Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols

Catholic Theology in Britain: the Scene since Vatican II
Part I

Aidan Nichols OP

A good place to begin this survey of the post-conciliar Catholic theological scene in Britain-which means, overwhelmingly, in this context, England-is the symposium on theology and the Catholic Church in this country, held at Downside under the presidency of Dom Christopher Butler in 1963.
[1] Though, as that date indicates, the papers were written and published while the Second Vatican Council was still in session (they were the product of the sixth of a series of Downside symposia on matters of intellectual interest to Catholics beginning in the later 1950s), the majority of the authors consciously looked forward to what would be, they imagined, the setting and general direction of Catholic theology in Britain after the Council. In various respects, to be examined shortly, the Catholic contributors were right in their predictions, but not in all. The historian will note the rôle of Christopher Butler as inspirer of the Downside symposia in general and author in particular of the opening essay in Theology and the University: An Ecumenical Investigation. As abbot of the only English monastery with a substantial scholarly tradition, a writer of distinction on the Gospels, ecclesiology, spiritual theology and apologetics,[2] as well as a nationally known radio personality through the panel programme Any Questions, his attendance at the Council as that rare bird a theological peritus with voting rights-owing to the accident that he was at the time abbot president of the English Benedictine Congregation-gave him the opportunity to become the single most influential interpreter in England of the Council's devices and desires,[3] especially when he was made a bishop auxiliary to Cardinal Heenan with, in effect, a special portfolio for doctrine and theology.[4]

How, then, did the contributors to the Downside symposium see the English Catholic theology of the future, and in what regards did subsequent events prove them both right and wrong? First, they expected that theology would increasingly be practised by a collaboration-Newman's term
conspiratio was invoked here-of priests and laity, such as their own gathering indeed represented. They did not foresee the decimation of the ranks of the most able clergy, whether by laicisation or by outright abandonment of the Church. The latter fate, in different senses, befell two out of three secular priests among the Downside essayists. Charles Davis, professor of dogmatics at Heythrop and the chief haute vulgarisateur in England of the best European Catholic theology of the 1940s and 50s,[5] became after his marriage a professor of Religious Studies in Ontario.[6] Anthony Kenny, whom Heenan, as archbishop of Liverpool, had rudely uprooted from philosophy teaching in the University there to become, for the good of his soul, a parochial curate rose effortlessly in secular academia to become Master of Balliol College, and then Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford.[7] Subsequently, with the acceptance of laypeople as lecturers in the seminaries (though this had a late Victorian precedent in the case of William George Ward), and the launching of such different ventures as the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain and the Maryvale Institute with their new opportunities for exchange, in the first case, cooperation in the second, the hopes of the symposiasts in this connexion took on more flesh. But the extent to which the teaching of theology by Catholics in British institutions and the production of Catholic theology of an academic or quasi-academic kind is now, thirty years later, so largely the preserve of the laity would, I think, have amazed them. The departures of Davis and Kenny were the results of crises of faith, one about specifically Catholic Christianity, the other about any form of acceptance of revelation or indeed the existence of God, though both men had criticisms of the Church culture they had known-in Kenny's autobiography expressed with affectionate bemusement, but in Davis's with considerable bitterness.[8] The publication of A Question of Conscience marked - at least this is the view of another distinguished critic of the Church, Adrian Hastings, subsequently professor of theology at Leeds-the ending of an implicit agreement on the part of bishops, priests and laity generally in England to take the best from the Council for the future, and the beginning of that endemic squabbling over its significance which the national communications media identified, after 1966, as the progressive-against- conservative Catholic divide.[9]

