Slowly, the true heroes of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath are being rediscovered and honoured. They are not the likes of Karl Rahner – shibboleth of the disobedient liberals – but those such as Romano Amerio who suffered ostracism for daring to tell the truth – the same truth now being rehabilitated by Pope Benedict. Father Richard Whinder assesses the significance of Amerio's life and work.
Romano Amerio was a somewhat courtly, old-fashioned scholar who passed almost his entire life in the Italian speaking city of Lugano, in south-east Switzerland. Born in 1905, he taught philosophy and classics for forty years before his retirement in 1970. His published works included studies of the Italian philosophers Manzoni and Rosmini, and a magisterial, thirty-four volume critical edition of the Renaissance thinker Tommaso Campanella. He was a devout lay Catholic, a friend of several leading Churchmen, and an avid reader of the daily, Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.
Noted for his piety and intelligence, Amerio was selected as a peritus (adviser) by the Bishop of Lugano, Bishop Jelmini, when the bishop was chosen to sit on the Central Preparatory Commission which drafted the schemas for the Second Vatican Council. In this way Amerio acquired a close working knowledge of the documents of Vatican II, as well as the methods and procedure of that Council, and was well-placed to judge the developments that followed it. In his retirement, having spent many years quietly pondering the state of contemporary Catholicism, he at length produced a work entitled, Iota Unum: A Study of the Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century. The book was first published in 1985, when Amerio was eighty years old.
This monumental work – the English edition runs to some 786 pages – was published by the renowned Neapolitan publishers Riccardo Ricciardi, and despite the often abstruse subject matter and Amerio's stately prose, proved an immediate success. The book quickly ran to a second edition in Italian, and was thereafter translated into French, German, English, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Conservatives and progressives in the Church alike recognised its significance. Archbishop Lefebvre dubbed it "the most perfect book that has been written since the Council", and wished "it would be the book every seminarian had in his hands". The editor of L'Osservatore Romano commissioned a review of Iota Unum by Mgr Angelo Paredi, the then Prefect of the Ambrosian Library, but this review – deemed too favourable? – mysteriously failed to appear. More progressive Catholics treated both Amerio and his magnum opus with horror. What was it about this book which invited such extreme reactions?
We must examine Iota Unum in quite some detail, for it constitutes Amerio's most significant work as a commentator on Catholic affairs, as opposed to his more purely philosophical (and largely historical) scholarship. Moreover, it remains, at least for many Traditional Catholics, the best written, most comprehensive and most objective analysis of the crisis in Catholicism which has developed since the Second Vatican Council.
Put simply, one could say that Amerio's method in Iota Unum was to follow the truth, relentlessly and fearlessly, wherever it led him. Where he saw error, compromise or contradiction he was no respecter of persons – not only the highest personalities in the Church (Popes included) but even longstanding friends and patrons (such as Cardinal Siri of Genoa) were subject to his ruthlessly honest criticism. Yet Amerio's authorial voice remains dispassionate at all times, and he never descends to personal criticisms, still less to uncharitable judgments.
I have already stated that Iota Unum is a work of considerable length. I should add that it falls into two distinct parts. The first third of the book attempts an historical analysis of the crisis in modern-day Catholicism, focusing particularly on the events of Vatican II, of which, as I have said, Amerio was a first-hand observer. The latter part of his work offers a broader survey of the changes in the Church which have happened since that event. I shall begin by examining the book's historical chapters.
The Council Analysed
From the start it becomes clear that Amerio's judgment is not going to be clouded by any rosy, post-Conciliar optimism, which was still very prevalent among churchmen in the 1980s. Having examined the Arian, Medieval and Protestant heresies, as well as the challenges of the Enlightenment, French Revolution and Modernism, Amerio concludes that the contemporary crisis is indeed the most serious the Church has ever faced since, "the error that once came ad extra, from outside the Church, now comes ab intra, it is no longer a case of an external assault, but an intestine evil…" And he goes on to quote Paul VI's celebrated remark, made on a visit to the Lombard College in December 1968, referring to the "auto-destruction" of the Church.
