Review of What Do We Know, What Can We Believe? Anglican News, March 2002

July 24, 2008 at 1:24 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )


Review of What Do We Know, What Can We Believe? Anglican News, March 2002



  1. Paul Dennett said,

    The late James Wall’s book, What Do We Know, What Can We Believe?, is the product of an intelligent man living with his faith, and of a learning acquired through his Jesuit schooling, four years of formation with the Dominicans, university studies and from much reading, if his bibliography is anything to go by. Like many lively minds who try to make sense of it all, James opens creaky old cupboards and drags out dusty dogmas so that they can be examined in the light of day. How to reconcile the claims of traditional church teaching to modern thought and findings is his task. If it does not measure up, then it needs to be re-examined. If found wanting, it is judged as a candidate for obsolescence.
    Upon succeeding to the papacy, Pope John XXIII, to the deep concern of the Curia, admitted that the Church was less than perfect and attempted a similar exercise to James’s by applying his idea of aggiornamento, or the ‘bringing up to date’ of its faith and practice. Pope John spoilt the full implementation of his plan for renewal by dying. But by this time even he was having doubts about the wisdom of it all. The next pope, Paul VI, bumbled along uncomfortably with the Vatican Council. He had inherited from John a special commission whose task it was to examine the morality of contraception. Rather than accepting the eventual majority recommendation for change, he went for the safe option – consistency and no change – and published to the acclaim of his clerical bachelor supporters his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1966, thus painting the Church into a corner on this particular issue for the foreseeable future. John Paul II succeeded the short-lived John Paul I and promptly turned the barque of Peter round and steamed confidently off, heading back to the past. This clerical generalissimo’s goal was to recapture the spiritual certainties of yesteryear with as little reference as possible to the findings of the branches of secular learning – anthropology, psychology, biology, etc. If he did not succeed during his papacy in a subjugation of the laity, he seems to have re-established Rome’s command over an obedient hierarchy – ‘altar boys’, not bishops according to some – through the judicious supervision of episcopal appointments. Such a routine assumption of papal power would not have been acceptable in the 19th century, let alone in the remoter past.
    If James’s slim book ever found its way to the Vatican, it would certainly be denied an imprimatur. Had he persisted in his studies as a Dominican he would have found himself bruised and silenced for this publication – and in even darker times than these, a candidate for the stake. Theologians – the so called Modernists – who over 100 years ago attempted to propose changes like these, changes that their authors considered would be acceptable, were severely reprimanded by Pius X. Candidates for ordination are to this day required to take an oath against the Modernists’ approach.
    James Wall covers a very broad range of issues, both theological and profane, in his book. But for a reader with a Catholic background, like me, the topics that are especially interesting are those dealing with the Church.
    The authority of the Church is dealt with throughout, whether implicitly or explicitly. This matter is crucial to the mindset of the educated, questioning believer of the 21st century. Once upon a time the pope and his assistants in far off Rome operated as a final court of appeal. However, with the development of instant communication – telephone, email, etc. – they have been able to micro-manage at will. Wall pleads for the application of the subsidiarity principle and cites the well-known case of the Sydney Sisters of Charity whose intention to operate on a trial basis a supervised drug-injecting room for drug addicts was quashed by those in Rome who know better.
    The person of Jesus is touched on. Many Catholics can’t get past the little consecrated wafer in the monstrance or the statue of the bearded lady pointing to the big tomato on its chest. Jesus deserves more than this. Archaeology, comparative religion, and organic biblical criticism are some of the disciplines that can teach us more about him.
    Human sexuality seems to have obsessed the Church for centuries, some claiming that it is an abiding relic of an unhealthy asceticism that originated in pagan Rome and happened to be absorbed by early Christians there. The former Archbishop of Bombay, Thomas Roberts SJ, observed that if the U.S had dropped condoms on Hiroshima and Nagasaki rather than bombs, how much more the Church would have had to say. Funny? Yes, also sad but true. It does seem that the Church is very interested in the beginning and the end of life but often doesn’t have much to say about what happens in between.
    My advice is to get the book and read and think about it. Paul Dennett

  2. deberigny said,

    With a cut to the chase, Paul Dennett’s words get to the heart of the matter and sequentially describe James Wall’s thoughts and approach in “What Do We Know, What Can We Believe?”. James would have found Paul’s reference to Archbishop Roberts’ comments apt.

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