Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Book Reviews

It’s Time for Newman

Newman on Vatican II by Ian Ker, Oxford University Press, 167pp, £25.00

Thanks are due, surely, to “Donal, Elizabeth and Julie”, who persuaded Ian Ker to launch himself into print once more: the result is this excellent book.

The opening chapters deal with the continuing debate about Newman’s theological position, pre- and post‑1845. Ker argues that Newman was hard to pigeon-hole in either the liberal or the conservative camp. This goes a long way to explain the volume of misunderstanding and opposition which arose then and still pervades his views. He was anti-rationalist and anti-latitudinarian, but that didn’t mean he was in any way obscurantist prior to his conversion. He valued both the pastoral commitment of vicars and, on the other hand, evangelical goodness. When he became a Catholic, he was neither liberal nor ultramontane – to the infuriation of many. In fact he represented the via media in both scenarios: he was neither Geneva nor Rome before his conversion, and was on the side of neither Döllinger nor Ward after. 

Ker then turns to the question of the development of doctrine: the hermeneutic of change in continuity. For my money, this makes the book worth buying. There is a continuing debate that really Newman advocated a changing Church, quoting his famous phrase that “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often”. Ker puts the phrase into context and demonstrates that Newman spent years honing his thoughts on the subject, even from the time he was writing Arians in 1832. Christianity changes in order to remain the same, as it absorbs and differentiates by virtue of its inner dynamism: “Certain it is that the true faith never could come into contact with the heathen philosophies without exercising its right to arbitrate between them.” The seven tests which Newman supplies allows one to distinguish between true growth and corruption: the tests must be taken as a whole not piecemeal. For those who have trouble dealing with these, Ker analyses each test with reference to the stages in Newman’s own life.

The title says it all. This is primarily a work which rescues Vatican II from the clutches both of liberal commentators and of Lefebvrists – which may please neither. Newman himself was not in favour of committees and considered that Church councils occupied a place but not the place in Catholic ecclesiology. He would even call them “a dreary unlovely phenomenon”. His own bishop, who attended Vatican I, would more unctuously refer to “this august assembly”. Each council does not lead on to the next, so Vatican II cannot be seen as a precursor to Vatican III; rather, it explains and completes what went before. 

The documents of Vatican II therefore represent change in continuity, not a programme for reform divorced from its connection with the living tradition. There is no rupture with the past, and those who talk of openness versus tradition have failed to understand the true nature of doctrinal development. 

This also applies to the notion of religious freedom in the documents of Vatican II, to their notion of justice and peace, or the uniqueness of the Church in relation to non-Christian religions, or the role of the individual conscience in relation to the teaching of the Church. Ker uses the example of Callista, in Newman’s novel of that name, in her journey from paganism to Christianity. I had never read the novel from the psychological angle – much preferring, I will admit, Cardinal Wiseman’s Fabiola for the story element (which is, admittedly more Georgette Heyer than Edward Gibbon). Newman in fact worked painstakingly on the history and the local topography – so with Ker’s strong endorsement I will gladly re-appraise it.

Ker makes the point about the rise of ecclesial communities which have always existed in the Church – from the time of St Antony the Great to that of St Philip Neri’s Oratory. They are part of that dynamism which flourishes in private devotions, and in the practice of frequent Confession, that Newman as an Anglican called “the life of the parochial charge”. 

To forget the charismatic element, or perversely to overemphasise it, leads inevitably to enthusiasm – that was the experience of Methodism in the 18th century and the cause of the rise of Pentecostal sects in the 19th. It can also be seen to explain the opposition to private devotions by certain liturgists (who have perhaps not fully absorbed Sacrosanctum Concilium). It should be remembered that the title of Newman’s Rambler article was “On Consulting the Faithful”, not the hierarchy or the laity.

We tend to forget that there has always been one Church, within which there is governance: all the parts are indispensable, and no one part should presume on its position. This applies whether vaunting charisms as the exclusive possession of certain chosen souls or seeking some sort of acceptable theological correctness: all are gathered to interact within the one body by the power of the Holy Spirit. Newman would talk of “a vast assemblage of human beings with wilful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the beauty and the majesty of a Superhuman Power”. Pope Francis would remind us that the Holy Spirit is “the true provider and guarantor of true unity and harmony in the Church”. Ker recalls that it was the voice of a youngster in the crowd at Milan (not a cleric) which resulted in Ambrose being consecrated its bishop.

