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Turmoil & Truth by Phillip Trower

From Family Publications newsletter to booksellers:

We are pleased to announce our fourth co-publication with Ignatius Press which was launched earlier this month. TURMOIL AND TRUTH is a new account of the historical origins of the modern crisis in the Church. The author, Philip Trower, is an English journalist who has been reporting on events in the Church for a number of years. Using his extensive knowledge of the modern history of the Church, he gives an incisive commentary on the tangled roots of the two movements of reform and rebellion which have emerged in the Church following the Second Vatican Council. This book has already been commended by leading theologians Aidan Nichols OP and John Saward, and is arousing considerable interest from many quarters: several reviews have already been published since we printed the catalogue supplement. It is ideal for orientating the reader in the often confusing modern Catholic Church.

"The most comprehensive and penetrating account we have of the post-conciliar crisis."

- James Hitchcock, St. Louis University

"This book will help Catholics to find their way through the maze of modern Church life."

- Aidan Nichols, O.P., Author, Looking at the Liturgy

"Philip Trower confronts the turmoil of the post-conciliar years without flinching, but he explains its causes with such a sure grasp of Catholic truth that his readers will find their confidence in the Church strengthened and enlightened."

- John Saward, Author, Cradle of Redeeming Love

The Gestation Of Heresy

The author here deftly and definitely begins an answer (to be completed we may hope in yet another volume) to the question, "What on earth is going on in the Catholic Church?" That question arises in a time of severe turmoil within a Church claiming possession of absolute religious truth, and
trusted by millions in that claim, but seeming to be shaken by challenges both within and without to a point where dissent seems the rival to, if not the victor over, faith.

Trower's subtitle, "The Historical Roots of the Modem Crisis in the Catholic Church," sets the diameter of his fascinating study, stretching from the point where modern thought about and even within the Church and her teachings first appeared, to the time that thinking gave birth to a modern internal rebellion (modernism), and then to Vatican II and its aftermath. One key sentence by Trower summarizes exactly this gestation of heresy in the clash between the older philosophy and the newer:

"Catholic philosophers who have tried to come to terms with contemporary philosophy without their feet firmly planted in Christian philosophic realism have nearly all been swept away in the powerful currents of German subjectivism."

Readers of less academic taste need not be discouraged by such talk of philosophy. The author puts it in a concrete context that explains clearly how such matters feed the roots of the current crisis that is his subject. Only those who think faith can be kept apart from and immune to ideas and cultural shifts will find the academics of the crisis unimportant.

Since ideas have existential results, I am glad to find Trower pointing out that the aggiornamento which brought "
'modem philosophy' into the curriculum of Catholic universities and seminaries in place of, or alongside, the reigning scholasticism" also carried with it the contagion of modernism, which was treated, but not eradicated by Pius X's physic, the oath against that heresy. Trower does a superb job of explaining the spread of the contagion, first through Protestantism, then passing over to certain Catholic intellectuals in France and England, and then to Catholics on both the scholarly and popular level on the eve of Vatican II and afterward.

In recognizing that the reality of "modernity" has to be taken into account, and with a goal of clarifying the relationship of the Church to that world's aims and ambitions, Trower points out many "ended by giving the impression that the modern world's aims and ambitions were all but identical with those of the Church."

As a result, the author explains,

"St Augustine's vision of history as, at the deepest level, a battle between the forces of good and evil, has all but vanished from the faithful's consciousness, to be replaced by the conviction that personal salvation is not a matter of any consequence, and that there are no serious obstacles to building a better world together with men who hold radically different views about what 'better' means."

A consequence of this has been that many Catholics today accept the idea of everyone "getting along together," despite the fact that results in "getting along" toward a culture in which religious truth doesn't matter. Trower identifies this condition in many centuries, but especially in ours for the past several decades, when those accepting the new ideas live together with Catholics yet appearing to be in the same fold. "There will certainly be an end to the situation," the author comments, "because the Church could not survive if she allowed truth and falsehood to have equal rights in her pulpits and seats of learning forever. But exactly when and how unity of belief and stability will be restored is at present impossible to foresee."

