Francis Phillips reviews Turmoil and Truth; The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church, by Philip Trower

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Review of: Turmoil and Truth; The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church, by Philip Trower, Ignatius Press/Family Publications: 0845 0500 879. £10.95.

This is a book that thoughtful, faithful Catholics have been awaiting a long time. That the Church is undergoing a prolonged period of turmoil and crisis which seems unprecedented in her long and chequered history, is obvious. Those who grew to adulthood before the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and who have watched the subsequent developments in the Church have felt anguish and dismay at the widespread disobedience to the magisterium, so-called ‘loyal dissent’ on the part of many of the intelligentsia, endless liturgical experimentation, scandals and sheer ignorance of the Faith that seem to bedevil the Church today.

In just 200 pages Philip Trower gives a lucid and readable account of how this crisis came about, deftly weaving all the different strands together to give an educated layperson a more balanced, comprehensive picture than is usually depicted by the different groups within the Church. At one extreme are the modernists, who want to change the whole nature of the Church; at the other are the traditionalists, who want nothing ever changed; in between are the vast numbers of the faithful, both hierarchy and lay, embracing all the shades of grey between these antitheses. The author rightly makes it clear that the ‘rebellion of the left’ has been far more devastating in its consequences than rebellion from the Right - Lefebvrism.

At the centre is Vatican II itself, enthusiastically welcomed by some for the wrong reasons, deplored by others. Nothing was wrong with the Church before the Council, protest one group; everything was wrong with it, insist another. With charity, wit and much erudition, the author seeks out the roots of this malaise and gives a hopeful, if nuanced, perspective. For those of us (many, I imagine) who are pardonably confused by the sheer flood of words and debate on this topic, the author gives careful definitions as he goes along: the distinction between ‘reform’ and ‘aggiornamento’; the difference between ‘deduction’ and ‘induction’; why ‘reform’ that is good and necessary can develop into gradual ‘rebellion’ against truth. He analyses the state of the Church before the Council with great acuity, pointing out the temptations of the hierarchy (e.g. on bishops: ‘the apostle vanishes inside the executive’) and the failings besetting lay people during the same period (e.g. equating ‘decent behaviour and pleasant manners with supernatural goodness’). The chapters on ‘The Flock’ are particularly insightful as well as humorous and should put paid to the fallacious notion that Church was in a healthy state in the decades immediately preceding the Council.

We are introduced to the powerful theological personalities influencing the Council in their writings, in particular Father Yves Congar OP who, with fellow Dominicans, Fathers Chenu and Feret, was responsible for altering the definition of the Church from ‘the Mystical Body of Christ’ to ‘the People of God’. Others include the late Father Bernard Haering, a Redemptorist and peritus at the Council who, though from an Order renowned for its moral rigour, spent much time after the Council travelling the world explaining to Catholics ‘on which points they could qualify their adherence to the Church’s teaching about the use of their procreative powers’. Describing Pope Paul VI’s struggles with progressive theologians and bishops the author, sympathetic to the Pope but conscious of his weaknesses, suggests it was as if the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had been ‘called to do battle with Lenin’. Tribute is rightly paid to our present Holy Father who, as Bishop of Krakow at the time of the Council and alone among his fellow bishops ‘made such conscientious efforts to understand what God wanted from the Council and to apply it’.

The footnotes are full of dry humour as well as illuminating the text and they considerably deepen our understanding of the battlefield e.g. note 1, page 99, says ‘Around the time of the Council, the forces of dissent launched the term ‘the Constantinian Church’. The idea behind it was that with Constantine the Church entered into a permanent alliance with the State – any and every state apparently – in order to keep the laity in a condition of childlike subjection politically and religiously, a situation that was supposed to have lasted without interruption from 313 A.D. to 1958…’ Note 4, also on page 99, discussing the vexed question of the role of the laity, is succinct: ‘Modernist theology regards the roles of clergy and laity as more or less interchangeable. The conciliar teaching is that they are complementary: the clergy sanctify the laity, and the laity in their turn go out and endeavour to sanctify society or the world. This, fundamentally, is how the laity are to be involved in the Church’s mission.’

It is a pity that Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister’s wife, did not reflect on this more carefully, before her recent Tyburn Lecture, in which she happily ‘clericalised the laity’ with her enthusiastic statement, ‘Indeed, there are often more lay people on the sanctuary than there are clergy…’ and her wish for ‘greater scope for active female participation in the Curia.’ That it is far more necessary for lay people to endeavour to sanctify society than to crowd out priests in the sanctuary became painfully evident to me recently. Taking my daughter to the local park, we encountered a chatty 7-year-old boy on the swings. Unprompted, he informed me that ‘I don’t have a Dad. I have two Mums. They’re lesbians. And I have 200 pounds of computer games in my bedroom.’

In his conclusion, the author gives a thought-provoking response to the question: what was the purpose of Vatican II? He sees it as having a double purpose: the main and long-term one was to lay down guidelines for renewal which would smooth the path ‘for the newcomers of all nations and races who are going to encounter the Church in the first centuries of the third millennium’. Because of the cultural and scientific domination of the West these newcomers will not be like people encountering Christianity for the first time; in the author’s arresting phrase ‘they are going to be quasi ex-Christians without even knowing it’. The short-term purpose was God’s way of ‘testing’ us: what do we want and what will we choose: God’s Church, in which conciliar teaching is mediated through the magisterium and the Vicar of Christ, or a modernist, protestantised Church?

The author gives a moving description of ‘eternal man’ – ‘who lives under the skin of every man and woman who has ever lived…’ and whose voice we hear ‘whenever the Psalms are sung or recited…’ – a salutary reminder to us that our chief task is to know, love and serve God, and not the passing fashions of the spirit of the age.

If I have a complaint about this important and absorbing book, it is that although Mr Trower wears his considerable learning lightly, almost too much ground is covered in a short compass, particularly the chapter on the history of Modernism (whose founding father is seen as Schleiermacher). However, the author promises a sequel shortly, dealing in greater depth with some of the questions he raises here about biblical scholarship, modern philosophy and personal experience, and their relation to truth. All those who love the Church and who want to be more fully informed about her and her mission in today’s world, will look forward to it. I can only recommend this book by saying that having reached the end I am about to re-read it.

© 2004 Francis Phillips


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