The Latest Book Reviews

Thanksgiving Time Reading For November 2013

Reviews for the following books:

REASONABLE PLEASURES. By James V. Schall, S.J. (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2013), 218 pp.  PB $16.95. (Reviewed by Mr. Sean M. Salai, S.J.)

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CULTURE AND ABORTION.  By Edward Short. (Gracewing, LTD., Herefordshire, England  2013) ISBN: 978 085244 820 5. 308 pages; $22.46. (Reviewed by Stephanie A. Mann)

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SEVEN SECRETS OF CONFESSION. By Vinny Flynn. (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: MercySong in collaboration w/ San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press) 191 pages, $12.95. (Reviewed by Brandon Harvey.)

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ON HEAVEN AND EARTH: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century. By Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka. Translation by Alejandro Bermudez and Howard Goodman (New York: Image, 2013), 236 pp. HC $15.19. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)

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REASONABLE PLEASURES. By James V. Schall, S.J. (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2013), 218 pp.  PB $16.95.

Every ordinary human activity has its own proper pleasure, Aristotle taught, but this pleasure is reasonable only if it is the perfection, rather than the goal, of our actions.

These first principles offer a delightful jumping-off point for the latest essay collection by Jesuit Father James Schall, the Georgetown political philosopher who retired from teaching last year. In “Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism,” released September 30 by Ignatius Press, Schall offers a characteristically deep series of reflections on the pleasure of knowing the truth of “what is” in life — an enduring theme of his writings for the past 40 years.

Schall summarizes the purpose of these reflections in the book’s introduction, writing: “The ‘reasonable pleasure’ of this book, as I see it, is the delight we take in knowing the truth of things, especially the truth about ourselves and our place in the existence of things” (p. 12).

While it may not be his magnum opus, this book is a surprisingly vigorous collection of meditations, proving that Schall still has the ability to surprise, after writing more than 30 books. In itself, this revelation might be the most unexpected pleasure of the book, if not the most reasonable one. To know it for oneself, and to gain pleasure from knowing it, one only needs to read the book.

Lest anyone be left in doubt as to what Schall believes is worth knowing, the book’s chapter titles give a clear road map. Dogma, wit, humor, play, sports, hell, the Earthly City, worship, and “beings to whom things happen” are counted among the chosen subjects. In short, Catholicism is the subject worth knowing in this book, and Schall wants to show the pleasure of its coherences.

The chapter titled “On the ‘Reasonable’ Case for Hell” demonstrates a particularly light gift for literary paradox. Here, Schall explains how the knowledge of hell’s existence — an unpleasant thing in itself — can bring us to the pleasure of knowing what is best in human actions by “teaching us the worst that can ultimately happen to us” (p. 121). For some readers, this chapter will prove to be the most delightful part of the book, showing how Christian doctrines that first appear negative and frightening may turn out to make a lot of sense when presented in a positive light.

As a pastoral tool, this book might, therefore, be welcome bedside reading for many priests and other church ministers of various persuasions, inasmuch as it shows how knowledge of Catholic dogmas is both coherent and freeing when presented in the right way.

The book’s subtitle, “The Strange Coherences of Catholicism,” also forms the title of the concluding essay, in which Schall warns against the danger of pleasure obscuring our goals in life. Although pleasure is not evil in itself, Schall cites the via media of Aristotelian ethics as reason for keeping “pleasure disciplined between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’” in our daily lives. Concluding on a note of Ignatian gratitude, well-suited to an author of his religious profession, Schall finally exhorts readers to gratitude for the gift of their own being, and for the gift of being ordered to Trinitarian love.

With the exception of an opening essay reprinted from 2006, all of the essays in this collection appear to be new material, and they contain a “surprising coherence” all their own in the way they proceed from the opening Aristotelian principles.

In the final analysis, this new book is in the best spirit of Schall, offering a series of Montaigne-style essays that range in sources from Charlie Brown comic strips to St. Augustine, but staying within the boundaries of its Aristotelian premise. It is a highly original synthesis of classical philosophical themes with a Catholic apologetic orientation. Like most Schall books, its meditative and abstract quality may be an acquired taste for some readers, but the intellectual pleasure of knowing these reflections may be a welcome reward for all who need a bit of perspective on heavier realities.

