Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine May-June 2010

Christian Ethics and the Human Person: Truth and Relativism in Contemporary Moral Theology
by Peter Bristow, Family Publications &Maryvale Institute, 384pp, £18.99

In 1990, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published guidance on the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium in its Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. The CDF called on theologians to function "in communion with the Magisterium, which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith" (6), and to offer the People of God "a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith" (11). These guidelines have proved controversial, not least among moral theologians. James Keenan and Peter Black, for example, have criticised those who "look more for consistency with previous teachings than to the critical tradition itself" {Studia Moralia 2001, p.326), describing them as "colleagues who haveleft our enterprise" (ibid.). Contrastingly, Peter Bristow's analysis of postconciliar moral thought in Christian Ethics and the Human Person exemplifies the theologian's responsibility to gain "an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God ... handed on faithfully by the Church's living Tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium" (CDF 1990, no. 21). By following this method, Bristow has produced a study which is both commendable in its manner of doing theology and perceptive in its evaluation of contemporary ethical stances.

A notable achievement of the book is to discern the crucial role played by conflicting views of the human person in determining attitudes to a wide range of ethical questions. The basic antithesis is between the person as a unified subject consisting of body and soul, and a post-Cartesian view which holds that the mind can be asserted over against the truth about man, that truth being revealed in and through the body and illuminated by reason. Bristow demonstrates consistently that the former view underlies the teaching of the Church and of those theologians who cooperate with it constructively, and that the latter is the source of much dissent and of the relativism which undermines the truth about man. This is a leitmotif found in numerous chapters, including those on NaturalLaw, moral revisionism and Humanae Vitae. In the case of Paul VI's encyclical, Bristow points out that a true appreciation of the conjugal act "depends on the understanding that the human person is a unity of body and spirit, so that where the body acts the spirit is also present and vice versa" (p. 346). That is precisely what the advocates of mind-body dualism fail to see. They do not see that the contraceptive act results in "a bodily union, but not a fully personal one, in the sense that the whole person is not being given to the other" (ibid.). The body may be given, but the full commitment of openness to fecundity is withheld. We thus have a false language of the body, as John Paul II would put it.

Bristow's linking of Humanae Vitae and John Paul II's Theology of the Body highlights another important contribution of this book, namely the sense it gives of a living, organic continuity in the moral teaching of the Church. Defenders of Humanae Vitae have long pointed out that it is consistent with traditional doctrine, and as such is an instrument of communion with those who have gone before us. Though true, this presents Humanae Vitae as a terminus from which we look back. Bristow also sees the encyclical as a salient contribution which itself is capable of being unpacked and enriched by thinkers of subsequent generations who share Paul VI's commitment to authentic Magisterium. John Paul II's Theology of the Body provides such an enrichment, as Bristow makesclear in his comments on what remained to be clarified about the mystery of spousal love in the wake of Humanae Vitae: "A fuller... and deeper treatment was needed, and this was forthcoming in the 'theology of the body' at the beginning of John Paul II's pontificate" (p. 337). Bristow's chapter on the Theology of the Body provides an admirable summary of this fuller and deeper treatment.

Such weaknesses as there are in Christian Ethics and the Human Person do not detract noticeably from its overall effectiveness. Chapter 4, which is devoted to "Contemporary Personalism", could benefit from a simpler or more streamlined presentation of what is essentially a solid argument. And some terms (such as "Natural Law") are used a number of times before being fully defined, although the definitions are illuminating when they are given. Such minor caveats apart, Bristow has managed to point contemporary Catholic ethics in a convincing direction, one which is truly in and of the Church. As such his book is warmly to be recommended.

David Potter

Fires of Faith, Catholic England Under Mary Tudor
by Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 249pp, £19.99

Eamon Duffy is continuing his task of redressing the Whig slant on Tudor history and turns his attention to Mary Tudor. Surely, it would seem quite impossible to reinstate Bloody Mary...

