Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition
by Eamon Duffy
Continuum. 187 pp. $16.95

Faith of our Fathers is a spirited defense of Catholic ritual, discipline, and communal observance”of the ways in which the collective wisdom of Christian tradition is passed on from one generation to another. “After thirty-five years of studying and teaching the theology and history of the Church,” writes Eamon Duffy, “I find myself living more and more out of resources acquired not in the lecture room or library, nor even at the post-conciliar liturgy, but in the narrow Catholicism of my 1950s childhood, warts and all.” This insight, says Duffy, “springs . . . from growing appreciation of just how much of the essence of Catholicism my provincial Irish childhood transmitted to me. For all its apparent narrowness, it bore stronger witness than many modern forms of Catholicism to realities which have come to seem to me infinitely precious. Its ritual absolutes and rules look legalistic, rubric-mad today: but they spoke with a sure confidence of the sacramentality of life, the rootedness of the sacred not in pious feelings of ‘spirituality,’ not in our heads or even exclusively our hearts, but in the gritty and messy realities of life, birth, death, water and stone and fire, bread and wine.”

Eamon Duffy is no traditionalist, mind you. He is calling neither for the restoration of the Tridentine Latin liturgy nor for a return to the devotional practices of past generations. Duffy is generally considered to be a man of the left, and he has been a critic of some of the policies of Pope John Paul II. Again and again in these essays he says that tradition has to do with change, adaptation, and in one place he calls it an instrument for “discovery.” Yet he has come to view the developments within Catholic life over the last two generations with mounting alarm”not because they brought change but because they ignored the deeper wellsprings that nourish and sustain Catholic piety.

Duffy cites many examples to support this contention. I think his most telling illustration comes in the book’s final essay, which is about the abandonment of the practice of fasting and abstinence. Duffy considers this “one of the saddest and most serious casualties” of the reforms. Prior to Vatican II abstinence from meat during Lent and on Friday and fasting from midnight before the morning one received the Eucharist were defining marks of Catholicism, just as abstaining from pork is a defining mark of Judaism. Yet after the Council these rules were dismissed as mere “externals,” marks of a superficial piety that needed to be replaced by more “spiritual” forms of devotion. So the dietary disciplines were scrapped. Lost was a corporate observance that set the contours and rhythm of life, that gave meaning to feasting and abstinence and taught renunciation as well as affirmation. In its place was put an individualistic injunction to perform some form of penitential act on Friday. In this way, a communal practice as old as the Church itself became a matter of private choice. “Abolish such observances and you strike at the heart of tradition and you abolish the distinctive language of belief,” Duffy writes. He describes it as a form of “ritual suicide.”

Duffy makes a point of reminding us that he is a “cradle” Catholic, raised in what many consider the narrow, provincial, and oppressive world of Irish Catholicism, where the phrase “God is love” was “thumped into you with a stick and the penny catechism.” But Duffy is now a distinguished historian of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and the author of an influential study of pre-Reformation English Church life, The Stripping of the Altars . He comes to this reflection on the present state of Catholicism with an intellect formed by the study of late medieval Catholic life. As a historian, he is more interested in the Church on the ground”in what the faithful do when they pray the rosary or bury their dead”than in what theologians are thinking.

Duffy argues that despite real advances in scholarship, many of the reforms adopted in recent generations have been strangely unhistorical in their approach to Catholicism. Preoccupied with abstract theories about the proper role of liturgy in the Church’s life, the reformers focused on the rationale behind forms of worship and devotion not on their latent vitality and potency. They failed to understand how Catholic practice actually worked; they were insensitive to the capacity of certain ritual acts to foster a sense of mystery and awe in the presence of God”that is, to put one in touch with the holy. In a nice phrase Duffy writes that “we have allowed the vocabulary of gestures” to become thin and one-dimensional.

Most of the essays collected in Faith of our Fathers were originally published in the British journal Priests and People . They address such topics as the Virgin Mary, the saints, the Eucharist, the papacy, the priesthood, death and dying, prayers for the dead, hell, and the Inquisition. The essays are all short and easy to read; they are often insightful and always historically well informed. In an essay titled “Rome of the Pilgrims,” Duffy observes that in the past the city of Rome was a great cemetery, and most Catholics on pilgrimage to Rome came to pray at the many tombs of the saints. Today most pilgrims come to see the pope and are only dimly aware of the relics of saints that are to be found in churches scattered throughout the holy city.

In an essay titled “Why Do We Need the Pope?” Duffy, the author of a popular history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners , offers a fresh defense of some very ancient ideas. The distinguishing feature of the papacy, he writes, is its witness to the apostolicity of the Church. In the conflict with Gnosticism in the early Church, bishops set forth theological arguments in defense of the apostolic faith, they appealed to Scripture, and they cited the words of the “rule of faith.” But they also insisted that apostolicity meant being in communion with the Church’s bishops. The bishops were concrete signs that the apostolic faith had been preserved not in arcane and secret teachings but in persons who were known and identified. This is why Catholics symbolize their unity in a person, the bishop of Rome, not in a theology. God calls us, says Duffy, not into some ideal fellowship or spiritual Church but to the responsibilities of membership in an actual human community. In an interesting aside, he observes that the papacy is the strongest glue “holding together the centrifugal energies of American Catholicism in some sort of unity.”

Two essays are about saints, one on changes in Marian piety over the last fifty years and another titled “What Do We Want from the Saints?” In the latter Duffy mounts a critique of the present model of sanctity”the saint as exemplar, a person who embodies some aspect of the Christian ideal. In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.

According to Duffy, the new model of sainthood fosters Pelagianism, “a wearisome emphasis on good deeds and moral effort, the saint as prig and puritan.” In his view the older model is far better, offering us the saint as spiritual tightrope walker, ascetic star, eccentric. This analysis seems plausible in theory, but it ought to be noted that the most popular person to be beatified in recent years is the stigmatic Padre Pio, who was very much an eccentric, an ascetic, and a prodigy. Another popular modern saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, lived a form of renunciation and mortification far beyond the reach of most Christians. Here Duffy seems to have let his ideas get out ahead of the facts.

As these observations suggest, Faith of our Fathers ranges far and wide over the present state of Catholicism. But Duffy never wanders too far from this one persistent argument”that much of the vitality and resiliency of Catholicism is found in its rituals and worship, in lay devotions and Marian piety, in veneration of the Church’s blesseds and saints, in acts of communal discipline and obedience that bind the faithful together as a living organism. This may not be the only thing that needs to be said about the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it is a welcome and timely word. And it is very good to have it from a scholar as learned and reflective as Eamon Duffy.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.