An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England
Aidan Nichols O.P.
(Family Publications, 2008, 160pp, soft cover, $26.96. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Tim Cannon
It is important for Christians in every age to recognise that it is a necessary and unavoidable reality that the Church will always and everywhere face challenges and persecutions. Wallowing in exasperation at the parlous state of the Church today merely fosters discouragement. The God of eternity is also the God of reality; our Christian mission consists in meeting the real challenges of the day according to His will, faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly.
To this end, Dominican scholar Fr Aidan Nichols has written The Realm: an Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England. As its title suggests, the book addresses the challenge faced today by Catholics in England, a nation very much in the grip of a vacuous and pervasive cult of secularity.
In this regard, the state of the Church in England is in many ways analogous to the state of the Church in other Western democracies (particularly the English-speaking ones), and Nichols' goal of formulating something of an evangelical plan-of- action will resonate strongly with Australian readers.
Nevertheless, this book seems to be aimed at an audience more familiar with the ecclesial history of England than an average Australian Catholic might be. Indeed Nichols draws heavily on the unique, centuries-old English Christian legacy, and for readers who are less-than-well-versed in the details of this history, reading The Realm can sometimes feel like suddenly entering a conversation already underway.
Ultimately, Nichols is interested in the relationship between the Catholic faith and culture. In order to re- evangelise England, the author observes a need to comprehensively heal a decaying English culture. This must take place not merely at the level of the artistic and the literary, but at every level of social, economic and political life in England, both on the individual level and in the public domain. This work, the author suggests, is best suited to the Catholic Church, because of the Church's deep and integral relationship with the State, the people, and the culture of England.
The transformation of culture is shown by the author to be very much a work of restoration: English culture, whose splendour is yet evident in spite of the recent onset of decay, owes a great deal to the early and ongoing contribution of the Catholic Church. For example, the development of the rule of law, and the notion of the common good - both fundamental tenets of English civil society - draw their very legitimacy from the recognition of a divine order, to which the temporal realm is subject.
The author argues that the current secular inclination to eliminate all traces of Christianity from the political realm serves only to eliminate the source of political legitimacy, leaving in its wake a moral vacuum.
Nichols' discourse naturally incorporates discussions of a philosophical nature, and the book boldly ventures into the territory of political theory. Here again, readers should be warned that some degree of familiarity with the canon of English philosophers, literary figures and political theorists is essential to a ready grasp of Nichols' writing, which is replete with references to such, but which rarely pauses or elaborates to accommodate the non- specialist reader.
Here it should also be noted that the author writes in a decidedly 'scholarly' manner, which is to indicate politely that much of what he says might have been expressed more simply. This bears mentioning only because this book, put out by Family Publications, is apparently aimed at a more general readership than its academic tone might suggest.
The Realm concludes with a call for an 'integral evangelisation', a three-tiered approach to the revitalisation of the Catholic Church in England.
Firstly, an intellectual evangelisation is required, in order that the faith may be defended and propagated confidently and convincingly.
Secondly, a mystical evangelisation is required, such that the Church is once again championed by the faithful as the means by which mankind receives and fulfils its destiny: to be loved by God, and to know and love Him in return. The Church must reject the temptation to appeal to society on merely temporal terms. It is not for the perfection of the polity that the Church exists, but for the perfection of souls by the Grace of God. This exciting reality should not be hidden or muted, but vigorously proclaimed by the Church.
Finally, an institutional evangelisation must take place, whereby the Church is shown to be of service and benefit to all social and political institutions - from the family, to the parish, to the community, to the state.
Taking a constructive and lively approach to the challenges faced by the Catholic Church in present day England, The Realm covers a great deal of interesting historical, political and philosophical ground, and would perhaps be of greatest interest to fans or scholars of English history and culture.
Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.