-Mr. Sean M. Salai, S.J.
Jesuit High School
Tampa, Florida

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CULTURE AND ABORTION.  By Edward Short. (Gracewing, LTD., Herefordshire, England  2013) ISBN: 978 085244 820 5. 308 pages; $22.46.

The big band, pop, and Latin singer Eydie Gorme, wife of Steve Lawrence, half of “Steve and Eydie,” died in August 2013. Some of my online friends posted videos of her singing some standards. One comment drew my attention–and response. The gist of the comment was that “we face too many dangers today to waste time enjoying this lady’s singing; you need to be talking to us about the challenges we face. We need to be lamenting and groaning in this valley of tears, not taking such useless pleasure.” My response was something like, “Remember the Catholic AND: we can do both. We can pray and prepare for whatever challenges may come our way AND enjoy Eydie Gorme’s talent and beauty. Finding pleasure in her songs does not diminish our concern for the state of the world—in fact, it’s a sign of the love we have for God’s creation.”

I’d say the same about this volume of essays from Edward Short: he demonstrates how in the midst of this valley of tears, in a culture obviously heading in the wrong direction in so many ways—in fact, toward a culture of death and destruction for humanity—we see all around us signs of the culture of life. He finds them in literature, in great men’s lives, in religious orders, in reform efforts, in Papal documents, and in the most unexpected places—and at the same time Short reminds us of the facts of our situation. In the spirit of the Gorme poster, some might say that we have to dedicate ourselves to political and social action to address these issues; that we don’t have time to read poetry and prose; but Short presents them with the Catholic AND. We do have time and we should make time.

Through the essays in this volume, Short introduces less familiar authors, and looks at well-known authors in a different light—starting with the poetry of Anne Ridler, depicting pregnancy and motherhood in verse; and highlighting the pro-life organizational efforts of J.J. Scarisbrick, perhaps better known as the biographer of Henry VIII, and one of the early revisionist historians of the English Reformation, for example. Although his selections do favor British authors—Ridler, Dickens, Chesterton, Penelope Fitzgerald (Ronald Knox’s niece), Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift, among others. He does not, however, ignore American authors, with Walker Percy and Nathaniel Hawthorne (via his daughter Rose Hawthorne, foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne) as representatives. Another aspect of this American/British divide is that Short describes the different circumstances of abortion law in the United States and in Great Britain. The abortion legislation passed in Parliament in 1967 “provided a defense for doctors performing an abortion” under certain circumstances, while the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, focused on the “right” of the woman to terminate her unborn child.

But Short’s sedulous argument in these essays goes beyond legislative and political explanations for abortion in British and American culture. He is examining the kind of culture that has developed to support these decisions on abortion: one in which the human person has no intrinsic rights or value either before birth or after, effecting the way writers look at motherhood, at childhood, and family life. In a few of the most intriguing essays in this volume, Short looks at the English literary works that would never have been written if that standard of human value had been au courant in earlier times. For instance, he ponders the results if Samuel Johnson had been aborted because  his parents feared he would not survive infancy, for example; at how modern feminist historical views of motherhood in Georgian England ignore the actual documented experience of mothers in Georgian England; and, certainly, how historians have ignored the pro-life arguments and efforts for the rights of the unborn in telling the history of abortion in the United States and Great Britain.