But Trower ventures two possibilities: the abandonment of the new heresy by a bulk of those adhering to it now, and their reabsorption into the Church, or else the dynamism of such heresy "carrying their members out of the Church." This has happened to older heretics, the author points out, "once they find they cannot take it [the Church] over." What he finds most likely is the emergence of modernism as a "fourth denomination," made up of liberal Protestants, ex-Catholics, and "anyone else with a taste for a 'Christianity' without substance."

This reviewer finds particularly effective several original analogies employed by the author to make his points clear. For example, he compares the outcome of processes set in motion by Vatican lI to the movement of a heavily loaded car that has run out of fuel. Three men pushing it want to get it safely 20 yards farther along to a broad place in the road out of danger's way; three others who have offered to help push intend to push it much farther till they can shove it over a cliff, with the car owner and his two friends over after it. "Once the pushing begins and the car starts moving, it is probable the car is going to come to rest more than 20 yards from the starting point even if it does not end up at the cliff's foot."

Carrying his analogy further, Trower explains that some watching from afar will consider the original three who started the process troublemakers, when they see them abandon their pushing and rush to the front of the car to try to stop its onward movement. This, Trower explains, is why some have been able to exploit the understanding that all who have resisted the post-council movement of the Church are trying to reverse the council's work, when what they have actually been up to is to stop its going over the cliff.

Without directly accusing some he names, Trwcr identifies some who have been pushing the Church all the way to disaster, rather than to safety. I leave it to readers to find their identities in this book, but add as a footnote that a few from the start deserve to be known as those recognizing what was really happening, and sounding alarms that echoed in some few places, The Wanderer being one of them and most prominently so. Few of the onlookers, however, were willing to think such "alarmists" had it right. Perhaps Trower's book can convince them otherwise.

This review first appeared in the 6th November 2003 issue of The Wanderer.

Review by Francis Phillips

This is a book that thoughtful, faithful Catholics have been awaiting a long time. That the Church is undergoing a prolonged period of turmoil and crisis which seems unprecedented in her long and chequered history, is obvious. Those who grew to adulthood before the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and who have watched the subsequent developments in the Church have felt anguish and dismay at the widespread disobedience to the magisterium, so-called 'loyal dissent' on the part of many of the intelligentsia, endless liturgical experimentation, scandals and sheer ignorance of the Faith that seem to bedevil the Church today.

In just 200 pages Philip Trower gives a lucid and readable account of how this crisis came about, deftly weaving all the different strands together to give an educated layperson a more balanced, comprehensive picture than is usually depicted by the different groups within the Church. At one extreme are the modernists, who want to change the whole nature of the Church; at the other are the traditionalists, who want nothing ever changed; in between are the vast numbers of the faithful, both hierarchy and lay, embracing all the shades of grey between these antitheses. The author rightly makes it clear that the 'rebellion of the left' has been far more devastating in its consequences than rebellion from the Right - Lefebvrism.

At the centre is Vatican II itself, enthusiastically welcomed by some for the wrong reasons, deplored by others. Nothing was wrong with the Church before the Council, protest one group; everything was wrong with it, insist another. With charity, wit and much erudition, the author seeks out the roots of this malaise and gives a hopeful, if nuanced, perspective. For those of us (many, I imagine) who are pardonably confused by the sheer flood of words and debate on this topic, the author gives careful definitions as he goes along: the distinction between 'reform' and 'aggiornamento'; the difference between 'deduction' and 'induction'; why 'reform' that is good and necessary can develop into gradual 'rebellion' against truth. He analyses the state of the Church before the Council with great acuity, pointing out the temptations of the hierarchy (e.g. on bishops: 'the apostle vanishes inside the executive') and the failings besetting lay people during the same period (e.g. equating 'decent behaviour and pleasant manners with supernatural goodness'). The chapters on 'The Flock' are particularly insightful as well as humorous and should put paid to the fallacious notion that Church was in a healthy state in the decades immediately preceding the Council.

