The Allen Review

January 14, 2022

These two books read well together. It is not only because they ask complimentary questions. It is also that, after reading them, one realizes that Catholicism (which for each author means Roman Catholicism) is like the proverbial elephant described by the blind men: one man insisted that elephants were sharp and bony, but of course he had only felt the tusks. The other believed that elephants were thin, round and floppy, but he had only felt the ears. Another believed elephants were tall and stocky like a tree, but he had felt only the legs. And so on. The proverbial story means to suggest that no one description gives the full picture; to know what’s really going on, we need several perspectives.

David Edwards is an Anglican and writes with the perspective of an outsider. His book is a response to the most recent catechism and the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church. In what amounts to a respectful but assertive tussle with the authorities at the Church’s centre, the book bears the fruit of good scholarship but also of the bitter pain surrounding Rome’s carefully guarded Eucharistic table.

William O’Malley, on the other hand, is an American Jesuit who writes from the perspective of one born to the Catholic faith. Words like ‘Magisterium’ and ‘authority’ almost never occur in O’Malley’s conversational and good-humored account. His testimony is evidence that for many Catholics the affair of faith has little to do with Popes and hierarchies and everything to do with fresh and vital ways of living a full human life. This is a book for anyone who wants an account of Roman Catholicism from the ground up: as the book opens and O’Malley makes his case, he assumes only that his reader is ‘at least slightly uncomfortable saving, ‘There is no God” and is willing to give Catholic Christianity a fair consideration against competing mythologies (which O’Malley reckons includes things like Buddhism, Marxism, or the rock-n-roll consumer culture).

Who is inquiring about the ‘right’ Catholicism? Let us not forget the elephant. Edwards and O’Malley have both got something right. Catholics reading Edwards might well be pained and embarrassed at how much their church contradicts itself and defies its own standards of Christian humility. Protestants reading O’Malley might well be impressed at how refreshingly engaged with modem life Catholicism can be, and how the experience of being Catholic can be remote from the authoritarian stance which they perceive in Rome.

If one could bring Edwards and O’Malley together on the same stage, religious humility would be a good point around which to begin the conversation. Both seem drawn to discussions of it. Edwards, for instance, acknowledges that sometimes the catechism is chastely modest, such as when it teaches [and he quotes the catechism] that: ‘God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language…if we are not to confuse our image of God…with our human representations.” If that is true, and Edwards cites many other passages of sublime humility in the catechism, then where is this restraint when it comes to points of dogma like Mary or ecumenicism? Edwards points out that the ‘Roman Catholic Church has made itself different from all other Christian bodies by officially insisting that all Christians must believe the historical truth of certain events said to have taken place in the life of Mary the mother of Jesus.’ In a short but thorough section on Mary, Edwards works through biblical accounts of Mary and the historical development of Marian doctrines (and touches on the psychological effects of sacralizing perpetual virginity), and leaves the reader aghast that something so extrinsic to the essential Gospel message could become a prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion.

When Edwards moves between citing the catechism’s humility and calling it to account for its arrogance, his point is not to belittle. His point is simply to say that the catechism would have been strengthened and more credible by ‘making it clearer that its faith…had passed through Gethsemane,’ or, in other words, by making it clear that its faith bore the character of relationship and trust rather than ‘certain knowledge.’

O’Malley, on the other hand, is the credible Catholic which Edwards missed in his focus on the official Church. In a sense, O’Malley belies the significance of Edwards’ charges simply by existing as a humble and yet confirmed Catholic. O’Malley calls authoritarianism a ‘counter-heresy’ and, in a discussion about Adam and Eve seeking God-like knowledge, says ‘to my mind, the yearning for certitude is the original sin, of which all other sins are merely photocopies [the] narcissism that refuses to admit one has made a mistake, plus inertia that says it would be too humiliating to admit one’s mistake and go back to the first wrong turn.’

O’Malley positions himself with Erasmus and calls for the sort of Catholic prayer in which we open ourselves ‘to the movements of God, rather than trying to move God’ with ‘voodoo charms’ like relics, indulgences, and Masses for the dead.

O’Malley wants Catholics to shed the distractions of their faith and become freshly converted to the essentials. ‘We’re not talking about birth control, or homosexuals, or abortion,’ he says. O’Malley, sounding very Protestant for a moment, says that the binding force of the Church is ‘not a structure of rules and ‘lines of authority’ but the presence and personality of Jesus.’ In another chapter he discusses the spirit of catholicity as seen in Paul’s confrontation with Peter at the Council of Jerusalem (recounted in Acts and Galatians) and concludes that the basic principle of the Church is ‘once you have grasped the essentials, everything else is, at least to some degree, negotiable.’

O’Malley and Edwards are obviously kindred spirits of sorts, but they have brought themselves to different conclusions in practice. As regards Catholicism’s encounter with modernism, for instance, Edwards criticizes the catechism’s attitude to biblical scholarship as being so naïve it approaches dishonesty, and O’Malley laments how the Church’s reluctance to learn from Marx and Freud is eerily reminiscent of the medieval church’s suspicion of the pagan Aristotle. But whereas Edwards follows the thread of Catholic conservatism and the damage it causes and takes a stance at odds with Rome, at least until ‘the Third Vatican Council,’ O’Malley decides, despite satin clad Popes and misleading portraits of a blonde hair and blue eyed Jesus, that he needs a father or papal figure in his Church and so will remain in the house to argue. Both Edwards and O’Malley remain true to the faith traditions they were born into, but by opening up their reasoning in these books they take responsibility for their inheritance. Edwards is the Protestant in protest against the larger tradition; O’Malley is loyal to the ‘chaste whore’ stumbling on and providentially producing goodness despite itself.

But, cast with Edwards in a dialectical pair, perhaps O’Malley appears more subversive to conservative Catholicism than he really is. A chapter entitled ‘Who’s Got the ‘Right’ Jesus?’ makes it clear that he is no liberal and another chapter ‘Who’s Got the ‘Right’ Christianity?’ contains enough sweeping anti-Protestant generalizations and rhetoric to reassure anyone uncertain about his loyalty. Leaving such outbursts aside, the real joy of reading O’Malleycomes from savouring his better nature, a point accurately summarized by a quote O’Malley uses from the late Rosalind Russell: ‘Life is a banquet! And most poor bastards are starving to death.’ What he means to do is give a call to the richest possible vision, a vision of life which dances along the journey of faith and pities the tragedy of stinginess.

Probably this call is why, on finishing O’Malley’s book and considering the Roman Catholic Church, I felt hopeful and encouraged. On finishing Edwards’ and considering the Church, I felt angry and ready for battle. I am, grateful for both books. O’Malley’s experience is hopefully the daily one for most Catholics, but it would be shameful to forget those wounded by the Leviathan which Edwards describes. How can readers hold the two perspectives together? O’Malley ends each of his chapters with several helpful and challenging questions for further discussion (and one can imagine study groups in local congregations using his book for stimulating conversation). At the end of the chapter on the ‘right’ Christianity, O’Malley invites us to make a list of everything ‘you’d bring up if you had a no-holds-barred private meeting with the Pope.’ In some ways, Edwards’ book is just such a list – it is dedicated ‘to a pope who may take action one day.’ But, in a spirit of democracy and challenge, O’Malley would never let us get away with simply reading someone else’s opinion. His follow-up question is personal: ‘what are you going to do with that list?’

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