Newman believed in a creative conflict between authority and theological investigation – between freedom and the good of the whole community. Vatican II bore all the marks of that tension – especially in Gaudium et Spes with phrases like “the autonomy of earthly affairs” and “the signs of the times”, which we see surface in such intercessions as “Teach us to work for the good of all, whether the time is right or not”. Unfortunately, with unqualified expressions thrown about, there were unintended consequences, with which the Church has been wrestling ever since. The disputes have been as much about what Vatican II did not say as about what it did say.

With the passage of years we have seen a gradual return to that rather static “conformism” that issues guidance and pastoral plans, yet at the same time allows a “conscientious dissent” to flourish. It looks like a case of hedging one’s bets and hoping that out of the process will emerge a new vision of the Church, neatly packaged with something to please everyone. 

In these islands we have in Blessed John Henry Newman one whose time has surely come. He faced up to contemporary theological problems and offered ways to analyse and deal with many of those that are now facing us. Ker is of the opinion that, once canonised, Newman should take his place as a Doctor of the Church, just as St Robert Bellarmine did at the time of the Counter-Reformation.

James Tolhurst

A Man On A Mission

The Kerygma: in the Chantytown with the Poor by Kiko Arguello, Ignatius Press, 151pp, £9.99

This is not a well-written book, but it tells an interesting and possibly important story. I use “possibly” because the whole venture is still in its early stages – Kiko Arguello is the founder of the Neocatechumenate, one of the New Movements in the Church. The importance and significance of these movements is only just beginning to be made clear: it’s all a work in progress. It seems likely that the “Neocats” are going to be of great value in the re-evangelisation of Europe, so it is interesting to read about how this particular movement began.

It’s an odd story, and oddly written. Arguello was brought up as a Catholic in a good family, with regular Mass attendance. But in the Spain of the late 1950s it was easy to become cynical about the faith and especially so when working in the world of art/theatre/TV, where people seemed to be asking deep and exciting questions that parents and a heavily Catholic establishment seemed unable to answer.

Pondering Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Arguello decided to assume that God did not exist and to live accordingly: “Heaven was closed for me; it was as if an enormous slab of cement formed on top of me and life began to be very hard.” He pondered suicide – even though it was at this time (1959) that his work as an artist was prospering and he won a major national award for painting, becoming briefly a celebrity on TV and in the press.

Then, as he described it, through reading, and pondering “beauty, art, water, flowers, trees...” something began to happen: “God began to appear on the horizon, it was a faint light, like hope.” And thus began a journey which included a retreat in a desert, some work as a catechist, military service and then, back in Spain, an encounter with people living in a shanty town. From this last experience emerged what was to be his life’s work – a new form of evangelisation, living with the shanty-dwellers, caring for disabled people abandoned by others, teaching, and sharing the faith.

Some of this makes for moving reading: the archbishop arriving somewhat warily to see the work, and the group singing psalms with him; a local church made available for regular Masses; the work spreading to Italy and specifically to a poor area on the outskirts of Rome.

And through all this came the emergence of the idea of a new Kerygma, a new way of proclaiming the Gospel to people who, living in a culture formed by centuries of Christianity, had nevertheless lost all effective contact with the Church. Essentially, this involved offering a new form of evangelisation, starting with basic catechesis while recognising that baptism had already occurred and that what was needed was a sort of profound awakening of something already offered by God.

It’s deep stuff but also straightforward Catholicism, and the book is both readable and challenging. But I’d have liked more – a lot more – structured presentation of information: names, dates, descriptions of specific activities. It’s all much too anecdotal, sometimes absurdly so, with random casual references to exciting developments, reporting of various conversations, and sudden abandonment of a narrative in favour of generalised commentary.

However, this book will introduce the Neocatechumenate to a readership in the wider Church: despite its poor style, it is an easy read and has an appealing message of joy and encouragement. Given the steady growth of this movement, its deep grounding in prayer and sacrifice, its passionate devotion to Christ, and its sense of mission with and through the Church, we  an expect good things over the next years. This book, with its rather breathless pace and its enthusiasm, is the voice of a man on a mission. 

