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Fr Aidan Nichols

A Golden Age for the Dominicans?

Aidan Nichols suggests that now is the time the Order could make a difference

In the short and middle-term future, Catholic Christians in England have a hard task ahead of them. We have three main challenges to meet. First, there is an intellectual challenge. Christianity of any kind has been taken with diminishing seriousness in this country for at least 150 years. Hubristic claims on the part of natural science, together with wrong-headed philosophies, are chiefly to blame for this. The situation was sufficiently worrying to the mid-Victorians; literary movements like Bloomsbury compounded the felony. The First World War - when opposing sides claimed the Christian God's blessing on their arms - did nothing to help.

The 1930s saw a spirited revival of Christian apologetics. But the hopes did not last. The educational level of the clergy - both Anglican and Catholic - dropped spectacularly in the 1970s as theological style became fuzzy, and pastoralia gradually displaced the intellectual life from its centrality. By the beginning of the Eighties a Radio 3 producer could ask someone to delete the word "Christianity" from a scripted talk (it happened to me) on the ground that it "wasn't intellectually respectable".

At the end of the Nineties the notion that orthodox faith offers a coherent, comprehensive and convincing world view is - so far as I am aware - totally absent from the public consciousness. Then, second, there is an institutional challenge. It is not simply that many Catholic institutions are less flourishing in the sense of less populated or patronised than once they were. Quite apart from the numbers game, there is often a sense of disorientation, reflected in media surroundings and letters to the editor as well as everyday contacts and exchanges.

Priests and Religious are by no means exempt from this condition. Specially charged with the spiritual perpetuation of the institution they are the ones who feel it most acutely when icy winds blow. No matter that such winds are often created by high pressure zones built up quite unnecessarily within the Church herself. Or that they are the result of opening just the wrong window on the world at the worst possible time. They chill nonetheless.

Finally, there is the cultural challenge. This comes not from the intelligentsia and the reading public, nor from the inner life of the ecclesial community with its problems, but from the media, the popular culture industry, and the State - which seems to have determined, under Blairism ("Cool Britannia"), to try and shape the cultural perceptions of citizens just as formerly, under Thatcherism, it tried to change their economic ones. Here the menace is not that we shall be tried intellectually and found wanting (in that regard Cool Britannia is as naked as Lady Godiva). It's that, by the way we inhabit a whole range of cultural institutions and practices, and continue to embrace a set of virtues and moral convictions inherited from Christendom, we shall be deemed aliens from another planet, away on Cloud Nine, in a different galaxy

This is where the English Dominicans come in - not least as evidenced by a recent collection of essays and addresses, entitled Sing A New Song, from the first English Master of the Order in the Dominicans' history, Fr Timothy Radcliffe. Of course, no one Order or any grouping of Catholics for that matter is going, by itself, to "save" the Church. Yet for a variety of reasons - not all to do with merit, but all providential - some group may be especially well placed to help at some particular time, in some particular place.

Fr Timothy's work has taken him to all the countries of the world - and there are many of them - where the Order is present and his illustrative material is suitably cosmopolitan. But the only locale to be depicted among the book's images is Blackfriars Oxford, in a 1920s print which shows the priory church, in perpendicular neo-Gothic, with friars in habit and cappa hugger-mugger in the cloister garth, and an early English spring awakening in the garden. Artistically, it is hardly outstanding. Still, it sums up the spirit of the renaissance which made the English Dominicans so doughty a force in the 1930s - the intellectual vigour which made them want to return to Oxford; the institutional determination which made them overcome all obstacles to do so; and the cultural romanticism which added a heart of flesh to the intellectual sinew and institutional steely nerve. This image focuses visually the book's many references to particular Dominicans, living and dead, in England from whom, says Fr Timothy, he learned so much of what he now knows. As he puts it, disarmingly:

"I am aware that this title, Sing A New Song, might seem inappropriate, since nothing that I write is all that news I have never believed in the absurd idea that one has to be originals I am a mendicant friar after all. The newness of the song is the irrepressible novelty of God, not my own."

It is helpful, I think, to scan this collection in terms of the three needs I identified for English Catholicism today: intellectual, institutional, cultural - bearing in mind as we do so that Fr Timothy's remarks do not, by his own confession, simply reflect a personal view, nor do they only - though this is what, modestly, he would like us to think - gather up the flotsam and jetsam of his journeys.

They also show a particular indebtedness to his own most immediate confrères here in England, as the Preface graciously acknowledges. First of all, on matters intellectual, we find in this anthology a joy in the spaciousness of human and Christian truth, a delight in the process of learning, and a confidence that truth - if it be the truth of the creator and redeemer God, and thus conjoined with goodness and beauty - can save the world. A Church that needs the witness of intellectual holiness - of well-equipped, far seeing minds in love with God - needs by the same token those who take as their role-models a Thomas or an Albert: thinker-saints. As the ratio studiorum (study plan) of the English Dominican Province puts it:

"It is the Dominican's business and aspiration to bring his intelligence ('the soul's noblest power', as St Catherine called it) into intimate contact with the divine mysteries." So what about the institutional side of things? Though he understands the impatience with top-heavy institutions and petty-fogging rules that turned many Religious into iconoclasts, not to say anarchists, in the 1960s and 70s, Fr Timothy appreciates very well that people cannot grow into identity, and have the confidence for mission, without the support of institutional homes. His engaging metaphor for this is "ecosystems". The various vocations the Church embraces are like precious species, each of which, if it is to flourish, must enjoy the environment proper to its ecological niche. Claustral life, the liturgy, common observances, especially silence and the wearing of the habit, appeal to the special saints and distinctive devotions of the Order (he has a truly remarkable essay on the Rosary), these are environmental necessities for our species.

This is the more true as we are a species which, to preach the Gospel, must take to the road before coming home again. There is a wisdom here about the inter-relations of belonging and creativity, and it is one that the younger generation of English Dominicans (if not only they) are rediscovering for us.

Lately, there is the question of culture - notoriously, the most elusive in any discussion. Throughout this book, one finds a desire so to live and preach the faith that it will make a world that is often a human desert burst into blossom, and that in all the manifold ways (ranging from economics to the expression of friendship) that human nature requires. In my own study of the English Dominican tradition, Dominican Gallery, I argued that, without necessarily using the word "culture", the "golden age" Dominicans of the 1930s in England, in their comments on literature and work, art and education, history and society, were bringing to bear the regenerative resources of Catholic Christianity, particularly in its Thomist form, so as to bring about a new flourishing of Christian and humane culture in modern England.

In a sensitive foreword, Fr Timothy spoke of their vision of a "common cultures Dominican, Thomist and English". In Sing a New Song, he shows how much - in a fashion altogether his own - he belongs with that movement of visionary yet very concrete cultural transformation. Although his exuberance and gift of sympathy, especially with the poor and simple, are qualities not easily reproduced by the rest of us, these essays have the power to propel us further along the road to a new cultural synthesis, with the orthodox Gospel at its heart. Perhaps at least a silver age for the English Dominican contribution to Catholicism is now in sight.

Aidan Nichols is Prior of Blackfriars, Cambridge

This article first appeared in the The Catholic Herald.

Version: 6th February 2008

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