The Latest Book Reviews

Spring to Summer Reading For May 2013

Reviews for the following books:

A SCHOOL OF PRAYER.  The Saints Show Us How to Pray. By Pope Benedict XVI  (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2012), 282 pp.  HB $17.95. (Reviewed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.)

IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA SPEAKS.  By Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J. (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana 2013), xvi + 75 pp.  PB $13.00. (Reviewed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.)

STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS.  Letters of Encouragement from an Archbishop to His Priests. By Archbishop  J. Peter Sartain (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 2012), xx +167pp.  HB $19.95. (Reviewed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.)

ATHEISM TODAY: A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE. By Fr. Bernard Tyrrell, S.J., and Fr. John Navone,  S.J. (Ithaca Press, Ithaca, NY 2012), 256 pp. $22.00. Order at or call Ithaca Press at 607-273-2870. (Reviewed by Father Patrick J. Hartin) 


THE TUMBLER OF GOD: CHESTERTON AS MYSTIC. By Fr. Robert Wild. (Ontario: Justin Press, 2012, 278 pages).  (Reviewed by Kenneth Colston)

ON THE UNSERIOUSNESS OF HUMAN AFFAIRS. By James V. Schall, S.J. (ISI Books, Wilmington  2012), 189 pp.  PB $18. (Reviewed by Mr. Sean M. Salai, S.J.)

BENEDICT  XVI AND BEAUTY IN SACRED ART AND ARCHITECTURE. Eds. Vincent Twomey, SVD, and Janet Rutherford (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 2011) (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.)


THE SCOPE OF PHILOSOPHY. By John Young. (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010.) (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.)


A SCHOOL OF PRAYER.  The Saints Show Us How to Pray. By Pope Benedict XVI  (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2012), 282 pp.  HB $17.95.
In order to lead the life of a good Christian and to attain eternal salvation, which means everlasting life, it is necessary to pray to God in the four main forms of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and satisfaction.  That must be the reason why there are so many books on prayer published each year.

It is obvious to those who watch him that Pope Benedict XVI is a man of prayer.  He is an outstanding theologian who puts his knowledge to work in prayer to the living God who is the source of all theology.  This book is a collection of 47 talks that he gave at his weekly Wednesday audiences from May 2011 to October 2012, just a few months before he resigned the papacy and went into retirement.

The essays are not long; most of them are between three and seven pages in length.  The heart and soul of the book is the prayer of Jesus, especially the example he gives us in the Gospels as a man of prayer.  But, the Pope begins with the Old Testament, with a special emphasis on the Psalms.  He offers meditations on Psalms 22, 23, 110, 119, 136.

He also treats the prayer of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, the priestly prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, and in the face of death.

Towards the end of the series, he offers reflections on the prayer of the saints.  I found these essays especially illuminating.  Thus, he examines the prayers of St. Peter, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Dominic, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the essay on St. Alphonsus Liguori, he quotes his fundamental maxim: “Those who pray will be saved, and those who do not will be damned” (p. 244).   It is hard to say anything more basic than that about the necessity of prayer.   In the same essay, he says that St. Alphonsus liked to quote St. Philip Neri, who at “the very moment when he awoke in the morning, said to God: ‘Lord, keep Thy hands over Philip this day; for if not, Philip will betray Thee” (p. 245).

At the end of the series, two of the meditations are on prayer in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible.

One of the advantages of this book on prayer is that each talk is complete in itself, so the reader can easily move around and pick the topics that interest him.  Priests will find much useful material in this book for their own prayer, and also for their homilies.  The style is simple, not scholarly, so a priest can easily summarize a talk, and use it for one of his own homilies.

This book is further evidence that Pope Benedict XVI is both a great theologian, and a man of intimate prayer to the Lord Jesus.
Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., HPR Editor Emeritus,
Tacoma, Washington


IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA SPEAKS.  By Karl Rahner, S.J. (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana 2013), xvi + 75 pp.  PB $13.00.
“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22).  Jacob disguised himself to look like his brother Esau, but it was Jacob all the time who spoke to his father, Isaac.  In this essay by Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., he puts himself in the place of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and pretends that Ignatius is speaking from heaven to contemporary Jesuits, but the content reveals that it is primarily Rahner who is speaking.  The full title of the essay in German is:  Speech of Ignatius of Loyola to a Modern-Day Jesuit.

