Absolute truth : the Catholic Church in the world today /
Edward Stourton.
London : Viking, 1998.
xxiv, 229 p.
More Details
London : Viking, 1998.
general note
"Now a major BBC TV series."
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Unlocking the Treasury

Walk through the courtyards and corridors of the Swiss Guards' quarters before dawn and you step straight back into Renaissance Italy; a knife between the shoulder-blades would come as no surprise.

    The drill yard is a narrow rectangle between high walls just off the Via Santa Anna at the back of St. Peter's Square; it is hung with the flags of the Swiss cantons and at one end there is a monument to those who died on May 7, 1527, when a heroic defense of Clement VII by Swiss troops earned the Guards their special place in the papal household. It is here that one of the Catholic Church's regular setpiece dramas begins. At 7:00 A.M. a contingent of guards forms; despite the striped doublets and chic sixteenth-century knickers, the drill is uncompromisingly soldierly. A brisk march takes them into the long corridor that leads down from the Vatican apartments and out through the vast bronze doors into St. Peter's Square. Beneath a sky washed like a watercolor, the world's greatest stage set is being prepared for a papal audience. Both the set and the performance that is about to begin have been designed to encapsulate the essential qualifies of the Roman Catholic Church.

    The first and overwhelming impression is of grandeur. The chairs and barricades, which have been laid out the previous evening, break down the vast space of St. Peter's Square into a geometric pattern, which seems to make it vaster still. The pilgrims flow between them like tributaries of a great river as they look for their allotted seats, and by half past eight the streams are as fast and strong as floodwaters. The central steps cascade down from the canopy under which the pope will sit, drawing all eyes to the focus of the drama and source of all authority. Yet the way in which the colonnades around the square encircle the pilgrims is like an embrace, and within the grandeur, there is a sense of intimacy. Look closely at the crowds, and you see a mosaic of individual dramas being played out.

    A papal usher--an echo of a time when this was a royal court--struts his way towards the dais, feet like a duck and back like a rod, his purple tailcoat faded, and the keys of St. Peter displayed proudly on his fob. There are several groups of pilgrims from Poland--teenagers in white smocks and sailor-suit collars, women with turquoise scarves like some kind of Scout uniform--each absorbed in songs, prayers and ostentatiously lively gossip. Just ahead of me, a Lithuanian male choir arrives, dressed in scruffy military regalia with Ruritanian pretensions. A microphone is placed in front of them and they begin to sing harmonies, not caring much if anyone listens but proud to perform in St. Peter's Square. A group of disabled pilgrims are bumped uncomfortably up the steps, their wheelchairs maneuvered in among the black and purple of the bishops: the Church accords special respect to "our lords the sick," and they take their place in the area reserved for privileged guests around the papal throne. Everywhere are clusters of nuns, in black, gray, brown, blue, and beige.

    On the right as you face St. Peter's, close to the statue of St. Paul, a space is reserved for newlyweds. They come in their wedding clothes, and as the "popemobile" turns into the central aisle formed by the barricades, several of the brides climb on their chairs for a better look. One adjusts her tiara out of the way of her camera as she takes a picture. Another, wearing a long sheath of ivory silk, and a hat with a huge bow, draws her shawl around her shoulders for modesty's sake, and her fine features stand out against the honey-colored stone behind her. As the pope passes, in a gesture that perfectly expresses the intimacy of her new estate, she puts a hand on her husband's shoulder to steady herself.

    The Catholic Church has a genius for the mise en scène . Its special skill is to inspire awe, while at the same time convincing every soul it encounters that they have a special place in its affections. Nothing much really happens at a papal audience--there is no beginning, middle, or end--but the result is a nice mix of the grand and the personal. At the one I attended, the gospel was read in Italian, German, French, English, and Spanish. The pope's address--on the Virgin Mary--was repeated in each of those languages, and at the end of each language section there was a pause so that he could give an individual greeting to groups of pilgrims. The English section included some ecumenical-minded Methodists, and we were asked to pray for their leader's wife, who had recently been seriously injured in a car crash. Every person among the thousands in the square--the scruffy Lithuanian chorister, the ivory-clad beauty, or the habited nun--was made to feel that his or her life story was inextricably bound up with the Church, and that the Church was ineffably grand.

