Catholicising England - 26/11/99
Luke Coppen hears Aidan Nichols's extraordinary call to arms.
Christendom Awake by Aidan Nichols OP, T&T Clark, £15
In the days after Cardinal Hume's death "a visitor from, say, Poland might be forgiven for thinking he was in another Roman Catholic country", the Oxford don Neil Reading protested in The Daily Telegraph this summer. The idea that England could be mistaken for a Catholic country is risible to most practising Catholics. Mass attendance today is half the level 30 years ago. There are half as many conversions, two-thirds fewer ordinations, a third fewer priests. There are 190,000 abortions a year. The Queen is forbidden to marry a Catholic and Catholic bishops cannot sit in the Lords.
But what would England look like if it really was a Catholic country? The prolific Dominican writer Fr Aidan Nichols has set himself the challenge of imagining what contemporary English culture would be if it was infused by the teachings and tradition of the Catholic Church. What he imagines is nothing short of the "re-creation of Christendom" in Britain.
Christendom is not a word one hears often these days. Since the bloody severance of Church and State in revolutionary France, it has become eccentric, if not downright subversive, to ask whether Christians have a duty to ensure that their faith defines the state and society. For Catholics in England it is to risk reviving the deeply ingrained prejudice that Catholics will stop at nothing to gain control of public life.
But Nichols argues that this is precisely what Catholics are required to do. Nichols believes that as things stand England's four million Catholics have little chance of influencing a radically pluralist, technology-centred culture. Before we can think about influencing this culture, he says, we have to put our own house in order, beginning with a "threefold - intellectual, spiritual and moral - renewal of the Church".
The author sets out an ambitious and invigorating strategy to strengthen the Church's impact on society. He makes a persuasive call for the "re-enchantment of the liturgy" (a renewed wonder at the mystery of the Mass), the revival of "doctrinal consciousness", the re-launch of Christian philosophy, the remaking of religious life, the re-evaluation of ecumenism, the reclamation of the Bible (from secular critics) and the renewal of priestly mission. Nichols, one of the best theological popularisers alive today, expounds each of these ideas in an exhilaratingly imaginative way.
Take ecumenism. Like most Anglican converts, Nichols believes that ecumenical dialogue between Rome and Canterbury is a perilous exercise in mutual self-deception. He argues unapologetically that the Orthodox Church should be the Catholic Church's ecumenical partner of choice. The Orthodox focus on dogma, liturgy, contemplation and monasticism is just what the Church needs after the influx of secular ideas following the Second Vatican Council, he asserts.
Or take abortion - an issue which drives even the most hopeful to despair. Nichols approaches the issue through Charles Péguy's poem The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. Are aborted children, Nichols asks, not unlike the Innocents who were killed because they resembled the infant Christ? Should they be officially proclaimed martyrs and honoured on the feast of the Holy Innocents?
The most important chapter, however, is the passionate epilogue. Aware that he is broaching a taboo subject, he suggests that nothing has "done greater harm to Catholic psychology in England than the effective withdrawal of commitment to the conversion of England as a desirable goal".
These thoughts, and a thousand others within Christendom Awake, are beginning to stir Catholics in this country to think the unthinkable. Already there is a website (www.christendom-awake.org) devoted to Nichols's ideas, proof positive that his book raises questions which go to the heart of the future of the Church.