Joanna Bogle

A Worthy Project – But for a Church in Crisis?

Reclaiming the Piazza by Ronnie Convery, Leonardo Franchi, and Raymond McCluskey, Gracewing,
180pp, £12.99

I am going to quote at length what the authors state at the beginning about the origins of this book and its purpose:

The book was born on a flight to Rome in 2010 when two of the authors, Ronnie Convery and Leonardo Franchi, were travelling to the bi-annual social communications conference in the University of the Holy Cross in Rome. During the flight, they had a long conversation about the need to rethink the way in which Catholic education was conceptualised in the light of Benedict XV’s recent papal interventions on the subject.

In particular, they wondered what these rich papal insights could offer contemporary Catholic educators. Given that they were travelling to Italy, the discussion soon focused on the Church in Italy’s innovative Progetto Culturale [cultural project], an initiative which is not well known beyond the borders of Italy. Was it possible, they asked, for the Progetto to act as a model, or prototype, for the Church’s engagement with the wider world?
If so, did it follow that the Progetto could refresh the wider Church’s understanding of Catholic education?

The initial answer was yes but it would be necessary to understand the Progetto from the inside before coming to a more informed position. Over the next two years, Ronnie, Leonardo and Raymond McCluskey made several trips to Rome to find out more about the Progetto. While there is a substantial body of writing – including a fine website – on the working of the Progetto, we believe that this book offers the first English language commentary on its potential for other cultures. 

I believe that final comment is correct: this is the first and only English language commentary on the project. Certainly, I know of no other plan to produce a commentary. Anyone, therefore, who wants to find out about the Progetto will find this book invaluable. The book has a subtitle that is relevant: “Catholic Education as a Cultural Project”. The authors are all Scotsmen with an academic “education” background. The book carries a foreword from His Grace the Archbishop of Glasgow. The educational system in Scotland is different from that of England and Wales, but, since the authors do not make detailed references to anything relevant only to that system, that does not matter to readers south of the border.

The book is at its best, as is often the case with books on education, when it is most specific. It was pleasing to see the recommendations that pupils should read Dante (“the fifth gospel”), study Catholic art, and listen to the many masterpieces of music which are Catholic. I have always found it disappointing when Catholic schools have not a single example of the world’s great art on their walls, when they offer for their pupils’ reading some appalling modern “literature” and, for their listening, only banal commercial music. 

And what is the relevance of this book? We all know that the Catholic Church in Britain and worldwide is in a state of crisis and is declining, with fewer Catholics and fewer priests. In Britain, and elsewhere, the law permits abortion and homosexual “marriages” and promotes immoral sex education while attacking genuine religious education. At the recent synod, the most grotesque contradictions to beliefs held since apostolic times were put forward by bishops and cardinals, causing great scandal to the laity. The Catholic Church in Scotland has gone through several painful and highly publicised scandals, some at the highest levels.

One has to say that the book shows scant awareness of the crisis in the Church; still less does it suggest what to do about it. There is – certainly in England – widespread criticism of school pupils’ lack of knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith and, indeed, ignorance of basic doctrines. The number of pupils who practise the faith after they leave school is constantly declining. In most dioceses, vocations are only a small percentage of what they were before the Second Vatican Council. More and more young Catholics are living in sin, as it used to be called. There are still cases of child abuse in the Church and these are, apparently, so bad in England and Wales that the Catholic Church will not even publish detailed statistics but keeps them secret.

It may be objected that it is not the aim of the book to alleviate any of these problems in the Church – quite. It is well known how St Ignatius of Loyola castigated those priests at the University of Paris who sat in academic isolation when there were souls to be saved outside. Mention of that great saint brings to mind what he said about change: he sharply cautioned against changing law – any law – even when some improvement is possible, unless there is some “urgent necessity or substantial and obvious benefit”, since “the mere fact of change in law itself can be adverse to the public welfare and lessen the restraining power of the law”. Schools have been beleaguered by innovations. Would that modern politicians and church bureaucrats heeded this warning! 

Eric Hester

How ‘Progressive’ was Rosmini?

