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Owen Chadwick

I would recommend to anyone Owen Chadwick’s survey, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century [1]. These Gifford Lectures were published in 1975. I remember them as fresh and new about the time I was losing my faith in atheism, and steering a course for Christianity that landed me first in his Anglican church.

The book is a magnificently balanced, concise account of something unprecedented in human history. That balance is struck between social and intellectual history. That “ideas have consequences” is acceptable as a modern, subtly self-flattering cliché; Chadwick also shows that “consequences have ideas.” Man in the nineteenth century was becoming alienated from nature and society alike, by the sweep of industrial innovation. The new, “secular,” atheist and evolutionary quasi-religion could be taken as a by-product, too. The ideas and consequences were all of a piece.

Chadwick, who died last week at age ninety-nine, was among the most formidable intellects on that Anglican shore. Then Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge; Regius Professor of History; and once rugby star; Chadwick was a church historian in no way parochial. He embraced “cultural history” in the manner almost of a Christopher Dawson.

Roman Catholics may remember his defense of the reputation of Pius XII, during the “Hitler’s pope” controversy of past decades. He marshaled evidence, chiefly from the British diplomatic archive, to show that the charges were ludicrous; and provided historical context to more than explain the pope’s selective “silences.” His forensic skill, in establishing strict chronology through murky events, was of real service in exposing very malignant lies.

Chadwick impressed me for his aloofness in controversy. He calmly pursued the truth, in subjects of vast human complexity. His chief interest was our modern world, and how it came to be that way, in light of its deeper history. He wrote dispassionately of matters clouded by passion, yet never in cold blood.

As a man of practical affairs he was invaluable for certain priestly qualities. In his college and in his church, he had a gift for seeing through situations to people; again and again he resolved impossible conflicts, into which he had sometimes entered as a minority of one. This had much to do with a further gift for verbal clarity and precision.

In one of the British obituaries, it was noted that there were remarks by Chadwick in the files for almost every student who passed through Selwyn in his time; always concise, and both charitable and pointed. This was a reminder to me of what I had once been able to admire in that English church, at its best: men animated by a sense of public responsibility, in every dimension of their character.

Owen Chadwick

The Church of England was “established,” in England, and behind the scenes. Chadwick was among the last who struggled to keep it that way, as governments came and went – not because disestablishment would be constitutionally vexing, but because establishment was a good worth preserving. This was a position Chadwick was perhaps the last to be able to explain. With it went a campaign to keep Anglican church appointments and decision-making as free as possible from parliamentary interference.

Catholics who are able to explain the position of the Church in societies once overwhelmingly Catholic are now also thin on the ground, almost to extinction. We discuss “church and state” in terms that would be incomprehensible to men in the past, when the Christian religion was taken very seriously, and its institutional position as guardian of moral and spiritual values had not yet been usurped, by the state and politics.

Bishops mattered: they carried a weight of public responsibility that is lifted from them now; a weight they had no choice but to own. Even from Rome, it seems to me, we now get episcopal statements that are, in a word, flighty. They are like the remarks of media pundits, who are free to fulminate because they hardly expect to be obeyed.

Chadwick, incidentally, declined one offer after another of an Anglican bishopric. Perhaps he preferred sticking to realms that could still be “mastered.”

His major early work, From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of Doctrinal Development (1958), also remains well worth reading. At its heart, it frees Newman from the charge that the arch-critic of liberalism had founded his views on liberal premisses. Chadwick’s very Anglican aloofness leaves him free to describe Newman from outside:

“From the window of his sanctuaries at Oriel, Littlemore, and the Oratory, he looked out upon the world and, seeing revolution, avarice, moral degradation, atheistic speculation, and sacrilege, believed that Augustine was right in thinking every kingdom of the earth to be founded on robbery. No one succumbed less to the idolatry of material discovery or to the enchantments of scholarly and scientific research. He believed in religious progress as little as he believed in secular progress, and that was not at all.”

But Chadwick’s own experience and genius as an historian also finds in Newman’s “doctrine of doctrinal development” a dimension not elsewhere acknowledged. For Newman could defend the Catholic position that the Deposit of Faith had concluded with the death of the last Apostle – in a new and rather historical way. He could hold, plausibly against critics whose works now seem ossified and dated, that this view is more in accord than theirs with the known historical facts.

Put another way, “progress” was a pure invention of modernity. Its attempts to read itself backwards into history must, necessarily, all fail. I thank Chadwick myself, for teaching me this useful (paradoxically modern) Catholic truth: he helped free me from “mere conservatism.”

Yet I’ve been sometimes repelled by a writer who seemed himself to believe a little in progress. He was no reactionary, and he played a direct part in the evolution of, for instance, Selwyn College, which under his watch admitted men, and then women, too, of other faiths or of no faith at all. What a bounder.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.