Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fr. Aidan Nichols: A grand vision for the English Catholic Church

[From the Catholic Herald]

Fr Aidan Nichols wrote an article for this newspaper almost a decade ago in which he argued that the Church’s true mission was “the conversion of England”. His essay caused a stir and was picked up by the BBC, which gave him a John Humphrys-style grilling. Why, his interviewer demanded to know, was he advocating something so plainly “offensive” to non-Catholics? Fr Nichols pointed out that he had never suggested that Catholics should target Protestants, or practising members of any other religious group. Nevertheless, he was accused of wanting to “eliminate” other Christian and non-Christian religions.

Fr Nichols’s new book, The Realm, will almost certainly provoke similarly aggressive misunderstandings. Nowhere in the book does he call for Catholics to prey on other religious groups. But when the average Englishman hears the phrase “the conversion of England”, he thinks “Spanish Inquisition” – a spectre you might think a Dominican would be especially wary of evoking. Many Catholics will recall the controversy that ensued when Cardinal Basil Hume used the term in an interview. He was later forced to apologise.

Fr Nichols is clearly prepared for brickbats, but, as he says in the first chapter, he is not going to apologise. He regards the taboo surrounding the contentious phrase as a “specifically contemporary-Catholic form of political correctness”, which has led to confusion about what, precisely, the English Catholic Church is for. Is it simply one among many exclusive religious clubs or is it a universal body that aims to bring the world to its divine fulfilment? Fr Nichols, unsurprisingly, thinks it’s the latter. For him, Catholics display false modesty when they settle on a goal less radical than the complete transformation of our society in the light of Christian revelation.

Given the catastrophic decline of English Catholicism, isn’t this all a bit of a pipe dream? Fr Nichols recognises that the figures are “scary”, but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm. If the Church once “made England”, it can do so again, he says. The English Catholic Church’s great advantage, he believes, is its dynamic mix of indigenous and foreign elements. In contrast to the Church of England, which is “too exclusively indigenous” and the Orthodox Church, which is “too little indigenous”, Catholicism “can present itself as quintessentially English and generously inter-ethnic at one and the same time”. This, he says, is crucial to transforming our culture.

The theologian sets out a bold list of “policies” he thinks will equip the Church to transform society. Anyone familiar with the thought of Pope Benedict XVI will find most of the items familiar. What Fr Nichols is proposing is that the English Church imports the Benedictine revolution from Rome. This may, as he says, seem a “colossal task”. But at least it lifts our sights and gives us something collectively to aim for.

There are insuperable problems with reviving the term “conversion of England”, but Fr Nichols is essentially right: the Church needs a coordinated strategy for drawing individuals to the Catholic faith and transforming English culture from within. His programme is the most convincing yet proposed. We hope his book will inspire English Catholics to think big again.

Source: The Catholic Herald

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