The Latest Book Reviews

Winter into Spring Reading For March 2013

Reviews for the following books:

CONSTITUTIONAL ILLUSION AND ANCHORING TRUTHS: THE TOUCHSTONE OF THE NATURAL LAW. By Hadley Arkes. (Reviewed by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.)

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THE SOUL OF WIT: G.K. CHESTERTON ON WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. Edited and Intro by Dale Alquist. (Reviewed by Ken Colston.)

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WILL MANY BE SAVED? WHAT VATICAN II ACTUALLY TEACHES AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE NEW EVANGELIZATION. By Ralph Martin. (Reviewed by Peter A. Huff)

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THE SEVEN BIG MYTHS ABOUT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. By Christopher Kaczor. (Reviewed by Daniel J. Blackman)

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KNOWING GOD.  GOD AND THE HUMAN CONDITION.  By Frank Sheed. (Reviewed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.)  

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MARRIED PRIESTS?  30 CRUCIAL QUESTIONS ABOUT CELIBACY. Edited by Arturo Cattaneo. (Reviewed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.) 

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CHALICE OF GOD: A SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY IN OUTLINE. By Aidan Nichols, O. P. (Reviewed by Msgr. Daniel B. Gallagher)

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CONSTITUTIONAL ILLUSION AND ANCHORING TRUTHS: THE TOUCHSTONE OF THE NATURAL LAW. By Hadley Arkes. (Cambridge University Press, New York  2010), 268 pp.  PB $23.99.
This past semester, in a class on political philosophy, we read this incisive book by Hadley Arkes, who writes nothing but incisive books. When we finished, I said to the class: “Do you know what this book is?” The class awaited quizzically:  “It is nothing less than a total rewriting of the Constitution, and the essential case laws that are said to flow from it, in the light of a clear understanding of the coherent principles of natural law.” Arkes’ earlier book, Beyond the Constitution, was itself an analysis of the natural law background of the Constitution, and of the thinking and logic of those who wrote it. Arkes major statement, about reason and its grounding and relation to law, is found in his well-known book, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice.

What this new book does, with that clear logic of which Arkes is famous, is to re-examine the Constitution itself with a view to its own adequacy as a statement based on natural law. The Constitution is itself a basic, but positive law through which other ordinary laws are legitimated. It was put into written form by a definite authoritative body, at a given time and place, for a specific people. Thus, it was itself formulated to establish certain institutions, procedures, and principles whereby citizens can be governed by known law. In turn, the ordinary and more particular laws that govern specific areas of civic life have been based on this Constitution.  In turn, these laws have been interpreted, let stand, or reinterpreted, by the courts so that their practical force comes from what the courts set down.

In one sense, this book is not a polemic against those who do not uphold the Constitution, but rather with those who do. Primarily it is aimed at Justice Scalia and the late Judge Bork. Both men have pursued the laudable effort to at least return the courts, from their imperial independence reached infamously in the Casey decision, to reasonable limits embodied in the actual words and intent of the Constitution as it was written.

To pursue this purpose, Arkes deals not only with the constitutional issue of slavery as it was worked out in law and amendment, but on famous cases such as the Lochner case, the Pentagon Papers, the Near Case, and the issues of previous restraint. In each of these cases, Arkes revisits the almost universally accepted interpretations of the courts to find them, in some form or another, at variance with basic natural law principles. Arkes is concerned with the logic of the courts that supposedly justified abortion. He finds it, of course, incoherent.

What is fascinating in this oftentimes amusing book is Arkes’ ability to follow the logic of ill-argued cases, in which one error leads to another, and usually worse. Behind this increasingly deviant reasoning is a liberal agenda that seeks to give us an individual who is, in effect, completely independent of any natural law. This presumed “freedom” does not leave him so much free, as bound by more and more minute and restrictive positive laws, by a state that acknowledges no higher law than itself.

