Christendom Awake: On Re-Energizing the Church in Culture by Aidan Nichols (Eerdmans, 1999 255 pages, $28)

Don't let the title mislead you — this book is anything but an evangelical tract. Instead, it is a bracing and critical tour de force offensive against the intellectual trends which Father Nichols, prior of the Cambridge Dominicans, argues are today debilitating the Church and deforming the world.

Three decades after the Second Vatican Council, on the threshold of the third Christian millennium, Father Nichols takes stock of the Church's efforts to engage the contemporary world — and if he isn't especially sanguine about what he sees around him, at least he is realistic.

“In my view, directions taken, emphases laid, trends fostered or at any rate allowed to develop, have, over the past 30 years, left something to be desired in terms of a Christian judgment,” he writes. “In a period of accommodation to civil society, its culture and mores, that crucial activity of ‘testing the spirits’ laid upon the churches by the apostle John has not always — by any means — been carried out. The force of secularism has been underestimated, and the latent power of a Christian imagination has been left untapped at a time when strategies for secularism's subversion should have been conceived.”

Father Nichols should know. His homeland, England, has become a country in which secularism is about all that's considered sacred. According to a November 1999 survey in a leading British paper, only 18% of the population describes itself as “Christian.” In neighboring France, the “eldest daughter of the Church” has just approved quasi-marriages for homosexuals.

Father Nichols writes: “The question which, for the Catholic Church in Britain (and other Western countries), is today the absolutely paramount make-or-break question must be: Does this community have the resources (of symbols in the liturgy, the material environment, devotion in the home), the language (in philosophy and literature), and the conviction (in doctrine and morals) to restore a broadly based public faith to the society in which it lives?”

Happily, his answer — which constitutes the balance of the book — is “yes,” provided the Church overcomes some of the forces currently sapping its vitality.

Among these, he notes, are the larger culture's deforming influences, particularly its indifference toward transcendence and its lack of a unifying metaphysics. These, in turn, can trivialize theology — reducing it to “a form of psycho spirituality …. tied to partisan agendas by politicization.”

Father Nichols calls for a comprehensive reform program. He insists that the liturgy must be “re-enchanted,” re-rooted in a “Christian aesthetic” (he acknowledges debts to Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger). “Doctrinal consciousness” is critical (something the young Karol Wojtyla said back in his 1972 work, Sources of Renewal) and not to be displaced by “the unofficial canonizing of an alternative infallibility — ‘experience.’”

“The force of secularism has been underestimated”

Certainly Christian philosophy is in need of renewal; it's high time to call to the carpet those theologians who, in their quest for pluralism, pretend, as Father Nichols puts it, that Catholic theology is compatible with just about any philosophical opinion floating around. Yet curing theology's intellectual foundations would also have practical consequences, and Father Nichols does not shy away from speaking about them. He calls for “reconstituting a society of households” while acknowledging that this would have certain drastic implications for economics. He also devastates the pretensions of radical feminism, referencing the thinking of Angela West, the feminist whose 1996 book Deadly Innocence: Feminism and the Mythology of Sin laid bare the tendency of some feminists to position themselves as both victimized and without sin of their own. And, while he's at it, he draws on the example of the Byzantine tradition to call for a renewal of art.

While all of Father Nichols' observations here are incisive, his unraveling of the “crumbling of religious life before an invasive modernity” is especially tren-chant. He makes creative use of the French poet Charles Peguy's 1912 “Mystere des Saints Innocents” to give new theological insight into the abortion holocaust; equally thought-provoking is his citing of the spiritual writings of the contemporary Englishwoman Patricia de Menezes to speak of the martyrdom of unborn children.

Father Nichols' thoughts on ecumenism are cogent, his perspective on contemporary spirituality sober. On the former, he makes a compelling argument for treating the Orthodox, rather than particular Protestant factions, as Catholicism's ecumenical partner of preference.

Nichols has already written a considerable corpus of theological works. Christendom Awake follows his earlier books as the call of a concerned theologian, priest and religious concerned that most of the world is set to celebrate the party of the ages with all reference to the author of history excised — and all allusions to the events which the anniversary commemorates dropped.

That the larger culture may be content with millennium parties and London Circus Wheels as icons of the age may be one thing, but that Christianity in general and the Catholic faith in particular do not seem to be offering very enticing alternatives is truly worrisome. Not that it lacks alternatives. The bracing news that God himself became man out of love for humanity is quite capable of eliciting frisson in every age.

Father Nichols seems to be asking: Are we ready to let that truth eloquently speak for itself — or, in trying to “fit in” with the times, will we become so indistinguishable from the surrounding culture that we are indiscernible from it? The Catholic Church's response to such a question may yet determine her success in making disciples of all nations for the next 1,000 years.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from London