Eamon Duffy is a prominent scholar of the English Reformation, who, with Christopher Haigh, is regarded as a leading member of the “revisionist school” of its study. His books are well worth reading. His Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations is now available for pre-order, and no one interested in the Reformation should miss his The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580. He’s also the author of the popular Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes.
Duffy grew up in Ireland in the strict preconciliar days, and, like many of that era, participated in the intoxication of the spirit of the era of the Second Vatican Council. Older now and in a position to reflect on his traditional upbringing and radical experiences in a revolutionary era, he found great value in the former in spite of its shortcomings. I recently came across this little reflection of his, some years old but fascinating. Apparently the bad old days weren’t all bad. Excerpts:
Catholicism was certainty: papal infallibility over against the invincible ignorance of unfortunate Protestants (God help them, what did they know?) but also the calm and in retrospect breathtaking authority assumed by the clergy. Canon McDonald, our parish priest, was said to have put a stop to a clandestine strip club opened in the back room of a local bar by turning up late one evening, unannounced, armed with a stout ash-plant: men and women limped for weeks, holy Ireland, muscular version. But Catholicism was also mystery: the competent mutter and movement of the priest at the altar, the words of power half-understood, the sense of being in touch, literally in touch, with holy things, with Holiness itself. The spotless starched linen of alb and corporal, the priest’s fingers and thumb held tightly together all through the latter part of the Mass so that not the minutest crumb of the consecrated Host might be lost, a tight grip on the transmaterial: ritual and taboo, like the ban on eating or drinking even a drop of water from midnight the night before you went to communion – rules which marked the presence of the Immensities.
All this I know, indeed passionately feel. Why is it then, that as I grow older, and after thirty-five years of studying and teaching the theology and history of the Church, I find myself living more and more out of resources acquired not in the lecture-room or library, nor even at the post-Conciliar liturgy, but in the narrow Catholicism of my 1950s childhood, warts and all? To answer that question fully would no doubt require a descent into my subconscious and my family history for which this is decidedly not the place. But it springs, too, from a growing appreciation of just how much of the essence of Catholicism my provincial Irish childhood transmitted to me. For all its apparent narrowness, it bore stronger witness than many modern forms of Catholicism to realities which have come to seem to me infinitely precious. Its ritual absolutes and rules look legalistic, rubric-mad today; but they spoke with a sure confidence of the sacramentality of life, the rootedness of the sacred not in pious feelings or ‘spirituality’, not in our heads or even exclusively in our hearts, but in the gritty and messy realities of life, birth and death, water and stone and fire, bread and wine. The matter-of-fact ex opere operato confidence of our ritual world assured us that God was real, with a reality that did not depend on what we thought or how we felt about it. And its ritual contacts with the remote past, its shrines and graveyards and wells, helped us locate our little lives within longer and wider continuities: the railway-men and shoemakers and labourers of 1950s Dundalk were more dignified as human beings because of the sense of their companionship with the holy dead. In our throw-away society, where people live disposable lives in increasing social isolation, that is an affirmation worth repeating.
Even the past certainties of the Catechism have come to mean a good deal to me. I no longer think that you can find the answers to the problems of life and death, faith and doubt, neatly stitched up in a schoolbook. But at the heart of the Catholic faith is a confidence that meaning and value are not arbitrary constructs, that the most fundamental human instincts about right and wrong, about human flourishing and human misery, are rooted in the pattern of creation itself, and in God’s self-disclosure in grace and revelation. We can believe, and hope, and love, because God has drawn near to us, in the order of nature, in the fabric of human society and morality, in the religious aspirations of all people in all places, and above all in the history of Israel and in the person of Christ. For all its limitations and simplifications, the Catechism was a coded form of a rich collective wisdom, handed on and received with joy, which went back through the lives and teaching of the saints, to Aquinas, to Augustine, to the apostles themselves. The intellectual confidence that, despite all its mystery, and miseries, and terrors, the world is a place where we belong, whose meaning and purpose we can know, by the force of reason and the light of faith, is one of the foundation-stones of Catholic Christianity, and I realise now that I was taught it, parrot-fashion, by the De La Salle Brothers.
The clerical authoritarianism of the Church of the 1950s now looks what it was, a drastic and distorted overdevelopment of one element of the Church’s historical particularity at the expense of other equally important dimensions, like the role of prophecy or the dignity of the laity. I do not now believe that God’s truth is to be received unquestioningly from the mouths of clergymen, whether they be popes or, more frighteningly, the parish priests of pre-Conciliar Ireland. But if we believe in the reality of revelation, and if we believe that the Church is entrusted with it, then we have to give a concrete meaning and form to that confidence. We cannot infinitely postpone our obedience and response to the truth, as it seems to me many forms of liberal Protestantism tend to do. If the Church has the gospel of truth, someone, somewhere, has to be trusted to say what it is, and to call on us to receive it. That process seems to me now more complex and less simplistically hierarchical than we imagined in 1950, but the essence of what we believed in 1950 seems to me both true, and precious. A Church without real authority is not the Church at all. We receive and proclaim the Catholic faith which come to us from the apostles, we do not invent it: the Brothers, and my grandmother, knew that too.