On Re-energising the Church in Culture
T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1999
by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Review by Mark Armitage
In Christendom Awake the distinguished Dominican scholar
Fr Aidan Nichols offers nothing less than a blueprint for the resurrection of the mediaeval concept of Christendom,
and in doing so deals a further death-blow to the Church/world dualism which has undermined much theology both
before and after Vatican 2
Fr Nichols defines Christendom as 'a society where the historic Christian
faith provides the cultural framework for social living, as well as the official religious form of the state'. The task of the Church, he believes, is to ensure the doctrinal and spiritual formation of her own
members, to diffuse the reign of Christ the King throughout all areas of human living, and to renew all those values,
human and supernatural, which belong to Christian civilisation. Underlying this thesis is the Thomistic axiom that
'grace perfects nature' (as this is understood
by theologians such as de Lubac and von Balthasar rather than as distorted by neo-scholasticism). Just as the role
of grace is to perfect nature without at the same time undermining it, so the role of the Church is to perfect
every area of life - cultural, intellectual, moral and social - and to enable the world of created nature to attain
to that supernatural end to which (without detracting from the gratuity of grace) nature is properly ordered.
Fr Nichols accordingly charts a course between (on the one hand) the kind of pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism which regarded
itself as standing in opposition to secular culture and (on the other hand) the kind of post-Vatican 2 Catholicism
which has all too often allowed itself to surrender to secular culture, and against these extreme and ultimately
destructive positions he argues that human culture becomes truly human only when it allows itself to be transfigured
by a renewed openness to that sacramental understanding of the cosmos which the Church alone can mediate.
The most obvious point at which the natural and supernatural orders come into contact is the liturgy, and Fr Nichols
laments the way in which the liturgical reforms of recent decades, far from allowing the divine to suffuse and
divinise our human culture, have permitted untransformed human values to secularise our understanding of the divine.
In consequence, if the task of the Church is to sacralise the secular, then our first imperative must be to initiate
a 'reform of the reform'
This theme of sacralising the secular and gracing the realm of nature informs each of the following chapters. The
task of the Church is to re-Christianise philosophy (especially important in the light of the threat posed by post-modernism),
the political state (Fr Nichols offers a convincing defence of the mediaeval concept of the Christian monarchy),
and our material culture (here the inspiration is clearly the patristic perception of the cosmic significance of
the incarnation as developed by modern writers such as Hans Urs von Balthasar).
Among the individual chapters, the analysis of twentieth century spirituality (focusing on figures such as Thérèse
of Lisieux and Edith Stein) and the impassioned call for a return to a more patristic and mediaeval method of biblical
exegesis are especially good. Most thought-provokingly of all, the moving and strangely poetical section on abortion,
in which Fr Nichols draws on Charles Péguy and Patricia de Menezes, suggests (without in any way minimising
the seriousness and horror of abortion) that the souls of aborted foetuses may be on a par with those of the Holy
Innocents, and that in their capacity as martyrs they may exercise an intercessory function in heaven (above all
on behalf of those responsible for their deaths).
Although many of Fr Nichols' judgments are negative (he believes that spirituality is at something of a low ebb,
that the liturgical aggiornamento has gone alarmingly
off the rails, and that recent reforms within the religious orders have done far more harm than good), Christendom Awake is conceived not in a polemical or condemnatory spirit,
but in a spirit of constructive criticism characterised by enormous charity and by hope for the future. The style
is at times almost lyrical, and if de Lubac's The Splendour of the Church is a hymn to the Church as Christ's mystical body and spouse, then Christendom
Awake is a hymn to the Church as a veritable Lumen Gentium which alone has the power to transfigure the world by extending universally the 'form' and 'reign' of the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord.
Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Dr Mark Armitage 2001
This review first appeared in an issue of Faith and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission.
Version: 6th February 2008