Without Blemish

by John Ziegler

Iota Unum, by Romano Amerio, was published in 1996 in English translation from the second Italian edition by Sarto House, Kansas City. It is subtitled A study of changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century. It takes its title from Matthew 5:18: "Iota unum, aut unus apex, non praeteribit": "not one jot, nor one tittle, shall pass away", or, to quote the passage from the Jerusalem Bible, "I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved."

The author was born in 1905 in Lugarno, Switzerland, and for many years there he taught philosophy, Greek, and Latin. As Professor Amerio he was chosen by the then Bishop of Lugarno to assist him in preparatory work for his part in the Council. The latest date cited in the book is in 1984, and the original Italian version was published in 1985. A review of that version is quoted in a biographical note: "In an era of undeniable crisis, the greatest gift that an elder of the faithful can make to his Church is to speak clearly."

The cover proclaims the author to have been an "episcopal consultant to the Central Preparatory Commission of Vatican II" and thus to be familiar with its documents; and to have "written the best book on the pre-Council, the Council, and post-Council". So, what to expect within? The cover again: "The optimism with which some people regard declining faith, social apostasy, abandonment of worship and depravation of morals, is born of a false philosophy of religion. It is said that the crisis is a good thing...The Pelagian denial of evil is implicit in these assertions."

The whole book speaks of crisis in the Church.

p 33: "There is no true crisis when the mystical body is attacked, so to speak, in its sensitive soul but not in its intellectual or mental one, and when the nucleus, being endowed with the charism of indefectibility, remains undamaged, even though confusion may be spreading through all the physiological operations of the body."

p 41:"Examining crises in the Church, we have found that they only occur when a contradiction of the constitutive and governing principles of the Church arises within the Church itself, rather than in the world outside."

On his test, the author lists these crises: that from which the Nicene Creed came in 325 AD, because of fundamental errors about the divine and human natures of Christ; the Lutheran secession because the very principle of belief was denied, "the soul of the Lutheran secession...was...intolerance of authority" p 25; and what he calls the present crisis (the Modernist Crisis was a crisis of the world more than of the Church p 38)

Certainly, there is, and he gives, plenty of evidence of confusion. Given his contention, just a few of his chapter headings are enough to indicate this: The Crisis of the Priesthood; The Church and Youth; Catechetics; The Religious Orders; Dialogue; The Natural Law; Divorce; Situation Ethics; Democracy in the Church; Ecumenism; Liturgical Reform; Theodicy; Eschatology.

Thus: p 59: "The general collapse of the use of Latin, following as it did upon a project for its general restoration, provides a further proof of the paradoxical outcome of the Council."

p 103: "Semantic transposition is...a great vehicle for innovation. So, for example, to call the parish priest a pastoral worker, the Mass a Supper, ...and spontaneity even of a reprehensible sort authenticity, suggests a change in these concepts when they are referred to by the latter terms."

p 183: "The crisis among the clergy has been explained by the usual references to sociological and psychological factors, which are not true causes, while the moral factor has been ignored."

p 256: "We have seen how the Italian bishops have moved from active resistance to abdication in regard to communism" (the book was written before its collapse). "The transition brought the Italian Church to the point the French Church had already reached previously when its bishops proclaimed that Christians could take any political course compatible with their own consciences."

p 310: "The new fangled catechetics is...characterised by two intrinsically connected stages: a methodological stage, in which it drops the Catholic pedagogy based on the transcendence of the truth over the intellect that discerns it; and a dogmatic stage, in which it drops the certainties of faith and replaces them with subjective examination and choice."

p 359: "Mobilism is a characteristic of the post-conciliar Church in which...everything has been put in motion and no part of the Catholic system is free from change...Gaudium et Spes describes mobilism as a characteristic of modern civilisation."

p 361: "Within the Church too the idea has caught on that changeability is a positive quality and should be accepted: it has replaced the ideas of stability and immutability....(quoting the Bishop of Metz) ‘pre-conciliar theology, the theology of Trent, is henceforth at an end.’"

p 392: "It has been the lot of our age to overthrow the absoluteness, the tremendum and the majesty of the natural law and to reduce it to the irrelevance of a mere opinion or an unreasoning mania for taboos."

Nor does the Pope escape: p 752: "John Paul II" (in a speech at the site of Auschwitz) "spoke of ‘the enormous contribution of blood paid by Russia in the struggle for the liberty of nations in the last great war.’...The enslavement of Latvia...and Poland by Soviet despotism...is here condemned to oblivion."