Rahner wrote this essay in 1978, six years before his death.  Probably the most famous Catholic theologian in the last half of the 20th century, he said of this essay that it is “a sort of last will and testament” and “a resumé of my theology, in general, and of how I tried to live.”

Rahner’s writings span most of the 20th century—from 1930 to 1984.  One can discern three different stages in his thinking.  In the early stage he wrote extensively on the spiritual life, religious vows, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The middle stage from about 1950 to 1965 was his most creative period during which he concentrated on Catholic dogma, especially regarding the Church, grace, the sacraments and the “last things.”  In the third stage, during Vatican II and afterwards, he directed his attention to social and political questions.  His output was enormous; his German bibliography alone lists thousands of articles.

The present essay contains a mixture of the thought of St. Ignatius, and the theology of Rahner, a theology that tends towards idealism and existentialism.  He was always trying to make traditional Catholic theology more understandable and acceptable to the modern man, who is heavily influenced by Kant, physical science and existentialism.

Rahner was very familiar with the spirituality of St. Ignatius, preaching the Spiritual Exercises about fifty times during his priestly life.  I made such a retreat under him in 1960, and also translated his book on the Spiritual Exercises (Herder and Herder, 1965).  Some of the key ideas of Ignatius show up in this essay, especially the centrality of Jesus, and what is known as “the third degree of humility.”

The essay stresses St. Ignatius’ personal experience of God, since he was a mystic of the first order.  This fits in with Rahner’s philosophy of man’s transcendence toward, what he calls, “the horizon of being.”  He seems to hold that everyone has an experience of God, even though they do not know it explicitly.

The spirituality of Ignatius centers on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and also on the Holy Trinity.  In fact, Ignatius had a mystical experience of the Trinity on his way to Rome that made a lifelong impression on him.  Rahner brings out, very well, the importance of Jesus in the spirituality of Ignatius.  Themes he touches on are: God’s descent into the world, discipleship, loyalty to the Church, Jesuit obedience, higher learning among Jesuits, and the possibilities of change for the Jesuit Order.

The essay is most interesting and worth reading, but it is much more Rahner than Ignatius.  As he says, it is a “resumé” of his theology and his spirituality.  One familiar with the Spiritual Exercises, and Rahner’s theology, can recognize the thinking of Ignatius, and the thinking of Rahner.  The ordinary reader, however, may think that this is really St. Ignatius speaking.  That would be a mistake.  It is Rahner speaking, pretending to be Ignatius, while giving a summary of his ideas on Catholic theology, morality and spirituality.

Although the essay was written 35 years ago, this is the first time it has been translated into English.  The translation is quite good, so it is fairly easy to follow his train of thought, which is not always the case with Rahner, because his thought is complex, and quite foreign to most American readers.

Since this is a personal account of his theology and spirituality, there is a clarity about it which is sometimes lacking in his strictly theological writings.  Those interested in Rahner-ology will find this book a delight.
Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., HPR Editor Emeritus,
Tacoma, Washington

STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS.  Letters of Encouragement from an Archbishop to His Priests. By Archbishop  J. Peter Sartain (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 2012), xx +167pp.  HB $19.95.
In the pastoral care of Christ’s faithful, which takes place mainly through parishes, the relationship between the bishop and his priests is very important.  All the clergy of a diocese, including the bishop, priests and deacons, should form a close community of ministers in the service of Jesus Christ for the good of the faithful.   In order to achieve this, the bishop must be in close contact with his priests and deacons so that he can guide them for the good of the faithful, and so that he can know their personal talents and needs.

When he was bishop of Joliet, Illinois, the author of this book began to write letters to his priests.  When he became Archbishop of Seattle a few years ago, he continued writing such letters to his priests.

The book has three parts: 1) Priestly identity in Christ; 2) Priestly practicalities; 3) Priestly prayer.  There are ten letters in the first two sections and eleven in the third part.

The letters are written from the heart.  They are very personal, revealing the inner life and spirituality of the archbishop who wrote them.  His style is very concrete, since he uses many examples, and in some ways he reminds me of the style of The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen.  The letters are also very practical in the sense that he writes about particular things, such as kissing the altar, honoring our parents, loving difficult people, compunction, praying the Name of Jesus.

The author pays tribute to priests in his life who had a positive influence on him.  In fact, the book is dedicated to Fr. Charles W. Elmer, a friend of his who was a pastor in his home town of Memphis, Tennessee.

