Cause, Effect and the Council
Book Review of-:
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.
This book review first appeared in National Catholic Register in February 2004
Copyright © National Catholic Register 2004
Version: 18th May 2004