Two particular things stand out with this book. One is that Hadley Arkes looks at the presumed need for a Bill of Rights, in the first place. Along with several of the Founding Fathers, he argues that inserting the Amendments to the Constitution, however good their intent, was a serious mistake, leading, by identifiable stages, to replacing natural law by arbitrary positive law.

The second aspect of this book that is striking is the final chapter where he puts in a good word for positive law. After showing how the positive law has become the only recognized law in the country, with no effective limits, Arkes recalls Aquinas’ teachings about jus gentium: we can only change men slowly. Thus, if we immediately try to pass from bad or immoral law to good law, we will probably only make things worse. But it is possible to use positive law to change bad laws and customs, step-by-step. This possibility is a matter of prudence and good judgment, but it always seems possible to change things, one step at a time, if we have a good understanding of what is reasonable under the circumstances.

Hadley Arkes’ book is a truly magisterial. It goes to the heart of the disorders that so afflict us, brought on by the very same constitutional and legal system under which we ought to be ruled.
-Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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THE SOUL OF WIT: G.K. CHESTERTON ON WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. Edited and Intro by Dale Alquist. (Dover Books on Literature & Drama: December 19, 2012), 336 pages, $10.95 paperback.

Dale Alquist has done Catholic readers a double service in his recent collection of G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on Shakespeare, The Soul of Wit. Alquist has brought to publication a work that the English language’s greatest Catholic convert wanted to finish before he died. He has included in this book a healthy portion of arguments concerning the fact that this great English writer was Catholic.

Alquist, who has done perhaps more than any person to revive interest in Chesterton. He builds upon an earlier, posthumous collection from the 1970’s, edited by Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s secretary and literary executrix.  Although more discussion and notes concerning the provenance of these bits and pieces of Chesterton’s journalistic remarks would have been useful, Alquist’s new edition does include generally helpful titles, contextual groupings, and identifications of source and date. This takes the reader roughly from Shakespeare’s situation in world literature, to Chesterton’s particular judgment of the Bard in English history. It becomes clear that Chesterton was an original and insightful reader, living and breathing England’s national poet, and letting his own thinking be imbued by Shakespeare’s influence.  Chesterton claims that Shakespeare, like most English writers, is in fact a classical Latin author, in the tradition of Vergil, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. He is not in the school of Beowulf, as held by the nineteenth-century German folk historians; gloomier than Dante; less democratic than Chaucer; but formed in Greek and Latin without knowing either intimately.

What follows are many more counter-intuitive, strange, but uncannily perceptive, insights about individual plays, and characters.  Falstaff is beloved “by all Christian people” despite being a “coward, thief, an old man encouraging the young in vice” because he has not “one drop of pride,” and “jeers at himself for being what he is.”  The Macbeths are like a suburban London couple arguing about postage stamps, only they are arguing about murder. Lady Macbeth represents “industriousness,” and Lord Macbeth “laziness.” In killing themselves, they may have retained “permanent possibilities of humility and gratitude, which ultimately place the soul in heaven.”  Bottom, the weaver, transformed into the ass is nevertheless “greater and more mysterious than Hamlet,” with the largeness of Hercules, Don Quixote, Achilles, and Uncle Toby, who were “next door to a fool.”  Like the Don, and Uncle Toby, he has a gigantic fool’s laudable taste for rhetoric and belles-lettres. Even in his malapropisms—like “odious” for “odors”—the extra “i” is an “inspiration of metricism.”  Bottom’s “rich simplicity,” “rich subconsciousness,” and “silliness on a grand scale” are recognized by the rustic mechanicals as a mark of leadership, for “when he blows his own trumpet, it is like the trumpet of the Resurrection.”  Where would Chesterton be without paradox that upsets conventional thinking?

One genius of Chesterton is in getting the reader to believe the most outrageous claims, that women should not vote, that fairies exist as surely as bacteria, that common sense is more certain than mathematical proofs, and that the Resurrection happened.  Great minds are completely themselves in writing about others. The reader of this book on Shakespeare understands quickly that Chesterton folds the dramatic giant into his own gigantesque worldview. Alquist quotes Chesterton:

… that Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.  It is supported by the few external and political facts we know; it is utterly unmistakable in the general spirit and atmosphere; and in nothing more than in the skepticism, which appears in some aspects to be paganism.