The second expectation of the Downside symposiasts was that Catholic theology in England would enter into closer relation with the study of literature. Although that topic fell, in the 1964 collection, to another Downside monk, Dom Illtyd Trethowan, to consider, and Trethowan was more a metaphysician and theologian of mysticism than he was a literary critic, its future would be more closely bound up with a contributor who took as his theme Newman's concept of an educated laity, and this was John Coulson, later Fellow in Residence at the Downside Study Centre in the University of Bristol.
In Newman and the Common Tradition (1970), Coulson would identify Newman's characteristic mode of expression as belonging with what the Bristol scholar called a fiduciary language of 'ultimate concern', best represented by poets, and most reflectively, in the English literary tradition, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and some ten years later, in Religion and Imagination, would follow this up by a more general plea for a theological re-evaluation of the rôle of disciplined imagination-of the kind exemplified by great literary figures and discussed by their critics-in the apprehension and understanding of revelation.[10] Such concern for the marriage of theology and literary studies would prove an enduring feature of post-Conciliar English Catholic theology. It played an important part in a very different movement, the early political theology of Catholics rallying to the New Left-as witness for instance the twin studies Culture and Liturgy and Culture and Theology by Brian Wicker, recently the president of the Catholic Theological Association.[11] (The 'New Left' had started as the search for a socialist 'third way' between Communism and social democracy-effectively, a combination of Trotskyism and the native Guild Socialism of G. D. H. Cole, but it subsequently became more 'hardnosed', under the influence of the rigorously 'scientific' interpretation of Marx in Louis Althusser.)[12] Wicker resisted absorption by Catholic Marxism, however: his The Story-Shaped World anticipates, rather, thev - largely American - 'narrative theology' of the 1980s and 1990s.[13]

The connexion between theology and literature would become an important element, at least, in the complex theological method of two of the few significant post-Conciliar fundamental and dogmatic theologians, Nicholas Lash, a secular priest and erstwhile Dean of St Edmund's House, Cambridge, who, laicised in due canonical form, was able to retain the confidence of the national hierarchy while simultaneously occupying the Norris-Hulse chair at Cambridge;
[14] and the far less productive Sri Lanka born but British-educated English Dominican Cornelius Ernst.[15] The theological potential of literature either directly or via philosophical elucidations of the same would also count for much in the work of a confrère and pupil of Ernst, the Scottish born philosopher of religion Fergus Kerr, not least in his Stanton Lectures Immortal Longings, published in 1997.[16] The revival of theological aesthetics in European Catholic theology with the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar confirmed this trend - at least among those open to his influence. It is embodied, with greater clarity of doctrinal affirmation, as well as a willingness, shared with Lash and, in his comparatively small oeuvre, Ernst, to extend one's sweep to the visual arts and music likewise in the work of two Catholic theologians currently teaching in the more northern parts of the kingdom-Patrick Sherry, holder of the only University-funded lectureship in Roman Catholic thought, at Lancaster (thus his Spirit and Beauty),[17] and Francesca Aran Murphy, at Aberdeen, in the more commitedly Balthasarian guise of her Christ the Form of Beauty which also, however, attempts a revival of the Neo-Thomist aesthetics of Maritain.[18] The same impulse is apparent in the Cambridge philosopher of religion Janet Martin Soskice, whose early interest in the language of metaphor has now broadened - stimulated no doubt by marriage to a professional artist - to a concern with theology's relation to art.[19]

Why did this linkage of theology and literature (in particular) prove so attractive to theologians in England? The probable reason, initially at least, was the inhospitableness of the prevailing philosophical culture to metaphysics and hence to the largest questions with which theology must deal. The notion that, for instance, the literary criticism of F. R. Leavis and the Cambridge School (for so it seemed) was performing the same sort of function which such phenomenologists as Maurice Merleau-Ponty or, in his early period, Martin Heidegger played in the philosophical world of France and Germany could be used as justifying the abandonment by theology of philosophy as at any rate her exclusive handmaid and
principal interlocutor.[20] The seriousness about life in its moral and cosmic dimensions which informed Leavis's literary-critical judgments about the English novel, seemed more promising than the corresponding Oxford philosophical school of linguistic analysis which, at its most trivial, could appear exercised by issues no larger than whether 'and' could mean the same as 'but' or spotting the precise semantic difference between a semi-colon and a comma.

