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Summer Books

Book lacks longer, tragic historical view


By Edward Stourton
TV Books, 270 pages, $26


Modern Catholicism’s struggle with “absolute truth” began somewhere around 1860 in the wondrous new sewer systems of London and Paris. Industrialization had brought peasants into the cities and transformed them into a proletariat. Overcrowded slums bred rampant cholera. In response, “great water works” -- the management of both sewage and drinking water -- extended life spans beyond imagination.

As infant mortality rates declined, urban children were transformed from economic units (potential labor as farmhands) to emotional units. The mid-1800s saw the invention of the Victorian “Christmas,” for this newly invented “childhood.” The inventions of childhood and contraception roughly coincided. The French birth rate plummeted throughout the century as couples practiced prevailing forms of contraception -- onanism and coitus interruptus. Late-century inventions such as “the English Rubber” (referring to materials obtained from brutalized peoples in the newly invented colonies of Africa and Asia) offered a new means of contraception and were hawked in the bourgeois quarters of Paris.

These developments only increased in the 20th century with the formation of an unprecedented middle class after 1945, the G.I. Bill and penicillin. Small wonder that 20 years later, the new mentalities of the new bourgeois creature clashed bitterly with older notions of human life -- humanae vitae.

Although this is a story I do hope to see told one day, it is not the story told by Edward Stourton in Absolute Truth. A gifted journalist in both televised and written media, Stourton has served as foreign correspondent and news anchor for the British Broadcasting Corporation. His book succeeds due to the journalist’s strength -- it conveys a sense of immediacy. Interviews with people on stages both large and small “who were there” -- including Patty Crowley, Chicago lay leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet premier, and Cardinal Franz Koenig, former Vienna archbishop -- make the reader feel “you were there” during the tumultuous years of the Catholic church’s journey from 1960 to the present.

In the first two chapters, Stourton nicely conveys the sense of freshness and possibility that marked the opening of the Vatican Council in juxtaposition to the 1950s that preceded it. Most significantly, as with the Nixon-Kennedy debates, modern media altered the substance of church politics forever -- “absolute truth” was the product of debate and consensus.

With the council’s 1965 document, Dignitatis Humanae, the gulf between the church and Enlightenment thought had been bridged: One could once again be “fully modern and fully Catholic.”

If 1965 serves as Stourton’s moment of triumph, the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968 triggers the debacle. His chapter titled “Intrinsically Evil” gives an account bursting with personal drama -- but not with new information. The material here has been seen before in works by Robert Kaiser, Peter Hebblethwaite, Jonathan Kwitny and Tad Szulc.

The same criticism might be made for the next section as well, an overview of the post-modern, post-colonialist, post-communist world of the 1980s and ’90s. John Paul II’s election is connected to the end of Soviet communism. Latin America as a Cold War theater and the development of liberation theology leads to the Vatican’s punishment of Leonardo Boff for “challenging a power that could not tolerate dissent from what it held to be absolute truth.”

But is absolute truth all bad? Although Stourton does not say so, presumably a conviction about the “absolute truth” of intrinsic evils played a part here in fueling anti-communist revolution? Stourton attempts to negotiate the thorny problem of what is “revolutionary” and what is “reactionary” by embedding them in the complex person of the pope; he might do better by seeing them within an overall post-modern, post-hegemonic world order.

Finally, Stourton brings the reader up to the present with stories from the radically new situations of the decolonized world in Asia and Africa. The excommunication of India’s Tissa Balasuriya stands as a test case in the “debate over the nature of truth” for Asia’s theologians. Archbishop Medardo Mazombwe of Zambia reflects on truth’s uneasy boundaries in Africa where devout members of his flock finish reciting their rosary and then make a trip to the local witch doctor. However, these forays into post-colonialist cultures end up seeming a bit like side-trips when Stourton finally ends where he began: He returns to Europe and America where the crisis continues to be “the great failure of the church in the 1960s, the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae.”

For this historian, Stourton’s narrative lacks two important ingredients. First, a narrative with stronger explanatory power: Can a conflict between mentalities of this magnitude really be explained as the interpersonal conflicts of these pouting Roman personalities? I would rather see the story start at least 100 years earlier, back in the sewers of London and Paris when human beings acquired for the first time in history radically new expectations of human life -- humanae vitae. Not only would they live, but perhaps they ought to live well, and in a way more material than Aristotle’s posing of the question. This was something radically new. Virginia Woolf famously remarked that “on or about December 1910,” all human relations had shifted. Although one could quibble about the date, Woolf was right. Modern material conditions have changed human beings -- and since we are that radically changed species, we have a difficult time getting enough distance to understand adequately what has happened.

Second, it lacks tragic vision. The summer of 1968 looks pretty good in Stourton’s telling, a moment of confident expectations of liberation from tradition. But where are the devastating American assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in April and June 1968? The May riots throughout Europe (including Rome) that tragically reinforced the gulf between the bourgeoisie (students) and working classes? The Chicago riots of August, a bloody mix of race, class and national interests? That same month’s brutal Soviet repression of the Prague Spring, barely acknowledged (like the repression in Hungary in 1956) by the Western Left? By 1968 Mao Tse Tung had turned to his army to brutally restore order after the failure of his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966.

From the iconic perspective of Woodstock, the 1960s reads as utopia. But now that the “worst of all human centuries” (in the words of British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin) is over, we can see 1968 within a different tragic drama.

Stourton characterizes Paul VI as a “Hamlet” figure, a man paralyzed by introspection, second thoughts and self-doubt. The comparison is apt: Paul VI had a global vision -- information overload? -- and he seems to have been overwhelmed by presiding as pontiff over the cataclysmic 1960s.

Stourton, on the other hand, lacks that tragic vision. He believes (quite incredulously, to my mind) that you can strengthen your teaching authority by reversing your teaching. “A change in the ruling on contraception,” he asserts, “would restore the church’s authority in the arena of sexual ethics and personal morality -- something for which the need and the demand become ever more urgent as the bewildering choices offered to us by modern science multiply.” He believes you can have it all.

Paul VI realized better than Stourton does the stakes at hand. You can’t have it all. If and when the church reverses some of these teachings in the future -- and frankly, it is difficult to imagine the church not doing so, as it has done in the past with usury and slavery -- a certain sense of “authority” will pass away as well. Perhaps it will devastate; perhaps no one will notice. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s changed human nature neither desires nor seeks such “teaching authority” as people in the past have. In any case, stepping back from a journalist’s immediacy to the historian’s long view leads to an inescapable conclusion: There are some irrecoverable losses in historical existence. There will be some in this case of reversed magisterial teaching, too. That is a tragic vision.

Although Stourton has produced an enormously engaging book, readers will have seen much of this material before. In addition, the journalist’s method points to a larger problem for the historian: In order to understand Humanae Vitae, one needs a longer -- and more tragic -- view of humanae vitae.

Jesuit Fr. Stephen Schloesser is an assistant professor of modern European history at Boston College and of church history at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001