IOTA UNUM: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the 20th Century
by Romano Amerio (English translation by Fr John Parsons)
(Sarto House, USA, 786 pp)
"Amerio very neatly distinguishes genuine Catholicism from imitations and aberrations"
There have been many books on the crisis in the Church since Vatican II, but I venture to claim that this is the most thorough and pungent critique of them all. It is not a book for anyone of weak faith.
Romano Amerio, Italian by nationality, is a man of broad and classical erudition, who taught philosophy, Greek and Latin at the Academy of Lugano, Switzerland (his birthplace) from 1928 to 1970. He was an episcopal consultant to the Central Preparatory Commission of Vatican II and was a peritus for the Bishop of Lugano during the Council. In his own life, he has remained true to his principles. During the Fascist period in Italy he paid the price for refusing to take the Fascist oath at university. He was a friend of the late Cardinal Siri of Genoa and now lives in retirement in northern Italy.
Amerio covers almost all the whole range of modem Catholic life and doctrine in 42 chapters, considering in detail amongst others: Vatican II, the priesthood, catechetics, religious orders, ecumenism, faith, morality, Catholic culture, the liturgy and eschatology. What makes Amerio's analysis unique is that he restricts himself to official and semi-official pronouncements by popes, cardinals, bishops, episcopal conferences and articles in L'Osservatore Romano, from the time of Pope John XXIII to 1985 when the book was originally written.
Each of the book's 334 sections is a succinct essay in which the author quotes current ideas and events, cites the perennial principles relevant to the subject, and applies them to distinguish development from mutations. Amerio has the great gift of going to the heart of a subject in a few lines and very neatly distinguishes genuine Catholicism from imitations and aberrations.
On a few occasions, however, I found his logic too rigorous and his approach overly literal when sifting remarks obviously given off-handedly and not well-formulated. The author lacks humour at times and always reproaches errors sombrely and sadly. He even reproaches people renowned for their orthodoxy (such as Fr Gino Concetti and Fr Raymond Spiazi OP) by quoting them on the rare occasion when they made an error or said something clumsy. The casual reader might be led to count these men among the dissenters.
In the author's defence, however, it must be said that Amerio has no heroes and no villains, and makes no personal attacks, addressing issues and ideas purely as such. He is not concerned with who said what, but rather what exactly is said. (The Imitation of Christ, by the way, offers the same advice).
The chapters on ecumenism and dialogue are certainly devastating. For here Amerio identifies the fundamental ambiguity which permeates the ecumenical movement: the Catholic Church has the unity Christ willed His Church to have; yet unity is said to be something outside all Christian bodies and to which all must tend. He subjects the notion and practice of "ecumenical dialogue" to ruthless analysis, demonstrating the fatuity, error and naivete on which it is frequently based: "Defacto, conversion and apologetics have been excluded from post-conciliar dialogue which is said to be 'always a positive exchange'; but that assertion is difficult to accept. Firstly, as well as a dialogue that converts there is a dialogue that perverts, by which one party is detached from the truth and led into error. Or will it be pretended that truth is always efficacious and that error never is? Secondly, there is the situation where instead of helping the participants, dialogue presents them with an impossible task ... because there is no jointly held principle on which to base the argument" (p. 354).
The chapters on liturgy brilliantly identify errors and misconceptions: "The principle of creativity stems from the false presupposition that the liturgy ought to express the feelings of the faithful, and that it is something that they themselves produce. what it really expresses is the mystery of Christ, Christ being the true source of the liturgy. The new view implicitly reduces the liturgy to the level of poetry" (p. 632). And: "The policy of creativity, which is intended to make the liturgy 'more lively and participatory' produces two effects. Firstly, it changes a sacred action into a theatrical display. Secondly, it changes the celebrant's activity into something private, or idiosyncratic, when in fact it always has a public and social character, even when it takes place in private" (p. 633).
The chapter on capital punishment is also interesting. Amerio explains that to deprive someone of his life is not to deprive him of the goal of his life. The expiatory value of all punishment has been totally forgotten, he explains, and thus punishment has been reduced to rehabilitation.
The paralysis of authority is also crucial to Amerio's critique. Mere teaching without juridical back-up does not improve the situation. The pontifical and episcopal task has always been to teach, sanctify and govern: "Now, acts of government have always been reckoned as pertaining to the highest office in the Church, that is, acts of a commanding and binding power, without which even the teaching of the truths of the faith remains a merely theoretical and academic business. Two things are needed to maintain truth. First: remove the error from the doctrinal sphere, which is done by refuting erroneous arguments and showing that they are not convincing. Second: remove the person in error, that is depose him from office, which is done by an act of the Church's authority" (p. 145).
Amerio analyses the new procedures of the Holy Office (now Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), showing that the current practice of summoning an author to explain his work is a pointless exercise. What matters is not what the author personally intends or thinks his book means, but what the book itself says. For it is the book which people read, and it is the book therefore which must be judged. The author does not accompany every copy of the book with a personal explanation for each reader: "... a writer's intention cannot prevent written words from expressing error if error is what they express. The fixed meaning of words is the basis of all communication between men. It is not a question of judging the state of someone's conscience, but of knowing the meaning of words" (p. 161).
Iota Unum first appeared in Italian in 1985, the same year as The Ratzinger Report, and has been reprinted twice in that language and an extended review of the book by Fr Parsons appeared in the June 1990 AD2000. A French translation (not well done) appeared in 1987 while a German translation is under way.
The book's presentation is excellent and misprints are very few: "17th century" in the introductory note about the author should read, "19th century" and "pollution" on page 8 should read "pullulation". Having read the book myself in Rome in 1989, I am well aware of the extreme difficulty of translating its courtly, classical and sometimes dense Italian prose into readable English. Fr Parsons, however, has produced an excellent, readable and accurate translation, and on occasions, has corrected an error of fact or imprecision in Amerio's text. He has also supplied dates, basic facts and enlightening observations in footnotes about the European authors and figures cited in the text. Hence, in some ways, this English edition is even superior to the Italian.
Iota Unum is a powerful and depressing book. It is certainly not for anyone of weak faith. I suggest that any reading of it should be followed by a reading of The Victory of Christ by Anscar Vonier OSB.
Fr Peter Joseph is a priest of the Wagga Wagga Diocese and teaches at St John Vianney College, the diocesan seminary.