Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: Catholicism: East of Eden

Catholicism: East of Eden – Richard Bennett. Pp. 336. £ 8.50. Paperback. ISBN 9781848710832
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This is one of those books that I always want to be more positive about than I find I can be. One has a great deal of sympathy for Richard Bennett. He was brought up a devout Roman Catholic, and decided to dedicate himself to missionary work. He was priest in the West Indies, and clearly a very devout, though mistaken man. He is a very intelligent man, and his decision to dedicate himself to missionary work was at the expense of a university career.

As a former Roman Catholic priest, Richard Bennett has first-hand experience of the Church of Rome, and learned Roman Catholic theology from Roman Catholics. He is therefore qualified to present an insider’s view of Rome. This is the great strength of the book. Bennett is able to see through the smoke-screen Rome has erected, and through the confusion of ecumenical statements that are all give on the Protestant side and all take on the Roman side. The book is strongest as a personal testimony with theological reflection. Richard Bennett’s expertise and personal experience are obvious in his treatment of Roman Catholic theology and practice.

There is a very perceptive section on ecumenicism, pointing out that in fact what we have in the Ecumenical movement is a unity that is based almost ccompletely on the use of equivocal language. The chapter 'The Mystic Plague' is quite helpful too, and related. Mystical experience, divorced from doctrine, is a fruitful basis for the union of people belonging to groups with fundamental disagreements.

The section on marriage deals with matters that I for one was unaware of until quite recently, when another Christian remarked that a member of his family was kept from becoming a Roman catholic when he was told that, because his marriage was not a Roman Catholic one, it was no marriage at all, and his children were all illegitimate. Today Rome rarely speaks like that - but it lost at least one person many decades ago! If there is one criticism it is that perhaps Bennett tries to pack everything into a relatively short book. I personally prefer those works that seek to point out the most important differences between Rome and the Reformation churches - but that is just a minor criticism.

On the other hand, this book has a very serious weakness. In writing about the history of the papacy it is obvious that Bennett is far outside of his area of expertise, and he relies almost entirely on 19th century popular works that have since been superseded. The trouble is particularly with his treatment of certain medieval groups which 19th century Protestant groups assumed were evangelical, but which more recent discoveries have shown were not. This mars what is otherwise a good book. I was surprised that the only 20th century work he cites from is from a Seventh-Day Adventist.

Why is this a problem? It is a problem because all of these works treat the Albigensians and Paulicians as orthodox theologically. Yet today, with access to more information about these groups than 19th century Protestant historians had, no serious historian takes such a view. N.R. Needham's 2000 Years of Christ's Power is by no means an academic work, and he distinguishes between the orthodox Waldesians (whom he describes as "Protestants before the Reformation") and the heretical, dualistic Albigensians and Paulicians (Vol. 2, Pp. 114-7,309-313). Given that some of the works cited by Bennett are somewhat obscure, it will not do to say on this point "he is merely a popularizer". No, he has made the mistake of relying on outdated scholarship. We have to be very careful here. Our Protestant forefathers in their conflict with Rome often made the mistake of assuming that those who opposed Rome in the Middle Ages were of necessity in more or less full agreement with them. While there were such groups - like the Waldensians, the Petrobrussians and the Hussites, there were also groups that were not at all orthodox. Readers are directed to Harold O.J. Brown's magisterial work Heresies (Hendrickson, 2003) and chapter 14. For an in-depth study of dualist religions, see Yuri Stoyanov, The Other God (Yale, 2000). An older but still authoritative study is Sir Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee (Cambridge, 1947). It is telling that most of the works cited by Bennett are not actually studies of the Albigensians, but either Wylie's History of Protestantism, or studies of the Waldensians. This is undoubtedly the reason why they have merely repeated others' mistakes. However, given that Brown and Needham are on the market, there is really no reason for any modern writer to make such errors. Wylie in particular focuses on the Reformation era, not the Middle Ages.

It seems to me that Bennett is attracted to the idea of an alternative 'Apostolic Succession' of churches reaching back to before the rise of the Papacy and preserving the true doctrine. While understanding the appeal of such ideas to a former Roman Catholic, I have to dissent from it. For one thing, the Reformation came from inside the Medieval Catholic Church, not outside.

Having said this, it must not be forgotten that there is much in this book that the reader will appreciate, all relating to Bennett's area of expertise - modern Roman Catholicism. In my opinion it would be much improved if the ‘historical’ sections which deal with pre-Reformation times were either removed or revised in the light of research carried out in the 20th century. Read it carefully, and pay particular attention to the statements about modern Rome. The Reformation was necessary because of false teaching, and that teaching has not been reformed in Rome.

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