The Latest Book Reviews

Early Fall Reading For September 2013

Reviews for the following books:

SPOUSAL PRAYER: A Way to Marital Happiness. by Deacon Jim Keating, Ph.D., (Institute for Priestly Formation,Omaha, NE ) 54 pp. PB $6.95; and THE PARISH AS A SCHOOL OF PRAYER by Father Scott, JCL,   Traynor  (Institute for Priestly Formation,Omaha, NE )  64 pp. PB $6.95 (Both books reviewed by Dr. Sean Innerst.)


PRAY FOR ME:  The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis, First Pope from the Americans. By Robert Moynihan. (New York: Image 2013), 234 pp. HC $14.54. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)


CHRISTIANITY IN EVOLUTION: An Exploration. By Jack Mahoney. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011.) (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.)


THE GOD/LESS DELUSION: A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism. By Patrick Madrid and Kenneth Hensley. (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2010). (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.)


SPOUSAL PRAYER: A Way to Marital Happiness. by Deacon Jim Keating, Ph.D., (Institute for Priestly Formation,Omaha, NE ) 54 pp. PB $6.95; and THE PARISH AS A SCHOOL OF PRAYER by Father Scott, JCL,   Traynor  (Institute for Priestly Formation,Omaha, NE )  64 pp. PB $6.95.
John Paul II {very} famously said in his address to the Central American Bishops in 1983 that a New Evangelization is called for, “new in its ardor, methods and expression.” And while we could go on at length about what else Blessed John Paul said about the “methods and expression” – and, of course, that is the sort of thing that appeals most to western pragmatists – we have a tendency to elide the first part, “its ardor.” In Redemptoris Missio the same pope made clear that, as regards this new commitment “of all the Church’s energies” to a New Evangelization, “What is most needed is the encouragement of a new ‘ardor for holiness’ among missionaries and throughout the Christian community” (RM 3, 90).

At lunch the other day, a long-time friend, who has also been a long-time worker in the catechetical vineyard, remarked: “We have been so wedded to ‘the way that we do things in the Church,’ that, as regards the New Evangelization, no one has actually said to the troops, ‘Okay, huddle up, let’s call a play.’ As a result, we are just not advancing the ball at all.” I am happy to be able to respond to my friend with an announcement that the publication arm of the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, IPF Publications, has recently issued two volumes which could rightly be called “slim gold.” Both of these little texts – perfectly sized for the parish pamphlet rack –help in a vital way to arm those of us who want to “move the ball” in the New Evangelization, and that by putting first things first, that “ardor for holiness” that Dom Chautard also called ”the soul of the apostolate.”

The first work, Spousal Prayer, is by Deacon Jim Keating, Ph.D., who taught for years at the Josephinum in Ohio and who has, for a number of years now, been the director of theological formation at the IPF at Creighton University. He is a much sought-after teacher and retreat speaker because of the wisdom with which he addresses important issues in the spiritual life. This text represents a rare combination of approachability and theological acumen, the latter being present to the trained eye, but not in a way to trouble the average “pew person.”

In fact, there is so much pure common sense in its few pages about facing our common failings, the need for healing, ways to foster growth in intimacy with our spouses and God through a commitment to relational prayer, that those who haven’t been informed by a deep theological culture, as has Keating, would never know that they are drinking from very deep wells indeed.  Everything he has to say on these issues represent critical first steps in fixing what could be called the “supply chain” for the New Evangelization.  For as John Paul also said, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (FC 89).  Holy families need holy spouses who will pass on to their children the riches of a lived intimacy with God in prayer. Without them, there can be no New Evangelization. My wife and I have both read Keating’s work and it has born important fruit in our relationship with each other and with God.

The second work of “slim gold’ from IPF is The Parish as a School of Prayer, by Father Scott Traynor, J.C.L.  Father Traynor, who already has had wide experience as a pastor, Newman Center director, and seminary formator, issues a call to pastors to begin to take up the task of teaching prayer in the parochial setting. Traynor begins by finding his foundation for this exhortation in John Paul’s Novo Millenio Inuente: “It is, therefore, essential that education in prayer become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning” (33). School of Prayer then, in four short chapters, introduces the reader to the simple and, yet, foundational dimensions of this parochial paradigm for growth in “ardor for holiness.” Citing both Blessed John Paul and Benedict XVI, Traynor reminds pastors that to be a master teacher of prayer, one must pray. The feelings of inadequacy, whether because of deficits in training or the personal failings that every priest experiences in meeting his own prayer commitments, are nothing new. Peter himself cried out in the face of the same problem, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). And so he encourages pastors to hear the “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1) as addressed to them personally as an essential part of their conformation to Christ in Holy Orders, and then – and this is the critical part – makes simple and concrete suggestions about how to conceive of, act upon, and realize this “pastoral priority par excellence.”