We are introduced to the powerful theological personalities influencing the Council in their writings, in particular Father Yves Congar OP who, with fellow Dominicans, Fathers Chenu and Feret, was responsible for altering the definition of the Church from 'the Mystical Body of Christ' to 'the People of God'. Others include the late Father Bernard Haering, a Redemptorist and peritus at the Council who, though from an Order renowned for its moral rigour, spent much time after the Council travelling the world explaining to Catholics 'on which points they could qualify their adherence to the Church's teaching about the use of their procreative powers'. Describing Pope Paul VI's struggles with progressive theologians and bishops the author, sympathetic to the Pope but conscious of his weaknesses, suggests it was as if the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had been 'called to do battle with Lenin'. Tribute is rightly paid to our present Holy Father who, as Bishop of Krakow at the time of the Council and alone among his fellow bishops 'made such conscientious efforts to understand what God wanted from the Council and to apply it'.

The footnotes are full of dry humour as well as illuminating the text and they considerably deepen our understanding of the battlefield e.g. note 1, page 99, says 'Around the time of the Council, the forces of dissent launched the term 'the Constantinian Church'. The idea behind it was that with Constantine the Church entered into a permanent alliance with the State - any and every state apparently - in order to keep the laity in a condition of childlike subjection politically and religiously, a situation that was supposed to have lasted without interruption from 313 A.D. to 1958…' Note 4, also on page 99, discussing the vexed question of the role of the laity, is succinct: 'Modernist theology regards the roles of clergy and laity as more or less interchangeable. The conciliar teaching is that they are complementary: the clergy sanctify the laity, and the laity in their turn go out and endeavour to sanctify society or the world. This, fundamentally, is how the laity are to be involved in the Church's mission.'

It is a pity that Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister's wife, did not reflect on this more carefully, before her recent Tyburn Lecture, in which she happily 'clericalised the laity' with her enthusiastic statement, 'Indeed, there are often more lay people on the sanctuary than there are clergy…' and her wish for 'greater scope for active female participation in the Curia.' That it is far more necessary for lay people to endeavour to sanctify society than to crowd out priests in the sanctuary became painfully evident to me recently. Taking my daughter to the local park, we encountered a chatty 7-year-old boy on the swings. Unprompted, he informed me that 'I don't have a Dad. I have two Mums. They're lesbians. And I have 200 pounds of computer games in my bedroom.'

In his conclusion, the author gives a thought-provoking response to the question: what was the purpose of Vatican II? He sees it as having a double purpose: the main and long-term one was to lay down guidelines for renewal which would smooth the path 'for the newcomers of all nations and races who are going to encounter the Church in the first centuries of the third millennium'. Because of the cultural and scientific domination of the West these newcomers will not be like people encountering Christianity for the first time; in the author's arresting phrase 'they are going to be quasi ex-Christians without even knowing it'. The short-term purpose was God's way of 'testing' us: what do we want and what will we choose: God's Church, in which conciliar teaching is mediated through the magisterium and the Vicar of Christ, or a modernist, protestantised Church?

The author gives a moving description of 'eternal man' - 'who lives under the skin of every man and woman who has ever lived…' and whose voice we hear 'whenever the Psalms are sung or recited…' - a salutary reminder to us that our chief task is to know, love and serve God, and not the passing fashions of the spirit of the age. If I have a complaint about this important and absorbing book, it is that although Mr Trower wears his considerable learning lightly, almost too much ground is covered in a short compass, particularly the chapter on the history of Modernism (whose founding father is seen as Schleiermacher). However, the author promises a sequel shortly, dealing in greater depth with some of the questions he raises here about biblical scholarship, modern philosophy and personal experience, and their relation to truth. All those who love the Church and who want to be more fully informed about her and her mission in today's world, will look forward to it. I can only recommend this book by saying that having reached the end I am about to re-read it.

Francis was until recently the editor of the Catholic Family newspaper.

Review by Martin Blake

This is a book rich in content. It is also the fruit of many years of careful scholarship by an author who has lived through much of the 20th Century. James Hitchcock of St Louis University says it is the most comprehensive and penetrating account we have of the post-conciliar crisis. Yet Trower cloaks his scholarship with consummate ease, and one can read the two hundred pages without difficulty.

