Micro-managing post-conciliar muddle

by
01 July 2009

What do they know of Rome who only the Vatican know, asks Robert Nowell

Global Catholicism: Diversity and change since Vatican II
Ian Linden
Hurst & Company £14.99
(978-1-85065-956-3)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

IN THIS book, Ian Linden has given us an invaluable survey of the way the Second Vatican Council developed and the effect it has had on the Church throughout the world. Its great merit is to shift the focus away from Rome and Europe to what has happened and is still happening in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, while exploring the often still-unresolved tensions between the Church’s past and the demands of its future.

What he brings out very well is how muddled the course of the Council was: hence the way in which it can be and is invoked to justify widely differing interpretations of what the Church is and how it should develop. It came after a long period when the Church found itself on the defensive, suspicious of any new ideas. Linden emphasises the impact of the French Revolution, although surely it was the Reformation that shattered the Church’s self-confidence: it was in the 17th century that Galileo was condemned, and that Descartes became the first in a line of great philosophers to have his work placed on the Index.

At all events, the Roman curia’s wish to see Vatican II copper-fasten the centralising work of Vatican I was thwarted, but the tensions between Rome and the rest of the Church remained. Rome often behaved rather like the nanny in the 19th-century Punch cartoon instructed to go and see what baby was doing and tell him not to. This was clearest in the way in which the Church developed in Latin America. Rome was only too eager to misinterpret liberation theology as a canonisation of Marxism, and intervene to thwart the best work of Latin American bishops: as Linden notes, a few days before Oscar Romero was assassinated, three leading cardinals in Rome decided to recommend to the pope that he should be moved from his post.

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Elsewhere, particularly in Africa, the Church was involved in the dismantling of colonialism, sometimes with tragic results. Linden provides a particularly illuminating account of how Rwanda, against a background of the Catholic social gospel, descended into genocide. In Rhodesia’s transformation into Zimbabwe, despite the courageous witness of people such as the late Bishop Donal Lamont, the result was “a betrayal no less total” than in Rwanda, with a death toll “spread over the long term no less monstrous”.

As Linden points out, there are still plenty of unresolved tensions. Vatican II seemed to open the way to inculturation, towards presenting Christianity within a framework of non-European thought; but today we have a pope insistent on the essentially Hellenic nature of Christian thought. Similarly, mandatory clerical celibacy is simply not working, and not just in Africa.

All in all, for anyone wanting to understand the situation of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world today this is essential reading. But Linden has not always been well served by his publishers: his footnotes often carry the argument forward and do not just supply references, but they are all bundled together at the end of the volume. There is some rather weird capitalisation (why Women Religious?), and the Dominicans’ London headquarters is moved from Haverstock Hill to Mayfair: clearly a successful Jesuit takeover bid.

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