However, this is not to say that the Downside symposium, to return to our starting point, had no hopes at all of University philosophy in England, nor is it to insinuate that all such hopes were misplaced. Anthony Kenny, making clear his distaste for the eclectic Scholasticism in logic, psychology, cosmology and metaphysics generally of the Gregorian University, identified several aspects of English philosophy that could be turned, he thought, to the Church's purpose. Kenny noted first of all, the increasing influence of Wittgenstein's later philosophy-the Wittgenstein of the
Philosophical Investigations - with the body-blows this had struck logical empiricism, the most virulently anti-religious form of the British empirical tradition.[21] The early political theologians-mostly laymen though with two Dominican advisers, Herbert McCabe and Laurence Bright-would exploit Wittgensteinian notions of the language of a community as embodying its form of life to interpret the sacramental language of Catholicism as a social-indeed socialist-manifesto (thus the movement 'Slant').[22] In the significantly titled Theology after Wittgenstein Fergus Kerr would treat Wittgenstein as assisting Catholic theology not so much to emancipate people from the atomism and superficiality of a culture shaped by consumerist capitalism (the Slant perspective) as to free them from the perplexities generated by both a hubristic metaphysics and an excessive scepticism. Man, for a Catholic Wittgensteinian, is essentially a ritual or ceremonial animal.[23] However, in a retraction added to the second edition, Kerr conceded he had gone too far in the way he opposed, with Wittgenstein, the Cartesian idea of the self as essentially immaterial mind, and by treating it, in the words of Francesca Murphy's criticism, as simply an 'epiphenomenon of the social narrative', had risked eliminating the soul altogether.[24]

These difficulties may suggest that Kenny was more felicitous in his second choice of emphasis: namely, when he drew attention to the revival in philosophy departments of the study of that figure whom Aquinas had called-quite simply-philosophus-'the Philosopher', Aristotle. The renaissance of philosophical interest in Aristotle in England happens to coincide with the post-Conciliar epoch. This enabled Catholic philosophers like the celebrated duo Elizabeth Anscombe, professor of philosophy at Cambridge, and her husband Peter Geach, professor of logic at Leeds, to revive notions of the soul, of intention, of the good, and of virtue which were singularly at home in Catholic thought,[25] and so to prepare the way for the present florescence of, in particular, virtue ethics, of which the prize bloom is the Glasgow-born Alasdair MacIntyre, a convert to Catholicism after a journey which led through Barthianism and a Trotskyism comparable to the Christian Marxism of the Catholic New Left to Aristotle and so to Thomas.[26]

Kenny's third reason for thinking that English philosophy might not be so bad a partner for Catholic theology after all was its interest in logical studies and notably in the modal logic and tense logic (lost to view after the Renaissance) which late mediaeval thinkers had considered vital to the proofs of the existence and attributes of God. Geach, at Leeds, and Michael Dummett, at Oxford, would take up this line, in partial debt to the independent rediscovery of these ideas in late nineteenth century Germany by Gottlob Frege.
[27] The significance of such logical studies lay in the first place in their usefulness for the clarification of the propositions found in Catholic doctrine and theology, and hence for defending the intelligibility of the same. Kenny, however, looked forward to something more constructive-what he termed a 'rigorously formulated natural theology' without whose creation, so he wrote 'there seems to be little hope of commending theism at a serious level to a philosophical public'. Just such a natural theology is under construction in the work of David Braine of the University of Aberdeen whose planned trilogy is now two parts completed.[28]

Until recently, the philosophical theology found in recent English Catholicism has been predominantly, then, of a kind suggested by the predominance of logic in secular philosophy and the esteem accorded to the principal Christianised Aristotelian, Aquinas. The combination of elements of Thomism and the analytical method, as found in writers like the Welsh Dominican Brian Davies, the Bristol philosopher Christopher Williams and, in Scotland, John Haldane of St Andrews, enabled these writers to dialogue easily with the predominant school of philosophers of religion in this country.[29] The question remains open, however, whether some more ontologically oriented kind of metaphysics is not required by Catholic faith which, after all, is ultimately interested in metaphysics because it wishes to display the pre-conditions in human nature that make the hope of the beatific vision a reasonable option for us. Persistence in asking that question, the question of 'The Absolute and the Atonement', namely, our at-one-ing with the Absolute, the Unconditioned, was the peculiar mission to the Catholic Church in England of Illtyd Trethowan, whose own philosophical theology was built on a combination of Augustine, Blondel, and such earlier twentieth century French 'philosophers of spirit' as Louis Lavelle.[30]