There are 23 short chapters, and the paragraphs are often brief. Notes and index are excellent. The object is to answer the question posed in the very first paragraph: What on earth is going on in the Catholic Church?, and in particular to examine the role of the Second Vatican Council. However, the greater part of the book is about events before the council. Most of us are reasonably aware of what happened in the last third of the 20th Century; what we need to be reminded of is that the council and its aftermath did not arise out of the blue.

Trower shows how the ideas of aggiornamento and inculturation have gone on in the Church for 2000 years, just as the notion Ecclesia semper reformanda est. The purpose of the council as conceived by BI. John XXIII was undoubtedly to make it easier for human beings to achieve holiness within the Church. But in the event it led to large numbers of its adherents falling away from it, and in most ways it is far less strong now than it was forty years ago. Trower shows how and why this happened.

One of his most striking literary devices is his use of analogy. Take an example from chapter one. He illustrates the question of how far a change of words in theology may lead to a change of meaning with the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill went up the hill. Substitute liquid for water and you at once make it less precise; it is now possible to suggest that what they were carrying was a pail of white wine or arsenic! Again and again he is able to spice his writing with apt analogies like this.

Behind the rebellion against the teaching of the Church in Faith and Morals lies the movement known as modernism, which is the latest in a long line of attempts to alter the religion of Christ to suit the opinions or convenience of men. The last of the four parts into which the book is divided goes in some detail into the history of the rise and effects of modernism, which has acted like a cancer within the body of the Church. Closely linked to it is the radical biblical scholarship which cast doubt on the authenticity and truthfulness of the Bible. This too is examined in some detail. A hard core of neo-modernist theologians has had an extraordinary influence over the Western Church (and in South America) which has had the effect of confusing and unsettling many of the faithful. Some have taken neo-modernist opinions on board without realising it. And large sections of the clergy have been affected, not excluding the episcopate. This episcopal revolt or collapse has been the second main cause of chaos and loss of faith. (Pg 23) One of the paradoxes of the times has been the liberal approach to dissident theologians on the part of the hierarchy, hardly any of whom have been excommunicated. As Trower says in a note: At the time of the Council the highest authorities seem to have been persuaded that had Luther not been excommunicated the Reformation would never have happened.

One reaction to all this has been that of the so-called traditionalists, who can see nothing but harm deriving from the Council, which in their opinion should never have taken place. Happily Trower sees the Council in a more positive light, and having given a brilliant insight into the causes of rebellion in the Church, and the many theologians responsible, shows how that Council and its aftermath can be seen as the will of God for the world. He also points out the limits of an ecumenical councils authority, drawing examples from history. Thus in Vatican II reform and rebellion were bewilderingly tangled. What most of the faithful throughout the West have been receiving over the last twenty-five years as the conciliar teaching, when not modernism, is only too often, I believe, nothing but the new theology before it was purified by the conciliar process. (Pg 31)

Here are a few quotations to give a taste of Trowers incisive style. Examining The Church Learned : God made Greek philosophers, or anyone resembling them, subordinate to Galilean fishermen. And again: How many Catholic scholars today really believe that Faith is a gift they can lose, or a virtue they can sin against? Speaking of the social influence of TV : How many of St Pauls converts would have survived if they had been nightly exposed to the more sophisticated goings-on (cultural, social, theatrical) of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria? And of certain types of lay persons: Discontented cultured Catholics were like a field newly ploughed and raked waiting for the revolutionary theologians to sow their seed.

In his summing-up chapter Trower mentions that the most hopeful signs of genuine renewal in the Western world are to be seen in the so-called new ecclesial movements, which the Pope has done much to encourage. The chief hurdles confronting the Church are the growing pressure for ordaining women and for making homosexual practice morally allowable. It is significant that these are the Scylla and Charybdis which are currently wrecking the Anglican Communion.

