FR. CHARLES DAVIS reviews "Objections to Roman Catholicism"
I'1 ANY Catholics will be upset by this book. Some are as yet unprepared for its questioning and outspokenness. They will be distressed by what seems to them the disloyalty of its writers to the Church and the faith.
Others, chiefly bishops and priests, will be worried about the disturbing effect it may have on the ordinary faithful. These may not read it for themselves, but they will hear much about it.
It is likely in fact that the book will receive wide publicity. All the more reason for hoping that the unbalanced reaction which greeted the Bishop of Woolwich's Honest to God will be avoided here. Nothing is ever gained when indignant condemnation and partisan praise shrilly clash.
However strange their attitude may seem to some, the seven contributors and their editor are sincere Catholics endeavouring to strengthen the faith and build up the Church in the spirit of the present movement of renewal.
The commitment and constructive intent, stated on behalf of all in the Introduction, are evident to any sympathetic reader. In that respect it is a much better book than its Anglican counterpart, Objections to Christian Belief, which began this series.
I intend no slur on the personal commitment of the Anglican writers when I say that their book was apparently so cavalierly destructive and unconcernedly critical that taken by itself it left the reader wondering about the value of any Christian belief.
There can be no doubt about where the present writers stand, An impertinence to say that in any other context, but it needs to he said here. People whose faith raises no questions often find it hard to allow the firm, sincere belief of those who experience and do not repress objections and difficulties but try honestly and confidently to face them Whatever our criticism of the result, we should admit the validity of the enterprise and the sincerity of the authors, To dismiss the book as the work of a bunch of disloyal Catholics would be a blatant injustice.
In judging the book, it is necessary to take the contributions one by one. because they vary considerably in • value, want to begin with Mrs. Rosemary Naughton's essay on "Freedom and the Individual". This is in my opinion the finest in the book.
A great pity. I feel. that it was not placed as the opening essay after the Introduction. It would have served so much better than Mrs. Goffin's artillery barrage-to which I shall return—to win an initial understanding end appreciation from the Catholic reader for the book and its purpose.
Mrs. Haughton's essay is a brilliant. piece of work, Many Catholics will be helped by it to t1nd their balance in the present era of change. One or two passages are clumsily written and obscure. But these can be forgiven in gratitude for a deeply thoughtful handling of a difficult theme.
She begins by presenting the strong reasons from history for charging the Catholic Church with restricting thc freedom of the human spirit. But then the matter is put into perspective in this way: "We cannot decide whether or not the Catholic Church is the home or the enemy of freedom by weighing up her historical record but only by trying to sec whether true personal freedom is of the essence of Catholicism as properly understood, or whether it is something that has been dragged into the structure of Catholic life by those who, as human beings, value it and want to reconcile it with a religion which has no real place for it" (p. 120).
The essential distinction is then made between exterior and interior freedom. Interior freedom is the more important. hut it must not be understood in too simple a fashion. To reach interior freedom is a difficult achievement.
"It is circumscribed, in fact, by the human condition of ignorance of self and of others, by the fears that grow from this ignorance, and the intellectual and emotional distortions that attempt to balance the fears. So that in a real sense no-one is wholly free this side of the grave. This does not mean that we cannot exercise freedom at all. but simply that its effective exercise depends on the degree of self-knowledge or spiritual maturity. reached by the individual" (p. 121).
Exterior freedom is needed for the growth of interior freedom; hence the harm of its denial. But so too is authority, And this is how authority must be 'seen, namely as fostering interior freedom. In that way we avoid the wrong though :ommon presentation of authorIty and freedom which puts them in opposition and sees their relation as a question of either-or.
The author goes on to draw an illuminating analogy between the history of freedom in the Church and the growth of interior freedom in the individual with all the vicissitudes and struggles this growth entails.
The parallel allows us to understand past setbacks to freedom in the Church and at the same time to grasp the true import of the present breakthrough towards Christian freedom, But we must not let slip this opportune time, otherwise what has been barely gained will be lost not consolidated, and there will be a relapse.
"Failure to explore courageously the implications and scope of the freedom so hardly won would lead to a new and worse decay" (p. 133).
Mrs. Naughton, therefore, ends with an account of the obstacles to freedom that still exist. The list should trouble the consciences both of those who command and of those who obey. If it does not, they are hard cases indeed.
