July-August 2001

Christendom Awake: On Re-energizing the Church in Culture.  By Aidan Nichols, O.P. Eerdmans. 120 pages. $28.

Although it requires a certain amount of credulity to do so, let us assume that Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., said to be the Prior of the Dominican community at Blackfriars in Cambridge, England, really exists. The book’s brief biographical note gives us no reason to doubt it but is it really possible that there exists in our time a Catholic Englishman of such gifts?

The author of this book is a man of great intellect and erudition served by a remarkable fluidity, range, and organization of expression — and is, moreover,

gifted with the Catholic mind: the capacity to get to the heart of a subject by viewing it in light of the Faith. Frankly, I thought England had pretty well given up on producing such writers after the last of the greats born in the late 19th century passed away. This does not of course imply that we in the U.S. are more blessed; we are not but I, having always considered English literature superior to American, still expect a little more from England. At any rate, we do have this book, and we can only assume that Fr. Nichols exists and that he wrote it. Therefore we have cause for hope.

The title of the book is not as one might assume, in the imperative mood, commanding Christendom to awake; nor is it in the declarative, stating that Christendom is awake. It is, rather, an expression of hope that at some not-distant time the author will in fact see Christendom awake.

The book is a program for renewal, and each chapter is devoted to a particular area of the Church’s life, analysis of problems in that area, and a description of possible solutions. These are not so much plans for practical action as for intellectual and spiritual development. I say “development” and not something more combative, for although Fr. Nichols is clearly in the camp that contains most NOR readers — those who are unwilling to accommodate the secular agendas that have invaded the Church — he is interested less in attacking the false than in strengthening the true.

It is tempting to catalog the sins of others, to give more of our attention to the follies, errors, and scandals of the semi-apostate than to the hard and frustrating work of charity, devotion, and reform at the personal, familial, and parish level. Perhaps I am here attributing my own proclivities to others, but it is certainly true that a good horror story about how Fr. Toocool at St. Progressa has mocked the Real Presence will attract my attention much more readily than a serene meditation on that same Presence. This inclination can issue from an unpleasant combination of morbid fascination and self-righteousness. Still, when there are so many horror stories, and when simple adherence to the fundamentals of the Faith seems more the exception than the rule, we cannot ignore the problems and may at times be compelled to focus on them. But it is surely unhealthy for us to wallow in them.

Fr. Nichols’s approach is straightforward. He is blunt without that sense of pleasure in reporting malefactors; which sometimes mars the address of these problems. The secularizing tendency in the Church — oh, heck let’s just go ahead and call it “liberalism” — is present here not so much as a powerful enemy to be attacked and conquered as an irritating obstacle to be shoved aside and rolled over.

Moreover, as the subtitle implies, the focus is not the Church’s inner life, but on her relation to the wider culture, on her ability to be the salt of the earth. This does not constitute, however, an overleaping of that inner life; the implication throughout is that it is only by an internal renewal that the Church becomes capable of transforming our culture.

As if to bear out in practice the subtitle’s call for a “re-energizing,” the book pulses with a remarkable energy. Borne by this energy, the reader may have the illusion that it might be a straightforward matter to implement the book’s recommendations, which is clearly not the case, nor does the author imply that it would be. But the chapter headings may reinforce that illusion: “I: Introduction: Reawakening Christendom”; “II: Rerelating Faith and Culture”; “III: Re-enchanting the Liturgy.” And so on through the renewal of philosophy, the state, the household, feminism, religious life, ecumenism — pretty much everything except commerce and warfare, in what could be taken as a step-by-step program. Fr. Nichols’s prose also aids the sensation of irresistible force.

One criticism a sympathetic reader might make is that the sheer rush of ideas and opinions, and the qualifications required to express them accurately, sometimes strains the limits of the English sentence. The writer, though not aiming at an academic audience, is apparently an academic, and is given to such sentences as this: “Secondly, a culture, even if in its dominant conceptuality, its standards of behavior, its artistic images, and the institutions in which its public life unfolds it accepts, at any rate nominally, the reference-point of God, may at the same time be ontologically non-perspicacious and lacking in internal integration of an organic or architectonic kind.” If you did not feel your grip on that sentence begin to slip somewhere around the phrase “it accepts,” you’re a more attentive reader than I. But Fr. Nichols is also capable of wonderfully capsuled descriptions of complex phenomena, as in his reference to the “infuriated self-apotheosis by the civil authority,” which gets close to the heart of what seems really to motivate liberal politics today.

Turning away from these invigorating pages, one wonders whether Fr. Nichols’s program can be implemented. Considered in the role of a physician, he is certainly correct in his diagnoses and prescriptions. The question is whether the disease is curable at all. Perhaps it is more accurate here to speak of two patients, the Church and Euro-American culture. The Church is considerably healthier than the culture, but is still far from well, and it seems unlikely that she can have any effect on the culture until she recovers a good deal more of her strength and confidence. Will she avail herself of the treatment offered by Fr. Nichols? Not right away, and not assiduously, I think Yet the existence of this book, and, one hopes, a favorable reception of it are in themselves steps toward renewal.

- Maclin Horton





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