Trower finishes by examining the long-term purpose of Vatican II. He reckons that because most of the world is busy adopting Western industrial development and middle class outlooks every religion, Islam included, is soon going to face a modernist crisis. And because a high percentage of the 21St Centurys men and women of non-European origin are going to be children by adoption of the European Enlightenment, they will inevitably take on board a whole raft of Christian ideas and attitudes, as well as plenty of secularist incomprehension of Christianity. The guidelines supplied by Vatican II are essential for these potential Catholics. He sees the flood of heterodox theologians and ideas as a test for members of the Church. The grace that we most need to pray for is the gift of discernment. Finally Trower foresees modernism emerging as an independent fourth denomination (alongside Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant), made up of liberal Protestants, ex-Catholics, and anyone else with a taste for Christianity without substance, centring on the World Council of Churches.

Review by Cyprian Blamires in Faith magazine Nov-Dec 2003:

One of the problems that I faced as a prospective convert back in the late 70s was the difficulty of discerning whose among the babel of Catholic voices I was picking up on my antenna was the authentic voice of the Church . Hair-raisingly Protestant opinions were expressed by individuals I encountered and in articles by Catholic journalists, and these made me wonder whether converting would simply be a waste of time. These people usually assumed that Vatican II was merely the start of an irresistible liberalisation juggernaut in the Church. On the other hand there were the Lefebvrists and other nonschismatic traditionalists within the Church for whom Vatican II was the line in the sand: thus far, and no farther was their war cry. In the face of this bewildering cacophony, I made it my principle to listen as hard as possible to the message of the Churchs great saints and of her accredited teachers and to make this the basis of my practice, ignoring the extremists or publicity-merchants on either side of the liberalconservative divide. I resolved to attend to the messages of the likes of Mother Teresa and John Paul II (and his predecessors). To live at the heart of the Church not on either of her wings - was my goal.

This is precisely the dilemma addressed by Philip Trower in Turmoil and Truth. In this book he proposes to study the movements of thought in the Catholic Church that led up to Vatican II, to see how they influenced Vatican II or were influenced by it, and to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in all this. Trower bases his analysis on what he quite rightly sees as a vital distinction: that between reform and rebellion. This will hardly endear him to his more radical critics, but it seems to me to be a very helpful distinction in the context of a Church whose unity depends, humanly speaking, on the willingness of the rankers to obey. But Trower makes his case without vituperation or aggression, and his assumption that there is a crucial difference between the spirit of reform and the spirit of rebellion seems to me to be most helpful. What he sets out to show is that there were routes mapped out before Vatican II which Vatican II did not choose to go down. The conclusion seems to be clear: those who complain about this should put up or shut up. Trowers book is particularly valuable in that it provides a readable account accessible to the uninitiated of the historical background to Vatican II, uncovering the roots of modern controversies as far back as the nineteenth century.

Turmoil and Truth begins with a consideration of the state of mind among Catholic bishops, clergy, layfolk and intelligentsia in the years immediately preceding the Council, which Trower himself is able to describe out of his own personal experience. He goes on to relate how the reaction that set in towards the middle of the nineteenth century against Jansenist rigorism led to the phenomena of the moral revisionist; and he then displays a delightfully dry humour in relating how the celebrated Redemptorist moral theologian Bernard Haering travelled the world after the Council explaining to Catholics on which points they could qualify their adherence to the Churchs teaching about the use of their procreative powers. Fr Haerings expenses must have been a considerable item in his orders budget.

Trower goes on to look at some of the most-debated Council teachings, that on the laity for example. He has a gift for pulling out the substance of a question, concluding that the Council shifted the emphasis from the laitys obedience to the teaching and authority of the hierarchy to their obligation to participate in mission. On the issue of ecumenism he alleges that the actual conciliar texts have been, rather unfortunately, overshadowed by the various theories of theologians about the status and salvific power of other religions.