It was worth dwelling on this essay because it deals so well with what is truly fundamental to the Church's renewal, Beside it, the other essays seem much less important. But they cannot be left without comment.
Professor Finberg has contributed a workmanlike essay on "Censorship". There is a slight mistake in his account of prepublication censorship.
Contrary to what he says, the diocesan official who gives the niait obstar is the person who scads the book for the bishop. His name is not divulged during the reading and indeed not at all if he rejects the book, but It is usually given when the Imprimatur is finally granted.
The anonymity of the censor is not, therefore. complete. A glance at the nihil obstat will tell the curious who the censor was who read the book and advised the imprimatur. But this slip is a minor detail, The essay as a whole is cornpetent and moderate. His conclusion is measured, and many today would have written more strongly. The Index and the law on prohibited books are notorious enough. but anyone with the confidence of publishers knows the petty restrictions on freedom they have had at times to endure in the name of censorship.
The contribution of Mr. John Todd on "The Worldly Church, Political Bias, Autocracy and Legalism" is not the author at his best. The substantive points, to toy mind, are all made in the fairly extensive quotations given from Fr. Conger's paper published in Problems of Authority (London, 1962).
Mr. Todd's own remarks are weak in contrast and. uncharacteristically, in the line of apologetic, Yet he is dealing with what is very much the human side of the Church, and traditionally recognised as such. In other words, with what is open to the severest criticism without implying any attack on the essentials of the faith.
Mr. Todd briefly refers to the constant criticism directed by Catholics in the past against the multi-faced worldliness of the Church.
If the scourging vehemence of some of his forerunners is remembered, Mr. Todd's protests seem very gentle, Something much sharper would have been' well within the Catholic tradition. Perhaps the mildness of our manners marks a progress. But I hope no one will he so silly as to regard Mr. Todd's criticisms as an unprecedented outrage.
Mr. Frank Roberts' "Authoritarianism, Conformity and Guilt" makes some valid observations on child-psychology, Christian education and vocation, but sits I think, uncomfortably in this book.
His essay could well have appeared in any symposium on Christian education, and he is not really concerned to drive home the objections to Roman Catholicism he dutifully mentions.
Some readers will want to discuss thy points he makes, although these have in fact been raised before in other contexts. A fault here is that the treatment is too brief for the large topics he touches upon.
I, too, must be brief and, risking a charge of intellectual conceit, state plainly that for me Mr. G. Pollard's "Existential Reactions against Scholasticism" is a morass of unintelligibility. A writer who despises the laws of rational argument should not expect to be argued with, and I have no choice but to leave him to his new-found gnosticism.
God forbid, however, that such should be taken as the intellectual basis for the present revival. Mr. Michael Novak in the remarkable last chapter of his book Tire Open Church was far more perceptive.
He looked at the work of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, the author of Insight and in an original though authentic way a disciple of Aquinas, for the theoretical underpinning of what is happening in Catholic faith and life.
Were I to take Mr. Pollard's essay seriously. I should regard it as most dangerous in its destructive attack on the intellectual achievement of centuries of Catholic thought. But I cannot do so. St. Thomas will, I think, survive the uncomprehending dislike of the author.
Is it cynical • to think that many will quite happily tolerate Mr. Pollard's ruinous rampage through Catholic thought who will be profoundly disturbed by the subdued plea of Archbishop Roberts in his essay "Contraception and War"?
But such, I suspect, is the poor state of Catholic thinking. Few worry about the foundations of Catholic theology. But touch a moral issue—that is a different matter.
Archbishop Roberts adds little to what he said on contraception in his earlier article in Search and to what he has written elsewhere on nuclear war, Basically, his article is a plea for further clarification, an insistence that these two problems have not been fully faced and answered, Unfortunately, the arguments he brings forward in his support are handled badly. He thus lays himself open to the charge of irresponsibility, especially in regard to the papal declarations. But his great virtue is that he has with honesty and courage voiced a questioning that others share but have not dared to utter.
He represents mole than he himself is able adequately to express. Certainly. a further clarification of these two problems is urgently needed. This is especially true of contraception.
The prohibition is clear but the reasons are not, and here prohibition and reasons are in the nature of the case too bound up together for this to be a tolerable situation.