That strategy is vintage Chesterton, turning the skepticism of Hamlet and Macbeth—usually used as evidence of Shakespeare’s own religious doubts—into evidence of religious conviction. But, he is also not arguing systematically for the truth of a claim, but organically, digressively, conversationally.  Chesterton smells the Catholic Shakespeare, he asserts, in the way he can smell that the sea is not an onion. Religion, unlike a philosophy, is recognized at once, like intuiting that a man is a Hindu, but not knowing that he is philosophically a Hegelian.  How can you refute an argument like that?   Chesterton’s main reasoning, concerning the Catholicism of Shakespeare, tends to be more impressionistic than logical. Shakespeare is was not a Puritan, for instance, as he ridiculed Puritans in his plays, but not friars, or the existence of purgatory.  The Puritan, Milton, was proud, frigid, complete, scholarly, certain. Shakespeare resembled his characters, Bottom and Falstaff, by being incomplete, lazy, humble, truant, skeptical, ribald, never spelling his name the same way twice, and dying of overdrinking at a wedding feast with a writing buddy.  Shakespeare, in short, represents the kind of Englishman that Chesterton celebrated and emulated.  “I, for one,” he says, “am not a Miltonian.”  Milton’s religion was “a religion that Milton made,” whereas Shakespeare’s religion “made him.”  Chesterton does not practice the critical schizophrenia of “new critical” and “postmodern” hermeneutics: there is no difference between Shakespeare, the man, and Shakespeare, the writer.

Chesterton does not acknowledge the obvious challenge to the Catholicism of Shakespeare: that because someone in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was not a Puritan, does not mean that he was not a Protestant.  Richard Hooker’s via mediamay have preserved enough of medieval Christianity to satisfy a traditionalist-leaning Catholic; Elizabeth certainly hoped it did.  (I don’t think it could have satisfied anyone with a deep longing for the sacraments who was lost to Cranmer’s Reformation.)  But that objection is like quibbling over the kind of ink that Fermat used: the joy of reading Chesterton, even in his occasional prose, is not found in following lines of argument, but in beholding paradoxical, poetic dichotomies.  “All Englishmen are either Miltonians or Shakespeareans,” he writes, either tightly buttoned or wearing “morning dress to dinner.”

There are simply no critics left, alas, who can soar so high above the details, while still hitting the nail on the head.
-Ken Colston

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WILL MANY BE SAVED? WHAT VATICAN II ACTUALLY TEACHES AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE NEW EVANGELIZATION. By Ralph Martin. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6887-9.  316 pages. Paperback. $24.00.

The meaning of the Second Vatican Council has long been limited to a narrow set of interpretive themes: reform, renewal, dialogue, and, of course, aggiornamento.  Occasionally, something like ressourcement makes it onto the short list of conciliar motifs.  Evangelization almost never does.  Despite the repeated efforts of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to underscore the essentially missionary character of the council, Vatican II’s teachings on evangelization remain hidden under thick layers of myth and misunderstanding.  Anecdotal evidence even suggests that many Catholics think the council inaugurated a radically new post-missionary form of Catholic Christianity.

This book attempts to set the record straight.  Martin, an activist-scholar well-known for his advocacy of what John Paul dubbed “the new evangelization,” directly addresses the crisis of catechesis and identity that has characterized the postconciliar Catholic experience.  In particular, he seeks to reverse a significant level of “doctrinal ignorance” (6) on the issue of the universal scope of God’s saving action.  Appearing in the Year of Faith, called in part to stimulate serious reengagement with the content of the Vatican II documents, Martin’s study clarifies the council’s approach to the salvation of non-Christians, reaffirming the centrality of evangelization in the council’s vision of the Church’s mission.