The last section of the book goes back to the French Revolution and traces the rise of modernism. Trower shows a great gift for condensation of complex philosophical and theological developments into lucid and engaging prose. His account culminates in some searching conclusions: Providence has willed this time of confusion, the letting loose of a flock of heterodox theologians and scholars who gave an alternative interpretation of the Councils teaching is a divinely-willed trial which will reveal the secrets of hearts. Quite rightly, he holds that the grace that we most need to pray for is the grace of discernment . His distinction between the spirit of reform and the spirit of rebellion offers a valuable aid to such discernment. The spirit of reform is calm, resolute, patient and loving; the spirit of rebellion is strident, aggressive, impatient and unforgiving.

Cyprian Blamires, Market Harborough, Leics. UK.

Roots of Modernism

TURMOIL AND TRUTH. The Historical Roots of the Modem Crisis in the Catholic Church. By Philip Trower (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, Colo. 80522, 2003), 207 pp. PB $14.95.

Everyone knows that there is a crisis in the Catholic Church — the original, first and only true Church founded by Jesus Christ on St. Peter and the Apostles. It is the only Church that has had continuous existence since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ about the year 30 A.D. There have been many crises in the 2000 year history of this unique community of believers: there were the Arians, the Iconoclasts, the Waldensians, the Protestants, to name just a few.

Some contemporary Catholic writers are of the opinion that the present crisis in the Church is the most serious in her whole history. What is that crisis? The short answer is that it is the heresy of Modernism, which has penetrated the Church on all levels, from the Roman Curia to the local parish school.

Modernism has been called the summation of all heresies. Being something like quicksilver, it is hard to get a grasp on it. Briefly, it means that Catholic doctrine and morals must be adapted to conform to the modern secular world; it means that there is no certain external source or religious knowledge or revelation-religious knowledge comes from personal experience; it means that dogmas of the Church are not objectively true, but are only "symbolic expressions of personal experience" (p. 151).

In concrete terms, Modernism means that false doctrines are now taught in the Church on all levels and are tolerated by bishops and those in authority, causing much confusion among the faithful. This is true for catechetics, in high schools, in colleges and universities, in seminaries, in publications of all kinds, in audio cassettes and in video recordings. Modernists in the Church are now called "dissenters." These are the men and women in the Church who promote the following ideas, either openly or covertly: the ordination of women to the priesthood, acceptance as morally good of contraception, divorce, homosexual lifestyle, intercommunion with Protestants, popular election of bishops, democratic government of the Church, and so forth.

These ideas were not espoused by Vatican II, but they are often promoted under the guise of the Council, or they are said to be "in the spirit of the Council." How did we get here from where we were in the 1950s, during the time of Pope Pius XII?

It is in order to answer that question that Philip Trower wrote this book. He has been studying this material for over 30 years. He explains the origin of Modernist ideas over the past 200 years. One of the key elements was the development in Germany during the 19th century of the historical critical method in the study of ancient documents, including the Bible. This led many scripture scholars, like Alfred Loisy in France, to lose their Catholic faith. Some aspects of the method are good and produce positive results; others, such as the assumption that miracles are impossible, lead to a denial of divine revelation, such as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Those going down this path end up in heresy.

The book has four parts. Part one gives a bird's eye view of the present problems in the Church. Here Mr. Trower makes an important distinction between true reform of the Church, or aggiornamento, and rebellion against her teaching and practice. The former can be good; the latter is always destructive.

Part two deals with various groups in the Church, such as the bishops, the scholars and the ordinary faithful. In part three he points to changes in orientation in the Church during the past hundred years or so: the nature of the Church, collegiality, the new role of the laity in the Church, ecumenism, relations with the non-Christian religions, and the relation of the Church to the world or to society in general.

In part four he treats of the rise of Modernism from about 1890 until the present time. All the key players are mentioned and their positions briefly stated: Loisy, George Tyrrell, Baron von Hugel, Lucien Laberthonniere, St. Pius X, Maurice Blondel, and many others. It is evident to this reviewer that Mr. Trower has done an immense amount of research in order to present the main ideas of so many people in such a short space. We can be thankful he is not a German professor, otherwise the book would have 800 pages and 6,000 footnotes.