    Because the message of Christianity is ultimately beyond the reach of words, the Church has spent centuries developing the means to express it through theater. For all his saintly simplicity, Pope John XXIII understood the power of spectacle--he had, after all, been patriarch of Venice, the world's most theatrical city--and the opening ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, on October 11, 1962, is burned into the memory of everyone who was there: it was a stunning, peacockish display of papal power harnessed in the cause of revolution. Two thousand three hundred and eighty-one bishops moved in a procession through St. Peter's Square and into the basilica that day. I saw a similar but much smaller ceremony when reporting on the special Synod of Bishops in 1985, and it was unforgettable, a simultaneous affirmation both of the Church's diversity and its unity: every face framed by the uniform of the miter, but the faces themselves infinitely various, reflecting the character of every race on the planet. In 1962, the Orthodox and Eastern Rite bishops, whose presence had been secured only through hard diplomatic bargaining, added to the cosmopolitan glamour of the scene with their jeweled crowns and flowing beards. In the old film clips of the day, there is something endearingly and unconsciously camp about the way patriarchs and archbishops can be seen adjusting one another's robes and headgear.

    There were one or two hitches. The Council Fathers--as the bishops who attended the council were known--had been divided into groups and spread around the Vatican so that they could be brought into the procession according to a carefully plotted schedule, but one group of archbishops was simply forgotten by the master of ceremonies. "We were left behind in one of the rooms of the Vatican museum," remembers the South African Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, "We were suddenly called on to get down quickly, and since we couldn't join the procession going into the piazza we had to be ushered along the portico in front of St. Peter's."

    Pope John himself brought up the rear of the procession. Though he was launching a council that would cut the Church adrift from much of its history, he moved with the full panoply of that history, carried on his portable throne, the sedes gestatoria , and surrounded by the ostrich plumes due his office. Father Francis Murphy, who was to gain fame with his leaks from the council under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, remembers the pope weeping under the emotion of the occasion: "John XXIII looked very small and scared until the crowds shouted, ` Viva il Papa .' Then I saw the tears coming down. At long last his council had started."

    The Church's timescale extends to eternity, and it sometimes seems to plan its rituals without realizing that others do not see things sub specie aeternitatis . The Pontifical Mass with which the council opened lasted four hours. Even some archbishops found that a challenge. Archbishop Hurley was worried from the moment he found his seat: "It was very impressive, but being acquainted with Roman liturgical celebrations, I knew it would last for hours, and I found myself quite near the front. I was very nervous lest I fall asleep and the TV cameraman take advantage of my sleeping eyes."

    But he, and everyone else, was woken up by the pope's address. It is difficult to imagine a speech in Latin causing a stir in the late twentieth century, but most of John's immediate audience had at least some understanding of the language, and what he said came as a thunderbolt: a clear and unequivocal rebuke to the conservatives--or, to put it in Church code, the pessimists--who had been plotting to undermine the reforming spirit behind the council since the moment it had been announced.

    "It often happens that, in the daily exercise of Our apostolic ministry, We are shocked to discover what is being said by some people who, though they may be fired by religious zeal, are without justice, or good judgment, or consideration in their way of looking at matters. In the existing state of society they see nothing but ruin and calamity. They are in the habit of saying that our age is much worse than past centuries. They behave as though history, which teaches us about life, had nothing to teach them, and as though, at the times of past councils, everything was perfect in the matter of Christian doctrine, public behavior, and the proper freedom of the Church.

    "It seems to us necessary to express Our complete disagreement with these prophets of doom, who give news only of catastrophes, as though the world were nearing its end.

    "In the present state of affairs, now that human society seems to have reached a turning point, it is better to recognize the mysterious designs of divine Providence which, passing through the different ages of man and his works, generally, against all expectation, achieve their purpose and guide events wisely for the good of the Church--even those events which seem to conflict with her purposes."

    It may not sound very revolutionary to the modern ear--with all those royal wes and the orotund periods of Ciceronian dimensions which, with their apparently endless sub-clauses building slowly to a climax as they do, would probably read and sound better in Latin. But to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in 1962, this was radical stuff. They had been brought up to believe that the Church had long since worked out all the answers; here was St. Peter's successor, a man they believed to be infallible, telling them they had to think of new answers in the light of what was happening in the world around them. Cardinal König, who was to become one of the leading lights of the radicals in the council's debates, told me that until that moment, none of them really knew what to expect, because none had experienced a council of the Church or anything like it. Suddenly, he said, "This old man brought hope into the assembly and gave us the courage to look ahead, [told us] the past is not important, it is the future that is important."