The book offers a sustained and critical examination of one crucial paragraph from the Vatican II documents: section 16 in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church—arguably the most important of the council’s sixteen official texts.  This passage, cited frequently in contemporary theological literature and eight times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, raises the long-debated question of salvation outside the boundaries of the Church, and its sacramental system.  It speaks specifically of Jews, Muslims, those who seek the “unknown God,” and especially individuals who, without any culpability, are personally unacquainted with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Martin’s unique contribution to this perennial discussion is his concentration on the last three sentences in the paragraph—sentences, unknown even to many authorities on Vatican II, that emphasize the reality of sin, the role of Satan in human affairs, and the necessity of missionary proclamation.

The first four chapters of the book place this section of Lumen Gentium in biblical, historical, and conciliar context.  Martin shows how the Vatican II fathers drew explicitly from the New Testament’s sober assessment of the human condition, and its stress on the urgent need for global evangelization.  He also demonstrates how Lumen Gentium fits harmoniously into the Church’s evolving reflection on classical doctrinal themes, such as conscience, invincible ignorance, baptism of desire, and the patristic maxim, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the Church, no salvation).  Most importantly, Martin argues persuasively that the documentary evidence points to evangelization as one of the prime motivations for the Vatican II popes and bishops—and for Vatican II itself.  Impartial analysis of Church documents before, during, and immediately after the council reveals a Catholic hierarchy enthusiastic about fulfilling the Great Commission in the modern age.

The book’s final chapters chronicle the decline of missionary activity and consciousness in the post-Vatican II period, and seek to account for the near-total disregard for the council’s evangelical nature and intent.  Martin places the blame for these developments largely on two leading theologians from the early postconciliar era.  He accuses Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” concept of outrunning the biblical witness, contradicting magisterial teaching, and discounting even the empirical evidence available in modern secular life (the true nature of atheism in postwar Europe, for example).  In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s notion of universal reconciliation, Martin detects a similarly selective reading of both the New Testament, and the Catholic intellectual heritage—and a disconcerting reliance on the private revelations of mystic, Adrienne von Speyr.  Without sufficient warrant, he contends, both speculative theologians turned the possibility of salvation for non-Christians (acknowledged by Vatican II) into the probability or certainty of salvation for all people (never imagined by Vatican II).  Both contributed to the “atmosphere of universalism” (191) that continues to corrode Catholicism’s missionary core, subverting the Second Vatican Council’s authentically evangelical meaning.  Together, the author concludes, Rahner and Balthasar left the Church with a divine command to evangelize, but no convincing rationale for the enterprise.

Martin’s timely and provocative study is likely to shake up the theological and pastoral establishment.  Critics will find a scholarship that is derivative in spots, and a prose that occasionally borders on turgid.  Some will dismiss the work as biblicist.  Historians will demand harder evidence to establish a link between professional theologians’ ideas, and a mood allegedly dominating a Catholic generation or two.  The erosion of belief is overdetermined, as Freud would say.  One can cease to believe in hell, without marching orders from a German-speaking theologian.

The thrust of the book’s bold thesis, however, cannot be ignored, or easily denied.  Universal salvation is an unofficial article of faith in the mainstream Catholic theological academy.  Martin’s claim that it has no basis in the teachings of Vatican II demands a serious and self-critical response.  His book restores evangelization to its proper status as a genuine Vatican II theme.  Every seminarian, priest, college professor, and administrator should read it.  It may not be the best book on Vatican II released during the Year of Faith, but it could be the most important.
-Peter A. Huff
Xavier University
Cincinnati, Ohio

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THE SEVEN BIG MYTHS ABOUT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. By Christopher Kaczor.
(San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), 164 pp. ISBN 978-1-58617-791-1, Hardback, $15.65.
Philosopher Christopher Kaczor offers a compact volume to the flourishing field of Catholic apologetics with his latest book. Kaczor tackles what he sees as the contemporary seven myths about the Catholic Church: science, happiness, women, contraception, homosexuality/AIDS, same-sex marriage, and the abuse of minors.  An important chapter missing from this book concerns marriage, divorce, and remarriage, which would have been a useful addition. The introduction seemingly confuses the holiness of the Church with the unity of the Church (12-13), and presents a limited presentation of the infallibility of the Magisterium to “certain limited situations” (13) when Church teaching on this is broader (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 888-892). Kaczor notes the distinction between the Church as the mystical body of Christ, and the sinful and saintly members of the Church. Yet, he writes that John Paul II apologized for more than fifty mistakes and bad actions “done by the Church” (14). A more careful wording is needed.