How did this situation arise? Amerio passes to a detailed examination of the event of Vatican II itself. He makes much of John XXIII's opening address to the Council. He begins by noting the well-known discrepancy between the Latin and Italian texts of this speech, for whereas in the official Latin the Pope says simply that the unchanging doctrine of the Church "should be examined and expounded in the manner which the times demand" (which would be entirely traditional), in the Italian he says rather that doctrine "should be examined and expounded following the methods and presentation which modern thought uses", which is quite a different thing. Amerio goes on to make much of the new attitude towards error which John XXIII put forth on this occasion. Stressing the "predominantly pastoral character" of the Council he had convened, the Pope asserted that the Church "prefers today to make use of the medicine of mercy, rather than the arms of severity".
Amerio's riposte to this demonstrates perfectly the author's clarity of thought, cool logic and habitually balanced prose: "This setting of the principle of mercy as opposed to severity ignores the fact that in the mind of the Church the condemnation of error is itself a work of mercy, since by pinning down error those labouring under it are corrected and others are prevented from falling into it".
For Amerio, this newly tolerant attitude towards error was one of the turning points in the modern Church. Pope John's speech "constitutes an important change in the Catholic Church", he says, which led to a virtual revolution in her thinking and conduct. An immediate consequence of this Papal intervention was to undermine all the work done by the Central Preparatory Commission, since that had founded its work on the traditional principle that Councils are called primarily to refute error. Thus it was little surprise when the progressive lobby among the bishops succeeded in having the draft schemas rejected and new ones approved. This development, as Amerio states, "by which all the preparatory work that usually directs the debates, marks the outlook and foreshadows the results of a Council, was nullified and rejected from the first session onward", introduced a spirit of novelty which was to prove unstoppable. This spirit revealed itself in the very use of the words 'new' and 'newness', to which the Council Fathers became seriously addicted. As Amerio notes the word 'novus' occurs 212 times in Vatican II, perhaps most notoriously in the Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 30 of which, observes Amerio, "contains a very extraordinary passage" which refers to the pre-eminent importance of social solidarity "so that genuinely new men, makers of a new humanity, may rise with the necessary help of divine grace". Our author submits this sentiment to his usual rigorous critique: suffice it to say that the sentence clearly shows the love of novelty, and the novel theology, which had come to characterise the Council in its latter stages.
Turning Towards the World
Distinct from this love of novelty, but related to it, was a new attitude towards the world which emerged at the Council. Here Amerio cites Paul VI's speech at the closing of the Fourth Session, in which the Pope spoke of the Church "turning towards" the world. For Amerio, this "turning towards" in fact made possible the invasion of the Church by worldly ideas – ideas which (following the irenic model proposed by John XXIII) the Church was no longer willing or able to eradicate. The Council thus opened the door to the virtual disintegration of traditional Catholicism which was to follow.
In this context it is important to note that while Amerio uses (having carefully defined) the phrase 'the spirit of the Council', he does so in a way quite different to several other commentators. For these others, the 'spirit' of Vatican II (and the damage subsequently inflicted on the Church) is something separate from the letter of the Council, and even unrelated to it. For Amerio, the problems which emerged in the years following the Council can be traced directly back to the Council itself. They have their origin in unfortunate Papal pronouncements, in the methods and procedures of the Council Fathers, and in the very language of the Conciliar Decrees. True, as Amerio would agree, the worst aberrations emerged after the Council had closed, but nevertheless it was the Council itself which made them possible, and more than that, which created a favourable climate for errors to flourish. It was this element in his critique which so enraged Amerio's opponents, and polarised the reaction to Iota Unum.
So far we have considered Iota Unum only as a critical history of Vatican II – but it is far more than that. Having examined the Council and its immediate aftermath from an historical point of view, Amerio devotes the remaining two thirds of his book to a panoramic survey of almost every area of Catholic teaching. His method in each case is to state the traditional doctrine of the Church (in elegant summary) and then to demonstrate the ways in which that doctrine was distorted and undermined in the decades following the Council. It should be noted that, in cataloguing all these departures from traditional teaching, Amerio is not interested in the opinions of random theologians or maverick priests, but quotes only from those authorised to speak in the name of the Church: "Conciliar texts, acts of the Holy See, papal allocutions, statements by cardinals and bishops, declarations of episcopal conferences and articles in the Osservatore Romano". It must be stressed, of course, that none of these official and semi-official pronouncements carry such weight that they would compromise the charism of infallibility given to the Church – on that Amerio is absolutely clear. But he certainly quotes enough to justify the scriptural epigraph he put on the front page of his book: "The Lord hath mingled in the midst thereof the spirit of giddiness" (Isaiah 19:14).
