Raymond G. HELMICK, S.J. The Crisis of Confidence in the Catholic Church. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. pp. 293. ISBN 978-0-567-46425-5. Reviewed by Jeffrey KIRCH, C.PP.S., Saint Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, IN 47978
Raymond Helmick’s The Crisis of Confidence in the Catholic Church is volume 17 of Bloomsbury’s Ecclesiological Investigations series edited by Gerard Mannion. Within its pages Helmick explores how the Church struggles to deal with crises it encounters throughout history. Helmick identifies the clerical sexual abuse crisis which rocked the Church in the early 2000s as one crisis in a long line of crises. His argument stretches as far back as the 300s and he offers a simple solution to this ongoing crisis of confidence: remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Helmick’s twelve chapters cover a wide scope of Church history. His writing is well researched and footnoted. He relies on many contemporary ecclesiological texts for his argument.
Helmick points to several major crises that the Church had to respond to, including the East/West spilt in the 11th century, the Reformation beginning in the 16th century, the conflict with Modernity in the 19th century, and the encounter with the modern world at the Second Vatican Council. In each of these incidents, except the Second Vatican Council, he faults the Church for taking a purely defensive posture in the midst of the crisis. This defensiveness prevented the parties from effectively dealing with the situation. He writes in the preface, “The concentration of Church leadership on control of the Christian population, their requiring of obedience to their rulings rather than on the Gospel values of Jesus…had served the Church ill in major times of crisis…” (xx).
The bulk of his narrative, five chapters, is comprised of a retelling of the history of the Second Vatican Council. There is no lack of material on the history of the Council. Numerous primary and secondary sources that have been published in the past few years that have offered a comprehensive examination of the Council. So, there was not a need to spend so much time on the Council’s history. However, for a reader who might not be attuned to the history of the Council, his synopsis of the Conciliar narrative might be helpful. For much of the history Helmick relies on John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II?.
Helmick highlights the distinct role of Pope John XXIII, specifically the importance of the duel tracks of aggiornamento and ressourcement. He recognizes in John XXIII’s pastoral style a strategy for dealing with conflict and crisis in the Church. John focused on the person of Christ and the Gospel which allowed him to sufficiently handle difficult situations. In the conclusion to his discussion of the Council, Helmick offers a tripartite schema to understand the role of the Church in the world. He first points to the paradigmatic role which the Church played following Constantine in which the Church served as the paradigm for the state (161). Secondly, once the separation of Church and State became a reality, the Church assumed a pragmatic role vis à vis the State in regards to education, health, and social services (162). He notes that both of these roles ultimately failed and calls for a parabolic role for the Church. He writes, “If our emphasis as Church were consistently on the building up of active faith commitment…we could expect the presence of a Christian community to influence, in organic and pervasive ways, the free corporate decisions of the society” (163).
The last three chapters of the text deal primarily with John Paul II and the clerical sex abuse crisis. Helmick notes that though the style of John Paul II was popular, he had a very different focus than John XXIII. He notes that the cult of personality that grew up around John Paul II, especially among younger clergy, has in fact worsened the crisis that the Church is encountering today. Helmick is frank and blunt in his assessment of the contemporary crisis. He states plainly that the sex abuse crisis is directly tied to clericalism. Yet, he does more than highlight the crisis. He also offers a solution. He argues that if the Church would fully implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, specifically on collegiality and the Church as the People of God, the Catholic Church would be able to restore confidence.
Helmick’s text is broadly written and covers a wide swath of Church history. He writes clearly and repeatedly emphasizes his primary thesis. Only two small lacunae are identifiable. First, as noted earlier, the extensive retelling of the history of the Second Vatican Council is likely not needed. Secondly, there are a number of errors, both of grammar and of historical fact, which should have been caught in the editing process. Nonetheless, Helmick’s text offers a substantial contribution to ecclesiology and Church history.