In the first chapter, Kaczor looks at big bang and evolution theories in relation to Genesis. The Church does not require Catholics to believe these theories, but Kaczor does argue that these theories can be accepted in a form compatible with the Catholic faith. There is also a growing body of published work casting renewed doubt on these theories based on scientific grounds alone, rather than compatibility with Christianity. As such, the HPR August 2012 editorial by Kenneth Baker, S.J., is to be welcomed as a useful contribution to the debate. Kaczor could make his presentation of Church teaching stronger on biblical interpretation, Genesis, and evolution, with more reference to authoritative Church sources.

The chapter on happiness is based on the four levels of happiness by Robert Spitzer, S.J., in his book, Healing the Culture. The first three levels are bodily pleasures; competitive advantages; and loving and serving others. The reader is led through each level, and shown how each alone cannot satisfy the human heart, citing studies, stories, and examples from the saints as evidence. Level four, loving and serving God, brings together the Church’s teaching to seek union with God, via prayer, sacraments, virtue, and avoiding vice and sin, which introduces the topic of human freedom as freedom of indifference, freedom for excellence, and false freedom, which the Church opposes. This could have been the introduction, or first chapter, providing the underlying theme around controversies over love, and the exercise of human sexuality.

Kaczor then tackles the perceived lesser status of women, using the example of Jesus in his responses toward women in the Gospels, and the support, leadership, and service women have given to the Church, up to the present day, as mothers, wives, religious sisters, thinkers, missionaries, and disciples in the midst of the world. It’s unfortunate that Kaczor so readily adopts the term “sexist,” making it the lens to look back at history. An example is Kaczor’s claims of sexism amongst the Church Fathers, and the great scholastic theologians “who stand in need of correction” (74). What Kaczor sees in their writings is one thing; the cause and interpretation is another. He does not address the harms of contemporary feminism, and there is almost no attention given to the Virgin Mary, held in the highest and dearest veneration. Such an omission makes this section weaker. In the discussion about men and women, there is no mention of Church teaching that the family, and, in turn, society, is a divinely willed hierarchical society, with the husband as head. This does not mean husband and wife are not equal in dignity, but God has entrusted headship to the man. This is a rich area of Catholic teaching that should not be edited to be palatable to modern ears. Rev. Paul N. Check’s book, The Authority of the Husband according to the Magisterium, is a very useful summary. Instead, Kaczor writes about an implied “female superiority” in the order of charity (81). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the priesthood, reserved to men alone. There is too much emphasis on priestly functionality; it is slightly thin on theology of the priesthood as alter Christus, and the priest in persona Christi capitis, other than a few episcopal quotes.

The chapter on conjugal relations and contraception is largely good in its presentation of erotic love, and mere sexual attraction. Kaczor writes that contraception makes perfect sense in terms of mere sexual attraction. He is part right, but there is more than only the intention behind the physical act of sex to consider. The sexual act itself has a meaning and end aside from the intention of the person. As such, contraception violates the nature of the act and its end. Kaczor is part right when he writes that a couple only uses contraception when they do not want a child to unite them. However, a couple may use contraception to prevent one of the partners contracting HIV (Kaczor places this topic in the chapter on homosexuality). There are several good reflections of the role of parents and children growing in holiness. Kaczor also gives an overview of NFP and fertility-awareness-based methods. There is scant reference to authoritative sources—Humane Vitae is cited once. Kaczor’s mention of “responsible parenthood” (105) should be dispensed with. As Janet E. Smith, one of the foremost experts on Catholic teaching in this area has explained, Humane Vitae’s mention of conscia paternitas is better understood as “conscious parenthood” rather than responsible parenthood. Smith has retranslated Humanae Vitae, particularly in light of Karol Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility (Cf. J. Smith, ‘Conscious Parenthood’, Nova et Vetera, 2008 for an in-depth exposition).  Kaczor also writes that a couple might come to the decision not to have another baby “for a variety of reasons” (105), but the Church teaching speaks of serious reasons, not merely a variety of reasons.

