Comment

How do we make sense of the aftermath of Vatican II? This book is a clear guide

Pope Paul VI opens the second session of the Second Vatican Council (Getty)

Philip Trower's style is delightfully informal and accessible to the lay reader

I have just been re-reading Turmoil and Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church by Philip Trower, which I reviewed for the Herald in 2003 when it was first published (paperback are available on Amazon). It still bears reading today as we are still living in the aftermath of Vatican II, with all the disruptions and upheavals that followed it, offering an understanding why the Council has not yet delivered the expectations that were focused on it.

In his preface, Trower wrote that “In a sense, the sole subject of this book is the revelation of God: the efforts of its guardians to make it bear fruit in the present, and its vicissitudes at the hands of men who believe that, in order for it to survive, it must be altered.” This conflict is still played out today, fought between those churchmen who want to renew the Church – essential in every age – and those who want to change her, in effect to bring her more in line with the spirit of the age.

In his survey of the Church in the West before Vatican II, the author comments that “The number of countries which could still in any true sense be called Christian, was rapidly diminishing.” This trend was abetted by the Catholic intelligentsia (to be distinguished from the Church’s ordinary faithful members) of which a proportion, as Trower makes clear, having “lost or partially lost their faith, wanted to alter Catholic doctrine.” Of the saintly but indecisive, though ultimately heroic Pope Paul VI in his defence of Church teaching in Humanae Vitae, Trower observes that it was as though Gerard Manley Hopkins had been called to do battle with Lenin.

He is critical of the bishops of the era, who largely saw themselves as executors rather than shepherds; “insufficiently spiritual men”. Along with this uninspiring leadership was the opportunity, 400 years after the Reformation, for Catholics to become socially “respectable” at last. But this respectability “had disguised from…ourselves the essential fact: how much less most of us cared about God than we appeared to.”

The book, written by an erudite lay convert, widely read though not a theologian, succinctly summarises the views of the influential churchmen of the day, such as Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin and Bernard Haring; the style is delightfully informal and accessible to the lay reader. I mention it because its author died aged 95 in January this year. His obituary by William Doino Jr has been posted up on the Herald website earlier this week.

I add my own brief reflections to Doino’s simply because Philip was a good friend of mine for 30 years. His conversion in the 1950s was transformative for his life. He never forgot that the Faith was a pearl of great price; it is not an exaggeration to say that thereafter he lived for it, putting his energy and his writing gifts at the service of the Church. He also had the gift of friendship, welcoming new friends into his circle until the end. He showed that saintliness does not have to be solemn or preachy. Indeed, despite his sadness at noting the decline of the Faith in the West in the decades following Vatican II, he was full of a distinctly Catholic merriment and joy.

In old age, though still driving and in possession of all his faculties, he chose to live at Nazareth House in Cheltenham; he simply could not contemplate, indeed he dreaded, a time when he would be too infirm to get to daily Mass. He attended Mass in a wheelchair in the convent chapel the day before his death. I once glimpsed his face after Communion. It was radiant. May he rest in peace.