It is mere fact that a rethinking of the question is going on in various quarters. Wiser pastorally to keep quiet about it? Perhaps in theory. But how feasible is this policy in the world of modern publicity when so learned a journal as the Ephemerides T he ()logic ae
Lovanienses is cited in The Observer and in Time?
Further. the large number of Catholics who remain unconvinced by the current teaching, whether they obey it or not, is a much more formidable pastoral problem than any scandal that might be caused by an essay such as this. If the Archbishop through his episcopal immunity from mere suppression provokes a clarification, he will do all a valuable service.
Finally I turn now to "Sonic Reflections on Superstition and Credulity" by Mrs. Magdalen Goffin It comes first in the book, but I have left it until last because it is the most difficult contribution to assess.
I have no doubt of the reaction to it. For many it will confirm their worst fears about the book and prejudice their appreciation of the' rest of the contents. Here we have what people expected when they heard of the book a merciless criticism of the religious outlook and practice of ordinary Catholics.
Personally I dislike the essay very much. Its irreverent arrogance makes me angry. But it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Popular Catholic belief and practice does often fall over the edge into superstition and credulity, and the author knows the areas that need purification and correction, She must be given credit for her choice of targets.
Admittedly also, there has been too much connivance with the vagaries*of popular religion, with little or no awareness of their destructive effect on a true understanding of God; and we must add the effect of a fair amount of sheer bad theology.
But what is under consideration is the living tissue of religious belief and devotion, and where a surgeon's knife was necessary Mrs. GoIlln has chosen to hack with a chopper.
Her essay makes a theologian wince, Yet, she takes points. such as hell. purgatory, indulgences, the sacraments, the real presence, devotion to saints and belief in visions, where a careful theologian would himself want to be critical and distinguish crude and inadequate ideas from a genuine theological understanding.
Her observations are shrewd and pretty accurate. True, she seems childishly wilful on the subject of hell, parading an unorthodoxy which she probably could not claim if she was less impatient and knew more theology. But on the whole a theologian would not find much he would have to contradict.
Nevertheless, something is radically wrong. The general vision is peculiarly distorted. A dimension is lacking, and a theologian has the painful experience of watching a caricature of his activity.
Is there a clue to the fundamental error? I think there is. Mrs. Groffin writes:
"The history of religion is the story of man's efforts to purify and deepen his understanding of God, to separate the accidents which necessarily modify and clothe the expression of a religion existing in historical time from the essential universal experience of Supreme Being. Sometimes, when Rome gives an example of stunted growth in this respect, it is because her fidelity of revelation asall Christians once supposed it to be, together with the instinct to preserve each item in the Creeds lest the whole should be dissolved, has proved stronger than her own and other people's insights into the nature of God" (pp. 10-11).
That passage reflects not faith seeking understanding, but reason presuming to judge revelation. There is a world of difference between the two attitudes. The fruits of the two often look very similar, but they taste very different; and one kind nourishes, while the other poisons.
Nevertheless, a virtue of Mrs. Goffin's essay is that it does broach some fundamental issues. She writes in passing; "the fundamental objections to Roman Catholicism are objections to Christian orthodoxy" (p. 10). This remark provokes my concluding reflection.
Narrowness The book is not an exact parallel to the Anglican Objections to Christian Belief. Whatever one may think of the latter, It was not concerned with objections to the Anglican Church but with objections to the Christian message. But what has happened here?
A group of highly intelligent Catholics examine what they find the key objections to their faith.
Their concern is not with the figure of Christ in the light of modern knowledge nor with the Christian vision of the world and of man in relation to recent ideologies nor with the fundamentals of Christian morality in the setting of the evolution of human consciousness, but with the ecclesiastical institution and their relation to it. even if the book does reach out a little to consider the supposed aberraLions of Scholasticism and the superstitious degeneration of Catholic practice.
In brief, they talk about problems that are chiefly felt by those within the Church about the Church, even if these indirectly affect those outside. They do not worry about the problems that confront contemporary men concerning Christianity itself.
Does that show the depths of our faith or the narrowness of our vision? The signs point to the latter, We are so insulated from the doubts and searchings of modern men, so absorbed in our domestic difficulties, so wrapped up in our institutional squabbles. that we take for granted, without exploring, the heart and purpose of the Christian message.
I suggest that we have here the real "objection to Roman Catholicism".