    It would be intriguing to know the thoughts of Cardinal Ottaviani at this point. His senior rank gave him a place just to the right of the pope at the front of St. Peter's. As head of the Holy Office, the guardian of orthodoxy, he had already shown his colors as one of the leaders of the "prophets of doom," and was to become the chief opponent of König and his ilk in the council debates. The motto on the cardinal's coat of arms was Semper idem --always the same. But when John XXIII said, "The deposit of faith itself, that is to say, the truths contained in our ancient doctrine, is one thing, but the form in which those truths are announced is another," it was an invitation to change. To Cardinal Ottaviani and his superiors, it must have seemed a direct challenge.

    And he must have had the first real inkling of the power of the tide against which he was swimming. Almost all those I spoke to who were there that day shared Cardinal König's memory that it was at that moment that they came to realize the council's potential. The pope had instructed them to experiment with new ideas, and the simple act of walking into St. Peter's with the worldwide fellowship of bishops gave them a new understanding of what the Catholic Church meant. Robert Kaiser, who covered the council for Time magazine, gave me this vivid description of the end of the ceremony: "I saw black faces and brown faces and yellow faces, and ruddy red faces from Ireland and Scotland. I saw all kind of faces. I saw an immense panoply of color. These bishops and patriarchs were from all over the universe and when they came out, they tumbled down the front steps of St. Peter's, so that from a distance it looked like a waterfall, a waterfall of red and purple and black and every color of the rainbow. These were the representatives of the Church from around the world. This was the first ecumenical council where we really saw the universality of the Church."

    It is difficult now to recreate the lost world of faith, which was soon to be swept away by that waterfall, despite the best efforts of Cardinal Ottaviani and his allies. To get back into the mind of the pre-conciliar Catholic requires an imaginative leap that is almost impossible to make. The old cliché "once a Catholic, always a Catholic" does not really do justice to the way in which the faith was enmeshed in every fiber of the Catholic being, so that even those who tried to escape it defined their rebellion in Catholic terms.

    If you looked at the surface of the Church at that period, there seemed no reason for change. In most parts of the world the churches were full, and recruits were pouring into seminaries, convents and monasteries. A younger generation of theologians had begun to create undercurrents of new thought, but they did not really touch the daily life of the Church. Its rituals and sacraments--the baptisms and confirmations, the confessions, marriages, benedictions, stations of the cross, rosaries, novenas, ordinations, and extreme unctions--continued as they had done for centuries. Indeed, far from being weakened by the atheist ideologies that developed in the late nineteenth century, the Church in the 1950s seemed in some places to be more self-confident than ever before.

    The Church in Britain was a good example. Catholics were beginning to spread their wings, as the end of legal discrimination worked through into social attitudes. For centuries their hands had been kept from the levers of power in British society, and the top end of society was considered a critical target in the campaign to reconvert the England that was still thought of as "Mary's dowry." The big religious schools--such as Ampleforth, Downside, and Stonyhurst--set about recruiting and educating as many future politicians, bankers, judges, doctors, and opinion-formers as they could lay their hands on. They had expanded energetically in the 1930s, and by the 1950s Catholics could be found at the top of every profession that made up what was about to earn the title "the establishment."

    There were clever converts to show off like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and the writings of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton provided powerful ammunition in debate at High Table. At Cambridge the Catholic chaplain, Monsignor Gilbey, was converting the best and the brightest by the pew-load.

    Of course, the attitude to authority in society at large was more conducive in the 1950s to the Catholic tradition. Cardinal Hume remembered the joys of exercising authority in those days. He was a housemaster at Ampleforth when he heard word that one of his boys was preaching seditious atheism around the dormitories. He called in the offender and reminded him that the entire monastic community and its school were founded on the conviction that Jesus Christ was the son of God. The future cardinal said that if he ever stopped believing in that fact he would leave and get married, and he demanded the same consistency from the offending boy, who was offered a timetable of the buses to York and a choice: believe or leave. "His crisis of faith was cured overnight," said Hume, "but you could only do that in the 1950s."

    The centrality of the fact of Christ's divinity was what really distinguished the Catholicism of those days and gave it the appeal that held so many--from the Irish laborer in Liverpool to aristocrats and intellectuals at the Jesuit church in Mayfair--in thrall to its spell. The article of faith on which Catholicism rests is at once preposterous and marvelous--indeed, it is marvelous in part because it is so preposterous. If God really did become Man in the person of Jesus Christ, it is a truth so awe-inspiring that it can only dominate every moment of our lives. It means that at a moment in human history, a moment as real as the battle of Hastings or the election of the Attlee government in 1945, there was an intersection between our finite world and the infinite realm of the divine. It makes the existence of that parallel, divine world an ever-present reality at every moment of every day.