The question also remains open as to whether the influence of Continental Post-Modernism will eventually displace analytic philosophy from its dominance in the English Universities. Those University departments are, on the one hand, more generously eclectic than once they were; on the other, the beauty of the analytic method is that, while in practice the majority of its practitioners, as Elizabeth Anscombe has lately lamented,[31] suppose it to be an instrument of the secularisation of thought, in principle a believer can use it quite as well as a non-believer-whereas when a theologian, such as the Anglo-Catholic John Milbank, makes use of Post-Modernist categories he must quickly show how he also goes beyond them on pain of ceasing to be a believer at all.[32] The same involvement with Post-Modernist discourse can be observed in an English Roman Catholic writer in some ways comparable to Milbank, Gerard Loughlin of the University of Newcastle on Tyne.[33] The two men are linked in the Cambridge-based and largely High Anglican theological movement which claims the name 'Radical Orthodoxy'.[34]

So far I have mentioned three sorts of expectations entertained by the Downside symposiasts, representative as they were of the intellectual cream of English Catholicism as the Council entered its second session-their belief that the theology of the future in England would take the form of a
conspiratio of clergy and laity; that it would be closely concerned with literary studies; and that it would make its peace, not without profit, with Anglo-Saxon philosophy. All these expectations were well-founded, as was a fourth-and that was their conviction that theology as practised by Catholics would increasingly find its true home in University faculties-but I shall reserve my comments on that last example of accurate prophecy for when I make a brief tour d'horizon of the institutions in which Catholic theology in England currently finds itself embodied-towards the end of this article.

I want to turn now, rather, to an expectation that was not so manifestly fulfilled, and that is the assumption, articulated by Abbot Butler, that, while the well-known specialisations of theology, including positive theology-biblical studies, patristics, Church history, liturgics, spiritual theology, moral and pastoral theology-would continue to flourish, the main contribution of Catholics on the national scene at large would be in that mode of theologising for which the entire previous history of their theological culture-unlike the Anglican-had prepared them, namely, systematic theology of a speculative but dogmatic kind.

If we are to consider the work done by Catholic writers in England since the middle 1960s, we might well be tempted to consider as its greatest weakness that very aspect in which Butler imagined it would most strongly make its mark. Since the Council, we can certainly think of figures who, in all the specialisations I have mentioned, have done work of quality, albeit from different angles of vision, angles which that happy device of moderate relativists 'perspectivism' may not be able always to render synoptic. In New Testament studies, the defence of the priority of Matthew and Luke made by Dom Bernard Orchard of Ealing, in co-operation with other members of the Society for the Study of the Gospels which exists in part precisely to fend off the ill consequences for the Church's portrait of Jesus that unquestioned acceptance of Marcan priority carries, can hardly be reconciled with the much more median position-within the world of historical-critical New Testament scholarship - occupied by his fellow monk Dom Henry Wansbrough of Ampleforth (though we note that it is Dom Henry, and not Dom Bernard, who is a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission).
[35] And if the Catholicism of Fr John McHugh of Ushaw was palpable in the doctrinal underpinnings of his The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament,[36] it can also be detected in the notably theologically-minded Old Testament exegesis of Fr Robert Murray of Heythrop.[37]