In its own way, Turmoil and Truth, is a short intellectual history of Catholic thinking during the past 200 years. We can thank the author for accomplishing what he set out to do: to give a brief history of the roots of the dissent and crisis in the Church today. Because of that dissent millions of Catholics are confused about what the Church truly teaches in the areas of doctrine and morals; other millions no longer participate actively in the life of the Church by attending Mass and receiving the Sacraments; still other millions have abandoned the Church completely, some going to the fundamentalists and others abandoning religion completely.

In the final chapter Mr. Trower gives his interpretation of the Modernist crisis. He seems to see the finger of divine Providence in allowing the crisis to happen, with the hope that, when the crisis is over, the Catholic faith will be stronger than ever and will appeal to the billions of human beings who have not yet been evangelized. I recommend this book highly for bishops, priests, seminarians and all students of theology on the university or graduate level. It is a clear road map on how the Catholic Church got from there to here.

Kenneth Baker,
S.J., Editor
Ramsey, N. J.

First published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, February 2004.

A Turning Point
Russell Shaw

The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America
David Carlin, Sophia Institute Press, 432 pages, $24.95
Turmoil & Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church
Philip Trower, Ignatius Press, 207 pages, $14.95

Working on a scene-setter before the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Washington last November, a reporter had called me to test a thesis. Pressure groups — from gay and lesbian advocates and victims of clergy sex abuse to pro-life conservatives who felt the bishops weren’t doing enough for their cause — were planning to show up and protest. Would this be the biggest turnout ever?

My memory of bishops’ meetings goes back pretty far. “There have always been pressure groups,” I said. “But you may be right — this could be the largest number yet.”

The reporter had a follow-up question: “If so, why?”

“I think the main reason is the sense — widely shared by American Catholics on both the left and the right — that we’re at a turning point, headed either for regeneration and renewal or irrevocable decline. In this crisis, the pressure groups naturally want to be there and tell the bishops what to do.”

They aren’t the only ones. As the Church in the United States enters a new era with the future up for grabs, lots of people want to be heard. So, for instance, New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels, a liberal Catholic of the old school, recently discerned “irreversible decline” and “thoroughgoing transformation” as our options and predictably argued for transformation along liberal Catholic lines. Now sociologist David Carlin, writing as a conservative Catholic, declares growing “irrelevancy” to be our all-but-certain fate and explains why that is so and what needs to be done.

According to Carlin, it will happen like this:

Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals have been locked for decades in a struggle for the soul of the Church. For a long time, the liberals were winning, but lately the tide appears to have turned. Convinced that the Catholic Church as they envisage it is the one, true Church, the conservatives will persevere in the fight, but the liberals, fatally co-opted by their own relativistic view of religious truth, will get tired and go away. The conservatives will win by default — if not in this generation, then in the next.

Victory will come at a terrible price, however. With the American Catholic community drastically reduced in numbers (as in reality it already is, if you stop counting the nonpracticing nominal Catholics), the loyal remnant will be compelled to retreat into a closed and gloomy ghetto. There they will exercise approximately as much influence on American culture as the Amish and the Hasidic Jews.

There is plentiful evidence for at least part of this dire scenario. When Pope John Paul II marked the 25th anniversary of his election last October, the media celebrated with poll results showing that although American Catholics like John Paul as a man, many don’t accept what he teaches on faith and morals. That was hardly new. The media have trotted out similar polls often before, apparently intending to show that the pope is out of touch. What the results actually show is that many Catholics are out of touch — a body of people self-alienated from their own religious tradition and religious identity.

How did the Church in the United States get into this sorry state? Carlin argues that we started down the road marked “Decline” several decades ago, when Church leadership made the same mistake mainline Protestant churches had made earlier by opting for “generic Christianity” in place of distinctiveness in belief and practice. Having very nearly wiped out the Protestant mainline, this addle-pated niceness is now well on the way to doing the same to the Catholic Church.

While this rings true, it is only part of the explanation. For the rest, readers need to consult Philip Trower’s shrewd analysis of the subversive ideas, attitudes, and, yes, personalities involved in the undermining of Catholicism since Vatican Council II.

