Francis Phillips reviews The Catholic Church
and the Counter-Faith
, by Philip Trower

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Review of: The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith by Philip Trower, Family Publications: www.familypublications.co.org 0845 0500 879. £12.50.

Francis Phillips writes : This book is the eagerly-awaited sequel to Turmoil and Truth (2003). In his earlier volume, Philip Trower provided an acute analysis of what happened within the Church both during and following the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5. Here he explores the root and the branches of the intellectual and spiritual malaise in the West today and how they have affected the Church. After surveying the unrest in the Church from within, he now looks at it from without, as it offers a supernatural alternative to an aggressive secularism.

The main thrust of his argument is that the 18th century Enlightenment has been the root cause of modern man's problems. The Enlightenment, unlike the Romantic period that followed it, was not a passing literary or artistic fashion. In dethroning God and putting man in his place, it was akin to a new world religion. Its core tenets are still with us today: a trusting belief in perpetual progress; a conviction that reason alone can solve all human problems; a tenacious adherence to the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity. As such it is the parent of liberalism, socialism and Communism; although their means differ they share the same goal: the attempt to realise a paradise in this world.

Even as I type this I can recognise the clear-thinking and courage needed to enunciate such a thesis, for so entrenched are the assumptions of the Enlightenment at every level that they seem almost the 'normal' position; to criticise them appears reactionary and to dislodge them folly. Even Catholics are not immune, often thinking that progress, rather than the struggle between good and evil, is the motor driving history. Perhaps this is why a 'sub-creation' such as JRR Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is so popular; it provides an imaginative truth for those hungering for it that is not available elsewhere.

It is also what it makes it so hard to enter the mindset of pre-Enlightenment man, who believed that was answerable to God first; who wrestled against sin; whose behaviour sought to accord with divine as well as human laws; and who looked towards a life after death that would resolve all the sorrowful enigmas of earthly existence. Even the word 'Enlightenment' seems to imply a previous intellectual darkness which has now happily been dispelled by the light of reason and common-sense. Of course, as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out in his writings, there is no conflict between faith and the right use of reason; it is when reason jettisons faith that a fatal unbalance occurs.

Trower shows that what makes the Enlightenment - and its fruits - so hard to combat from the Church's point of view is that it is a Christian heresy, indeed a "secularised Christianity", with its own "confusing blend of benign and toxic elements." He carefully unpacks the ideas of "liberty, equality, fraternity" - the intoxicating slogan of the French Revolution - in the light of Christian faith and demonstrates how easily they can be perverted when cut adrift from God.

The book's great strength is the author's ability to express complex ideas with brevity and clarity and always to examine them in the light of eternal truth. He writes, as it were, sub specie veritatis, so that the common reader - at whom the book is pitched - is truly enlightened, able to pick his way through the siren songs of all the different intellectual movements of the last 200 years and the personalities behind them. Trower is as conversant with Kierkegaard as with liberation theology, with Nietzsche as with Darwin. He is never overawed by their brilliance or academic standing, employing a dry and gentle wit that conceals a sharply critical acumen: Kierkegaard was "a kind of hot-gospeller for intellectuals"; Nietzsche was "a deranged visionary and soothsayer"; Teilhard de Chardin, whose star has now waned, was simply "a visionary". He is especially good on the weaknesses of Darwin, who "made it possible for men who do not want to believe in God to believe the impossible…namely, that things can make themselves." As with his earlier volume, the footnotes and ironic asides are both entertaining and instructive.

If my synopsis suggests over-simplification of a large and complex field, this reviewer is at fault. Trower, like the historian Paul Johnson, is an erudite general man of letters. In an age of over-specialisation it can appear an amateur position; in fact Trower is a civilised man par excellence - shaped by his faith and the "civilisation of love" (to quote Pope Paul VI's fine phrase) - and thus discerning about all other ersatz civilisations. In his self-deprecating way he describes his genre of writing as haute vulgarisation. What this means is that for those of us who have neither the leisure nor the ability to make wise judgements about the movements that follow one another on the world's stage, Trower makes an admirable guide, pointing out the pitfalls and always helping us to higher ground.

After analysing the 19th century freethinkers' response to the 18th century's "transference of power from God to Demos", he concentrates on 20th figures such as Freud, Jung, Buber, Karl Barth and Heidegger, whose negative influence from outside the Church is examined alongside one of the most influential writers within the Church: Karl Rahner. Rahner gets three chapters to himself - an indication of his baneful influence. As always the author is concerned to demonstrate how ideas that can seem innocent in themselves such as Martin Buber's emphasis on community, can, when divorced from objective truth, lead to error. Such error, taken up enthusiastically by Catholic intellectuals, gradually infiltrates the parish pew leading to the notion that the "community" at Mass takes precedence over the celebration of the liturgy.

On the question of the liturgy, Trower is balanced and fair, describing the abuses of the New Rite while recognising that traditionalists have often ignored or not known about the important liturgical scholarship of Romano Guardini, Pius Parsch, Jungmann or Louis Bouyer. "The use of the vernacular would have been an unmixed blessing if it had not been so total", he observes.

This fine book, at 300 pages a superb summary of the bad fruits of the Enlightenment, is essentially a clarion call to Catholics to educate themselves so that they can give reasons for their faith in the face of the sophisticated rationalism surrounding them. "Atheism is an act of unreason", declares Trower. I recall in my student years being struck dumb in the presence of a dandified don, propping himself up against a pub bar and explaining to me with weary courtesy that now he was an adult he did not need a "Daddy in the sky" any more. This embarrassing memory prompts me to suggest that this book be purchased by every diocesan school education committee for use in Catholic VI forms by those intending to go on to higher education. Alongside Mgr Alfred Gilbey's beautiful compendium of the faith, We Believe, it would provide an excellent preparation for the flawed thinking of the fashionable gurus young Catholics will encounter at university and elsewhere.

Philip Trower's final challenge is "Can the Church save the West from the results of the Enlightenment?" He believes that the liberal democracies under which we are currently governed are destined to decline. For too long they have been living off the patrimony of Christianity while inhabiting a post-Christian milieu. "How do you govern a nation where the majority of the citizens are at least practical atheists?" he asks. It remains a haunting question.

© 2006 Francis Phillips


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