And so on. It certainly gives plenty of evidence of worldly ills, and that such ills have had their effect on the way the Church, both in her membership and in her actions, has reacted. And doubtless it points to the presence of confusion. But, a philosopher, he goes further.

p 710: "The present decline of Catholicism towards a purely earthly system of values constitutes a substantial mutation in the nature of the religion." (According to Aristotle natures are immutable: thus St Thomas remarks that heat does not make coldness to be hot, but makes the subject of coldness to be hot.)

p 713: "If the present crisis is tending to overthrow the nature of the Church and if this tendency is internal to the Church rather than an external assault as it has been on other occasions, then we are headed for a formless darkness...in the face of which there will be no alternative but to keep silence."

p 734: (speaking of the decay of Roman civilisation in the fourth century): "At the very time when a dying paganism was defending the presence of the statue and altar of the goddess of Victory in the Roman Senate, that very paganism was undergoing the same change that has now begun in the Catholic Church. The specific character of Christianity is being lost, and Catholicism is being dissolved into a combined universal religion, of which all particular religions are regarded as valid expressions, because religions are, on this view, simply the expressions of the different cultures in which they exist..."

p 754: "That there is a crisis in the Church and that it is connected with the crisis in the world at large is universally admitted...it is also universally admitted that the crisis takes the form of an imbalance between...the material development of the human race...and its spiritual development...The truth is that this imbalance is the result of an inability to keep technical developments within the ambit of moral developments. The root cause of the confusion that has characterised the centuries of the modern era...is the absence of principle to...unify the various goods with which man is confronted....". Well, he has said once more that there is a crisis in the Church, and then goes on to explain why there is one in the world.

Indeed, his own notion of the Church is inconsistent. Thus, whilst he speaks (p 710) of "the impossibility of changing the essence of Catholicism...", he yet goes on to speak of that essence as being humanly mutable (p 712): "The whole question of the present condition of the Church can be summed up as follows: is the essence of Catholicism preserved? Do the changes that have occurred allow the same essence to continue in existence amidst changing circumstances, or do they turn it into something else?" (my italics).

The character of the book, and its title, by way of reaction calls to mind that text, Ephesians 5:27, about the Church: "not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but...holy and without blemish." (That's the wording from the old Douai Bible, for which I confess I have a soft spot. You often find the Jerusalem Bible to be a touch less incisive: "He made her clean in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless.") Speaking of this text, the author has on p 128 the remark: "It is not Christians who make the Church holy, but the Church that makes them holy." Surely the other side of that coin is that no actions, even of Christians, make the Church unholy? And that no confusion among Christians makes the Church confused?

Commenting on the same text, a noted work on the Church has: "The word Church...taken...in its formal or theological sense...indicates the Church in her entirety, body and soul together. But it indicates the Church alone, pure and unmixed, to the exclusion of all that is other than herself. Looked at in this way, the Church is composed of just men and sinners. But that statement needs further precision. The Church contains sinners. But she does not contain sin. It is only in virtue of what remains pure and holy in them, that sinners belong to her - that is to say in virtue of the sacramental characters...and of the theological habits of faith and hope if they still have them. That is the part of their being by which they still cleave to the Church, and are still within her...the frontier of the Church passes through each one of those who call themselves her members, enclosing within her bounds all that is pure and holy, leaving outside all that is sin and stain."1

It goes on: "But the word ‘Church’ can also be taken in a material manner. We may say, as before, that the Church is composed of just men and sinners. But in this sense the sinners are regarded as entirely within the Church, their sins included, and the Church herself is seen as a mingling of sanctity and sin. Evil has penetrated within her boundaries...This material way of looking at the Church may arise...among the empiricists, notably the historians, who tend professionally to consider the Church from an exterior...and phenomenal standpoint...(It may also be found, for almost opposite reasons)...among preachers and the apostolically minded. They are not wanting in love, or in a sense of the mystery of the Church. But they are led to consider this mystery less under its ontological aspect...than under its dynamic, moral...aspect. Anxious to show Christians that...they ought to live altogether in the light, altogether within the frontiers of the Church, they are inclined to assign to her not her real frontiers, but the frontiers which she should have...and which indeed she has...in the saints."2

Professor Amerio has a genuine Catholic mind, with insights, often acute, into what is fitting. But it is clear that he has taken the Church in this material way, no doubt moved by that motive.

In reality, therefore, the author can only be asking, not: "what is the Church coming to?" but: "what are ‘those who call themselves her members’ coming to?" Even in those terms, the book's argument is not compelling.

It puts a one-sided case. It speaks entirely of faults or of what seem to be faults without assessing what there may be either to balance or to explain them or even, often, to analyse whether they are indeed faults. Such a case demands a reply, as provided in the workings of a legal system, or a case does not get a fair hearing. Arguing thus has various names in the art of discussion: logicians treat of it under the general heading of sophisms. Let us be content to call it special pleading.

Connected here with that is this: the whole method of the book is to take human actions as signs to prove its main argument. But to use signs to prove, they have to prove. A sign ambiguous in what it signifies does not. Nor does a collection of signs taken together, if thus taken they are still ambiguous. This is behind the judicial practice of giving the benefit of doubt. In many cases in this book, actions are capable of other interpretations. In the Rhetoric Aristotle calls evidence of this sort a Fallible Sign: fallible because it fails to prove.

Finally, surprisingly, the book does not come to a conclusion reached by the theologian with whom I was speaking years ago regarding that secession. "When did it end?", I asked. "It's still going on," he said.

But, to come back to that work quoted before: "Of this Church...which is visible, which includes sinners but not their sins, we shall have to say that she is at once purer and vaster than is commonly believed; purer, because she rejects all stain of sin, and vaster because she draws to herself everything that begins to spring up in the world from the seed of grace."3

- JZ


1. Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, introduction to Vol. 1, English translation, Sheed & Ward, London, 1955.

2. loc. cit.

3. loc. cit.

John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted April 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
We would be grateful to receive a copy of any republication.