The example of Jesus Christ as the model for all priests runs through all the letters.  The author offers lots of practical advice to his priests concerning the spiritual life, and the need to live a deep interior life.  But, above all, the priest must always remember that he represents Christ to his people, that he is an ambassador for Christ, and also acts in the person of Christ.  Thus, at the end of the letter, entitled “They Love Our Holiness,” he writes: “We are signs of the kingdom. Every one of our encounters is an encounter of Christ, and in him we are the kingdom of God in person.  God’s power at work in us, can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine” (p. 114).

The letters are not long and can be read in any sequence.  The book offers excellent spiritual reading for priests.
Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., Editor Emeritus
Tacoma, Washington


ATHEISM TODAY: A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE. By Bernard Tyrrell, S.J., and John Navone,  S.J. (Ithaca Press, Ithaca, NY 2012), 256 pp. $22.00. Order at or call Ithaca Press at 607-273-2870.
Atheism Today: A Christian Response is a must read for anyone interested in, and concerned about, the attacks that the so-called “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others, have made against Christianity, and other monotheistic religions. Their militant rhetoric receives widespread attention in our culture, spreading like wild-fire through the constant coverage provided by the media. The two authors, Bernard Tyrrell and John Navone, offer the reader an insightful approach toward understanding the context of contemporary atheism, as well as providing the Christian believer-thinker with critical answers to their views and attacks. The authors’ aim is not to engage contemporary atheists in stringent, strident attacks in the same manner that Christians were addressed. Instead, the thoughts of these two well-respected Jesuit scholars and prolific writers, Bernard Tyrrell and John Navone, empower the educated Christian with insights and responses.

Without a doubt, the structure of this book contributes to its uniqueness and originality. The authors have chosen to address some 38 areas that lie at the heart of the attacks made by contemporary atheists. Tyrrell and Navone have chosen to respond to these attacks in concise and erudite ways that give Christian readers insight into their own Christian thought, traditions, and beliefs in a much deeper and authentic way. What I found so fascinating was the gift of seeing two different authors approaching a topic of concern from two distinct perspectives. Each offers an insight that connects with the other, while at the same time, contributing something unique to the discussion.

Let me offer one gem I selected from the range of areas of discussion they covered. This selection provides a beautiful illustration of how the thought of these authors dovetails and contributes to a deeper insight into the area of their reflections. In chapter one, “Initial Reflections,” Tyrrell clearly identifies the problem with contemporary atheists. He shows that they reject “any data that they cannot empirically test with their limited methods of verification.” Using the thought of the philosopher-theologian, Bernard Lonergan, Tyrrell shows where their fallacy lies. God is not some object to be analyzed, but rather God is the very foundation of, and explanation for, what exists. It is not God who needs to be explained, but existence itself. In a similar vein, John Navone provides his “Initial Reflections.” He points to how these “new atheists” call Christians ,and all believers, “delusional, as being out of touch with what is real.” However, Navone turns the argument on them, showing that they are the ones who are out of touch, by the very experience of billions of human beings throughout history whose lives have been based on “the transcendent reality that grounds their existence.” Navone provides a very insightful context for understanding contemporary atheism by reminding the reader that atheism is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. In fact, in the long line of human history, atheism is the anomaly, not religious belief.

For those seeking responses to the attacks that contemporary atheism has made on Christian believers, this in an indispensable book. No thoughtful Christian can afford to ignore the dialogue provided by these two extremely insightful, and well-respected, scholars who draw upon the wealth of their experience, reflections, and knowledge.
-Father Patrick J. Hartin
Professor of Theology
Gonzaga University


THE TUMBLER OF GOD: CHESTERTON AS MYSTIC. By Fr. Robert Wild. (Ontario: Justin Press, 2012, 278 pages).
Can a mystic be a fat man who once said, “Catholicism is a thick steak, a glass of stout, and a good cigar”?    Fr. Robert Wild, a member of Ontario’s Madonna House Community, certainly thinks so in his recent study. (The quotation is probably wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton, and possibly spoken by his friend Hilaire Belloc instead.)