Patristics has been represented not only by Murray's marvellous study of the symbolic ecclesiology of the Syrian speaking church of the early centuries,[38] but also by the Cyprian studies of his confrère Maurice Bévenot, important as these were ecumenically owing not least to the disputed interpretation of Cyprian on the Roman primacy.[39] English Jesuits, in fact, made their mark in this period chiefly in patrology-for to Bévenot and Murray one must add the names, not only of Edward Yarnold of Campion Hall, Oxford, with his investigations of the liturgy of initiation in the Greek and Latin Fathers,[40] a topic of more than historical interest with the re-introduction, in neo-patristic style, of an adult catechumenate in the Latin church after Vatican II, but also of Anthony Meredith of Heythrop whose The Cappadocians, appearing in an ambitious series of 'Outstanding Christian Thinkers' edited by Brian Davies, placed in context that kind of Greek Trinitarian thinking, never lost sight of among the Orthodox, which increasingly influenced the revival of Trinitarian theology among both Catholic and Reformed Christians in the West in the 1980s and 90s.[41] With this quartet belong the solo voices of two Mendicant students of patristic Triadology, the Oxford-based American Capuchin Thomas Weinandy and the English Dominican Edmund Hill who has done more than any other scholar to render intelligible the structure of Augustine's De Trinitate-partly through the characteristically whimsical device of comparing it to Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass - and thus, for those who could hear, righting the negative record which anti-Augustinian Anglicans and Protestants (especially) were registering.[42]

Our Church historians have sought, it would seem, by a conspiratio of their own, to make possible a more seamless grasp of a Catholic continuity which the shock of the post-Conciliar crisis could sometimes seem to imperil: thus Eric John of Manchester and Henry Mayr-Harting, the first Catholic to be Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, have taken the Anglo-Saxon period;[43] Jack Scarisbrick of Warwick, and Eamon Duffy and Richard Rex of Cambridge the late mediaeval and Reformation eras in which, it is hardly excessive to say, their efforts have brought about a veritable revolution in the more positive assessment that is now general of the immediately pre-Reformation Church,[44] and then, for the post-Reformation community there is Professor John Bossy of York, Professor Alan McClelland of Hull, editor of Recusant History, and the late Fr J. Derek Holmes of Ushaw.[45] In liturgics, the work of Lancelot Sheppard, Mgr J. D. Crichton and Fr Clifford Howell presented, belatedly, the main lines of the twentieth century Liturgical Movement to British Catholics and, in Crichton's case, expounded the texts and explained the rubrics of the reformed rites.[46] They could not have expected the cat among the pigeons loosed by Dr Kieran Flanagan of the Department of Sociology at Bristol when he took up the criticisms of the reformed Liturgy-or at any rate its current presentation-made by such Catholic cultural anthropologists as Victor Turner and Mary Douglas as well as fellow sociologists from other Christian traditions, declared deficient the notions of rite, community and celebration with which pastoral liturgists had been operating, and called for the re-enchantment of the Liturgy by a re-thinking of these notions with assistance from such German-language theologians as Joseph Ratzinger and Balthasar.[47] In spiritual theology, the prematurely deceased Eric Doyle of the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury opened up Bonaventure and Francis himself [48]; and at Blackfriars, Oxford, Simon Tugwell the early Dominican sources.[49]

The Welsh Germanist scholar Oliver Davies has done a great deal to make the Flemish and Rhineland mystics accessible to us,
[50] and Dom Sebastian Moore of Downside produced his own idiosyncratic spirituality,[51] a mixture of theology with philosophy and psychology centring on themes of desire, hope, pain and the elusive nature of selfhood which has not been without its influence, I think, on the choice of themes orchestrated by his nephew Professor Lash, while in a more classical vein for a monastic theologian was the exploitation of Eckhart made by the Ampleforth monk Cyprian Smith.[52] From the Quidenham Carmel of Ruth Burrows (Mother Rachel, O.C.D.), a somewhat disputed interpretation of the great Carmelites, notably St John, provided at any rate an analogical reading of what the 'nights' of the sanjuanist tradition entail.[53] Other much-read spiritual theologians (if, in the absence of an underlying structure for ascetical and mystical commentary, the phrase can still be allowed) were the Jesuit Gerald W. Hughes whose God of Surprises[54] owed something to the early twentieth century Friedrich von Hügel (a hero of Lash's) and the layman Donald Nicholl whose Holiness drew on the Russian Orthodox tradition as well as those of the non-Christian East: an example, but not a dogmatically irresponsible one, of the 'wider ecumenism'.[55] At the other end of the spectrum where the integration of spirituality and doctrine is concerned, stands the work of John Saward, formerly an Anglican priest, whose exactly researched and beautifully crafted writing is better known in the United States, where he has taught for a number of years, than in his native England-though thanks to the Oxford connexions of the International Theological Institute, he has now returned home.[56] Two writers who combined metaphysics with mysticism must also be mentioned here: the wonderfully synthetic thinker Noel Dermot O'Donoghue, an Irish Carmelite based in Edinburgh, and his crisply analytic counterpart Denys Turner, now Nicholas Lash's successor at Cambridge.[57]

