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 Fr Aidan Nichols

Criticising the Critics

Catholic Apologias for Today

Aidan Nichols O.P.

F A M I L Y   P U B L I C A T I O N S

An earlier version of Chapter Six first appeared in
Proclaiming the Gospel of Life, published by CTS

Front Cover: Pope Leo X by Raphael Sanzio (detail)
© Photo SCALA, Florence

ISBN 978 1 907380 04 4

published by
Family Publications

Family Publications has ceased trading. To obtain this book try-:




The Catholic Church has always been well-supplied with critics, but very often their criticisms are rooted in fundamental misunderstandings, or in a failure to grasp just
what the Church teaches and why.

It is these critics upon whom Fr Aidan Nichols OP turns his attention in this book: those who are inspired by modernist rationalism to reject the supernatural; those who regard the New Age as an acceptable surrogate for the Christian doctrine of salvation; academic theologians who reject the historical and biblical basis for Christianity. Also coming under scrutiny are feminists who see the Church as an expression of a patriarchal society; Protestants who play down Christ’s nature as a priest; progressive Catholics who hesitate about proclaiming the Gospel of Life; and those who regard the Church’s sexual ethics as ‘unrealistic’.

In his final chapter, Fr Nichols takes on critics of the ideas set out in his book The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England (Family Publications, 2008), in which he outlined a blueprint for the re-Christianisation of society. Insightful and forthright, Fr Nichols delivers a comprehensive set of apologias to defend the Catholic faith from its most vocal critics – both inside and outside the Church.

Aidan Nichols is a Dominican friar who has written widely on subjects in theology and Christian culture. He is sub-prior of the Priory of St Michael the Archangel, Cambridge.

Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
1. For Modernists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
2. For Neo-Gnostics . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . 29
3. For Academic Exegetes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
4. For Feminists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
5. For Liberal Protestants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
6. For Progressive Catholics . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . 103
7. For the Erotically Absorbed . . . . . . . . .. . . . . 121
8. For Critics of Christendom . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157


Catholicism and the Catholic Church at each stage of her history is always well supplied with critics. When the Church is not all she should be morally, intellectually, pastorally, aesthetically such critics will often have useful points to make. And whenever, we may ask, is she all that she should be, short of the Parousia?

Critics essentially both benign and right-thinking are not, however, the only kind of critics that exist. Others, far from benign, may well be intemperate, even irrational, in their passions. Others again, possibly benign, offer their criticisms whether from without or within owing to a failure to grasp certain aspects of Catholic truth. This last category includes the critics this book has it in mind to criticise in turn.

I offer here a series of apologias for different facets of the truth of faith and morals held by the Church. The apologias are, it may be said, ill-assorted, and I can hardly deny the claim. It is part and parcel of the present conjuncture that intellectual assaults come from very different quarters at one and the same time. Those considered here are by no means all there are, but they are among those I personally have encountered and sought to answer. The audiences have been very varied the Oxford Newman Society (Chapter 1); the annual conference of Kirkelig Fornyelse, the umbrella organisation of catholicising movements in Christianity in Norway (Chapter 2); the Walsingham Retreat of the (Anglican) Federation of Catholic Priests (Chapter 3); a summer school of (what became) the International Institute for Culture at Eichstatt in Bavaria (Chapter 4); the international bi-lateral dialogue of the Catholic Church with the Disciples of Christ at Klosterneuburg in Austria (Chapter 5); a day of recollection of the Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life (Chapter 6); a conference to the young clergy of the Giffard Society (Chapter 7); the Craigmyle lecture of the Catholic Union (Chapter 8).

With the partial exception of the opening chapter, I have not spent a great deal of time in describing the positions I oppose. I have preferred to concentrate on the positive exposition of Catholic truth. Each chapter might be described as a quid pro quo, an offering appropriate, in its own way, to each of the categories of person involved. Readers of The Lord of the Rings may recall how, after his ‘eleventy-first’ birthday party, Bilbo Baggins left a set of carefully selected and labelled packages for various miscreant family members and friends. Clearing out the hobbit-hole of my room, these essays serve mutatis mutandis a like end.

Finally, I would like to thank Fr Vivian Boland, of the Order of Preachers, for contributing a number of helpful suggestions and corrections.

Blackfriars, Cambridge
Memorial day of St Francis Xavier,

Dr Pravin Thevathasan's home page

Review by Pravin Thevathasan

Aidan Nichols has produced another excellent work consisting of a series of lectures given to different audiences examining the critics of Catholic orthodoxy both within and outside the Church.