It must be admitted that many readers will find this latter part of the book heavy going. The author's vast survey of late twentieth-century Catholicism can be bewildering, confusing and sometimes (unintentionally?) hilarious: where else, for instance, could one read about Paul VI's allocution to a hippy peace conference in April 1971? The chapter headings tumble upon one another in glorious profusion, and the thematic sequence is not always obvious – though it follows an internal logic of Amerio's. Nor does the book lend itself to being 'dipped into' – at least on a first reading. Chapters rarely stand alone. Indeed, one might say that the book as a whole resembles one of those baroque churches conceived as a unity by some master architect, where everything, from the holy water stoups to the high altar, is essential to the harmony of the project: nothing can be easily omitted.
Assault of Relativism
For myself, at least, the key to interpreting Iota Unum lies especially in Chapter 15, which Amerio entitles 'Pyrrhonism'. Pyrrhon of Ellis (d. 275 BC), for whom this philosophy was named, was the founder of the Sceptics, who held that knowledge of the nature of things is unattainable. In other words Pyrrhonism attacks "the very principle of all certainty, not merely this or that truth of faith or reason, since what it impugns is man's capacity to know any truth at all." It is this philosophy which is dominant in the world around us, in which all values are held to be relative, and there is no Truth greater than 'my truth'. And it is the same philosophy, Amerio holds, especially since the opening given to it at the Council, which has infiltrated and at length betrayed the Catholic Church, rendering her incapable of speaking, as her Divine Master did, "with authority". Seeing this error at the root of the all-embracing crisis in the Church today, Amerio rides out as the doughty champion of Truth, applying the weapons of logic with relentless energy, and sparing neither friend nor foe alike when duty and conscience impel him to speak.
For this fearlessness Amerio was praised by the Italian daily newspaper, Il Tempo, upon the first appearance of Iota Unum in Italian – and this judgment remains the best that can be passed on his work: "In an era of undeniable crisis, the greatest gift an elder of the faithful can make to his Church is to speak clearly".
Amerio died in 1997, aged 92. He had spent his last years more or less disowned by the authorities in the Church – so it is good to report that his rehabilitation is now well under way. In 2005 a conference on his thought was organised at Lugano – and attended by the local bishop. And in January 2006 a book entitled Romano Amerio: Della Verita e dell'Amore (On Truth and Love) was published in Italy. This work, edited by a disciple, Enrico Maria Radaelli, constitutes a virtual festschrift in honour of the once ostracised philosopher, and contains articles by two Italian bishops (Mario Oliveri and Antonio Santucci) and a preface contributed by the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University, Fr Antonio Livi. Most notable of all is a commentary by Fr Dino Barsotti, the nonagenarian founder of the Community of the Children of God (a new ecclesial movement numbering some 2,000 persons) and one of the most respected priests in modern Italy. Father Barsotti praises Amerio, and emphasises (as I have tried to do here) the centrality of truth to the philosopher's project. Barsotti says: "the progress of the Church [must] start from here, from making holy Truth the basis of every action once again."
The rehabilitation of Amerio can be seen as one of so many 'straws in the wind' indicating a change of thinking in the Church – a new realism and conservatism – especially at the highest levels. But does all this herald a new 'renaissance' for Catholicism? Here, Romano Amerio himself would bid us be cautious. His great work ends with no plan or programme for renewal, no prophecies, and most importantly, no promises. He simply reminds us of Our Lord's promises to His Church; of the theological virtue of Hope; and above all of our duty "to read the signs of the eternal will, that are there to be read in every age, and stand steadfast before the face of every generation that passes with the centuries."
[Taken from "Mass of Ages" May 2007, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine]