Father Aidan Nichols Tells Why the Realm Is Ripe for
By Annamarie Adkins
CAMBRIDGE, England, 6 APRIL 2008 (ZENIT)
A great civilization can only
be built on a religious or metaphysical principle, begins the
"unfashionable" argument of Father Aidan Nichols in his new book on the
re-evangelization of England.
The Dominican priest and theologian is the author of “The Realm: An
Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England” (Family Publications),
in which he makes the case that in England, that principle is the
Father Nichols is the first John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at
Oxford University, a lecturer in the Cambridge University Divinity
Faculty, and Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology in the John Paul
II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.
He told ZENIT why the conditions are right for the re-conversion of
Q: The subtitle of your book is “An Unfashionable Essay on the
Conversion of England.” What makes your thesis unfashionable?
Father Nichols: It is unfashionable to hold
over against contemporary pluralism, liberalism and multiculturalism
that a great civilization can only be formed on a metaphysical or
This is especially true if one adds that in the case of England
whose emergence as a nation coincides with its conversion
this principle can only be Christianity, and more especially, the
Q: You challenge the assumption that Protestantism is an essential mark
of the character of England. In what ways was Catholicism central to the
making of England, and what does the Church offer today that can remake
Father Nichols: Protestantism was central to the attempt to remake
English identity under Elizabeth Tudor; to the reaction against the
Catholicizing tendencies of the Stuarts after the Restoration of the
monarchy; and to the project of welding England and Scotland together as
a united “Britain” over and against France, after the union of
Parliaments at the beginning of the 18th century.
But the almost 1,000 years of Catholic Christianity that preceded any of
that are responsible for the origins of the English literary
imagination, for the principles of the common law, for the concept of a
covenanted people under God which permeates the induction of a
sovereign, and for the range of virtues which have been commended
and sometimes practiced
in English culture and society.
What the faith of the Catholic Church can offer today is an
intellectual, moral, and imaginative framework for the salvaging of
these virtues, and their re-energizing by sacramental grace.
Q: Perhaps the most interesting part of your book is your explanation
why the mixture of demographics within English Catholicism makes it
uniquely poised to transform English culture. Could you elaborate?
Father Nichols: The example of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England
shows the efficacy of a missionary scheme that combines representatives
of the indigenous population with canny outsiders.
To convert or re-convert a culture one needs both the long, instinctive
familiarity of the native, along with the more detached and objective
critical gaze of the newcomer.
In contemporary English Catholicism, there is a “native” community
consisting of the descendants of recusants, converts and the anglicized
Irish, along with a potpourri of recent, or fairly recent, immigrants
from many parts of the world.
As a reservoir for mission, that recreates the successful Dark Age
Contrast the Church of England, for which it is difficult not to follow
national trends wherever they may lead.
Or contrast the Orthodox Church in England, which remains too bound to
other ethnicities to have much inner feel for the English situation.
Q: For the 100 or so odd years between 1850 and 1960, a number of
England’s leading artists, intellectuals and public figures became
Catholic. What was the main reason for these conversions, as well as
their notable absence today? What can the Church do today to evangelize
the “commanding heights” of the culture?
Father Nichols: The remarkable number of conversions of major or
relatively major figures in the period 1850 to 1960 is to be explained
by their common perception of Catholicism as a presentation of truth,
goodness, and beauty that was at once a powerful philosophy, a
comprehensive ethic, and a vision of spiritual delight.
The absence of such conversions in the period after 1960 is to be
explained by the ensuing doctrinal disorientation
“So where does that leave truth?”
echoing of fashionable human rights discourse
“So where does that leave goodness, at any rate in terms of a
and liturgical banality
“So where does that leave beauty and spiritual delight?”
What the Church can do today is to reform herself by repeating like a
mantra the words “only the best will do”: the best intellectually,
Q: You argue that the Church needs to right its own ship before
attempting to steer England on the proper course, and point to a general
apathy among the faithful and clergy as the main problem. Which of your
proposed reforms speaks most directly to this issue?
Father Nichols: The single most urgent need is the re-launching of an
adequate doctrinal catechesis at all levels.
Putting anything else first is like trying to make bricks without straw.
Q: It seems that Islam is forging a prominent place in English
society—even gaining a few high-profile royal converts and calls for a
separate, Sharia-based legal system. Does Christianity have a specific
role in standing up to this trend in Britain?
Father Nichols: England, or more widely the United Kingdom, has to
decide among three possible responses to the growth of the Islamic
community, not only in numbers, but also in self-confidence.
The first is communitarianism, which allows each faith-community (or
non-faith community) its own version of public space, and seems to be
the road along which the present Archbishop of Canterbury would travel.
But communitarianism means the (further) inner disintegration of the
cultural system of the nation as a whole.
The second is a secular liberalism that would privatize religious
aspiration in order to leave the public square clear of all religious
But that means the increasing exhaustion of the moral capital of the
historic patrimony of the culture, the shrinking of the metaphysical
imagination in public life and a declaration that agnosticism is now the
religion of the State.
The third is a recovery of the Judeo-Christian tradition as what is most
foundationally form-giving of English society and culture, while
allowing that, on grounds of conscience, there are individuals and
groups who cannot make that tradition fully their own.
For obvious reasons, I think that is the way to go.