This proposal for a paradigmatic shift away from “the way we do things in the Church” toward an intentional commitment to the “one thing necessary,” is advanced through a consideration of, first, the curriculum of prayer –essential attitudes and practices; second, the various classrooms of prayer  – the homily, confessional, committee meetings, the home, and RE classroom; and, third, a simple plan for how to pray. Again, in each case, simplicity – always a hallmark of the work of the Spirit – is paramount. This is not a book that redoubles the work of the busy pastor, but only suggests using the resources already at hand for greater effect.

On a personal note, I set about to write this review some months ago before I learned that Fr. Traynor would be the new rector of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where I teach. As it happens, the first stained glass window that seminarians see on their right as they enter Christ the King Chapel at SJV is one picturing the apostles kneeling before our Lord and saying, “Domine, doce nos orare.”  Fr. Traynor will no doubt have now seen that window, and, perhaps, recognized in it a something like a divine confirmation, already providentially placed there long ago, of the importance of his little book, and the new mission he is about to undertake in forming master teachers of prayer for the New Evangelization at St. John Vianney.

In closing, and in keeping with the football metaphor that my old catechetical colleague employed the other day, Keating and Traynor have huddled us up, and called a play, one in which lay men and women enjoying the graces of the married vocation, and men enjoying the graces of Holy Orders, along with all those called to prayer in the parish family, can play a part. It only now requires that we call the signals and execute the play.

-Dr. Sean Innerst
Theology Cycle Director
St. John Vianney Theological Seminary
Professor at the Augustine Institute
Denver, Colorado.

PRAY FOR ME:  The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis, First Pope from the Americans. By Robert Moynihan. (New York: Image 2013), 234 pp. HC $14.54.
Written by Dr. Robert Moynihan, the book, Pray for Me, is a well-researched and honest eyewitness account of the events following the papal election of the first Latin American pope. Composed in the spirit of Lectio Divina, this book can be read, cover-to-cover, and can be used as a tool for contemplation due to its fragmentary nature. From the vantage point of both a journalist and a believer, Dr. Moynihan presents an endearing summary of the post-conclave events, a curious biography of the pope, and a selection of Pope Francis’ past writings.

The first part of the book maps out, in an acutely detailed way, the first days for the newly-elected pontiff. In chapter one, Moynihan gives a brief delineation of Cardinal Bergoglio’s reasons for choosing his new name. “The new pope’s choice of a name was the first clue we had to his character, even before the new pontiff spoke a word,” he writes (p. 10). Other novelties about this pope included the quickness of his visit to the Salus Populi Roman icon (on the day of his election!) which signaled his immense Marian spirituality. The stop by St. Pius V’s tomb was a potential sign of slashing the Papal Court budget. (p. 37). Like Francis, the sainted pope exhibited frugality by downsizing papal spending. At his first Mass, Francis’ simplicity was further shown by speaking from the pulpit (not his papal throne), spontaneous homily, and simple vestments (p. 39).

However, Moynihan makes it clear that continuity exists between the papacies of Benedict XVI and Francis. To attach labels of “liberal” or “conservative” to Francis is myopic, and a view antithetical to faith. Rather, the pope and pope emeritus share the same central spiritual mission. Moynihan even quotes Francis as saying, “We are brothers” (p. 122). The Argentinian pope has already welcomed dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church, and wants to extend charity to Jews and Muslims, just as the German pope before him.

The second part of the book breaks his biography into five sections: 1936-1953 (childhood and adolescence), 1953-1969 (vocation, studies, and ordination), 1969-1992 (life as a Jesuit and priest), 1992-2001 (time as a bishop), and 2001-2013 (appointment as cardinal and leader of the global church). Chapter sixteen offered keen insight to the new pope’s spirituality. Here, the author discusses five figures who Francis considered spiritual guides: Jonah, Mary, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi, and Don Luigi Giussani. The most illuminating statement occurs when Moynihan describes the Franciscan spirit as “to be Christ-like” (p. 175). The editor of Inside the Vatican magazine even purports Francis as one of the most Marian saints ever. This demonstrates the inextricable connection between Marian devotion and worship of Christ. A few pages earlier, Moynihan cites, for the second or third time, what he considers, the pivotal sentence to Pope Francis’ theology, “I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter {with the Lord} is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin” (p.171). Drawing from Julian of Norwich, Moynihan connects the great English mystic’s theology with the pope’s by speaking of God’s love in terms of joy. The pope asserts, “The encounter is necessary…it is saving” (p. 76).

Moynihan’s final portion of Pray for Me provides a perusal of Cardinal Bergoglio’s writings dating from 1998-2013. The collections of works vary from Sunday homilies to addresses given at pastoral or religious meetings. The editor does a service of logically dividing the words of Francis into topical categories in a laconic fashion. Although it can be argued that each and every phrase is a cabochon, the quote that stood out to the author of this review referred back to the theme of meeting Christ. “This is very clear: each encounter with Jesus makes us missionaries, because it founds us upon rock, not upon the sand of ideologies,” declares the former Argentinian cardinal (p. 186). It is soothing to know that the successor to Peter (rock) is also grounded on something bigger (the boulder) − Christ.

