Book Review: The Critics on Trial

Sometimes a book will approach an issue with what appears to be an impossibly broad scope.  The topic has been covered many times before, but often without much thought for completeness, focus, or (in this case) any pretense of a fair and un-skewed analysis.   If the book in question has a gifted author, it can rise above the murk and summarize the content matter in no more than 500 pages.

‘The Banished Heart’ is one such work; ‘The Critics on Trial’ is another.  Each has provided an excellent summary of an issue that will leave satisfied the reader who wished to delve into either book’s broad subject (liturgical history and ritual decomposition in the case of the former, the early Modernist controversy in the case of the latter) to satisfy his intensely burning curiosity.  To those who hunger and thirst for knowledge, you need not look much further.

This is not to say that either book is exactly perfect.  Geoffrey Hull’s sole foray into liturgy was a Magnum Opus of a scholarly work with its disparate chapters meticulously organized and planned to point towards the final point.  However, the author’s highly advanced erudition is also his downfall as I have met few with the patience and reading comprehension who have the ability to both read and understand the book (and these people of whom I speak are themselves well-read, hardly the barely literate products of my nation’s woeful public school system).  As much as I value and appreciate the book, I have come to understand from personal experience why it never gained traction or a wider audience.

If ‘The Banished Heart’ sacrificed readability for a consummate dissecting of its topic, then ‘Critics on Trial’ chose an almost opposite path.  Top priority has been given here to make the author’s labors accessible to the general public even if it means skimming the finer philosophical points (by no means are they not covered, as chapters like The Ghost of Descartes demonstrate). The focus of the book is on the men behind the philosophies and from there it expounds on how they all came to the conclusions they did.

In this manner the book entirely succeeds in being accessible.  It often reads like a novel, telling the stories of half a dozen or more men separately and weaving the threads together at the points of intersection.  Historical context and what were then contemporary world events are provided the reader when necessary. Little anecdotes are told that allow us to see the characters as people rather than couriers of beliefs, be those beliefs orthodox, heterodox, or a combination.  In this manner one can come to understand the fiery Laberthonniere, the gentle and thoughtful Blondel, the cynical Loisy, the contemplative von Hugel, the brilliant Lagrange, or the increasingly erratic Tyrrell.

Furthermore, the book seems to have been written without any specific agenda in mind.  The intellectual rot of the church’s education system is laid bare to show what sort of environment could have disillusioned the “Prodigy from Champagne” and eventually lead him to lose his faith.  Each of the three popes who are covered in the span of the book’s time (Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X) are neither demonized nor kissed on the proverbial toe to pander to any specific audience.  The political successes and failures of each papacy are shown alongside the fruits of said policies.  Finally, the opportunistic Umberto Benigni and his diabolical “anti-modernist” network of informers are exposed for what they truly were.

He that soweth wickedness shall reap evils; and the rod of his ire shall be ended. – Proverbs 22:8

On the other hand, certain points are skipped.  Joseph Turmel is never mentioned, Louis Duchesne’s heterodox views are only briefly touched upon, and the book ends rather abruptly with a telling of the solemn death of George Tyrell.  Since the book clocks in at just under 400 pages, this reader has the impression that an additional 50 pages or so could have been used to at least cover more of Duchesne.

But these are minor gripes in an otherwise solid book.  If anyone wishes to gain knowledge of the perplexing Modernist controversies, then this is certainly not a bad place to begin.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Critics on Trial

  1. Already in my wish list. Sadly this (usually poorly known) controversy is almost never analysed in human terms, leaving aside the people for the sake of ideological confrontation.

    I just know some Duchesne’s studies concerning Liturgy (mainly his Origines du culte chrétien). Which errors did he actually held?

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    • It is my understanding that at some point in his studies he denied transubstantiation. He also at one point stated that there was no concept of the Trinity before Nicea. Unfortunately, for my purposes, most of his works are in French.

      His errors are also buried under a mountain of authentically good scholarship (Adrian Fortescue references him liberally in ‘The Orthodox Eastern Church’).

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