The chapter on same-sex marriage is solid in making clear and logical arguments about why marriage is between a man and woman; rebuts the accusations of homophobia and unjust discrimination; tackles the issue of couples who are unable to have children; exposes the consequences of legalizing gay marriage with respect to other less common sexual preferences; and the destabilizing of society. Again, there is little in terms of reference to authoritative Church teaching. Closely related to same-sex marriage is the issue of persons with same-sex attraction. Regardless of sexual attraction, all are called to live chastely, resisting temptation according to their state of life. People with same-sex attractions should not feel alone in this regard. People with heterosexual attraction can choose between different vocations: single life, married life, priesthood, religious life. For persons with a permanent same-sex attraction, the option is limited to being a celibate layperson. That is an added cross that should be recognized. The discussion of the Church’s position on the distribution of condoms in Africa is given over to the expertise of Edward C. Green, and the Church’s pastoral care for people with AIDS. Kaczor includes Benedict XVI’s comment on condoms in Light of the World. The prudence of citing this source is debatable. An authoritative source would have been better, although Kaczor does offer a clarification of Benedict’s comment.

The final chapter looks at celibacy as a freely chosen gift to God, witnessing to the world of the life to come. Celibacy is the means to an enlarged fatherhood by the priest for the people entrusted to his care. It would have been helpful to point out that clerical celibacy is not found in other Catholic rites, such as those in the east. It’s a particular gift to the Roman Rite. Yet, even within the Roman rite, we have some married priests who are converts from Anglicanism. Regarding abuse of minors, Kaczor avoids mentioning the types of men allowed to enter the seminary and priesthood in recent decades, but does focus on the culpability of guilty priests and bishops, and the distorted impression created by the media.
-Daniel J. Blackman

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KNOWING GOD.  GOD AND THE HUMAN CONDITION. By Frank Sheed. (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, Calif. 2012 reprint [1966]), 325 pp.  PB $19.95.
Frank Sheed was master of apologetics.  He spent years in London preaching in Hyde Park, explaining the mysteries of the Catholic faith.  He was one of the founders of the famous publishing firm, Sheed & Ward, which published many fine Catholic books, before and after Vatican II.

The book offers a good presentation of basic Catholic doctrine as found in the catechism.  Since Sheed often argued with atheists about the existence of God, he presents many solid arguments to prove the existence of God, and the truth, especially of the Catholic faith.

Sheed also claims that many church-going Catholics do not know much about their faith.  One of the purposes of this book is to instruct them so that they have a better understanding of who God is, and how important it is to increase one’s knowledge of God by study, prayer, and reading the Bible.

The author grapples with some of the most difficult truths of the faith.  He explains what is meant by spirit, mystery, revelation, and the inspiration of the Bible.  In the last part of the book, he explains the Church’s teaching of the profound mystery of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   This is the basic mystery of the Catholic faith, so that everything else depends on it.  That is why almost one-third of the book is dedicated to explaining what the Church believes about the Trinity.

There is also a good section on Holy Scripture.  He defends the historicity and authenticity of the Bible, and also shows how it is used in theology as the basis of the arguments proposed.

This book is directed to both believers and non-believers.  It makes a good gift to a relative or friend who may have some doubts about the faith.  It is also a good gift for a practicing Catholic who may not be well-schooled in the faith, and would like to know more about it.

Frank Sheed was a lay theologian when there were practically no lay theologians.  He speaks and writes in ordinary English that anyone can understand.  He tends to avoid technical theological terms. When he has to use one he explains clearly what it means.