In order to make an overweight lover of things of this world a mystic, Wild takes pains, in the first part of his book, to define mysticism in a worldly and unconventional way, as Chesterton, and Chesterton’s readers, have done.  The popular, and often even academic, notion of the mystic, Wild reminds us, is of someone who has uncommon visions of the supernatural, like Bernadette, Teresa of Avila, or Juliana of Norwich, visions which can sedate one from earthly reality.  Less known, but more common, in fact, is “the lay mystic,” the simple Roman Catholic who has, in Chesterton’s words from Orthodoxy, “one foot on earth and the other in fairyland,” the “healthy, sane, ordinary man, …who cared more for truth than for consistency….{and} who understands everything by the help of what he does not understand.”  In the words of his Autobiography at the end of his life, Chesterton’s everyday mystic finds “a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence” and “dig(s) for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”  In a book from his youth, The Coloured Lands, Chesterton claims that the mystic possesses the “power of jumping at the sight of a bird as if at a winged bullet.”  Above all, the mundane mystic locates “the wonder” of a “post in a garden” in the garden, and not in his own mind.  Fr. Wild puts this apprehension of “the thereness-of-being coming forth” at the heart of what Chesterton called his “makeshift mysticism.”

Wild’s second section offers a detailed appreciation of the mystical worldview in Chesterton’s major works: Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas. All describe the vision of “true mystics,” that is, those who have turned upside down and landed on their feet (hence, the title The Tumbler of God).  Chesterton’s mystical Francis was someone who understood that “ordinary life” requires more imagination than “contemplative life,” saw “cold truth” in a “whole world hanging on the mercy of God,” and knew that “he who has seen the vision of his city upside-down has seen it the right way up.”  Chesterton’s Thomas was the realist who glimpsed the hidden, potential, true reality in the “deceitfulness of things,” which are “unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks.”  These syrupy bubbles in stout “have it in them to be more real than they are.”

The third part of Wild’s well-organized argument shows how true mystics differ from false mystics, the Blakes and Tolstoys, and even the followers of St. Francis.  The former were Christianized Romans, who built solid “creeds, roads, and laws,” whereas the latter worshipped the “man in the forest.” They were not mystical realists but “mere spiritualists,” who called upon ghosts and spirits because they were ghosts and spirits, and not because they were messengers and ministers of God.  They sought the stimulant brandy rather than the food beer.  They tumbled, but they landed on their heads.  When they were Christians, they became heretics who endangered the “carnal Church,” which had to be saved by Pope John XXII’s Bull Gloriosam Ecclesiam.  Francis’ little brothers “narrowed the Church,” they “denounced marriage, that is, they denounced mankind.”  They became as “ferocious as the Flaggelants.” Chesterton fulminates:

What was the matter with these people was that they were mystics; mystics and nothing else but mystics; mystics and not Catholics; mystics and not Christians; mystics and not men.

These mystical monomaniacs lacked the rational mood of their wisely mad mystical founder, who “always hung on to reason by one invisible and indestructible hair.”  They lacked the logical mysticism of St. Thomas, who, Chesterton says, saved the Church from the vain spiritualities of Plato, the Manicheans, and the Gnostics, with a meatier mysticism.

The fourth and final section of Wild’s long interpretative essay reveals that Job is the biblical expression of Chesterton’s true mystic.  Wild follows Garry Wills’ contention (in Wills’ Chesterton, Man and Mask, 1975) that the problem of Job was a central preoccupation of Chesterton in his early life, and in such fiction as The Man Who Was Thursday.  According to Wild, Chesterton found consolation in the mystical vision of Job’s God in the Whirlwind, described in his short, lesser-known essays, “Introduction to the Book of Job” and “Leviathan and the Hook.”  With “indecipherable mystery” and “a hundred riddles,” God overcomes the false consolation of Job’s friends, who, Chesterton says, are like the optimistic philosophers of the eighteenth century, and “Job is at peace.”  Behemoth and Leviathan represent the comforting “absurdity of nature.”  They convince the mystic and silent righteous sufferer that “it is a wild world and not a tame world.”

Fr. Wild’s achievement is in showing the wild “thereness-of-being” coming forth in Chesterton’s everyday mysticism.
-Kenneth Colston
St. Louis, Missouri


ON THE UNSERIOUSNESS OF HUMAN AFFAIRS. By James V. Schall, S.J. (ISI Books, Wilmington  2012), 189 pp.  PB $18.
What’s the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher? We know from experience that a bad teacher often just punches the clock, collects a paycheck, or thinks out loud in front of students. By contrast, a good teacher loves what he is teaching, and his enthusiasm inspires his students to love it as well.