Trower, a veteran British writer on religious topics, doesn’t blame the council. He blames the people — mainly, dissenting theologians — who exploited it for their own ends, as well as those in leadership positions who tolerated, and sometimes encouraged, the exploitation. Nor, he points out, did problems only begin in the 1960s. The events of the last four decades reflect a resurgence of modernism, the Catholic version of Liberal Protestantism that Pope St. Pius X drove underground early in the last century but failed to destroy. This is a crisis with roots.

It isn’t certain things will turn out as badly as people like Carlin and Trower — and, in his own way, even Steinfels — seem to suggest. But neither is it certain they won’t. At the bishops’ meeting previously mentioned, there were signs of an emerging new seriousness on the part of the American hierarchy — a willingness to face up to problems an earlier generation of bishops routinely ducked. But such seriousness, even supposing it lasts, comes terribly late in the game.

Catholics in the United States are smack in the middle of a profound ecclesial crisis demanding a response of vigorous and creative orthodoxy. Here and there one sees dynamic new institutions and movements, as well as committed individuals living the faith in an exemplary way. One also sees an enormous amount of dead wood. It is anybody’s guess which will prevail.

Russell Shaw is author, with Germain Grisez, of Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name (Our Sunday Visitor, 2003) and 15 other books.

Reprinted with permission from CRISIS Magazine whose website is

Cause, Effect and the Council
By Barry Michaels

Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council was at its midpoint. After two years, two sessions were completed. The council's first major document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was only a few months old. Two more sessions and several more historic documents would follow over the next two years.

Turmoil & Truth, a new book by Catholic journalist Philip Trower, is a primer on the events and ideas that led up to that council as well as those that flowed from it. It is a quick tour of two centuries in Church history and thinking. Included in the tour are thoughtful looks at some wonderful moments of ambitious reform as well as at some sad instances of sinful rebellion.

Trower's argument is that neither the reform nor the rebellion came out of nowhere. Rather, they were the fruit of a long process, which began with new social and cultural realities in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, following the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon.

"The most significant of the 'new realities' for the Church was her loss of intellectual and cultural leadership," Trower writes. "A high percentage of the most gifted thinkers, writers, artists and scientists abandoned her. So too did large numbers of the actively enterprising middle classes. The departure marked the beginnings of the Church's long struggle with different forms of organized unbelief (liberal, Masonic, socialist, communist) It was the beginning of the end of Christendom as history had hitherto known it."

Much of the Church's history over the ensuing century and a half was formed by the various reactions to this situation from popes, theologians and others. In reviewing this history, we see that Catholic teaching and theology do not exist in a vacuum. The interconnectedness of history, politics, culture and faith is, for better or for worse, very real and consequential.

Turmoil & Truth also offers excellent insights into the human element of the story. The names of the main characters will not be surprising to many readers: Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, Paul VI. But we also see how a more diverse crowd, such as Albert Schweitzer, Friedrich Schleiermacher and John Henry Newman, it into the picture.

To his credit, Trower does not easily categorize many of these people as outright heroes and villains. Each is a real person, with individual gifts, weaknesses and motivations. These more nuanced descriptions truly help us understand the arc that brought us to where we are now.

In some places, I felt like Trower was attempting to do too much in too short a space. Part III, for example, tries to present so many ideas, movements and people in just 50 pages of text that it comes off bland and unsatisfying. Better if it had been either expanded — or removed.

All in all, Trower judges that we are better off for where we have been. We understand better what we have absorbed from our culture, what is compatible with our faith and what conflicts with it And we are better prepared to live in and address the modern world.

"If the Church, which is chiefly concerned with the eternal man, has adjusted her tone of voice or mode of expression from time to time throughout history," he writes, "it is only so that her message can more easily penetrate the carapace of modernity in which the eternal man is forever encased and resonate in those depths of his being which never alter. This is the sole reason why 'modernity' as such has to be taken into account."

And better understanding the Church's unchanging message is just one of many good reasons to take Turmoil & Truth into account.

Barry Michaels writes from Blairsville, Pennsylvania.

This book review first appeared in National Catholic Register in February 2004

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