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'Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century'

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 Contents - Jun 1990AD2000 June 1990 - Buy a copy now
Being a Catholic in 1990: Rev James Murray interviews Bob Santamaria - James S. Murray
Books: 'Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century' - Fr John Parsons (reviewer)

"Iota Unum is arguably the most comprehensive, penetrating and masterly analysis of 'aggiornamento' to have appeared to date."

Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century, by Romano Amerio (Riccardo Ricciardi Editori)

It was in the Vatican Bookshop in St Peter's Square that I came across Iota Unum by the Swiss Italian scholar Romano Amerio. Looking through it, the impression rapidly formed in my mind that the work was a masterpiece of post-aggiornamental ecclesiastical analysis. When, some weeks later, I had reached the end of its 636 pages of somewhat courtly and elaborate Italian prose, that first impression had been amply confirmed.

Romano Amerio was born in 1905 and taught philosophy and classics in Lugano for over forty years prior to his retirement in 1970. He has previously published edited works on Campanella, Manzoni and Rosmini and is obviously well-grounded in philology and theology as well as philosophy. It is clear he has followed current ecclesiastical developments in detail over many years, both through contacts with friends in the Roman Curia and through close reading of the daily Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano. Since the appearance of lota Unum he has been interviewed in the Italian, and now international, monthly 30 Days.

Iota Unum was first published in 1985 in Italian and has been reprinted twice in that language. It appeared in French translation in 1987 and a second French printing has been undertaken. German and English translations are currently being prepared.

Too enthusiastic an endorsement of the merits of the book will sound like mere hyperbole, but it must nevertheless be said that lota Unum is arguably the most comprehensive, penetrating and masterly analysis of aggiornamento to have appeared to date.

The author adopts the principle basing his argumentation on official and semi-official pronouncements by popes, cardinals, bishops, episcopal conferences and L'Osservatore Romano, thereby hoping to avoid accusations of partiality. His analysis is of official Church policy, not of the opinions of individual theologians, although the latter are quoted by way of illustration.

The sub-title of the work is A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century but the book is chiefly about the Second Vatican Council and its consequences. 30 Days described Amerio as a "super-pessimist" when it published its interview with him. That description may not be fair, but it is certainly true that his outlook is sombre and that he spares nobody in his calm but relentless and trenchant analysis of events. Traditional Thomistic principles and the previously established policies of the papacy are used to examine the policy of "renewal" adopted in the 1960s, and by reference to the light of those beacons the Barque of Peter is judged to have drifted badly off course.

Iota Unum begins with a definition of aims and a brief historical sketch of previous crises in the Church. It then turns to a chronological account of the preparations for Vatican II, in which Amerio was indirectly involved as an adviser to the Bishop of Lugano. The course of the Council itself is then analysed and the immediate post-conciliar period discussed. All of these stages are amply documented from official sources.

One of the most surprising events of the preparatory period was the formal agreement between the Vatican and the Kremlin by which the former promised that the Council would avoid attacking Communism directly. It may seem fantastic to allege any such agreement could have been made, but Amerio gives his sources. Cardinal Tisserant acted on behalf of John XXIII in the matter and the agreement was reported in French newspapers at the time.

Pope John's speech opening the Council on 11 October 1962 is discussed at some length. The crucial element in that crucial address was the notion that the Church should abandon the critical distance it had maintained between itself and the secularised and non-Catholic world. The "prophets of doom", past and present, were to be rejected. Henceforth the Church would cease condemning errors and would employ "the medicine of mercy", making common cause with all "men of good will."

Amerio criticises this approach as a confusion of thought. "Love men, slay error" was St Augustine's teaching, and Amerio, too, points out that it is precisely as part of one's charity towards those in error that one attempts to understand and refute their errors. He sees Pope John's approach as an over-optimistic attempt to negate the essential difference between Catholicism and its antitheses, and most fundamentally between those who believe in the transcendent and those who do not.

Similarly, at the end of the Council in a speech of almost equal importance, Pope Paul VI summed up the gist of all that had been done as a "turning of the Church towards the world." Amerio points out the fatal ambivalence of this concept while admitting that it does indeed sum up the spirit of the Council.

Treating of the immediate post conciliar period, the author draws attention to a great variety of utterances of Pope Paul, showing in the main how disappointed the Pope was with the results of the Council. In a speech to the Lombard College in Rome in 1968 Pope Paul was already referring to the fact that the sunny days he had expected after the Council had not materialised and deploring the darkness and storms of the "self destructive" period the Church had entered.

"Defeated men"

These pessimistic thoughts culminated in the Pope's remark in 1976 that Catholics must reconcile themselves to the prospect of becoming "a handful of defeated men." This awful prospect was one against which the Pope rebelled from time to time, reverting to his earlier optimism. This oscillating ambivalence is illustrated from two of Paul's speeches made within three weeks of each other in 1975, one praising the wonderful renewal the Church had experienced, the other deploring what was happening and lamenting divisions among Catholics.