    Once you had accepted the fact, everything else made perfect sense. The idea of transubstantiation--the belief that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ at Mass--has been much ridiculed as a piece of medieval superstition, but for Catholics it is perfectly logical: if God could become Man in Palestine two thousand years ago, why shouldn't he turn a piece of bread into his divine body in our parish church on Sunday morning? Miracles, the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, the Apparitions of Mary, the Liquefaction of St. Gennaro, the preservation of grisly bits of martyred saints, indeed the full panoply of Catholic mysticism--which can be so revolting to some Protestants and so incomprehensible to the scientifically minded--all seem natural and uncontroversial once you have accepted the divinity of Christ.

    Everything about the way the pre-conciliar Church worshiped revolved around the idea that the intersection between the human and the divine, which took place when Christ was born and was repeated each Sunday, demanded to be celebrated. Great music expressed the enormity of the event that occurred at every Mass. Incense and Latin heightened the sense of mystery surrounding what was being done on the altar. At benediction, the consecrated Host was placed in an ornate monstrance and displayed on the altar to be venerated. All sorts of complicated rules were developed to manage the meeting of the physical and spiritual worlds that took place at the consecration. For example, fasting before communion was compulsory, as the idea of God's body becoming mixed up in that morning's bacon and eggs presented all sorts of theological difficulties. Once consecrated it was too holy to be touched, so it had to be placed directly on the tongue. I remember stories of pious nuns who would cut out and burn bits of the carpet along the altar rail because they had been touched by the divine when a Host fell from a communicant's lips.

    The act of consecration itself was considered so sacred that it could only be performed away from the prying eyes of the faithful, so the priest kept his back to the congregation. I remember overhearing one elderly priest, indignant about the changes introduced by Vatican II, saying that asking him to consecrate the Host facing the people was like asking a couple to make love in public.

    And, of course, there was the deep satisfaction of certainty, an attraction felt especially strongly by Catholics in this country. There has long been a suspicion of enthusiasm in the English approach to religion, and it has always seemed to me that there is a certain sense of embarrassment at the heart of Anglicanism. The empirical English mind has never really been comfortable with the preposterous aspect of the Christian Fact, and all that talk of bodies and blood and miracles is, after all, in rather poor taste. Anglicans are slightly shamefaced about it all. Not so the Catholic Church--and certainly not the Catholic Church of the 1950s. It was supremely confident about trumpeting the Truth it held. It was comforting to believe that your Church had an answer to absolutely everything. There was no part of human life, no moment of human history, and no avenue of philosophical inquiry on which the Catholic Church of those days did not have a view. When I was confirmed at the age of twelve, my aunt gave me a prayerbook called simply Lord God . First published in the 1930s, it offered me a prayer appropriate for every eventuality a schoolboy might meet: Before an Examination and After an Examination ("Coming, Lord God, straight from the test of my human knowledge I want to offer to thee the success or failure that results ..."); Before Being Punished ("Lord, I am about to be beaten ...") and After Being Punished (a joke here: "There is no set form of words for this occasion. Mental, rather than vocal prayer is usually found to meet the case more adequately"). A footnote to the Prayer Before a Match revealed that: "It is the custom of Ladycross School for the team to pay a visit-- en costume --to the Blessed Sacrament before playing a match. Practices of this sort might well be extended to other activities of school life ..." I dimly remember that Ladycross were always rather useful on the rugby field.

    We all had a general issue Simple Prayer Book , which included special prayers for reducing our sentence in purgatory. The number of days that could be knocked off was precisely stated beneath each prayer--so many days' remission for a "Glory Be," so many days for a "Hail Holy Queen," and so on. Some prayers were more powerful than others: we quickly worked out that you could speed your passage through the purging of the soul by months just by cracking through a few Hail Marys, while some of the longer prayers like the Creed were only worth a week or two.