Knowing the true God, and loving him, is the most important thing that any human being can do.  This book by Frank Sheed will help anyone of goodwill to grow in the knowledge and love of God.  It is highly recommended.
-Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.,
HPR Editor Emeritus
Tacoma, Washington

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MARRIED PRIESTS? 30 CRUCIAL QUESTIONS ABOUT CELIBACY. Edited by Arturo Cattaneo. (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2012), xx + 179 pp.  PB $16.95
In this country, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of Catholic priests during the past forty years.   Priests are getting fewer and older.  That being the case, and given the scandals of the sexual abuse of young people on the part of some priests, many questions have been raised among Catholics about whether or not the Church should make room for married priests alongside the celibate ones.

That is the question that is asked and answered in this book, going to the heart of the role of celibacy in the life of the Catholic priest.  The questions are very pointed and the answers are actually quite brief, so that the book is easy to read.  It is one you can put down and take up at any time, finding the answer to a question you may have had about why the Church in the West insists on celibate priests only.  Since the book was first published in Italian, those who answer the questions are Europeans, but they are all experts in their own area of study.

The questions and answers are gathered together under six main topics: “Priestly Celibacy: A bit of History,” “What Theology Says on the Subject,” “Emotions and Sexuality,” “Discerning and Fostering a Vocation,” “Celibacy in the Life of a Priest,” and, “Celibacy and Inculturation.”  Also, in an appendix, there is collection of papal teachings on celibacy from Pius XI to Benedict XVI.  In addition, there is a helpful bibliography for those who wish to learn more about this subject.

The book is written in defense of the Church’s policy of celibacy for priests, so all the answers to the tough questions come out in favor of maintaining the rule of celibacy, even though it is not a doctrinal point.  It is a matter of spirituality, asceticism, and, especially, of being a living image of Christ in the modern world.

An important point made in the book by several authors is that the Catholic people expect their priests to be holy men.  Since the priest, as preacher of the word, as the one who offers the holy sacrifice of the Mass, as the one who administers the sacraments of Christ, is also “another Christ,” or in Latin, an “alter Christus,” the faithful expect him to be an ambassador of Christ, an image of Christ.

The fact that the Catholic priest is single and celibate, the fact that he does not have a wife and family, gives concrete evidence that he believes in eternal life, that he believes in the resurrection, that he represents the happy eternal life that is the destiny of all who believe in Christ, and follow his will.   His whole life proclaims that he believes in eternal life, and that man’s eternal future is more important than anything in this temporal world.  With St. Paul, he says with his whole life, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

This book is not an attack on the married priests found in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church.  However, it does point out the spiritual advantages of a celibate priesthood—both for the man himself, and for the people he serves.  Also, one of the authors points out that in the Eastern Church only celibate priests can be consecrated bishops.  This is another indication that, as images of Christ, priests are more effective if they are celibate.

If the subject interests you, you will find the key questions and some thoughtful, satisfying answers in this book.
-Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.,
HPR Editor Emeritus
Tacoma, Washington

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CHALICE OF GOD: A SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY IN OUTLINE. By Aidan Nichols, O. P.
(Liturgical Press, Saint John’s Abbey, PO Box 7500, Collegeville, MN, 56321-7500), vii + 125 pp. HB $45.00.
This book is a systematic summary of what Nichols considers the “fresh approach” to theology that he has developed over a long career. Written in first person, broken down into numbered paragraphs, and devoid of footnotes, it is a sort of personal manifesto aimed at stimulating discussion in a graduate seminar setting. Paragraphs are cross-referenced, signaling that no single point stands alone, but is part of an organic whole. The volume includes beautiful plates of Byzantine and Russian icons that set the tone for each chapter.