Nichols notes that the common factor found in the various forms of the Modernist heresy is that “
when the objective patrimony of the catholic tradition appears no longer to suit human needs, then it is the patrimony which must be jettisoned.”

The Gnosticism of our age is critically examined in the light of the teachings of the great Father of the Church St. Irenaeus.

The author writes that the Bible has, in effect, been cut off from its ancient and mediaeval interpreters.

Nichols argues that God is Father far more fundamentally than He is Creator for He generated the only begotten Son before the creation of the world. It is only in the Son that He has revealed who He is in His own essential nature.

Nichols notes that in His farewell discourse, Jesus acts as a Priestly intercessor for His disciples. The Last Supper involves a sacrificial offering by the new High Priest. His priesthood is now uniquely invested in the Church and this is an apologia that must be proclaimed by Catholics.

The author argues that it is impossible to enter into a constructive dialogue with the secular world if autonomy is seen as the only moral absolute.

Nichols writes that what distinguishes the sexuality of human persons from the animals is that human persons respond not only in their body but also in their souls to presence of the other.

The author takes on critics of the ideas set out in his book
The Realm. In recent times, it is argued, the effects of Parliamentary statute and European legislation has been to reject the norms proper to a Christian society. The legal establishment of secularism amounts to a declaration that agnosticism is the “anti-religion” of the State. Apart from religion, there is no obvious way to secure the foundation of ethics and virtue. In the case of England, the author suggests, this religion is the Catholic religion.

In conclusion, the choice of critics is highly relevant to the Church of today. The work may also be regarded as an excellent work of Catholic apologetics.

Review by James Kelly of The Catholic Times

Spotting critics of the Church isn't exactly hard to do, particularly as they grow more vocally militant.

Having previously lobbed a written grenade into their masses with the provocatively blistering The Realm: an Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England, Fr Aidan Nichols, a Dominican at Cambridge, appears to have acquired a taste for the battle. If one thing can be said for Criticising the Critics it is that it jabs so relentlessly that his opponents will have to respond.

Nichols goes to the heart of the philosophies behind the Church's most vociferous critics. Again and again his counter-arguments come back to the need for tradition. For example, in a chapter aimed at 'academic exegetes', he decries how scripture is studied in a secular manner rather than in the light of Church teaching. This historical rationalism, he argues, cuts off the Scriptures from their original interpreters, leading to the wearily familiar liberal search for 'the real Jesus'.

With tradition banished as a means of reaching the truth, the methodology becomes atheistic, all 'faith-inspired' events jettisoned. Yet, as Nichols asserts, miracles and the Resurrection are 'the real Jesus'.

In an excellent chapter - For Modernists - not only does Nichols give an easy-to-use guide of exactly what modernism is, he claims that "Church life has been invaded by bureaucratic new-speak and pastoral emollience", something with which any poor layperson can empathise. This chapter works particularly well because Nichols specifically establishes what he is arguing against and, though a minor quibble. such a set-up may have been useful in some other chapters.

Nevertheless, the book is unflinchingly hard-hitting, such as when he advises that inter-religious dialogue is not an alternative to mission and evangelisation. Arguably the only chapter where his army; does not find the bullseye is the one 'for feminists'. Maybe I expected too much in light of the other chapters. but it was just that little bit too complex.

However, such minor reservations should not take away from the excellence of the rest, particularly two outstanding chapters that really see Nichols hit his stride. One is aimed at progressive Catholics, where he minces no words in declaring England as a "moral wasteland": "It is a culture of individual rights co-existing with a high degree of scepticism about the distinction between right and wrong, and a retreat from responsibility."

He skewers the secularised liberal Catholic suggestions that one must not be judgemental of individuals' decisions as indicative of how the teachings of Vatican II have been deliberately warped into the 'spirit' of the Council.

Having identified secularism as the biggest threat to the Church and human flourishing, he lambasts it as a selfish act, "chiefly a device to ease life for the non-religious".

As such, he says secular liberalism destroys the common good, as the state invents "new moralities" when really it should "guard the spiritual civilisation of its own society". As he argued in The Realm, nations need a narrative and in these islands Catholicism provides one.

Deeply thoughtful. this work is worthy of re-reading: its a pleasure to read someone fighting the good fight. Many of the critics Nichols identifies do not want to get into intelligent debates because of their growing intolerance. The victory of Criticising the Critics is that they now won't want to do so because the incoherence and contradictions of their arguments have been picked apart in full.

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This Version: 3rd November 2011

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