By Annamarie Adkins
CAMBRIDGE, England, APRIL 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- A great civilization can only be built on a religious or metaphysical principle, begins the “unfashionable” argument of Father Aidan Nichols in his new book on the re-evangelization of England.
The Dominican priest and theologian is the author of “The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England” (Family Publications), in which he makes the case that in England, that principle is the Catholic Church.
Father Nichols is the first John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at Oxford University, a lecturer in the Cambridge University Divinity Faculty, and Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology in the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.
He told ZENIT why the conditions are right for the re-conversion of England.
Q: The subtitle of your book is “An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England.” What makes your thesis unfashionable?
Father Nichols: It is unfashionable to hold — over against contemporary pluralism, liberalism and multiculturalism — that a great civilization can only be formed on a metaphysical or religious principle.
This is especially true if one adds that in the case of England — whose emergence as a nation coincides with its conversion — this principle can only be Christianity, and more especially, the Catholic Church.
Q: You challenge the assumption that Protestantism is an essential mark of the character of England. In what ways was Catholicism central to the making of England, and what does the Church offer today that can remake it?
Father Nichols: Protestantism was central to the attempt to remake English identity under Elizabeth Tudor; to the reaction against the Catholicizing tendencies of the Stuarts after the Restoration of the monarchy; and to the project of welding England and Scotland together as a united “Britain” over and against France, after the union of Parliaments at the beginning of the 18th century.
But the almost 1,000 years of Catholic Christianity that preceded any of that are responsible for the origins of the English literary imagination, for the principles of the common law, for the concept of a covenanted people under God which permeates the induction of a sovereign, and for the range of virtues which have been commended — and sometimes practiced — in English culture and society.
What the faith of the Catholic Church can offer today is an intellectual, moral, and imaginative framework for the salvaging of these virtues, and their re-energizing by sacramental grace.
Q: Perhaps the most interesting part of your book is your explanation why the mixture of demographics within English Catholicism makes it uniquely poised to transform English culture. Could you elaborate?
Father Nichols: The example of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England shows the efficacy of a missionary scheme that combines representatives of the indigenous population with canny outsiders.
To convert or re-convert a culture one needs both the long, instinctive familiarity of the native, along with the more detached and objective critical gaze of the newcomer.
In contemporary English Catholicism, there is a “native” community consisting of the descendants of recusants, converts and the anglicized Irish, along with a potpourri of recent, or fairly recent, immigrants from many parts of the world.
As a reservoir for mission, that recreates the successful Dark Age formula.
Contrast the Church of England, for which it is difficult not to follow national trends wherever they may lead.
Or contrast the Orthodox Church in England, which remains too bound to other ethnicities to have much inner feel for the English situation.
Q: For the 100 or so odd years between 1850 and 1960, a number of England’s leading artists, intellectuals and public figures became Catholic. What was the main reason for these conversions, as well as their notable absence today? What can the Church do today to evangelize the “commanding heights” of the culture?
Father Nichols: The remarkable number of conversions of major or relatively major figures in the period 1850 to 1960 is to be explained by their common perception of Catholicism as a presentation of truth, goodness, and beauty that was at once a powerful philosophy, a comprehensive ethic, and a vision of spiritual delight.
The absence of such conversions in the period after 1960 is to be explained by the ensuing doctrinal disorientation — “So where does that leave truth?” — echoing of fashionable human rights discourse — “So where does that leave goodness, at any rate in terms of a comprehensive ethic?” — and liturgical banality — “So where does that leave beauty and spiritual delight?”
What the Church can do today is to reform herself by repeating like a mantra the words “only the best will do”: the best intellectually, morally, aesthetically.
Q: You argue that the Church needs to right its own ship before attempting to steer England on the proper course, and point to a general apathy among the faithful and clergy as the main problem. Which of your proposed reforms speaks most directly to this issue?
Father Nichols: The single most urgent need is the re-launching of an adequate doctrinal catechesis at all levels.
Putting anything else first is like trying to make bricks without straw.
Q: It seems that Islam is forging a prominent place in English society—even gaining a few high-profile royal converts and calls for a separate, Sharia-based legal system. Does Christianity have a specific role in standing up to this trend in Britain?
Father Nichols: England, or more widely the United Kingdom, has to decide among three possible responses to the growth of the Islamic community, not only in numbers, but also in self-confidence.
The first is communitarianism, which allows each faith-community (or non-faith community) its own version of public space, and seems to be the road along which the present Archbishop of Canterbury would travel.
But communitarianism means the (further) inner disintegration of the cultural system of the nation as a whole.
The second is a secular liberalism that would privatize religious aspiration in order to leave the public square clear of all religious claims.
But that means the increasing exhaustion of the moral capital of the historic patrimony of the culture, the shrinking of the metaphysical imagination in public life and a declaration that agnosticism is now the religion of the State.
The third is a recovery of the Judeo-Christian tradition as what is most foundationally form-giving of English society and culture, while allowing that, on grounds of conscience, there are individuals and groups who cannot make that tradition fully their own.
For obvious reasons, I think that is the way to go.