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Rome, but not as I know it

17 January 2014

Robert Nowell finds a Church's portrait a little too flattering

The Catholic Church: What everyone needs to know
John L. Allen Jr
OUP £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT261 )

BASICALLY, this book, by the distinguished Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, sets out to explain to non-Roman Catholics what the RC Church is and how it works (or doesn't work). Its great shortcoming is that it presents the Church more as it would like to be than as it is.

Allen thus criticises the "centralization myth" without noting that the bishops of the Latin rite are appointed (and often closely monitored) by Rome, which, since 1970, has pursued a policy of disrupting local hierarchies by imposing bishops unlikely to rock the boat. (It once did its best to appoint an Opus Dei priest to head an English diocese, an effort eventually defeated by what an insider described as the "obsequious diplomacy" pursued by Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock.) The result is a conformist episcopate that hardly reflects the range of Catholic opinion and which encourages a growing and dangerous divergence between the official Church and the Church as it is.

This divergence is most notable over birth control: when Pope Paul VI issued his 1969 encyclical Humanae Vitae, reasserting the traditional condemnation of "artificial" birth control, bishops around the world were quick to reassure their flocks that this was a question on which they could legitimately dissent. But the teaching of Humanae Vitae is one of the three great issues, to-gether with compulsory clerical celibacy and the inadmissibility of the ordination of women, on which bishops are obliged to uphold the party line.

Another shortcoming is that Allen skates over the way in which the Reformation seems to have put the Church permanently on the intellectual defensive. As a result, there developed a policy of condemnation followed by belated efforts to come to terms with what the rest of the world now took for granted. This was the crisis that the Second Vatican Council had to cope with: it seems perverse to suggest that Vatican II triggered a crisis rather than represented a bold attempt to deal with the crisis that actually existed. Nor is the reader's confidence boosted by the implication that Pope John XXIII was in any position to impose any of the council's reforms, given that the first substantial reform - the Constitution on the Liturgy - was approved by the council only six months after his death.

Meanwhile, Oxford University Press, while commendably supplying the diacriticals needed when Slav languages adopt the Latin alphabet, has let through a few unfortunate misprints: John Cornwell appears as John Cornwall; the people's response in Latin is given as "et cum spirito tuo" rather than "spiritu"; we are told that Padre Pio was believed "the bear the stigmata"; the Vatican was surely opposed not to a press for but to pressure for expanded reproductive rights; and, with regard to regime-friendly Chinese bishops, there are presumably persistent doubts about their legitimacy as, not of, bishops.

And I'm not at all certain what is meant by describing the papacy as "a unique bully pulpit", nor what a "business moxie" is.

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