Fr. James Schall, the Jesuit political philosopher who retired last December after 35 years at Georgetown University, was a good teacher. He also was a true philosopher, or “lover of wisdom,” who shared his delight in good books with everyone who encountered him in class. Although Schall now writes less frequently from his residence in retirement in California, his readers will welcome the chance to revisit his philosophical musings in this 2001 essay collection, reprinted last year in a handsome paperback edition from ISI Books.

Before reviewing this book, I emailed the author to ask a question that had been nagging me for some time: Out of his dozens of books, which one did he consider to be most suitable as an “introduction to philosophy” text? Characteristically, Schall answered my question with a booklist, with this title at the top.

In my view, this book is perhaps the best popular introduction to philosophy that one will find on the market, surpassing even Peter Kreeft’s work. But it is not a conventional academic introduction to the discipline. Like all of Schall’s essay collections, it is an act of philosophizing in itself, a book that inspires love of wisdom (the definition of philosophy) through its own displays of infectious enthusiasm for wisdom. It is the sort of work that makes philosophy accessible, presenting it as a natural occupation for all human beings, an amateur profession in the Socratic sense that also surprises us by bringing joy to our everyday experiences.

In other words, Schall presents philosophy in this book as a useful waste of time that is like all human activities—including teaching, writing, playing, believing, lecturing, singing, and dancing—in preparing us for the more serious business of meeting our creator in the next world.

This book’s title about the “unseriousness of human affairs” signals that Schall is not out to give us a dry historical treatment of traditional philosophy categories such as metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Rather, Schall introduces readers to the art of philosophizing itself through the simple act of philosophizing. To the great joy of philosophy students everywhere, this is the rare introductory text that actually philosophizes about big questions, rather than giving an overview of others who did. It is actually a book of philosophy, not a book about philosophy.

As in all of his works, Schall also introduces us to a number of good books along the way. Quoting everyone from St. Augustine to Charlie Brown, he inspires us with the philosophical possibilities inherent in seemingly trivial human occupations. If the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, was said to “find God in all things,” then we might say the Jesuit, Father Schall, “finds philosophy in all things”—even in wasting time, which he presents here as one of the most distinctively human pursuits.

In a chapter on the pleasure of walking, Schall quotes writers from philosopher, Eric Voegelin, to novelist, Louis L’Amour, in evoking the “love of what is” (p. 134) as the essence of wisdom about deeper questions. For Schall, one is as likely to discover the truths of reality while walking in the park, or meditating on a “Peanuts” comic strip, as he is to find it in a philosophy classroom. Whoever is driven by a love of “what is” (wisdom) will find pleasure in books and in daily life, regardless of his former educational background. By contrast, whoever lacks a love of “what is” will find daily life to be unbearable drudgery, no matter how many academic honors he has accumulated. Such is the gospel of Schall.

For students and teachers alike, two things are particularly valuable in Schall’s work: The love of reading, and the love of sharing wisdom. In an age when everyone downloads books, but nobody reads them, even in college, Schall’s evident passion for the value of reading books must create new sensations among those who have never enjoyed reading a book in their lives. His passion for sharing wisdom with students must, likewise, create new sensations among teachers who may know the value of a good book, but are otherwise more concerned with collecting a paycheck than in philosophizing with students. Schall shows us a wisdom worth seeking for its own sake.
Mr. Sean M. Salai, S.J.
Jesuit High School
Tampa, Florida


BENEDICT  XVI AND BEAUTY IN SACRED ART AND ARCHITECTURE. Eds. Vincent Twomey, SVD, and Janet Rutherford (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 2011)
Not every Catholic has an opinion on the theological controversies of the day.  But every Catholic has strong opinions on the architecture and decoration of the church in which he or she worships.  The placement of the tabernacle, the redesign of the sanctuary, the removal of a favorite statue, the entry of a new tapestry, even the choice of carpet over tile can plunge the most placid parish into a state of civil war.  The pitched battles over material church design have intensified since Vatican II, given the bitter divisions over the proper praxis and theology of worship itself.  We seem to have moved beyond the sterile, glass-box minimalism of the 1970s but the new generation of stylized neo-Romanesque, neo-Byzantine, and neo-Gothic churches often has the cloying charm of a cartoonish pop-up book.

