & Letters, introduces the plenary address at the Vatican Library Conference. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Released by W. W. Norton on Tuesday, September 6, 2022, McGreevy’s fourth book, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, bears witness to that effort.  In a recent conversation with Todd C. Ream, McGreevy talked about his hopes for that book, the myriad of characters whose stories he told, and his impressions of the Church moving forward.

A Change in Era? A Conversation with University of Notre Dame Provost John T. McGreevy from The Journal Gazette on Vimeo.

Echoing Pope Francis’ remarks in a speech the Holy Father gave in Florence, Italy in 2015, McGreevy asks his readers to consider whether they live in an era of change or in a change of era.  The answer to that question determines how the Church lives out its mission as well as how institutions such as Catholic colleges and universities adjust their own respective missions.

As a result, McGreevy also offers insights concerning how he views his role as Notre Dame’s chief academic officer, his goals for the office he stewards, and his goals for the faculty he leads.  In the end, McGreevy contends Notre Dame’s aspiration to be the leading Catholic research university means other research universities offer a number of commendable lessons.  Its service to the Church, however, means Notre Dame “has a special mission to be a Catholic university and connected to that global Catholic institution. That’s when Notre Dame will thrive, when it’s doing both.” 

Please click on the Event Recap section below for a partial transcript of the interview.

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.  His three previous books include American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global (Princeton University Press, 2016), Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (W.W. Norton, 2003), and Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

Todd C. Ream serves on the faculty at Taylor University, as publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as a senior fellow for the Lumen Research Institute and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Our thanks to The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, IN for graciously sharing this article and video with the ThinkND community.

On July 1, John T. McGreevy began his tenure as provost of the University of Notre Dame. On Tuesday, W.W. Norton releases McGreevy’s fourth book, “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis.”

Todd C. Ream talked with McGreevy about his service as provost, his new book and where Notre Dame fits into the present state of the Catholic Church. Below are excerpts.

Q. Please open by sharing what responsibilities come with serving as provost at Notre Dame.

A. You’re the chief academic officer, so all the colleges and schools, the library, the graduate school, the vice president of research, report to you and you’re the guide for the academic direction of the university.

Q. Tell me a little about how you came to love history and commit yourself to that work.

A. I always loved history. I would read old textbooks and encyclopedias even as a kid. Then, I was always really grateful for my parents who told me to study whatever I loved in college. I was a history major, here, at Notre Dame and really enjoyed that. I thought about high school teaching, did that for a little while, but eventually decided I wanted the more intellectual challenge of getting a Ph.D. I did that and was lucky enough to find a job, which is not easy to do, and I’ve had a wonderful career. It’s just been great to teach and write about things you’re very interested in.

Q. What prior administrative experiences did you have before assuming the responsibility as provost?

A. None of these were really anticipated, but (after) I had been at Notre Dame about three years I was department chair for six years and then I was dean for 10, and then now provost.

Q. Six weeks into your tenure, what are some of the goals you set for yourself?

A. I am fortunately coming into a great university and a great position that many others would envy, so we don’t need radical overhaul. But I am focused on a few things.

I am very focused on how we develop a strategic plan that will really advance the university in the next decade. (I am) also trying to think how we can even build stronger teams among the deans who report to me, and work together as a group and even among my colleagues here at the provost’s office.

Q. On Tuesday, W.W. Norton releases what will be your fourth book, “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis.” In what ways did your work on the three previous books prepare you to write this book?

A. I wrote the book for two reasons. The first is a lot of people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are writing about the history of Catholicism because they are interested in what is the world’s most multilingual, multicultural, global institution. The second motivation I had for the book was just as a piece of reflection for Catholics themselves.

Pope Francis has the line that “we’re not (living in) an era of change, but a change of era” and in so many ways – political, religious, other ways – we seem to be in a fundamental shift in our society. If this could serve as, kind of, a point of departure, a smart, savvy baseline of how Catholicism developed over the last couple hundred years, as we think about an institution that I anticipate will be reinvented in some ways in the 21st century, the book will serve this purpose.

Q. Why begin with the French Revolution?

A. You could legitimately begin with the Reformation, for example. You could legitimately begin even just with the 20th century, but, here’s the argument for the French Revolution.

It really almost destroyed, certainly in France, an older Catholic world of the church, often allied with the state, monarchs and nobles, of a church that was part of the elite culture in most of Europe. What that allowed room for was a new form of piety, which we see all around us at Notre Dame – Sacred Heart Basilica, the statue of Jesus and the Sacred Heart in front of the main building, the statue of Mary on the Dome, and the Grotto – all of those are reflections of a 19th century-type piety that was not the majority piety in the 18th century but became the majority piety and Catholic style in the 19th century.

Q. As you wrote your book, with which figure did you empathize the most?

A. You know, I think the figure, the most tragic figure in the book, is this woman Edith Stein, a philosopher in the 20th century. She’s struggling to find time to write, she’s in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, she’s a convert from Judaism. Her mom sobs when she tells her she’s going to convert to Catholicism; it seems a betrayal of her family.

Then, in the late ’30s, she joins a women’s religious order, but in the late ’30s she also learns that, of course, even though she converted to Catholicism and has become a nun, her Jewish heritage means she’s at risk in Germany. She flees across the border into Holland, she keeps writing, she writes about John Henry Newman and other great figures from the 19th century. But the Germans invade Holland in 1940 and after the Dutch-Catholic bishops protest German treatment, Nazi treatment of the Jews very courageously, they come and arrest Stein, who as a Jewish convert (to Catholicism) is still in their mind a Jew and she dies at Auschwitz.

It’s an unbelievably tragic story and one that I didn’t know very well before I started writing the book. One of those great stories of the 20th century.

Q. Turning to Notre Dame, it appears a handful of times in your book, but never in a systematic or sustained manner. In your estimation, where does Notre Dame fit in this global history?

A. I wanted to make it a global history and really try and touch on Catholicism around the world. But you could write a book on Notre Dame and the Catholic experience or something like that because just about everything I touch on in the book has some little Notre Dame wrinkle from the architecture of the Basilica, to the Grotto, to the focus on social justice after the Second Vatican Council. You see Notre Dame in a lot of different places and you shouldn’t be surprised by that.

Q. What role do you hope Notre Dame will play in the future in terms of global histories?

A. I think Notre Dame has a grave responsibility. That is one reason I am in the job as provost. We have to help educate our students thoroughly and prepare them to be leaders. We have to do research that helps the world develop in helpful ways, but we also have to help the global church. That’s part of what Notre Dame’s responsibility is.

Q. As you discern how to respond to the myriad demands placed upon you as the university’s chief academic officer, how do the details you offer in your history provide you with contexts for that?

A. An awareness that (the) Catholic majority (is) now people of color living in the global south. An awareness that (the Catholic Church) is genuinely a global institution. I think that can help the provost or the president or other academic leaders at Notre Dame think about their responsibility and try and figure out ways to connect Notre Dame’s narrative, not just to the most famous research institutions in American education, but we also have a special mission to be a Catholic university and connected to that global Catholic institution. That’s when Notre Dame will thrive, when it’s doing both.

Art and HistoryGlobal AffairsReligion and PhilosophyCatholic HistoryCollege of Arts & LettersDepartment of HistoryFrench RevolutionHistoryJohn McGreevyJournal GazetteProvostUniversity of Notre Dame