    If we had followed through the literalism of this approach, we might have detected an inconsistency: if our days in purgatory could be so easily reduced by precise numbers, should we not also have had a table to indicate how many days of punishment were required to expiate each sin--a sentence of x for lying, y for allowing our attention to wander during Mass? Had it been possible to reach such an equation, I suspect most of us would have found ourselves in credit in the celestial bank. We used to compete to see who could knock off the most years of purgatory with the same fervor we brought to schoolyard games, but none of us was old enough to have done anything very serious; sausages in the holy water basin was about as bad as it got. I can still remember racking my brains for a sin to produce at my first confession; it was terribly disappointing to hear that "not shutting my eyes while praying" was not good enough and, caught in that tortured loop that only a Catholic upbringing can give you, I can remember feeling guilty that I had nothing to feel guilty about.

    The impact of all this was to invest every choice we made with immense moral significance. No decision, not the smallest, was neutral. It became second nature to think first about what the Church taught was right and wrong, and only afterwards about what we did or did not want to do. For us, like Lech Walesa with his terror of being tormented by Stalin and Lenin in hell, fear of damnation was an ever-present reality.

    The itch to offer a prescription for everything extended to the adult world too. It was not just that the Church never admitted to being wrong on any point; the way it understood its claim to be the possessor of Revealed Truth meant it could never admit to having been wrong in its history. In Church fêtes and Catholic attics you can still find dusty books that bear testament to the vast reservoirs of intellectual energy and ingenuity that were poured into the effort to square reality with the Church's understanding of itself as a perfect society which could do no wrong. Here are some of the issues addressed in a book designed to help converts, Questions and Answers on the Catholic Church , published by the Catholic Missionary Society in Edinburgh in 1913.


A fails to keep Friday as a day of abstinence and is according to the teaching of the Catholic Church in mortal sin and deserving of hell. B is a habitual criminal, living in mortal sin, and therefore also deserving of hell. Are both A and B equally guilty?

The answer, intriguingly, reveals that A could, in fact, be more guilty than B if he understands that what he is doing is wrong and B does not, because "the degree of guilt depends directly on the degree of voluntariness involved in the sin."


Is it possible for Protestants to be saved? If so, what is the meaning

of the saying, "No salvation outside the Church"?

Protestants will be delighted to hear that they can be saved, and that this is granted to the best of them because they are really aspiring Catholics:

Protestants in good faith intend to belong to the true Church, and believe they do belong to it, only they are mistaken as to the body which they identify with the Church.


Does the Roman Catholic Church designate as heretics all Christians who do not hold the doctrines of that Church? Does the Roman Catholic Church consider any or all of the following as heretics: Knox, Whitefield, Wesley, Livingstone, Milton, Bunyan, Penn, Fox, Chalmers, Moody, Dr. Horton? Are the whole of the clergy and members of the Anglican Church--or any other Church, e.g. the Wesleyan--considered heretics by the Roman Catholic Church?


Yes, every one of them. [It goes on to distinguish between "formal" and "material" heretics, who are not in quite so much trouble.]


Were not the following tortures sanctioned by the Church of Rome, and made use of by the Inquisition--burning to the death; the strappado or pulley, by which the victim's arms were dislocated; the application of live coals to the soles of the feet; the rack, the pouring of huge quantities of water into a linen bag thrust down the throat; iron dice forced into the feet by screws; the application of red-hot irons to the breast and sides, with many others?

    The answer is quite brilliant:

The assertion that these practices were "sanctioned by the Church of Rome," though not untrue in words, gives an impression which is absolutely false ...

    Sadly, this was not all good clean fun. In both my schoolboy prayer book and the Missionary Society's Questions and Answers on the Catholic Church , there are a couple of Latin phrases that give a hint of the darker side of the Church's self-confident belief in its monopoly of the truth: Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur . The Nihil Obstat is followed by the name of a censor, and indicates that he has found nothing contrary to Catholic teaching to "stand in the way" of its publication, and the Imprimatur ("Let it be printed)," is endorsed by a senior cleric. Censorship was an automatic Church reflex--indeed, Rome has never really shaken off the habit, as I found when I met some of the rebel theologians and priests I interviewed for this book. Because it believed it spoke Absolute Truth, it believed it owned the truth. The other side of the pre-conciliar Church's emphasis on the mystical and the divine was a ready willingness to condemn scientific conclusions that did not square with the Church's understanding, and to stick by that condemnation long after it had become ludicrous to do so. The other side of its pursuit of beauty in its worship was an excessive addiction to ritualism, and its obsession with prescription was matched by a ferocious intolerance of dissent.