Papers from the Second Fota International Liturgy Conference—this collection of Benedict XVI, and questions of sacred art and architecture—provide a sophisticated theoretical perspective on our current dilemma over the buildings and objects we use in worship.  Janet Rutherford’s meditation on the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which condemned iconoclasm and defended the use of religious iconography, demonstrates the relevance of that council’s judgment for guiding the contemporary church through similar iconoclastic temptations.  Several papers highlight the specific contribution of Benedict XVI to the debate.  Joseph Murphy’s study of Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflections on the face of Christ indicates how the Passion can serve as a criterion of beauty for the creation of an authentically Christian art.  Uwe Michael Lang suggests the various ways in which the pope emeritus’ writings provide a theological foundation for the practice of church architecture.  Duncan Stroik uses Benedict’s works to sketch the various ways in which all substantial artworks, not only specifically religious ones, reflect divine attributes.

Especially noteworthy is Alcuin Reid’s study of the vicissitudes of “noble simplicity,” a key term in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, but it is an elusive one.  The term was originally used by liturgical historians to distinguish the comparative sobriety of the Latin rite from the more lyrical court liturgies of the Eastern rites.  By the time of Vatican II’s mandate for liturgical reform, a descriptive term had become a normative one.  “Noble simplicity” was now an elusive goal to be sought in the simplification of rites, the fabrication of new vestments, the pruning of popular devotions, and the search for a more accessible type of congregational music.  In the aftermath of Vatican II, this ideal simplicity was used to authorize a certain minimalism and bland functionalism in worship.  A new iconoclasm had crept into the sanctuary.

This collection of scholarly papers moves beyond simple lamentation over the uninspiring architecture, vesture, and music which seem to be the fate of contemporary American Catholicism.  It provides theological depth for an accurate discernment of the sources of this malaise and for successful resistance to the kitsch iconoclasm threatening to overwhelm us.
-Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.
Loyola University Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland        


THE SCOPE OF PHILOSOPHY. By John Young. (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010.)
The collapse of philosophical instruction in Catholic circles is both a sign and a cause of the postconciliar crisis.  The once-obligatory philosophy minor in Catholic colleges has been reduced to a few scattered courses.  Philosophical formation in seminaries often consists in a thin survey of the history of philosophy. The neo-scholastic manual, once the cornerstone of Catholic philosophical education, has long since vanished.   The damage wrought by this philosophical recession has been pastoral, as well as intellectual.  Without a grasp of natural law, the moral doctrine of the Church becomes incomprehensible.  Without a grounding in metaphysics, key dogmas become enigmas.  Sentimental sermons and wooly catechetics are the predictable outcome.

John Young’s sprawling work provides an antidote to the chaos.  Written from a firmly Thomistic perspective, The Scope of Philosophy presents both a survey of the history of philosophy and a sketch of the various branches of philosophy.

The historical survey is not simply descriptive.  Using the rhetoric of the old manualists, Young dissects the errors of idealism and empiricism.  On a more contemporary note, he unmasks the logical contradictions inherent in postmodern and pragmatist theories of knowledge.

Several parts of the systematic section develop sound philosophical arguments buttressing Catholic doctrine.  The exposition of St. Thomas’ “five ways” demonstrates the link between each of these arguments for God’s existence and a particular divine attribute.  The demonstration of the spiritual nature of the human soul defends it immortality and supports the Catholic figure of the after-life.  The exposition of natural law highlights the logical contradictions of subjectivism and relativism, moral theories which still exercise a powerful influence over popular culture and even many a Catholic lecture hall.

The intellectual level of the book is uneven.  The opening survey of the history of philosophy is clear and simple, occasionally bordering on caricature.  The treatment of abstraction in the epistemology chapter, on the other hand, might prove dense even to the specialist.  The scope of the book is so ambitious as to make it problematic for classroom use.  It is difficult to imagine an introductory philosophy course that would attempt to cover both 2500 years of philosophical history, and all the branches of the discipline.  The ideal public for this ambitious manual would seem to be the conscientious seminary rectory, college president, dean―or even bishop―who is concerned about the crisis in ecclesiastical philosophy and would like a solid guide to what a renewed neo-Thomist program of philosophical formation might look like.
-Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.
Loyola University Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland       

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  1. Avatar Bette Cervantes says:

    The Catholic Church has a well-defined authority structure that makes possible the enunciation of such a clear change in policy, and its implementation through control over the training of priests and the appointment of bishops. Even so, the Council’s positions, especially with regard to Muslims, are still not broadly enough known or accepted. They are sometimes dismissed as just outdated pastoral advice appropriate for the optimistic 60’s, but hopelessly out of touch with twenty-first century realities.