March 2005

The Church of the Fathers. By John Henry Newman.  Introduction and Notes by Francis McGrath. University of Notre Dame Press. 679 pages. $40.

Newman wrote this work on the Church of the Fathers as a way of meeting a crisis confronting the Church of England in 1833. As the editor informs us, Parliament proposed to abolish 10 of the 22 bishoprics of the Anglican Church in Ireland. This political act had tremendous theological implications for Newman and his Anglo-Catholic friends. If the Established Church had its roots in the Church founded upon the Apostles, then only the bishops, the descendants of the Apostles, had the right to abolish these bishoprics. So Newman and his friends began the Oxford Movement, to alert the bishops and priests to the danger of politicians meddling with the Church. If the clergy did not resist, they would be acknowledging that the Protestant wing of the Church had been right all along in denying the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, thus making the Church a mere creature of the State. The theological stakes were high -- so high that when the Established Church eventually showed itself to be Protestant at heart, Newman left it in 1845 to join the Catholic Church.

During the intervening years, Newman wrote The Church of the Fathers. The period Newman chose for his description of the Church in action was the fourth century. The Church, recognized by Constantine in 313 as the official Church of the Roman Empire, attempted to put her own house in order by condemning the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Instead of being crushed, the heresy spread with amazing rapidity, infecting the Imperial Court, dividing the bishops, and confusing the people.

Newman also shows St. Anthony reading the Gospels, giving all he had to the poor, and then fleeing to the desert. Eventually, Christians flocked to him, so that he became one of the founders of monasticism. What did the high-and-dry school of the Established Church think of Newman's example? Surely they were uncomfortable with this picture of a layman going out into the desert to pray and fast. They did not like enthusiasm in any form, particularly religious. Yet St. Anthony inspired the ordinary folk to be a main bulwark in resisting the Arian heresy.

Newman then turns his attention to the Eastern Church, where the Bishops Sts. Basil and Gregory saved the Eastern Church from the Arians.

Newman then turns to the Western Church, following the course of St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. The Emperor's mother, an ardent Arian, wanted to take over a basilica entrusted to the charge of the Catholic Bishop. Ambrose refused, stating that he, a successor of the Apostles, could not hand over what was God's to a heretic. Hearing that the Imperial troops were going to take the basilica anyway, the Bishop and his flock retired to the basilica and stayed there night and day. Surrounded by the troops, the congregation prayed and sang, for the first time, what is known today as the Ambrosian Chant. Then the people discovered the remains of two unknown martyrs; a blind man touched them and was cured. Even the soldiers were intimidated by this manifestation of God's power. So the Bishop and his flock won the struggle; the Imperial Court backed down.

Newman then looks to another Bishop in the West, St. Augustine, who was not successful in his fight for the Church. Newman recounts Augustine's story of conversion, initiated by his reading of a biography of St. Anthony written by St. Athanasius. The story of the saint in the desert inspired the ambitious rhetorician to give up his career and return to the faith of his birth. Eventually, he became a bishop, due to the intervention of the people. Newman analyzes in particular one of Augustine's letters which deals with what churchmen should do when confronted by barbarian invasion. Should they stay with their flocks or move to a safer place? Augustine maintained that a bishop should stay with the portion of the flock that is unable to flee. Newman's account closes with the Vandals, Arian in religion and barbarian by birth, besieging the gates of Hippo in 430, even while its Bishop was dying. A few years after his death, they destroyed the Church of St. Augustine's labors, only to be destroyed, in turn, themselves by the Muslims a few centuries later. The Church in North Africa was, and is, no more.

Newman's point is that it is the duty of shepherds and flocks to resist secular authority. Newman's book was understandably not received very favorably by the Established Church. It emphasized such very Catholic things as relics, miracles, holiness, monasticism, and resistance to secular authority. It did, however, impress his allies, who would now have a vivid picture of what a real Church looks like. It should also impress Catholics today. It is no slight thing for a Church to claim that she is the only successor to the Apostles, in this or in any other age. Newman realized this boldness -- and put it into words.

- Richard Geraghty



Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales.  By Russell Kirk. Eerdmans. 406 pages. $25.

Must we be "Peeping Toms at the keyhole of eternity?" The question is Arthur Koestler's; but Russell Kirk sets out, he tells us, "to help extract the stuffing from the keyhole."

But how? Kirk calls upon our imagination -- prompted by his own decidedly moral imagination. Tales of the supernatural, if well told, can lead us to push at the edges of the natural and even taste a bit of the preternatural. Ah, NOR readers might wonder, what preternatural? Not, let's be clear, the wooly wonderings of theosophy, whether courtesy of Madame Blavatsky or Shirley MacLaine.

Russell Kirk recognizes his debt to Augustine and Aquinas, while recognizing, too, that Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory constitute a terra incognita for many of our fellows. Reading Kirk's tales, often told with a Scots (and so ancestral) twist, begins -- in the sphere of imagination -- to open a space for the Last Things.

Consider a single shadowy particular. In the story "Ex Tenebris," the shade of Reverend Abner Hargreaves, a Vicar who had asked to be buried "with murderers and perjurers and suicides, that burn forever," returns from the dead to throttle a grasping land developer. And why not? The wretch was threatening the Vicar's last parishioner and was keen to demolish the old parish church. Hargreaves, we learn, had once before engaged in "righteous" murder, the object of his wrath then being the village atheist. The tale ends with the ominous return of the atheist's shade, who shares Hargreaves's Hell and, we suppose, is learning to appreciate the malice of unbelief.

Philosophy, of course, begins in wonder. One wonders, for example, whether a soul can in some manner return from the dead. A fine question, indeed. His Excellency Manfred Arcane, the protagonist in Kirk's splendid tale, "The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion," frames it well. "If my memory serves me, Aquinas holds that a soul must have a body to inhabit, and that has been my doctrine. Yet it is an arcane doctrine…and requires much interpretation." Russell Kirk's ancestral tales encourage us to explore this doctrine. While this reviewer does not find it arcane, it surely challenges some favorite prejudices of the secularist.

In summary: highly recommended, even for those who never made it past The Twilight Zone.

- James G. Hanink





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