Moral theology proved the single most controverted area of post-Conciliar Catholicism: in a sense, after all, the divergences of view not only about ecclesiology and so the sacraments but about the theology of revelation and so doctrine at large, are traceable at least in England to the initial crisis caused in the Council's wake by Paul VI's first hesitation and then intervention over artificial contraception. And so it was in English moral theology, where proponents of Proportionalism reached more accommodationist ethical conclusions, as with the Heythrop moralists, while across London the members of the Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics were absolutists, under the influence of the Thomist Aristotelianism of Professors Anscombe and Geach, but also the firm opposition to all forms of covert Consequentialism insisted on by Professor John Finnis of University College, Oxford, British-based collaborator of the influential American moralist Germain Grisez.

Before the style of this essay degenerates completely into that of an end-of-term school report, let me come to my main point in this section. That the production of a speculative systematics - in other words, of a Catholic dogmatics capable of giving an overall view of the context in which these various specialisations should live, move and have their being - though Butler considered it the main gift English Catholics could make to their non-Catholic counterparts, has hardly happened. Three people at least, at the beginning, middle and end of our period respectively, were capable of it: Mgr Francis Davis of Oscott at the start; Cornelius Ernst of Blackfriars Oxford in the middle and Nicholas Lash of Cambridge at the end. Davis, schooled by Newman, Thomas and Karl Barth, could have taken a wider view, but perhaps through over-heavy teaching duties, at Birmingham University and Oscott, produced chiefly theme articles like those in the unfinished
Catholic Dictionary of Theology, 1962-1971, which he edited, and which came to a regrettable stop with the pregnantly entitled volume III, 'Hegel to Paradise'.[59] Cornelius Ernst suffered from over-complexification and writer's block, though his short Theology of Grace and posthumous essay collection Multiple Echo are vastly rewarding.[60] Nicholas Lash is by far the most prolific of those authors, and, after a period in which his early doctrinal interests seemed eclipsed by considerations of theological method, produced in 1992 a commentary on the Apostles Creed which, though the closest thing to an original dogmatics we have, is too compressed and allusive really to serve our need.[61] I believe that this failure of English Catholics to produce systematics is bound up with the institutional circumstances in which Catholic theology is carried on. It derives, in other words, and here I come to the question I earlier noted but reserved for my penultimately closing section, from the all too marked success with which the Downside symposiasts prophesied of future Catholic theology in England that increasingly in the State faculties would it find its home.

Without in any way regretting the new opportunities for rendering Catholic theology more fully a public enterprise which comes from the professionalisation of Catholic theologians, chiefly laymen and laywomen, through employment in the Universities (both the ecumenical dimension and the contact with a broader constituency of' thinkers and scholars can only be beneficial
per se), we can still, I think, register disquiet that so little is done by collaboration among Catholics themselves in settings where there is taken for granted a Catholic liturgical and spiritual ambience, and a general consensus about the elements which should enter into a Catholic systematics-a suitable philosophical preamble, linked in some way to the ontological concerns that are central for Catholic thought; the Scriptures regarded as an inspired body of literature; the monuments of Tradition that Catholic theologians have customarily consulted in their scanning of Scripture; the rôle of the magisterium in the making of doctrine and the refraction of its teaching in the lives of the faithful.

Catholic Theology in Britain: the scene since Vatican II - part 2

This version: 18th July 2009

Home Page

Fr Aidan Nichols