Irrelevancyor Extinction?

Breaking Faithby By John CornwellViking Compass. 310p $24.95.

John Cornwell’s latest effort at faithful, constructive criticism (following his highly controversial Hitler’s Pope) focuses on the factions and divisions within Roman Catholicism that virtually every Catholic experiences to a greater or lesser degree. In a brief first chapter, A Catholic Dark Age, he sets the frame for everything that will follow by identifying various tensions and paradoxes: flourishing local communities within an institutional decline of the church as a whole, arguments over church within the world as opposed to church against the world, a papal cult in opposition to ever louder voices of dissent. Chapter Two, Divisions, continues the description of a fractured church and ends with a kind of doomsday question about how much longer the church can survive. Taken together, the third and fourth chapters constitute something of a history of the images of the church in modern and postmodern times. It is an interesting and helpful strategy. The church does speak of itself in images, and those images, redolent with more than notional meaning, can uncover hidden layers of bias and intentionality.

In the next two chapters, Cornwell positions the experience of a foundering church within his personal history of faith, always helpful and illuminating. Then follows a series of predictable chapters in which he holds up to the light the various issues in which Catholic divisions are seen most clearly: liturgy, sex, priesthood, women, the hierarchy and intellectual repression (the mandatum, among others). Finally, the Epilogue and Afterword allow Cornwell to gather reflections that sound somewhat like ruminations on what if and if only. Indeed, to have both an epilogue and an afterword creates the impression that the author is reluctant to lay down his pen, as if there is more to say but perhaps not yet enough clarity.


Cornwell is first and foremost a journalist, and Breaking Faith has all the strengths and weaknesses of journalism. It is lively, always concrete and specific. Each chapter begins with an eventa conference, a text publishedand is replete with quotations from the major players in church polity and life. The author fills the pages with statistics and examples to support his observations. This approach allows the reader to see the divisions within the church for what they truly are: matters of flesh and blood, of pain and humor, of hope and despair.

On the other hand, as the book went on I found myself wishing for something more, a larger vision or insight that would allow me truly to make sense of the conflicts that are our present experience. In attempting to analyze the various dichotomies that beset the Catholic Church, Cornwell seems all too often to accept them. Many of the chapters end with questions that, again, offer us only two options, an either-or that requires us to take sides rather than to move toward greater unity. At the end of Chapter 1, for instance, he asks whether we are headed for a sectarian breakup or a loose amalgam of convictions and practices unrecognizable as the true faith. And later on he speaks of the choice between radical transcendence and a Christian secular humanism.

There are places in the text where Cornwell breaks out of these dichotomies, as when he speaks of the sacramental imagination and its importance in his own faith. He commends Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, of blessed memory, for attempting to rediscover a unity larger than our present conflicts. In some detail he also narrates a conversation with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, in which he praises the cardinal for his conviction that the Church’s division stemmed from a tendency to lose oneself in the complexities of ecclesiastical politics, theology, and sexual morality; that only a return to the fundamentals of Christian worship could bring Catholics together.

But these moments are brief and only suggestive, especially when juxtaposed with long catalogs of woes. Cornwell doesn’t really develop these possibilities creatively or imaginatively, nor with the detail with which he documents conflicts. Perhaps it is not within the scope of journalistic writing to do that.

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