Jay P. CORRIN, Catholic Progressives in England After Vatican II. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. pp. 523. Pb. ISBN 13:978-0-268-02310-2 and 10: 0-268-02310-7. Reviewed by Michael P. HORNSBY-SMITH, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK.
This study by Professor Corrin focuses in particular on the small group of undergraduate Catholic intellectuals at Cambridge University and their mainly Dominican collaborators, such as Herbert McCabe. The group founded the magazine Slant in 1964, so-called because they insisted ‘as theological and ecclesial insights develop, it should become apparent that the natural Christian slant is to the Communal, i.e. leftwards’. The group, which finally collapsed in the early 1970s, was actively involved in dialoguing with Marxism in the early years after Vatican II.
To place this group in context Corrin traces the origins of its socialist sympathies to the anti-capitalist Distributist movement of Hilaire Belloc and G.K Chesterton from the first decade of the twentieth century. They were highly critical of the evils of capitalist-industrial society and saw the promotion of a minimum wage in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum as mere reformism which would maintain existing power structures and misleadingly give workers the impression that they were being liberated. No mention is made of the Catholic Land Associations of the 1930.
The lengthy background to the Slant group takes up nearly the first half of the book. In particular the essentially authoritarian and paternalistic nature of the Catholic Church in England was demonstrated with numerous examples up to the disciplining of Fr. Herbert McCabe O.P. who wrote a critical editorial in New Blackfriars following the apostasy of Charles Davis in 1966. The study reviews a wide range of historical, philosophical, sociological, and theological thinking leading up to the Second Vatican Council and its immediate aftermath. The author interviewed and carried out extensive correspondence with former members of the Slant group such as Terry Eagleton.
The Slant group was influenced by common memberships of campaigning groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D.) and by the emergence of the New Left who were repelled by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Their search for a Marxist humanism was stimulated by the publication in English in 1963 of Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, by the writings of Antonio Gramsci, and dialogue with Marxists such as Roger Garaudy. The Dominican Spode House arranged four Christian-Marxist dialogues in the 1970s. But the matter of Marx’s atheism was never resolved by the dialogues.
Radical Catholics such as the Slant group were deeply disappointed by the reformist proposals of Vatican II which they felt domesticated Catholics and workers and left the prevailing global and exploitative capitalist system substantially unchallenged. Furthermore it failed to oppose what they saw as the inherent evil of nuclear warfare and the uncritical nature of anti-Communist Catholicism. In the 1966 Slant Manifesto they claimed that ‘Christians...must fight capitalism as evil’ even if it meant aligning themselves with atheistic Marxists. Given the explicit criticisms of the strongly authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church in England at the time it is perhaps unsurprising that the Slant group experienced considerable hostility. By the early 1970s the Slant group had died out having achieved relatively little. It was always a small elite group of highly intellectual left-leaning Catholics but it failed to mobilise a mass movement which might have challenged the prevailing reformist nature of English politics.
There are a few unexpected mistakes. Thomas Roberts S.J. was Archbishop of Bombay, not Delhi (p.135). There is ambiguity between the Newman Society and the national Newman Association. PAX was an English Catholic peace movement founded in 1936 which in 1971 merged with Pax Christi originally founded in France in 1945. It was Pius XI, not Pius IX who wrote Quadragesimo Anno (p.179) and the previous pope was Benedict XVI not XVII (p.299).
Nevertheless, this is an intelligent and fascinating book which addresses major issues about the relationship between the Catholic faith and politics. It is largely an account of the struggles of a small group of left-leaning Catholics in England up to the decade after Vatican II. Little attention is paid to other progressive groups such as Catholics for a Changing Church, the National Justice and Peace Network, and Housetop. But in my view the basic analysis of the Slant group was and remains correct: the structures of the institutional Church are essentially paternalistic and authoritarian; it is highly suspicious of liberation theology, and tends to speak in platitudes about concerns for the poor and increasing inequalities. Seeking reformism of the increasingly powerful institutions of global liberal capitalism ends up domesticating Catholics and inhibiting any prospect of prophetic challenge or significant structural change.
I found the book immensely stimulating in thinking about the state of the Church at the present time. The fact is that justice and peace issues are nowhere near serious matters of concern in most English parishes today. Corrin quotes Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate as indicative of a Church more critical of the hegemony of liberal capitalism and Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium also makes some critical remarks. But there is little evidence so far of any significant shifts at the local level. The challenge to realise the kingdom of God here on earth as in heaven remains today.