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Mark Armitage - Theologian

[Mark has a particular gift in making complex theology understandable to people who have not the necessary theological background]

DATE: 3rd April 1999
An introductory summary of books by Fr Aidan Nichols OP

Here are some notes on five books by Aidan Nichols which I think are very useful reading for anyone who wishes to promote an understanding of Catholicism that is (a) totally traditional and orthodox and (b) based on solid academic and intellectual foundations.

The Shape of Catholic Theology (T&TClark, 1991) deals with the sources of theology - scripture, tradition, sacred art, liturgy, the magisterium, etc., and thus establishes the authority for what might be termed 'Catholic orthodoxy'.

Looking at the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 199?) focuses on the liturgical aspect which is sketched out in (1), and comes to the conclusion that the liturgical reforms of Vatican 2 are defective in the extreme. As I understand it (I do not posess the book), Fr Nichols advocates the reintegration of parts of the old (Tridentine) mass into the new (1969) mass, thus offering a way of uniting mainstream conservatives and actual traditionalists (e.g. the Latin Mass Society).

Epiphany: A Theological Introduction to Catholicism. Liturgical Press, 1996), effectively carries on from (1), inasmuch as, having established what the 'sources' of Catholicism are, Fr Nichols offers a survey of what orthodox Catholicism actually teaches - in a way that is aimed at the educated layman but that also exhibits a certain academic creativity and originality of approach. The title 'Epiphany' (which represents an accurate expression of the underlying theology) would, suggestively, also be a rather apt one-word summary of von Balthasar's Christology.

Catholic Thought Since the Enlightenment (Gracewing, 1998) offers a brief but comprehensive survey of Catholic theology from the Enlightenment to the present day, and can be seen as setting 1), (2) and (3) in their historical context.

The Word Has Been Abroad (T&T Clark, 1998) is an interpretative summary of von Balthasar's 7-volume masterpiece 'Herrlichkeit' ('The Glory of the Lord'). Together with the proposed volumes on 'Theodrama' and 'Theologik' it should eventually constitute the single most important introduction to von Balthasar in English (or, indeed, in any other language). Even by itself 'The Word has Been Abroad' gets right to the heart of von Balthasar, and points to the way in which von Balthasar draws together and assimilates the various strands of scripture, the fathers, ancient and modern philosophy, the scholastics, mediaeval and arly-modern spirituality and mediaeval and modern literature in order to expound his vision of the 'form' of the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ - a 'form' which shines through most gloriously on the Cross and in the descent into hell, and which is reflected in our own lives when we ourselves imitate the via crucis. (To summarise von Balthasar in one sentence is like describing Shakespeare or Mozart in a entence - it's bound to sound superficial and trite!)

Items (1) to (4) provide a kind of programme for the rediscovery of an intellectually respectable Catholic orthodoxy in the wake of the post-Vatican 2 crisis of faith, and item (5) offers a paradigm of a theological enterprise (proposed by von Balthasar) which fulfils (and even transcends) the criteria for a truly 'modern' yet entirely 'orthodox' approach to Catholicism.

I have put together this brief bibliography in the hope that some or all of the items therein might suggest a starting-point for anyone who wishes to promote traditional Catholicism in a 'modern' and 'relevant' way. Of course, there are other good writers around, but not many who combine academic excellence with impeccable orthodoxy to the extent that Aidan Nichols does.

Date: Fri, 8 Oct 1999
A perspective on the book Christendom Awake

The overall thesis, which will be regarded as controversial in liberal circles, is that the Catholic Church needs to re-energise herself by rediscovering that which is best in her own traditions, and that only when she has reacquainted herself with her own historical identity that she can embark upon a process of resacralising the world.

Because you already have people working on reviews, and because in any case the book is too tightly argued to be patient of easy summary, I tought it might be better instead to offer a brief interpretation of what it is that (as it seems to me) Fr Nichols is setting out to do.

In the years before Vatican 2 there were two 'movements' at work in the Church - the 'ressourcement' ('back to the sources') movement and the 'aggiornamento' ('updating') movement.

Vatican 2 proclaimed itself as the council of 'renewal', but it was never quite clear what 'renewal' meant, and the more conservative scholars tended to understand 'renewal' in terms of 'ressourcement' (which in practice entailed a rediscovery of the Church's patristic and early mediaeval theological and spiritual roots), while the liberals tended to understand it in terms of 'aggiornamento' (which in practice meant a certain rapprochement with liberal Protestantism).

Vatican 2 also presented the Church not as being in opposition to the world (in contrast to at least the implicit teaching of much pre-Vatican 2 ecclesiology), but as being open to the world and in dialogue with the world and as above all exercising a mission to the world, being, in the title of one of the council's documents, a veritable 'lumen gentium' (light to the world).

What Fr Nichols is basically doing is to say that,if the Church is truly to fulfil her Vatican 2 mission to be a 'lumen gentium', then the experiment of 'aggiornamento', which since Vatican 2 has tended to predominate over the rival tendency to ressourcement', has clearly not been an unqualified success, and that the the process of 'renewal' which must necessarily precede any mission to convert and sanctify the world needs to be reconceived along lines which owe less to the liberal Protestantism of the 19th and 20th centuries (aggiornamento), and more to those traditional values drawn from every period of the Church's history which define Catholic 'tradition' in the truest sense of the term.

Fr Nichols effectively puts
clear blue water between his own position and that of the liberals (who seek progressively greater assimilation to liberal Protestantism), and that of the 'traditionalists', who tend to define tradition in terms of the kind of Catholicism that obtained between the pontificates of Pius IX and Pius XII rather than in any broader sense.

In general, Fr Nichols sees to align his own understanding of Catholicism with that of Eastern Orthodoxy and with that of the (rapidly disappearing) neo-patristic strain within Anglicanism, and argues that the Roman Catholic Church, thanks to her distinctive structures, is uniquely placed to work towards the sanctification and recralisation of society.

His thesis is that the Church needs to 'rediscover' all that is good and rich in her past if she is to exercise her function as 'lumen gentium' in the future, and if 'renewal' is to denote an ongoing recreation of the Church in the image of Christ rather than an ongoing reinvention of the Church in the likeness of the world.

This, of necessity, is a very personal interpretation of Fr Nichols's book, and
Christendom Awake is so wide-ranging and so multi-faceted that other reviewers will probably approach it in a totally different fashion. My own standpoint is that of a patristics student who believes that the future of the Roman Catholic Church lies firmly within the orbit of the Orthodox churches of the east, and, while the patristic and Orthodox-ecumenical aspects of Christendom Awake represent just two themes among many, there is much encouragement in the book for those who believe that the Church cannot hope to address the world in an effective way unless she throws off the disastrous experiment of 'aggiornamento' and seeks once again to understand 'renewal' in terms of 'ressourcement'.

Version: 14th February 2008

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