What is Catholicism? Hard Questions — Straight Answers
by John Redford
(Our Sunday Visitor Books, 1999 240 pages, $12.95)
A parish priest from Canterbury, England, and a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, Father John Redford is well qualified to explain the Catholic faith to Christians with Anglican — or, in the United States, Episcopalian — sensibilities. That's what he does here, and with an unmistakably British flair that American Catholic readers will find both refreshing and stimulating.
Father Redford wrote What is Catholicism? — Hard Questions, Straight Answers as a detailed response to 53 questions posed by the Anglican scholar David Lawrence Edwards in a similarly titled book whose point of view is tipped by its subTITLE: What is Catholicism? An Anglican Responds to the Official Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (Mowbray, 1994).
At first glance, American readers might be tempted to chalk up Father Redford's work as an entry in the growing body of popular Catholic apologetics drawing on authors’ personal experiences. Notable and successful books in this vein include Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard, Born Fundamentalist, Born-Again Catholic by David Currie, Crossing the Tiber by Stephen K. Ray, By What Authority? by Mark P. Shea and Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid. But Father Redford, a former Anglican deacon who entered the Catholic Church in 1967, takes a different tack. Drawing on questions raised in Edwards’ book, he allows himself to be interrogated on behalf of Catholic doctrine.
The questions fall into six subject categories — the exclusivity of Catholic truth claims, the authority and veracity of Scripture, the need for and meaning of a hierarchical Church, the relationship of faith and reason, Catholic teaching on sexuality and obstacles to institutional unity. Taken as a whole, the questions themselves can be seen as a sort of modernist anti-catechism in which everything is up for grabs except the requirement to question everything.
By allowing his “examiner” to frame the terms of the debate, the erudite Father Redford is able to accomplish two things.
First, in taking his questioner's difficulties seriously, and without suspicion of dubious motives behind the asking, he models Christian intellectual humility for those who find their faith similarly inspected by thoughtful, but skeptical, individuals. Second, in directly taking on the well-thought-out objections to Catholicism that Edwards previously posited, he provides answers that are concise, immaculately reasoned, and thoroughly grounded in the authentic teaching of the magisterium and the tradition of the Fathers.
American readers may find Father Redford's section on the infallibility and primacy of the Pope to be of the most immediate use since American evangelicals and fundamentalists frequently echo Anglican arguments against the papacy. Of course, Anglicans accept the idea of apostolic succession (even if they have breached it) while fundamentalists don't; both object to Rome's claims about the nature and scope of the Petrine office. Using Scripture, history and natural reason, Father Redford makes a convincing case that, since certainty about the truth is clearly the will of Christ, the need for a papacy that is infallible and pre-eminent is both sensible and biblically coherent.
Father Redford's section on faith and reason is an especially useful tool for Catholics interested in the challenge posed by that postmodernist cabal known as the Jesus Seminar. In a remarkable series of questions in which the divinity of Jesus Christ is at issue, Father Redford draws on more than 20 sources, ranging from Athanasius and Father Raymond Brown to the Council of Ephesus and the Second Vatican Council, to defend traditional doctrines about the Godhead and the person of Christ. In commentary that is both rich and readable, Father Redford provides every Catholic apologist with a demonstration of that loving engagement with the modern world that Pope John Paul II has called for so often.
Students of Catholicism in the English-speaking world will note that the “conversation” between Father Redford and David Edwards is reminiscent of two earlier conversations between British Catholics and their erstwhile Anglican brethren. In 1864, John Henry Newman, the former Oxford don and future Catholic cardinal, responded to the invective of Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley in his now-legendary autobiographical work, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. What began as a slip of the pen, according to Kingsley, wound up revolutionizing the British view of the Catholic Church. Answers contains none of the personal animus displayed by Kingsley and, to a lesser extent, Newman, in their very public debate. In its serious but rather more polite tone, Father Redford's book is instead heir to the series of letters exchanged between 1930 and 1932 by Sir Arnold Lunn, an Anglican, and Msgr. Ronald Knox, a Catholic convert. (Published in 1932 as Difficulties: A Correspondence About the Catholic Religion, these letters reveal two sincere Christian intellectuals grappling over the veracity of Catholic doctrine.)
In the spirited repartee of Edwards and Father Redford, we find the same sort of well-mannered, rigorous exploration of truth that gives embodiment to the old Latin phrase fides querens intellectum — faith striving for understanding. What the result of this “conversation” will be for the interlocutors, we cannot know, though it is a source of hope that, in July 1934, Msgr. Knox received Sir Arnold into the Catholic Church. Perhaps the same glad fate is in store for Dr. Edwards? In any case, those listening in by way of Father Redford's book can't help come away with a new appreciation for the intellectual liveliness and robust defensibility of the Catholic faith.
Mark S. Gordon writes from Mystic, Connecticut.