Martin Blake reviews
"TURMOIL AND TRUTH” by Philip Trower

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TURMOIL AND TRUTH” by Philip Trower, reviewed by Martin Blake, August 2003

(Ignatius Press, and Family Publications, Oxford. 2003)

This is a book rich in content. It is also the fruit of many years of careful scholarship by an author who has lived through much of the 20th Century. James Hitchcock of St Louis University says it is “the most comprehensive and penetrating account we have of the post-conciliar crisis.” Yet Trower cloaks his scholarship with consummate ease, and one can read the two hundred pages without difficulty.

There are 23 short chapters, and the paragraphs are often brief. Notes and index are excellent. The object is to answer the question posed in the very first paragraph: “What on earth is going on in the Catholic Church?”, and in particular to examine the role of the Second Vatican Council. However, the greater part of the book is about events before the council. Most of us are reasonably aware of what happened in the last third of the 20th Century; what we need to be reminded of is that the council and its aftermath did not arise out of the blue.

Trower shows how the ideas of ‘aggiornamento’ and ‘inculturation’ have gone on in the Church for 2000 years, just as the notion ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’. The purpose of the council as conceived by Bl. John XXIII was undoubtedly to make it easier for human beings to achieve holiness within the Church. But in the event it led to large numbers of its adherents falling away from it, and in most ways it is far less strong now than it was forty years ago. Trower shows how and why this happened.

One of his most striking literary devices is his use of analogy. Take an example from chapter one. He illustrates the question of how far a change of words in theology may lead to a change of meaning with the nursery rhyme ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’. Substitute ‘liquid’ for ‘water’ and you at once make it less precise; it is now possible to suggest that what they were carrying was a pail of white wine or arsenic! Again and again he is able to spice his writing with apt analogies like this.

Behind the rebellion against the teaching of the Church in Faith and Morals lies the movement known as modernism, which is “the latest in a long line of attempts to alter the religion of Christ to suit the opinions or convenience of men”. The last of the four parts into which the book is divided goes in some detail into the history of the rise and effects of modernism, which has acted like a cancer within the body of the Church. Closely linked to it is the radical biblical scholarship which cast doubt on the authenticity and truthfulness of the Bible. This too is examined in some detail. A hard core of neo-modernist theologians has had an extraordinary influence over the Western Church (and in South America) which has had the effect of confusing and unsettling many of the faithful. Some have taken neo-modernist opinions on board without realising it. And large sections of the clergy have been affected, not excluding the episcopate. “This episcopal revolt or collapse has been the second main cause of chaos and loss of faith.” (Pg 23) One of the paradoxes of the times has been the liberal approach to dissident theologians on the part of the hierarchy, hardly any of whom have been excommunicated. As Trower says in a note: “At the time of the Council the highest authorities seem to have been persuaded that had Luther not been excommunicated the ‘Reformation’ would never have happened.”

One reaction to all this has been that of the so-called ‘traditionalists’, who can see nothing but harm deriving from the Council, which in their opinion should never have taken place. Happily Trower sees the Council in a more positive light, and having given a brilliant insight into the causes of rebellion in the Church, and the many theologians responsible, shows how that Council and its aftermath can be seen as the will of God for the world. He also points out the limits of an ecumenical council’s authority, drawing examples from history. Thus in Vatican II reform and rebellion were bewilderingly tangled. “What most of the faithful throughout the West have been receiving over the last twenty-five years as the conciliar teaching, when not modernism, is only too often, I believe, nothing but the new theology before it was purified by the conciliar process.” (Pg 31)

Here are a few quotations to give a taste of Trower’s incisive style. Examining ‘The Church Learned’ : “God made Greek philosophers, or anyone resembling them, subordinate to Galilean fishermen.” And again: “How many Catholic scholars today really believe that Faith is a gift they can lose, or a virtue they can sin against?” Speaking of the social influence of TV : “How many of St Paul’s converts would have survived if they had been nightly exposed to the more sophisticated goings-on (cultural, social, theatrical) of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria?” And of certain types of lay persons: “Discontented cultured Catholics were like a field newly ploughed and raked waiting for the revolutionary theologians to sow their seed.”

In his summing-up chapter Trower mentions that the most hopeful signs of genuine renewal in the Western world are to be seen in the so-called ‘new ecclesial movements’, which the Pope has done much to encourage. The chief hurdles confronting the Church are the growing pressure for ordaining women and for making homosexual practice morally allowable. It is significant that these are the Scylla and Charybdis which are currently wrecking the Anglican Communion.

Trower finishes by examining the long-term purpose of Vatican II. He reckons that because most of the world is busy adopting Western industrial development and middle class outlooks every religion, Islam included, is soon going to face a modernist crisis. And because a high percentage of the 21st Century’s men and women of non-European origin are going to be children by adoption of the European Enlightenment, they will inevitably take on board a whole raft of Christian ideas and attitudes, as well as plenty of secularist incomprehension of Christianity. The guidelines supplied by Vatican II are essential for these potential Catholics. He sees the flood of heterodox theologians and ideas as a test for members of the Church. “The grace that we most need to pray for is the gift of discernment.” Finally Trower foresees modernism emerging as an independent ‘fourth denomination’ (alongside Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant), made up of liberal Protestants, ex-Catholics, and anyone else with a taste for ‘Christianity without substance’, centring on the World Council of Churches.

Martin Blake


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