    John XXIII's original reasons for calling the Second Vatican Council have never been fully explained. It is said that the idea first came to him during a briefing from his secretary of state: as Cardinal Tardini went through the day's reports from the Vatican diplomatic service, painting a grim picture of a world in turmoil, the pope was inspired by the notion that a full council of the Church--something that had taken place only twice in the previous five hundred years--would enable it to engage with the problems of the twentieth century. But the vague and lukewarm way in which his cardinals and the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, initially responded to it suggests that many of them saw it as the dream of a slightly dotty old man. John had been chosen, after all, to serve as a "transitional pope"--the papa di passaggio . When he told eighteen of his curial cardinals of his plans on January 25 at the church of St. Paul's Without the Walls, they were so astonished that they were reduced to silence--"Too moved and too happy to utter a word," one of them explained later, rather unconvincingly--and the official organ of the Vatican, Osservatore Romano , broke the news to the world in a statement so terse that it was almost lost between the announcement of a diocesan synod for the clergy of Rome and plans to update canon law. But the calling of the council was a recognition of a fact that now, with the hindsight of three decades, seems blindingly obvious: the Church and the world around it were moving in steadily different directions, and however healthy the Church may have appeared on the surface, its intellectual mindset was simply not sustainable in the long-term.

    For nearly a century, the Catholic Church had lived on its inherited intellectual capital. It was a magnificent inheritance--the intellectual equivalent of the Getty, Astor, and Grosvenor millions all rolled into one--and the Church could afford to live handsomely for a while. But by the time Pope John XXIII became its guardian, the coffers were almost empty. The profligate heir who had set the Church on this ruinous course was Pius X-- Pio Nono . By one of those twists that pepper the history of the papacy he had been elected in 1846 as a liberal who could meet the demand for reform in the papal states, and for a while his openness to change made him the darling of the Roman crowds. But that did not save him when Europe erupted in 1848, the "Year of Revolutions," which saw the established order challenged all over the continent. Pio Nono escaped disguised as a servant from the mob besieging his palace, and fled to exile in Naples. The experience turned him into a reactionary of the most entrenched kind, and for the next thirty years of his long rule he went energetically about the task of building a wall around the Church.

    Of course, the Church had found itself on the losing side of the intellectual argument for centuries: the Reformation and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the development of the natural sciences, the ideas that animated the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution all represented a steady march away from the medieval thinking to which the Church had become so firmly wedded. But it was not until Pius IX's papacy that the Church's rejection of the world around it was formalized and codified. In 1854, Pius defied rationalism with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Ten years later the Syllabus of Errors was published, which listed and condemned the heresies of the modern world. And in 1869 he called the First Vatican Council, at which the dogma of Papal Infallibility was declared. The Council set the tone for a period of intolerance and triumphalism, which froze the Church in the Middle Ages.

    In 1896 Leo XIII issued a papal bull that condemned Anglican orders as "absolutely null and utterly void." It was based on what is now judged to be dubious theology: that English reforms undertaken in the sixteenth century undermined the true nature of the priesthood. The bull was inspired by political opportunism: Cardinal Vaughan, archbishop of Westminster, believed that a flood of Anglican ministers would take the road to Rome if the pope ruled that they were not really priests. It looked like an act of spiteful and belated revenge for the Reformation. A hundred years later, Cardinal Hume was conducting the delicate negotiations necessary to convert Anglican priests disenchanted over the ordination of women, and he had to go to Rome to work out a way around the fact that the Church still technically regarded the Anglican priesthood as a fraud.

    In 1907 the Church formally condemned "modernism" and began hunting energetically for heresy among its own members. Pius X is said to have run a "secret espionage association," which spied "even on Their Eminences, the cardinals." When Benedict XV became pope in 1914, he found his own name on the list of suspected modernists.

    The effect was to stop the Church thinking. The intellectual energies that should have been engaged in meeting the challenges of the twentieth century were spent on producing tendentious justifications for the Catholic Missionary Society and prayer books to tighten the Church's grip on the souls of small boys. Because the intellectual resources at the Church's disposal were considerable, it was done well. But, for all their intelligence and creativity, men like Waugh and Chesterton were simply polishing the family silver to reflect the Catholic view of the modern world more brightly; they did little to reinvest for its future. One of the final documents agreed upon at Vatican II spoke of "the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old." When John XXIII took the throne of St. Peter, he found that many of the rooms in the treasury had been locked for centuries, and much of the reluctance he encountered to open them up sprang from the embarrassing fact that the keys had long since been lost.