Reading Culture and Abortion reminded me of the verses in the Letter of St. James: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:23-24) If we don’t remind ourselves what the culture of life is—and, indeed, that our civilization was built on a culture of life—we can forget what we are working for when we oppose abortion, the HHS Mandates, euthanasia, and so-called “gay marriage.”  One of the most hopeful essays in the book reminds us of William Wilberforce’s long battle against slavery, and the slave trade, and how he could have given in to the discouragement brought on by the entrenched economic and political opposition he and his pro-life friends endured within and without Parliament. Certainly, the concluding essay on historians, ending as it does with the words of Blessed John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (which are words of a prayer), reminds us that we can’t forget what we are really like: believers in the Son who proclaim the Gospel of Life in a “civilization of truth and love.”
-Stephanie A. Mann
Catholic author and speaker
Wichita, Kansas

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7 SECRETS OF CONFESSION. By Vinny Flynn. (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: MercySong in collaboration w/ San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press) 191 pages, $12.95.
In 1942, C.S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters.  This unusual and remarkable book expressed the highest degree of clarity and honesty concerning the human experience and sin.  This same degree of clarity and honesty is found in the newest book by Vinny Flynn, 7 Secrets of Confession. Flynn examines the mystery of reconciliation in the sacrament of Confession, beyond the common knowledge and formulas.  His work reminds the People of God that Confession is more than forgiveness; it is about healing.

The book begins by looking at the human responses to the reality of the Sacrament of Confession.  Why do some not believe in Confession? Why do some go to Confession?  After demonstrating that sin is not simply about good and bad, but about man’s relationship with God, the author then demonstrates that the typical understanding of Confession is incomplete and needs maturing.  This explanation is rooted in the author’s imagery of turning from and toward God, which is reminiscent of the theology of orientation found in the Church’s liturgical tradition (i.e., ad orientem).  In the context of this relationship, sin is not about a change that occurs in God, but rather man changes and rejects the gift of divine sonship.

Healing best suits this sacrament since it goes beyond forgiveness.  As Flynn mentions, forgiveness is the first step toward healing (cf. CCC, no. 1502).  Going to Confession, because it is required or needed to properly receive the Eucharist, overshadows the reality that Confession is aimed at not just a clean slate, but the transformation of the penitent.  The priest is more than a mediator in this process; he is a father, guide, and educator in this process of healing and enlightenment.

In the subsequent secrets, the reader is reminded of the Church’s teaching on mortal and venial sin, and that mortal sin destroys the gift of charity in man (cf. CCC, no. 1855).   The act of sin, and its healing, involve not only the priest and penitent, but also the Holy Trinity, fellow believers, and the rejoicing choirs of angels: “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

Perhaps, the most magnificent of all sections is his treatment of the things that block the penitent’s transformative encounter with Christ in the confessional: lack of faith, modern idolatry, experience of a bad earthly father, not forgiving others, blaming the world, and cursing others.  This is where Vinny Flynn’s likeness to C.S. Lewis shines forth.  He offers the theological background for these issues, but any priest, catechist, or penitent will benefit from his honesty and clarity of why people do these things, how sin hurts the sinner, and how to hand sins over to God.

The 7 Secrets of Confession is a simple but profound work that priest and penitent would enjoy and should read.  While this book reminds the reader of the Church’s teaching that is often overlooked in preference for the simple catechetical formulas, he also engages the typical experience of fear, embarrassment, self-justification, pride, and routines that many experience on a regular basis.  The only thing missing is a further treatment of the role of the Eucharist in this process of healing.  Specifically, “Holy Communion separates us from sin… cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins” (CCC no. 1393), “the Eucharist strengthens our charity… this living charity wipes away venial sins (no. 1394) and ”the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin” (no. 1395).

At a time in history when many Christians no longer recognize the necessity of Confession, and the lines for Confession are shorter than they once were, Vinny Flynn gifts to pastors and catechists a book to help catechumens and cradle Catholics.  This book will put at ease those who are scared of Confession, and assist those who are tired of going into Confession with the same grocery list of sins.  The reader will discover the true power and meaning of this sacrament by recognizing the human reasons that deny healing/forgiveness through Confession in the same manner that Christ’s ability to forgive sins was questioned after he healed the paralytic (Luke 5:17-26).
-Brandon Harvey, graduate student,
Theology and Christian Ministry
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio

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ON HEAVEN AND EARTH: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century. By Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka. Translation by Alejandro Bermudez and Howard Goodman (New York: Image, 2013), 236 pp. HC $15.19.

