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Sean Brennan

The KGB and the Vatican: Secrets of the Mitrokhin Files

One of the greatest ironies of the history of Soviet rule is that, for an officially atheistic state, those in the political police and in the Politburo devoted an enormous amount of time and attention to the question of religion. The Soviet government’s policies toward religious institutions in the USSR, and toward religious institutions in the non-Communist world, reflected this, especially when it came to the Vatican and Catholic Churches, both the Latin and Byzantine Rite, in Soviet territory. 

Sean Brennan’s book The KGB and the Vatican: Secrets of the Mitrokhin Files (CUA Press, 2022) consists of the transcripts of KGB records concerning the policies of the Soviet secret police towards the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the Communist world, transcripts provided by KGB archivist and defector Vasili Mitrokhin, from the Second Vatican Council to the election of John Paul II. Among the topics covered include how the Soviet regime viewed the efforts of John XXIII and Paul VI of reaching out to eastern side of the Iron Curtain, the experience of the Roman Catholic Church in Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and the underground Greek Catholic Church in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the religious underground in the key cities of Leningrad and Moscow, and finally the election of John Paul II and its effect on the tumultuous events in Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This valuable primary source collection also contains a historical introduction written by the translator, Sean Brennan, a professor of History at the University of Scranton.

Host: Allison Isidore

Jeroen Dewulf

Afro-Atlantic Catholics: America’s First Black Christians

Black Christianity in America has long been studied as a blend of indigenous African and Protestant elements. Jeroen Dewulf redirects the conversation by focusing on the enduring legacy of seventeenth-century Afro-Atlantic Catholics in the broader history of African American Christianity. With homelands in parts of Africa with historically strong Portuguese influence, such as the Cape Verde Islands, São Tomé, and Kongo, these Africans embraced variants of early modern Portuguese Catholicism that they would take with them to the Americas as part of the forced migration that was the transatlantic slave trade. Their impact upon the development of Black religious, social, and political activity in North America would be felt from the southern states as far north as what would become New York.

Dewulf’s analysis focuses on the historical documentation of Afro-Atlantic Catholic rituals, devotions, and social structures. Of particular importance are brotherhood practices, which were critical in the dissemination of Afro-Atlantic Catholic culture among Black communities, a culture that was pre-Tridentine in nature and wary of external influences. These fraternal Black mutual-aid and burial society structures were critically important to the development and resilience of Black Christianity in America through periods of changing social conditions. Afro-Atlantic Catholics: America’s First Black Christians (U Notre Dame Press, 2022) shows how a sizable minority of enslaved Africans actively transformed the American Christian landscape and would lay a distinctly Afro-Catholic foundation for African American religious traditions today. This book will appeal to scholars in the history of Christianity, African American and African diaspora studies, and Iberian studies.

Host: Allison Isidore

Jonathon L. Earle and J. J. Carney

Contesting Catholics: Benedicto Kiwanuka and the Birth of Postcolonial Uganda

Assassinated by Idi Amin and a democratic ally of J.F. Kennedy during the Cold War, Benedicto Kiwanuka was Uganda’s most controversial and disruptive politician, and his legacy is still divisive. On the eve of independence, he led the Democratic Party (DP), a national movement of predominantly Catholic activists, to end political inequalities and religious discrimination. Along the way, he became Uganda’s first prime minister and first Ugandan chief justice. Earle and Carney show how Kiwanuka and Catholic activists struggled to create an inclusive vision of the state, a vision that resulted in relentless intimidation and extra-judicial killings. Focusing closely on the competing Catholic projects that circulated throughout Uganda, Contesting Catholics: Benedicto Kiwanuka and the Birth of Postcolonial Uganda (Boydell & Brewer, 2021) offers new ways of thinking about the history of democratic thought, while pushing the study of Catholicism in Africa outside of the church and beyond the gaze of missionaries. Drawing on never before seen sources from Kiwanuka’s personal papers, the authors upend many of the assumptions that have framed Uganda’s political and religious history for over sixty years, as well as repositioning Uganda’s politics within the global arena.

Philippe Denis

The Genocide Against the Tutsi, and the Rwandan Churches: Between Grief and Denial

Why did some sectors of the Rwandan churches adopt an ambiguous attitude towards the genocide against the Tutsi which claimed the lives of around 800,000 people in three months between April and July 1994? What prevented the churches’ acceptance that they may have had some responsibility? And how should we account for the efforts made by other sectors of the churches to remember and commemorate the genocide and rebuild pastoral programmes? 

Drawing on interviews with genocide survivors, Rwandans in exile, missionaries and government officials, as well as Church archives and other sources, this book is the first academic study on Christianity and the genocide against the Tutsi to explore these contentious questions in depth, and reveals more internal diversity within the Christian churches than is often assumed. While some Christians, Protestant as well as Catholic, took risks to shelter Tutsi people, others uncritically embraced the interim government’s view that the Tutsi were enemies of the people and some, even priests and pastors, assisted the killers. The church leaders only condemned the war: they never actually denounced the genocide against the Tutsi. 

In The Genocide Against the Tutsi, and the Rwandan Churches: Between Grief and Denial (James Currey, 2022), Denis examines in detail the responses of two churches, the Catholic Church, the biggest and the most complex, and the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda, which made an unconditional confession of guilt in December 1996. A case study is devoted to the Catholic parish La Crête Congo-Nil in western Rwanda, led at the time by the French priest Gabriel Maindron, a man whom genocide survivors accuse of having failed publicly to oppose the genocide and of having close links with the authorities and some of the perpetrators. By 1997, the defensive attitude adopted by many Catholics had started to change. The Extraordinary Synod on Ethnocentricity in 1999-2000 was a milestone. Yet, especially in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, tension and suspicion persist.

