The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church by Malachi Martin (Seeker and Warburg, £6.95).
Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration by Paul Johnson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.95).
IN THEIR very different ways these two books both start from the premise that the Catholic Church has been in a state of disarray not falling short of decline during the last twenty years. But they arrive at this proposition having travelled over highly contrasting routes and come, in the end, to almost completely opposite conclusions.
Malachi Martin is, as ever, the .flambuoyant artist, striding up to his canvas with wide brush and immediately applying vivid colours with sweeping strokes. Paul Johnson is the careful, analytic draughtsman never lacking in style, but always giving pride of place to argument and hard evidence.
Martin devotes most of his highly readable. almost romp= like. book to depicting scenes
from the history of the papacy which illustrate its various flirtations and open liasons with Mammon. The fourth century is of course the turning point. From then on the power struggle is depicted as being paramount in almost every move made by a rapidly centralising Church.
Malachi Martin, however, is not content to be a mere chronicler of events. Each episode, and he is careful to choose those most spiced with high drama and, if possible, scandal, is presented as if the author were writing an historical novel. Minute details are thrown in to build up atmosphere. Dialogue is freely introduced. It can never be said that the Popes, their advisers, rivals, mistresses, et al, do not come vividly alive in these pages.
Malachi is to be congratulated on his kaleidoscopic cavalcade which makes fairly compulsive reading. But how much of it is history? The author is too much of a scholar to invent any important historical facts. But his style is that of fiction rather than fact. He is never dull but his script would appeal to the wouldbe television producer rather
than the serious student of church history (it is perhaps significant that there are no notes as to sources and no index).
More importantly: what are his conclusions'? Having reminded us that the "Pope-King" view of the Papacy came to an end a century ago after nearly 1500 years, he does not, as do so many con temporary writers, look upon the modern period, climaxed by Vatican II, as a period of renewal.
According to him the decline has accelerated since the Council to such an extent, indeed, that "there appears to be no reasonable hope that this decline can be arrested, and no reasonable expectation that the present organisational structure of this venerable Church can outlive our century."
Martin thus concludes that "stripped of its political influence and political power, all the church will have left will be spiritual authority, which, of course, is all that its founder ever promised it." Aware of this, Pope John Paul is pictured as reaching out over the heads of the
institutional church to speak directly to his people. But, though he "seems to have been born for this hour," he will not, in the opinion of this author.
succeed. He is "caught between
the end of an era and the edgy beginnings of another. He
belongs to neither. He suits neither. He cannot return to the era ending. He cannot fit into the new era ..." He can only, it is forlornly concluded finally, be a Pope of transition.
But wait! Enter Paul Johnson. In a closely argued and intensely interesting book, Johnson reflects on every page that overriding robustness which the present Pope has made peculiarly his own. It is not a long book but every word is made to count.
Johnson is as optimistic as Martin is fatalistic. As precise and incisive as Martin is entertaining but diffuse. Our salvation according to Paul Johnson will come from John Paul's Christian humanism,
combined with the seemingly paradoxical fact that he is also an existentialist of a kind.
The Johnson method, having summarised the factors which brought Cardinal Wojtyla to the supreme pastorate, is to view his responses to the "five evils of the age". These are atheism, violence, secularisation, loss of certainty in matters of faith and the shadow, even, of heresy. Paul Johnson makes no apology for calling thigs exactly what he thinks they are. One of the delights of his book—even if you do not agree with all his conclu sions — is his austere abstinence from euphemistic descriptions and ambiguous expressions.
For Johnson, there are no two ways about it. The present Pope is, and can be seen to be, taking firmly in hand all the important matters that were beginning to be fudged in the period after the Council to the great detriment of Christianity and the Catholic
Church. The rationale behind the present Pope's approach to this problem has never been better dissected to my knowledge, at least not in English.
We are reminded that John Paul has not gone back on any of the clear principles of the Council. Indeed this Pope is a liberal. more so even, in one sense, than was John XXIII who
was a visionary but to a great extent a prisoner of his con
servative training. In particular, it is stressed that the Pope has always insisted in man's complete liberty of consciencein matters of belief and has asserted clearly and definitively that the Catholic Church does not monopolise truth.
Thus he is not seeking to impose hard line views on Catholics and others. His techni que is very different. He is a poet as well as a priest. A philosopher
as well as a pontiff. A pastor
before being a potentate. His own example and virile approach to moral, social and psychological matters are the best advertisements, in the long run for the views he espouses.
By a return to obedience and discipline, largely lost in the last two decades, we can once more aspire to the security that makes us free. Gerard Noel