The content of this book can be summed up best in a single word, dialogue. Frankly, this is exactly what Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka engage in throughout the pages of On Heaven and Earth. “True dialogue is at the heart of the thinking man’s life, and demands that each person tries to get to know and understand the person with whom they are conversing,” states the Argentinian rabbi in his foreword (p. viii). Dialogue does not necessarily mean one has to fully agree with the other person, but it does require an open mind. The former Agentinian cardinal asserts in the outset of this book, “Dialogue entails a warm reception, and not a preemptive condemnation” (p. xiv). A profound and lucid account on various religious, social, and even economic topics, On Heaven and Earth presents a sincere conversation between two influential religious leaders of our time, who seek to build bridges between their respective faiths, and champion authentic dialogue worldwide.

While the first two chapters deal with God and the devil, the section on atheism is of particular interest for the modern reader. Both Bergoglio and Skorka agree that when conversing with atheists, they only discuss God if the latter brings it up first (p. 12). The initial step in any dialogue with a person of an opposite viewpoint is to respect them. Nonetheless, the Jewish rabbi thinks that a true-blue atheist conveys a sense of arrogance because he affirms the absolute nonexistence of God. The two religious leaders instead favor an apophatic understanding of God. Using the biblical example of Job, Bergoglio offers this wisdom, “we seek to find Him and because we find Him, we seek Him” (p. 15).

Then, he and Skorka go on to discuss religion, prayer, and death, before getting to moral issues (euthanasia, abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, etc). It is in this section that the divergences between Catholicism and Judaism become more palpable. For instance, Skorka explicitly says, “It {divorce} is a more fluid position than that of Catholicism” (p. 111). However, in the majority of issues, the two religious leaders have far more in common regarding morality than differences.

Perhaps, the most insightful and timely chapter of the moral issues (maybe even of all the issues in the entire book!) concerns same-sex marriage. The rabbi and cardinal alike affirm the forbiddance of homosexual marriages. While Skorka focused on a more religious-based argument against such acts, Pope Francis applied an anthropological polemic to same-sex marriages (p. 117). Moreover, he believes that improvement of existing civil adoption laws needs to take precedence over new laws allowing homosexuals to adopt (p.119). But the salient point of the entire chapter comes from Rabbi Skorka when he says, “It is easy to get to know a man, being a man. To get to know a woman is a much more difficult challenge for men—she must be deciphered” (p. 120). Thus, heterosexual marriage infers mystery, and the possibility of being a sacrament, whereas homosexual marriages deny such mystery.

The last half of the book moves away from specifically religious issues, and discusses topics relevant to the political and economic spheres. Being one of the more lengthy chapters, their dialogue on “Politics and Power” give several warnings. First, both agree that religion should remain at the sidelines of politics. Bergoglio opposes Catholic bishops and priests reverting to a clericalism which seeks to micromanage the laity. A healthy ecclesial autonomy from politics involves a healthy laity that obeys Church teaching out of love—not coercion (pp. 138-39).  Picking up on this similar topic with the issue of poverty, Bergoglio cautions against a protective paternalism on the part of the clergy that fails to allow the poor to grow on their own. Both Skorka and Bergoglio chastise modern Argentina as a whole for failing to provide sufficient aid to the impoverished.

The final chapters of On Heaven and Earth analyze recent historical events like the Holocaust, and Argentina’s strife during the 1970s, through both Jewish and Catholic lenses. While the seeming silence from the Vatican during Pope Pius XII’s reign might put a damper on Jewish-Chrisian relations, Rabbi Skorka acknowledges that insufficient evidence was found to show papal apathy towards Jews during the Second World War (p. 183).

Written in a readable and charitable manner, this book presents nearly 30 relevant issues from the vantage point of two brothers in faith. While it would have been nice to have a concluding chapter to wrap up the discussion, the format allows for the reader to pick up the book on any page without confusion. The writer of this review recommends this treatment to any Catholic who actively desires interreligious dialogue.
-Matthew Chicoine, Graduate Student, Theology

Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio

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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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