Host: Allison Isidore

Shannen Dee Williams

Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle

In Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle (Duke UP, 2022), Shannen Dee Williams provides the first full history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States, hailing them as the forgotten prophets of Catholicism and democracy. Drawing on oral histories and previously sealed Church records, Williams demonstrates how master narratives of women’s religious life and Catholic commitments to racial and gender justice fundamentally change when the lives and experiences of African American nuns are taken seriously. For Black Catholic women and girls, embracing the celibate religious state constituted a radical act of resistance to white supremacy and the sexual terrorism built into chattel slavery and segregation. Williams shows how Black sisters—such as Sister Mary Antona Ebo, who was the only Black member of the inaugural delegation of Catholic sisters to travel to Selma, Alabama, and join the Black voting rights marches of 1965—were pioneering religious leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, desegregation foot soldiers, Black Power activists, and womanist theologians. In the process, Williams calls attention to Catholic women’s religious life as a stronghold of white supremacy and racial segregation—and thus an important battleground in the long African American freedom struggle. 

Host: Allison Isidore


Shannen Dee Williams Teaser

Paul T. Murray

Seeing Jesus in the Eyes of the Oppressed: Franciscans Working for Peace and Justice

The United States enjoyed unprecedented prosperity following World War II as the post-war economy exploded. While Americans pondered affluence, U.S. Franciscans focused on the forgotten members of U.S. society, those who had been left out or left behind. Seeing Jesus in the Eyes of the Oppressed tells the story of eight Franciscans and their communities who struggled to create a more just and equitable society. 

Through eight mini-biographies, Paul T. Murray, professor emeritus at Siena College, explores Franciscan efforts to establish racial and economic justice and to promote peace and nonviolence: Father Nathaniel Machesky led the battle for civil rights in Greenwood, MS; Sister Antona Ebo was one of two African American Sisters at the Selma march; Brother Booker Ashe worked for interracial justice and Black pride in Milwaukee; Sister Thea Bowman celebrated Black gifts to the U.S. Church and worked toward an expression of the faith that was “authentically Black and truly Catholic;” Father Alan McCoy pushed his community and the Church in the United States to greater engagement with Social Justice; Sister Pat Drydyk worked with Cesar Chavez for justice for the farmworkers; Father Joseph Nangle brought solidarity with Latin America to the fore in the U.S. Church, and Father Louis Vitale used civil disobedience to oppose nuclear proliferation while serving the poor and homeless. In all, the book emphasizes the passion and struggle of Franciscans in the United States to create a more just world within society and within the Church.

Hosted by: Allison Isidore


Paul T. Murray Teaser

Katherine Dugan

Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics Is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool

Millennials in the U.S. have been characterized as uninterested in religion, as defectors from religious institutions, and as agnostic about the role of religious identity in their culture. Amid the rise of so-called “nones,” though, there has also been a countervailing trend: an increase in religious piety among some millennial Catholics. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which began evangelizing college students on American university campuses in 1998, hires recent college graduates to evangelize college students and promote an attractive and culturally savvy Catholicism. These millennial Catholics have personal relationships with Jesus, attend Mass daily, and know and defend papal teachings, while also being immersed in U.S. popular culture. With their skinny jeans, devotional tattoos, and large-framed glasses, FOCUS missionaries embody a hip, attractive style of Catholicism. They promote a faith that interweaves distinctly Catholic identity with outreach methods of twentieth-century evangelical Protestants and the anxieties of middle-class emerging adulthood. Though this new generation of missionaries lives according to strict gender essentialism prescribed by papal teachings-including the notions that men lead while women follow and that biology dictates gender roles-they also support stay-at-home fatherhood and women earning MBAs. 

Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics Is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool (Oxford UP, 2019) examines how these young people navigate their Catholic and American identities in the twenty-first century. Illuminating the ways missionaries are reshaping American Catholic identity, Katherine Dugan explores the contemporary U.S. religious landscape from the perspective of millennials who proudly proclaim “I am Catholic”-and devote years of their lives to convincing others to do the same.

Host: Allison Isidore


Michael Graziano

Errand Into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion and the History of the CIA

Michael Graziano’s intriguing book fuses two landmark titles in American history: Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness (1956), about the religious worldview of the early Massachusetts colonists, and David Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors (1980), about the dangers and delusions inherent to the Central Intelligence Agency. Fittingly, Errand Into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion and the History of the CIA (U Chicago Press, 2021) investigates the dangers and delusions that ensued from the religious worldview of the early molders of the Central Intelligence Agency. Graziano argues that the religious approach to intelligence by key OSS and CIA figures like “Wild” Bill Donovan and Edward Lansdale was an essential, and overlooked, factor in establishing the agency’s concerns, methods, and understandings of the world. In a practical sense, this was because the Roman Catholic Church already had global networks of people and safe places that American agents could use to their advantage. But more tellingly, Graziano shows, American intelligence officers were overly inclined to view powerful religions and religious figures through the frameworks of Catholicism. As Graziano makes clear, these misconceptions often led to tragedy and disaster on an international scale. By braiding the development of the modern intelligence agency with the story of postwar American religion, Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors delivers a provocative new look at a secret driver of one of the major engines of American power.

Host: Allison Isidore