Duffy not only takes issue with G R Elton and J E Neale but also with John Bossy whom he says belittles the achievements of Mary and Cardinal Pole. Between them they inaugurated the Counter Reformation structures. Diocesan Schools (= seminaries) were set up in York, Lincoln, Wells and Durham. Pole had in mind the conversion of the English hospice in Rome into a seminary. Because preaching had become "rather an empty ear-tickling entertainment, rather than a health-giving discipline", a series of set-piece sermons were preached every Sunday (20,000 attended one such with 25 out of 26 London aldermen) to undo "corrupt and naughty opinions." This was accompanied by Bishop Bonner's Homilies and his Catechism for Children and Watson's Holsome and Catholyke Doc trine Concernyng theSeven Sacraments which advocated frequent Communion, "He that came not thrice a year should not be taken as a Catholic man." It was expected that everyone should go to Confession to their own priest at least twice in Lent. The general level of theology was of a high standard, with orthodox and learned university dons being promoted to the episcopate. This can be gauged by the fact that only Kitchin of Llandaff conformed to Elizabeth, the rest preferring exile, or in the case of the Master of Pembroke, twenty-two years imprisonment in Wisbech castle.

Mary was not the blood-stained ogress of Foxe's Acts and Monuments ('Book of Martyrs'). She was quite serious when she said that she "meant graciously not to compel or constrain other men's consciences." Priests who had married were not peremptorily dismissed but told to keep their concubines out of men's sight. Robert Parsons would express his dismay but if that policy of retaining existing structures had been followed in Iraq we would have avoided much bloodshed! Strenuous efforts were put into converting people from their heresy. Bishop Bonner urged the apprentice William Hunter "to speak the word here between me and thee" and all charges would be dropped. Duffy cannot dismiss the fact that 284 people were burnt at the stake and this included 11 men and 2 women at one time inStratford Le Bow. England was not unique in this as 270 were burnt in the Spanish Netherlands. But we cannot put modern concepts of equal rights into Tudor times. Heresy was regarded in Christian Europe akin to idolatry and a threat to the State. John Rogers, who was later burnt himself, said that the punishment was "sufficiently mild for so heinous a crime." We have seen how people are prepared to immolate themselves for a cause, and many Protestant evangelicals were willing to make such a protest, their final statements were often as well prepared as any jihadi. The occasion was therefore used by preachers to urge the people present "both to understand the truth and beware to do the like." The threat of the physical and spiritual fire had an increasing effect according to Duffy togetherwith the concentrated catechesis and renewal of Catholic practice.

If Mary and Cardinal Pole had not both died in 1558, it is likely that England would have been in the forefront of the Counter Reformation - not withstanding the fires of Smithfield.

James Tolhurst

A Nun with a Difference. The Life and Letters of Sister Mary Alban FC
by Joanna Bogle, Sun Hill Publishing, 260pp, £8.88 (available at CTS Bookshop at Westminster Cathedral & Brompton Oratory Bookshop)

Nuns are wonderful people and it is a vocation which I would certainly promote in our youth group but as a married woman I often find I do not identify with the lives of these good people. I was intrigued, what was so different about this nun?

It was with great enjoyment that I read this book. Its layout lends itself to easy reading. The first part talks of the life of Sister Mary Alban, a woman who managed to fulfil her vocation whilst also giving herself to the education of children. Reading how Sister Alban was able to persevere through many trials and personal health difficulties makes her a person that many people will relate to. After offering an insight into her life the rest of the book is composed of letters which she had written to her family members. Again one feels drawn into wanting to know more about how Sister Alban coped with the various situations, and I found myself encouraged by her words as if some of the letters were written to me personally.

It was interesting to learn about her work in Catholic schools in India. There was great pressure from the Hindu and Muslim communities and yet she managed to maintain the Catholic nature of the school. One cannot help drawing comparisons with the struggle today to maintain Catholic faith schools in our own country.

I enjoyed the reflection on her sister Dorothy. It is a reminder of the difficult nature of determining a vocation. Dorothy thought she was called to the vocation of religious life but then realised she was not. It is beautiful to see how Sister Alban encouraged her on the path to her true vocation of marriage. Today there is so much pressure to make the right decision and please people rather than discern God's will. Here is encouragement and support when reading about this area in these women's lives.

This book reminds the reader that busy lives are compatible with calm and prayer. I suspect it is through constant prayer that Sister Alban was able to find the strength and guidance she needed to undertake the many tasks she carried out. We are all reminded, single and married, old and young, of the importance of making God the centre of our lives. If we are wholly open to him he will use us to achieve great things be it spending ten years in India fighting to build and keep Catholic schools or bringing up one's own children to know Christ.

