A Review of 'The Realm' by Aidan Nichols

by Tim Matthews

There are so many interesting threads of thought in this book that, in a short review, it difficult to highlight them individually or give them due attention but basically, Father Nichols here argues, any hope of converting our increasingly secular society must be underpinned by a profound change in our culture. 'Of course', he writes in a Preface, 'most people would disagree with my aim, never mind my methods. That is why this is 'an unfashionable essay'.

As, statistically, the Catholic Church in England crumbles (and in these pages Nichols confines himself to England and not the rest of the United Kingdom), the call to re-conversion has been neglected, he says. Not that this is due to dissenting voices, but due to a general apathetic attitude towards the entire realm of religion.

Yet England, in fact, is inseparable from Catholicism: it cannot be imagined without it. And -- although there are quite few politically-correct Catholics who fear to speak about the 'conversion of England' -- what made England once, can make it again.

Well, how well fitted are we, in the face of secularists 'who like to sweep the public-square clean of religious detritus', to launch a new mission to the people of England?
'Actually', says Nichols, 'despite the scary statistics, I think the church here is quite well fitted to take up his mighty challenge . If the original Anglo-Saxon conversion of England is anything to go by, what you need for a successful movement of conversion which really 'takes' and acts to transform culture across as a whole society is precisely a mixture of indigenous an exogenous elements. You need people who come from within and people who come from without'. Which is just what we have in England today - a rich ethnic mix. 'Catholicism can present itself as quintessentially English and generously inter-ethnic at one and the same time'.
In an earlier book, Christendom Awake, the author made a list of policies that are needed if the Church really wants to turn things around. Amongst them: a revival of doctrine in catechetics; a 're-enchanting' of the liturgy to bring before us the transcendent beauty of the Kingdom of God (our current liturgy, he notes, is marred by a philistinism unsuited to the Divine Glory'); a rediscovery of Thomistic metaphysics; a renewal of Christian political thought; the revivification of the family through the reuniting wherever possible of home and work; the re-sacralising of of art and architecture; a greater emphasis on monasticism; a more powerful rhetoric in defence of the unborn, and the recovering of the reading of Scripture. To these he would now add another: the importance role of church schools in educating young people thoroughly and persuasively in the Creed.

In his second chapter, 'Albion', Father Nichols looks backwards, to highlight some of the distinguishing features of Christianity in England from Lindisfarne onwards, and shows how the key to our national identity has consisted in the interplay of four institutions; law, parliament, the Church, and the monarchy. This leads him to a fascinating study of the ceremonies surrounding the Coronation, steeped in Catholicism.

'Constitutionally', he reminds us, 'this realm remains a Christian country, and that will remain so until there is intentional constitutional change to the contrary. The bonds of the social covenant are still meant to be under God, in the light of the Gospel'. In contrast, he notes the striking disparity of our current 'permissive' legislation, aimed at social engineering, aimed at avoiding evil rather than seeking good. 'An increasingly neo-pagan secular institution with its quasi-religion the 'politically correct' moralism of the day'.

Jacques Maritain's idea of Christian democracy, preserving Christian 'values' but without public reference to any transcendent source of truth, did not succeed. So what, then, are the virtues we must look for?

Here, in his fourth chapter, he recommends some guides: a list of 20th-century inter-related 'public moralist' Christian writers including Christopher Dawson, David Jones ('the modern world is a babel of confused voices, a place where they don't give a bugger to be without the holy city') , J.R.R Tolkien, T.S Eliot (the breadth of his outlook 'especially shown by his striking doctrine of the family'), Dorothy Sayers ('it is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely artistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism'), C.S Lewis, G.K Chesterton (who sets to show how vital for us it is to feel astonished at the world and yet at home in it), and Hilaire Belloc. These figures, he says, 'are as much sages as they are critics'.

Chapter 5 looks at the concept of an 'integral evangelization', the aim of which is the metaphorical baptism of the culture as well as the baptism of individuals who inhabit it. 'The rolling wave of secularization in Western Europe is much more of a gentle trickle in the United States', but this, he says, is not a time for complacency but a time to take stock. Things today are very different from the Middle Ages.
'We only have to think of such peculiarly modern phenomena as, for example, the dominance of commercial image in advertising and the media exploitation of personality cult, encouraging people as these do to value themselves and others for reasons disconnected from the virtues. Or again, there is anomie whereby the young arrive in the state of adulthood having neither internalised obligations, nor acquired a sense of living under authority -- so great has been the reduction in moral force of the family, extended or nuclear, and the weakening of deference to civic tradition and the State. In the past, such deference has been open to abuse. Yet this danger must be balanced against the implications of a generalised unwillingness, outside Islamic politics at least, either to die for or in any very costing way to live for civilisation-based ideals'.
The wounds sustained in the culture-wars of Western modernity may, then, be summed up, 'as the draining away of human substance (as presentation becomes all), the severance of human roots (as the self becomes unanchored) and the fracturing of human bonds (as individual aggrandisement - dignified as the quest for 'fulfilment' - becomes ever more relentless). Mercifully considerable numbers of people resist these trends. But the determination so to do is starting to look really rather heroic'.

The cure? The Catholic faith, he reminds us, is not another ideology that can be reduced to an instrument for the amelioration of this horrendous culture. 'In evangelization we must not stress cultural utility at the expense of the divine mysteries themselves'. And here Nichols quotes Vatican II's Gaudium et spes. 'If anyone wishes to devote himself to the ministry of God's word, let him use the ways and means proper to the Gospel, which differ in many respects from those obtaining of the earthly city'. (GS 76).

In his introductory pages, Father Nichols places a quotation from T.S. Eliots's Strange Gods. It might well serve as a summary of his thoughtful book.
'What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not a as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place, what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected, and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desire'.
Catholic Christianity, essential to the making of England, provides the best foundation for our culture to be re-made. Father Nichols is under no illusion as to what is involved in recovering the lost ground. 'It is an absolutely colossal agenda'.

(Originally published in Catholic Family News, January 28, 2008.)

 

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