The first plate presents an image of the “Old Testament Trinity,” according to the Novgorod School, which is the inspiration for the title, “Chalice of God.” Seated around a table, are three angels, taken to be God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son. In the center of the table is a chalice containing the head of a sacrificed calf, symbolizing the world, filled with the redemptive grace of the sacrifice of Christ. This overabundance of grace is already foreshadowed by Nichols’s metaphysical vision, which privileges participation and mediation as central to our understanding of being as generous, communicative, and open to sharing. Although the Trinity is the ultimate source of being, its participatory structure is already perceivable at the level of philosophy. The capacity of a participating thing to mediate perfection to other things is the hallmark of what Nichols calls the “commonwealth” of being.

This “philosophical principle of order” underlies the entire book, but is ultimately secondary to his “theological principle of order,” also based on overabundance. Christian revelation, Nichols explains, is an outpouring of plentitude on the world through the self-emptying of the Holy Trinity in Jesus Christ, whereby we are reconciled and deified by God’s grace. Access to this divine life is made available through Scripture and Tradition, both of which, Nichols believes, are inextricably bound to patristic theology. Scripture is the objective standard according to which the Church presents her teaching, but Scripture, in turn, needs the Church if it is to be conveyed authentically. This calls for a “rule of faith” supplied by Tradition, and serving as the interpretative key for Scripture. “Tradition,” Nichols explains, “does not merely furnish certain oral traditions supplementary to Scripture but, in its wholeness, envelops Scripture, since it bears within it the principles that enable the right interpretation of the Bible” (57). He is particularly fond of St. Gregory of Nazianzus for whom concepts and images are both necessary for theology, and a fitting attitude of praise. To adopt this attitude, we must recognize the “phenomenologically aesthetic character of the world,” which is simply a restatement of Plato’s claim that coming into contact with the beautiful clears a path for the recognition of the good.

Such recognition, however, does not happen all at once. The infinite is mediated by the finite, and salvation is realized and apprehended in history. The history, Nichols has in mind, is not only the history recounted in the Old and New Testaments, but the history lived in the Church’s proclamation and worship today. This is the reason behind Petrine primacy without which, Nichols asserts, “the episcopal principle readily becomes dysfunctional, as the doctrinal difficulties of Anglicans, and the jurisdictional disputes of the Orthodox, attest” (58). At the same time, he believes it is a mistake to view the hierarchical and ecclesiological dimensions of the Church as mutually opposed. He rounds off his theological vision with a systematic treatment of the Sacred Liturgy and morality, stating that Christ is the origin of sacramental economy insofar as he is “originating sacramentality.” Christian morality is similarly Christocentric, proceeding “tropologically,” meaning it proscribes behavior consistent with the view that the human person is ordered to God as his end (i.e., his beatitude).

Nichols has covered an enormous range of topics and sources through the years. His thinking and writing readily combine systematic and poetic elements. Yet, his prose is often dense and, at times, frustratingly obscure. This should not, however, diminish the reader’s confidence that he has something very important to say. The difficulty lies in responding to him when one senses that something is awry or missing. To return to the example of metaphysics, Nichols asserts that participation is a causal relation that explains the coexistence of the one and the many. Yet, on a philosophical level, he also claims that it denotes a relation of God to everything else. He restates the well-known argument that there must be a “one” behind the “many” sharing a common trait. Yet, he does not address the crucial debate about how the participation of being relates to the analogy of being, which is closely related to the theological issue of pure nature and the natural desire for God (cf. Christopher Cullen’s fine summary in the issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 86:4). Perhaps this is the kind of discussion he hopes to stimulate by publishing a personal theological manifesto. But, from the text alone, it is hard to make an initial assessment of where he stands on these issues. Throughout the book, he anticipates objections, but these are examples of areas in which, by not anticipating objections, he exudes extreme confidence in the Platonic metaphysics underpinning both his philosophical and theological “principles of order.”

In any event, the merits of Fr. Nichols’s prolific and distinguished career as a professional theologian cannot be doubted. The book includes an ample bibliography for those new to his work. For those who have been reading him all along, this is a fitting and welcome summary of his vital contribution to theology.
-Msgr. Daniel B. Gallagher
The Pontifical Gregorian University
Rome, Italy

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avatar About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, S.J. is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

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