    There was also a deep fear of what might be revealed if the doors were opened. Cardinal Hume's explanation of the appeal of pre-conciliar Catholicism was simple: "It was safe," he said. The Catholic Church had had a radical youth and a vigorous, innovative early adulthood, but as middle age approached, she became increasingly ossified and set in her ways. On the threshold of her two-thousandth birthday, she tried to come out from behind her fortress walls and rediscover her ideals.

    For many Catholics the change that began with John XXIII's broadside against the prophets of doom has been every bit as traumatic as a bereavement or a divorce; the story of the Church over the past four decades is the drama of an institution undergoing a midlife crisis.

Copyright © 2000 Edward Stourton. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-10-30:
Much has happened in the Roman Catholic Church over the relatively short 35 years since the closing of the landmark Second Vatican Council, and British journalist Stourton has managed to condense it all into a succinct, engaging history that uses truth as its theme. Stourton, a television anchor with the BBC, is a Catholic who was educated by the Benedictines. As he analyzes the developments in the worldwide church since Vatican IIÄwhich effected a host of liturgical and other changes that Stourton likens to an earthquakeÄhe combines his knowledge of church teaching with the objective eye of a journalist, occasionally adding his own commentary. Stourton deals in particular with the various disagreements over church teaching that have shaken the foundations of Catholicism in recent years. At times he is critical of his church, identifying areas where he thinks it has been heavy-handed in defending the truth. He cites, for example, the 1997 excommunication of Father Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka, who challenged both the church's ideas about Mary, the mother of Christ, and its continued opposition to artificial contraception (a ban that Stourton says has been widely ignored). Although Stourton considers the church to have been "badly battered" by the events of the last three decades, he ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that the church's universality remains a strength amid the strain of disagreement. Although Catholic insiders will find Stourton's work of particular interest, his storytelling skills make this a fascinating read for so-called outsiders as well. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2001-04-01:
Absolute Truth began as a BBC series on modern Catholicism. Author Edward Stourton, a Nigerian-born journalist educated by the Benedictines at Ampleforth, examines Roman Catholic history during the past four decades to discover whether traditional Catholic teachings concerning "the oneness of Truth and its absolute quality" have any meaning in today's world. Stourton's book is reminiscent of Colm Tobin's The Sign of the Cross (1994), which contains reflections on the author's travels in Catholic Europe in the early 1990s. Like Tobin, Stourton skillfully conveys the diversity of Catholic experience and the sometimes painful burden of Catholic history, in unforgettable portraits of specific places and people. Stourton is much more concerned than Tobin about the institutional church and the outcomes of conflicts over issues of contraception, liberation theology, sexuality, and papal authority that have divided the church since Vatican II. This lively, accessible study takes readers behind the scenes at the Vatican, into Catholic America, to a Catholic AIDS hospice in Zambia, and to a Catholic ashram in India to show how the church continues to "[fulfill] the dream of universality" with which Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II. General readers and undergraduates. D. Campbell; Colby College
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-09-15:
Stourton, the product of Catholic education in England and a practicing Catholic, works as a BBC news anchor and documentary creator. Here he brings his sense of journalistic truth into dialog with his sense of religious truth, asking whether the Second Vatican Council's ambition to engage with the world is realistic. He answers in the affirmative, arguing that despite its spending so much energy in trying to suppress dissent within its ranks, the Catholic Church has shown itself to be a formidable engine of ideas. He believes that though the Church has been badly battered since the Vatican Council, it continues to exist as a vision as much as an institution and remains filled with a host of men and women who are purposefully trying to make that vision a reality. Stourton's balanced, eloquent book is recommended for public and academic libraries.DDavid I. Fulton, Coll. of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Table of Contents
Picture Credits
Unlocking the Treasuryp. 1
A Slight Conspiracyp. 16
Quietly and With Powerp. 30
Intrinsically Evilp. 41
Only God Before Their Eyesp. 60
Queen Jadwiga's Footprintp. 73
The Church and Communismp. 85
Option for the Poorp. 107
Seeking Justicep. 120
Deadly Errorsp. 133
Certain Coincidencesp. 150
A Notificationp. 158
Don't Judge the Soundsp. 171
The Very Sickp. 183
Invincible Ignorancep. 193
A Sign of Contradictionp. 209
Select Bibliographyp. 220
Indexp. 222
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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