Ella Preece
Book Reviews

Vita Communis: The Common Life of the Secular Clergy,
by Jerome Bertram, Cong Orat, Gracewing, 316pp, £H.99

In this Year of the Priest the model of the Cure of Ars is set before priests. We learn much from his sanctity and pastoral zeal, but to what extent is the framework in which he exercised his priesthood, that of the single priest in the autonomous parish, relevant or helpful today? Is a structure appropriate for nineteenth-century rural France right for twenty-first century urban Britain? Is it good that we are expected to be jacks of all trades, sole operators, more or less isolated, faced by the pressures of secularisation, bureaucracy and falling vocations?

Fr Bertram maintains convincingly that this model is, in fact, a historical aberration, not the norm for living out secular priesthood until the upheavals of the French Revolution. It is no surprise that the author is an Oratorian, whose community is a rare survivor of a different way of doing things.

From the beginning there was an expectation that the secular clergy would live a common life, remaining distinct from the religious by retaining (some) private property and not taking vows. The objective was neither the pastoral good of the people nor the psychological welfare of the priest, but the observation of the evangelical precepts of poverty and chastity. (Modern sensibilities might baulk at the early practice of common dormitories!)

The size, purpose and foundation of these clerical colleges varied hugely, yet they were the norm in pre-Reformation Europe, continuing to flourish in Catholic lands until the Revolution. All had some educational and pastoral aspect, yet their function was primarily cultic: they existed to offer the Mass and the Divine Office for the spiritual good of their founders and of the realm.

Fr Bertram is realistic. This form of clerical living was imperfect. There were conflicts with bishops, lay patrons and neighbouring religious. Colleges could tend to one of two extremes: evolving into full-blown religious communities with vows and a prohibition on private property, or degenerating into gentlemen's clubs with a non-resident membership. However, they were always capable of reform and held a secure place in lay affection to the end because, on the whole, they continued to function for the purpose for which they were founded.

Why did a once prevalent institution disappear? College endowments proved easy pickings for the sixteenth-century Crown and lay 'reformers'. (In England they survived, shorn of their religious raison d’être, only at Oxbridge and in our ancient public schools.) Trent inadvertently cut off the colleges' principal source of recruitment. Previously, colleges ran schools where some boys stayed on as collegiate clergy. With Trent's innovations, the path for most clergy increasingly led straight from seminary to presbytery, becoming quasi-servants to the parish priest, with none of the rights and privileges accorded by collegiate statutes. Not a healthy situation, as Fr Bertram observes. Nevertheless, significant communities continued to be founded, most notably the Oratorians andSulpicians. It was the Enlightenment rejection of the supernatural which sounded their death knell. Both nineteenth-century secularisation and ecclesiastical reform emphasised centralisation on the nation or Rome to the detriment of local colleges. Finally, the 1917 Code of Canon Law removed the right of self-government, allowing the bishop to appoint to all offices, abrogating existing privileges. A college can only function if it has the right to select its own members of priests sharing a common vision. Fr Bertram is not recommending parish 'clustering'.

The common life of the secular clergy seemed a footnote in Church history until the 1983 Code legislated for Societies of Apostolic Life - of pontifical or diocesan right - with real autonomy. Secular clergy can once again live in common, largely free from outside interference, with the right to select and form their own members. Fr Bertram makes the obvious point that they must not be seen simply as a refuge for those fleeing episcopal jurisdiction. Instead, they offer a flexible framework to cover all manner of charisms and pastoral situations. Recent scandals indicate one advantage of the common life while Pope Benedict's "hermeneutic of continuity" encourages us to look to the past for solutions to current problems. Fr Bertram concludes by offering models and suggestions as to howsuch societies might work in practice.

This book is essential reading for anyone seriously considering how we live out our priesthood. Perhaps we learn a little more than absolutely necessary about the foundations and rules of the Carolingian Empire, but otherwise the book is also an excellent, and possibly unique, comprehensive history of the secular clergy.

Mark Vickers
St Peter's

Faith Magazine