The Church: Always in Need of Reform – Book Review

Gabriel Daly OSA, The Church: Always in Need of Reform, Dominican Publications: Dublin, 2015
This is a remarkable book, written by a man in his late eighties having recovered from a period when he not only gave up writing but had lost interest in reading as well. One can only assume that his passion for the Church and its future goaded him into action, particularly in the light of what he saw as the predominance of the ‘conservative mind­set’, which he admits is now less in the ascendant than under the two previous popes but which still needs challenging.
Daly has lost none of his sense of literary style, wit, and extraordinary capacity for expressing difficult ideas with ease. Though not the purpose of this book, it is nevertheless a useful compendium of the liberal Catholic thought that inspired the theological change of gear that happened at Vatican II and that flourished briefly in the immediate post­council period, before being sidelined by more conservative tendencies in the Church.
The purpose of the book is a plea for a conversation between ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’, acknowledging that while agreement is highly unlikely at least they should be prepared to dialogue in the interests of fidelity to the truth of the Gospel. Daly’s gripe is that the conservatives have been allowed to dominate and dictate, guilty of putting forward their own theology as ‘the teaching of the Church’. As with all dualisms, some of the nuances of the debate are lost, but the clarity is his argument requires a clear delineation of the two competing mind­sets.
The opening chapter is engagingly biographical, showing how his mind was broadened at Oxford in the 1950s as a student of history after having been straight­jacketed by neo­scholasticism at the Gregorian University. Of his time in Rome he wittily remarks, ‘We had been living in protective custody without realising it’ (p.22). I read this section with interest, as my own biography overlaps with Daly’s at more than one point. He taught me history at school; and as a sixth­former in the mid­1960s, his stimulating and enthusiastic religion classes meant that we must have been one of the first groups anywhere in the world to be catechized by the teachings of Vatican II. Later, he taught me at the Irish School of Ecumenics and supervised my thesis. Any interest I have in theology I owe to him.
The succeeding chapters build up a powerful argument for a thinking Church that is open to the positive intellectual and cultural influences of society at large. His own study of the Modernist controversy convinced him of the importance of being open to contemporary currents of thought that need to be brought to bear in the business of theology. The classic example is the influence of historical criticism in biblical studies, which initially had been proscribed by the institutional church.
It is clear that Pope Francis has stolen something of Daly’s thunder and that his original draft, written during a different papal climate, was probably too angry for publication. He freely acknowledges, though, that it was ‘extremely difficult for me to approach Vatican bureaucracy with restraint’ (p.28). And yet the book is remarkably restrained under the circumstances, perhaps due to the influence of the editor and theologian friends.
While Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI helped to create the climate for the conservative tendency in the Church to flourish, they too shared Daly’s misgivings about the ability of neo­scholasticism to speak to the contemporary world. Wojtyla’s considerable body of work rests more on personalist and phenomenological philosophical foundations. Whereas Ratzinger’s theology is thoroughly grounded in an affective Augustinian approach, away from the severe rationalism of neo­scholasticism. Daly may have made a nod in that direction.
I found this a reassuringly ‘Augustinian’ book, which may surprise a man who never regarded himself as a scholar of Augustine. It is replete with a sense of theological quest, of the need to follow wherever life’s questions and anxieties take us. In a striking passage he relates that ‘there is much in human religious experience that suggests that God does not want to be found too easily, and that consequently the search for God should be a constant and continuing feature in a life of faith’ (p. 211).
I expected to find an intellectual outlook that had become passé, full of the thoughts of an old man unable to accept that the theological frontline has moved on. Quite the contrary, in fact. This book is a distillation of the best of liberal Catholic thought, expressed clearly and with conviction. It will have its many critics, but it throws down the gauntlet to those who think that nothing really happened at Vatican II.
Paul Graham OSA

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  1. Wilfrid Harrington, OP says:

    I am grateful for this perceptive review. Gabriel’s book is, indeed, remarkable and timely. He is surely right in his discernment of two incompatible mindsets. For too long, one has arrogantly sought to impose its distinctive theology as ‘church teaching’ to the exclusion of alternative positions. The task of theology is to elucidate our faith in light of the contemporary situation. This involves new, helpful, insights. The notion of one unassailable theological system –neoscholasticism — was abandoned at Vatican II. Theologians have the right to investigate, to break new ground. The result is differing theological views. What is needed is respectful tolerance. Gabriel has made his case brilliantly and with characteristic verve and wit.

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