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Book review: Apologia: A memoir by Aidan Nichols

14 June 2024

Stephen Platten reads of a Dominican and his changing scenes

THIS is an intriguing book, but also, perhaps, a book requiring an acquired taste. Titled consciously with John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua in mind, it is the memoir of a conservative Roman Catholic religious who traces his conversion to belief in a personal God to a visit to a Russian Orthodox church in Geneva in his youth. He notes that his initial experience of the Christian faith had been with “establishment Anglicanism”, through the teaching of the “well-meaning but ineffectual Church of England chaplain at Arnold School”, on the South Shore of Blackpool.

The beginnings of his journey into Roman Catholicism came through his piano teacher, afterwards reinforced through aesthetic experience of Baroque church interiors, and through reading apologetic literature. Nichols was born and spent his childhood in the Fylde area of Lancashire, at Lytham St Annes; serendipitously, his memoir concludes relatively near by on the Cumbrian coast, at Workington.

His personal history includes much variety. As a clever boy, he gained a place at Oxford, where he was awarded a first in modern history. Even at this stage, he was toying with the thought of the religious life and decided on the Dominicans. Beginning at Blackfriars, Oxford, he was soon inducted into the controversies of the day, living with, among others, the Marxist-influenced Herbert McCabe. From early days, Nichols has been a disciple of both Aquinas and Balthasar (of whom he has also been a devoted interpreter). Throughout, the memoir is peppered with references to his prolific literary output.

His journey has also meant a rich variety of location. Even before Oxford, when he was in search of some experience of the tougher side of life, his curate found him a place in downtown Dublin. The Dominicans sent him to Edinburgh, and later he served in France, Jamaica, Rome, Birmingham, and Cambridge. Much of his account is interwoven with his own intellectual and thus theological journey. His devotion to Balthasar has made him a disciple of Joseph Ratzinger. Both Ratzinger’s and Pope John Paul II’s commitment to an interpretation of Vatican II supporting the continuance of traditional teaching figure as essential elements in Nichols’s own understanding of RC teaching.

In the past decade, Nichols has been engulfed in controversy, by signing a letter criticising Pope Francis’s exhortation on the family, Amor Laetitia, and also attacking the recent papal declaration on mission and other faiths. This engagement has been serious enough to halt his desire to move from the Dominican obedience to become a Norbertine (Premonstratensian) religious. Indeed, the final chapters leave the reader still expecting some sort of dénouement. As John Rist’s recent monograph on creeping infallibility suggests, conservative RCs seem to have been hoist with their own petard.

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is a former Bishop of Wakefield.

Apologia: A memoir
Aidan Nichols
Gracewing £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69 

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