Antonio Rosmini: Persecuted Prophet by John Michael Hill IC, Gracewing, 287pp, £20.00, hardback

In his native Italy, Antonio Rosmini is a celebrated national figure, recognised by secular as well as religious institutions as one of the truly notable thinkers of the 19th century. In England, however, he is comparatively unknown. This is all the more regrettable since the Order of Charity (better known as the Rosmininans), which he founded, played an important part in the “Second Spring” revival of Catholicism in this country during the Victorian period. 

One could single out Rosmini’s disciple Luigi Gentili, who as well as being an indefatigable apostle of the faith between his arrival in London in 1835 and his death in 1848, introduced to this country the Roman collar, May devotions, public processions of the Blessed Sacrament, the Quarant’ Ore devotion, the use of pious medals and scapulars and many other Italianate practices unheard of in the sober days of Bishop Challoner and the vicars apostolic. But while Gentili stands out for his energy and zeal, other Rosminians too played a significant part in re-establishing the English Church on solid foundations, as Fr Nicholas Schofield’s recent biography of William Lockhart (also published by Gracewing) served to remind us.

Now Fr John Michael Hill, himself a Rosminian, has published this short introduction to his founder’s life and times. Those times were certainly interesting ones. Born shortly after the French Revolution, in a part of northern Italy then administered by the Austrian Empire, Rosmini’s life would be shaped by the political and religious upheavals of 19th-century Europe. A devout and brilliant young man, ordained priest in 1821, he met Pope Pius VII in 1823 and was encouraged by the Sovereign Pontiff to work on the renewal of philosophy. Close – but not always easy – relations with the popes marked the rest of Rosmini’s life: he was nearly made a cardinal but also had his works condemned by Pius IX, and, posthumously, by Leo XIII. He also involved himself in political controversy (he was a supporter of Italian unification, while striving to retain a place for the temporal power of the popes), and ecclesiastical debate (it was largely his theological duels with the powerful Jesuit order which resulted in the condemnation of certain of his works and theses).

At the same time Rosmini cultivated an intense spiritual life, one of the fruits of which is his shortest but perhaps most profound work, The Maxims of Christian Perfection. These maxims can be summarised as (1) never to assume any external work without some positive manifestation of God’s will (the principle of passivity), and (2) at any clear sign from God, to undertake immediately the work he wills, putting aside any personal preference or repugnance (the principle of indifference). Rosmini’s personal holiness was recognised by the Church in solemn form when he was beatified in 2007.

Fr Hill gives us a very readable introduction to a man he clearly and understandably admires. But the author’s enthusiasms occasionally mar the work. Not content with helping us to understand Rosmini in his own historical context, Fr Hill would have us see him as a “prophet” of the Second Vatican Council (understood in a certain way) and the contemporary Church. Rosmini must, therefore, be consistently presented as a “progressive” hero, whose life’s work was continually being foiled by ecclesiastical and political reactionaries. Here, English readers may be reminded of Rosmini’s great contemporary, John Henry Newman, whose biographers have not infrequently treated him in a similar way. In truth, both Rosmini and Newman are too complex to be understood simply in terms of ecclesiastical politics, and their writings are more subtle than those who wish to make use of them often allow. 

For example, writing of Rosmini’s book The Five Wounds of the Church, in which Rosmini describes the obstacles an exclusively Latin liturgy can pose for effective evangelisation, Fr Hill not only proposes his hero as an early proponent of the vernacular Mass, but goes on to add (in a rather sly footnote) that Rosmini would also have been opposed to “the deliberate use of archaic language” of which “the new vernacular translations of the Mass are an example”. 

However, when we actually read the text of The Five Wounds, we find there that Rosmini concludes: “Putting the sacred rites into the vernacular would induce greater problems than the remedies imposed,” and would be “a cure worse than the disease”. Moreover, he goes on to praise the ancient Latin orations for giving “an other-worldly, superhuman atmosphere through their sense of age and mystery”, which rather suggests that he was neither as favourable towards a vernacular Mass, nor as opposed to the use of “archaic language”, as Fr Hill so confidently declares.

Such flaws aside, many will enjoy this well-produced and competent little work. One day, perhaps, Rosmini will get the English biography he truly deserves.

Richard Whinder


Faith Magazine