The first third of Iota Unum is taken up with this broadly chronological account of events. Thereafter the book is devoted to thematic or topical consideration of tendencies within the post-conciliar Church.

There are separate chapters on the sacraments in general and each sacrament in particular, on natural theology, scepticism, the liturgy, the priesthood, the religious orders, Catholic lay movements, asceticism, Catholic education, Church and State, the death penalty, work and technology, the Church and women, abortion, catechetics and a variety of other topics bringing the book to forty two chapters in all.

What impresses the reader is Amerio's tireless and unswerving orthodoxy of his vision. The volume and variety of the questions considered is enormous. Amerio is unmoved, though not uncomprehending, in the face of the "progressivist" attack on traditional Catholicism. Time and again he takes a modern nostrum found on Catholic lips and examines it dissects it, and demonstrates its falsity by reference to traditional doctrinal and philosophical principles. This treatment is meted out to bishops and occasionally even Popes when it is warranted.

It must be admitted that Amerio's demanding standards of coherence occasionally lead him too far in the right direction, thus giving the impression of rigidity and narrowness. He is also sometimes inaccurate, but these lapses are rare and detract only slightly from the solid achievement which his book represents. Its merit lies not so much in the pursuit of a single thesis, as in the cumulative effect of its many chapters and in the irresistible impression of a Catholicism at odds with itself which the reader carries away with him at the end.

Perhaps the most memorable and important point of Amerio's vision is his historical understanding of the present crisis of Catholicism. Beginning with the rejection of a divinely-established authority to defend an equally divinely-revealed religion, European thought has evolved first towards a merely philosophical theism and then to a wholly immanent and anthropocentric conception of reality, thus creating an inevitable tension between the Church and prevailing secularised culture. Catholicism could maintain itself in its own traditional self-understanding only by acknowledging and dealing with this contradiction for what it is; an inescapable contradiction.

The unintended effect of the aggiornamentist policy of minimising the contradiction and reformulating the content of Catholic doctrine and practice in the thought forms of modernity has been, in Pope Paul's words, an invasion of the Church by worldly thinking.

In other words the whole strategy has backfired and the contradiction between the Church and the world has been imported into the Church itself. The tussle is now between those who, whether consciously or not, are attempting to re-express Christianity in anthropocentric and immanentist terms and those who cling to the traditional theocentric and transcendent understanding of what Christianity is. Most Catholics are lost somewhere in the middle, not understanding the dynamic of what is happening. The power of Amerio's analysis lies in his identification of this contradiction as the source of the crisis in Catholicism.

One might usefully compare and contrast Ratzinger's version of current problems with that given by Romano Amerio.

The Cardinal believes, like Amerio that the post-conciliar period has been, on balance, negative for the Church and he maintains the true "aggiornamento" has yet to be undertaken. The Council, Ratzinger believes, belongs to orthodox Catholics, but has been misrepresented by innovators and used to justify abuses, both doctrinal and practical.

While this may be true, the Cardinal's version of events leaves unexplained the sudden emergence in the mid-1960s of an enormous crisis which overwhelmed much of the Church.


Amerio's analysis is more satisfying than what one might call the "conservative aggiornamentist" position adopted by Ratzinger. Amerio agrees with the Cardinal but goes one step further than the latter is willing, or perhaps able, to go by making the causal connection between the ambiguity of the papal policy of "aggiornamento" and the crisis which immediately arose following its adoption.

Was the aim of the aggiornamental movement to turn the world to the Church, or to turn the Church to the world? The official answer was in Pope Paul's words that the Church was "turning towards the world" in order to lead the world towards the Church. Amerio maintains that the first half of the policy ceased almost at once in the minds of many Catholics to be a means to the second and became, instead, an end in itself.

The crisis can thus be seen as the direct result of the revolutionary ambiguity inherent in the official policy of an "updating" of the Church by reference to an ill-defined but multi-faceted principle of modernity.

The book closes with a quotation from Isaiah 21:11-12: "A cry comes to me from Seir. How goes the night, watchman? How goes the night? Morning is on its way, says he, but with the morning, the night. Come back again and inquire, if inquire you must."

Some might accuse the book of being without hope, but it is not a charge Amerio would accept. In his chapter on the virtue of hope he has already pointed out that the latter has nothing to do with optimism about the course of events in this life, but is a hope for union with God in the life to come.

Amerio never despairs of the Church. He believes it to be a divinely guaranteed institution and accepts that all its trials must be part of a providential plan. Of what that plan is in the immediate future he admits his ignorance, as we all must. His confidence is based on the application to traditional Catholicism of Our Lord's words about the Jewish law: "lota unum non praeterebit" - "Not one jot will pass away until all is accomplished."

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 3 No 5 (June 1990), p. 16

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