Book Review: The Church and contemporary culture
Review by Richard Whinder
This is a curious book. It obviously has the best of intentions, and contains much interesting material, but in the end, it left your reviewer disappointed. I will try to explain why.
Firstly, as noted, this book is undoubtedly well-intentioned. It also has large ambitions. As its editors proclaim, it aims to be part of a new dialogue between the Church and contemporary culture, in order to bring about (in the words of Pope Francis) ‘a means for building consensus and agreement while seeking the goal of a just, inclusive and responsive society’. These are weighty goals for a slim volume of some 250 pages, and one does occasionally wonder if the editors might have bitten off more than they can chew.
Literature, Art, Economics, Architecture, History, Science
The book is divided into two parts: ‘Beauty and Goodness’ and ‘Truth and Goodness’. Again, these are considerable fields of enquiry, and necessarily the contributors have only a limited space in which to deal with some very demanding topics. Thus, we have chapters such as ‘A Catholic understanding of Literature’, ‘A Catholic understanding of Art’ and ‘A Catholic understanding of Economics’ – all subjects which would surely justify whole volumes (if not libraries) rather than the few pages accorded to them here. This is not to say that these essays are not worth reading – far from it. I was particularly drawn to Dr Timothy O’Malley’s chapter on ‘A Catholic understanding of Architecture’ (which, pleasingly, draws on the work of the late Sir Roger Scruton), and (as a trained historian), to John Charmley’s essay on ‘A Catholic understanding of History’, which gives a proper place to St John Henry Newman’s insights in this field. Also, since readers of Faith magazine often have a special interest in the relationship between religion and the natural sciences, it is only right to draw attention to the Rev. Dr Andrew Pinsent’s chapter on ‘A Catholic understanding of Science.’ Those familiar with Fr. Pinsent’s work will not be surprised to learn that he demolishes the hoary old myths concerning the alleged ‘conflict’ between faith and science with his customary incision and panache. Nevertheless, I suspect that he, too, would acknowledge that to deal seriously with this subject would require a great deal more space than the present volume is able to give it.
Nevertheless, one should not fault Catholic writers for showing ambition, and even if the topics covered cannot be dealt with in their fullness, it is good that these issues are being addressed. Ultimately, however, my reservations about this book go beyond a desire that some of the topics could have been covered in more depth. In the end, I was more concerned about the essential methodology being employed.
Perhaps I can best explain this by quoting the editors themselves. In their introduction they express a desire to avoid ‘slogans, anathemas or culture wars’ in favour of ‘patience, respect, and a humble search for understanding’. In one sense, wholly admirable, but reading that sentence I was reminded of a saying attributed to Leon Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war may be interested in you.’ Catholics may indeed desire to eschew the culture wars of contemporary society, but is that actually realistic? Again, when the editors write that (speaking of those currently outside the Church), ‘ultimately we all want the same thing’, I found myself asking, are you sure that is the case? Does that statement do justice to the reality of sin, the existence of evil, and the pervasive influence of these phenomena in the world around us? Do the authors acknowledge the existence of the ‘culture of death’ which Pope St John Paul II believed to be at work in much of modern society?
A notable absence
It was then that I realised that the name and teaching of Pope St John Paul II is noticeably absent from most of this book (and I checked the footnotes, to be sure). True, he is cited a handful of times (principally his ‘Letter to Artists’ of 1999), but it does seem odd that the longest reigning Pope of the twentieth century, himself a poet and playwright, who was so deeply interested in the interplay between divine faith and human culture, should have been thus neglected. Certainly, this work would have benefitted from giving more space to his insights, and in particular to the robust challenge he was prepared to offer the contemporary world when it turned against Christ and the laws of God.
Ultimately, however, this volume is a very ‘establishment’ project – after all, it comes garlanded with a preface from no less a figure than His Excellency Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation. And, as we know, the magisterium of Pope St John Paul II no longer appears to be held in high regard, nor is it frequently cited, in the documents that come from the Vatican today. It is understandable that the editors should have wanted their book to chime with the thinking of the current regime in Rome, but it does bring with it some notable limitations.
To conclude, as I began: this is a well-intentioned book which contains some interesting essays. But the reader may go away regretting a missed opportunity.