Composed in simple prose, while backed up with quality investigation and a faith-filled firsthand experience, Dr. Moynihan presents a lucid and prayerful read of the life of Pope Francis and the beginnings of his pontificate. Though some people may criticize his occasional non-linear style as unclear, the author of this review welcomes this approach. The short chapters and writing style help to evoke a spiritual mindset and aid in journeying with the pope. As a result any devout Catholic, clergy and lay person alike, will find Pray for Me a profound and prayerful read.

-Matthew Chicoine, graduate student, Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio


CHRISTIANITY IN EVOLUTION: An Exploration. By Jack Mahoney. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011.)
Whenever I read a new book on science and religion, I tremble.  I fear that the author will either claim that the “big bang” theory proves God’s existence, or that the evolution of species disproves key Christian doctrines.  Alas, Mahoney’s treatise on the theological implications of evolution is a perfect specimen of the latter.  Despite its erudition, it utterly confuses biology, metaphysics, and theology in its argument.  Little of Christian dogma remains standing in the resultant fog.

Mahoney’s position is straightforward: The biological theory of evolution has overwhelming empirical proof.  Every educated person must accept the evolution of species as an established fact.  Christians are not exempt from this duty.  But when Christians honestly accept the truth of biological evolution, they must abandon some of their most traditional doctrines, such as original sin and the atonement.  “I argue that with the acceptance of the evolutionary origin of humanity, there is no longer a need or place in Christian beliefs for the traditional doctrines of original sin, the Fall, and human concupiscence resulting form that sin” (71).  Throughout the book, Mahoney criticizes the Christian preoccupation with sin.  “It is not uncommon to hear in several, especially Christian, quarters the plaint that these days people have lost a sense of sin.  Part of my reaction to this as a historian of Catholic moral theory is to reply, ‘And not before time’” (66).  Given his opposition to the traditional Christian emphasis on redemption, he criticizes the sacrificial theology of the Eucharist which has long dominated Catholic thought on the subject.

Having displaced the traditional dogmatic emphasis on sin and redemption, Mahoney attempts to reconfigure Christian doctrine in the light of evolution.  “The evolutionary achievement of Jesus was to communicate the altruism of God to the evolving human species, and to lead it through death and individual extinction, to a richer experience of life by sharing in the altruistic love of the three-personed God” (71).  The point of the death of Jesus on the cross is to free us from the fear of death―a fear of total annihilation―and to guide us in the path of altruism against the human tendency toward self-preoccupation.  Against the charge that his Christology simply rehashes Enlightenment deism, with its reduction of Jesus to an ideal moral role model to be imitated by his disciples, Mahoney insists on the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus, and in the church’s proclamation of the Gospel.  But the content of this resurrection as an event in the life of Jesus, and as a hope of the Christian, remains obscure.  It is unclear whether this resurrection involves the survival of the individual person beyond physical death, or whether it is simply a spur to humanity to evolve in a more altruistic direction, one opposed to the more exclusionary ethics celebrated by an earlier generation of social Darwinists.

Throughout his argument, Mahoney confuses various types of truth. Evolutionary biology does indeed indicate our genetic proximity to our simian ancestors but, inasmuch as it is biology, it has no theological claims to make.  There is no biological test for the immortality for the human soul―but there is a metaphysical argument for it.  Biology cannot verify the presence of sin or redemption―but revelation can unveil and clarify such basic theological truths concerning the human condition.  Just as the Book of Genesis is not a paleontology textbook, the data of evolutionary biology does not provide information on grace, the after-life, or the sacraments.  Our biological origins in earlier animal species complement rather than contradict our spiritual descent from a rebellious humanity, whose original pride and violence, sketched in the narratives of Genesis, is inherited by us all.  Once Christianity is stripped of its fundamental drama of fall and redemption, with ample scope for expiatory sacrifice, it is hard to avoid reducing it to a banal moralism.  An ethics of altruism is the pale result of the effort at demythologization.

As Mahoney develops his evolutionist reconstruction of Christian doctrine, he shows his skill as a historian of ideas.  The background to the church’s current position on evolution, and to the church’s peregrination on the meaning of the Incarnation, is expertly sketched.  His discussion of the problem of human freedom is a convincing reaffirmation of the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of primary and secondary causation.  But just as earlier members of the church were tempted to subordinate empirical science to theological claims, Mahoney has yielded to the temptation to subordinate theological truths to the claims of one branch of one of the empirical sciences.  Truth is more varied, and human nature more complex, than the resultant impoverished theology suggests.

-Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.
Loyola University Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland


THE GOD/LESS DELUSION: A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism. By Patrick Madrid and Kenneth Hensley. (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2010).
Are you looking for a calm critique of modern skepticism?  Are you searching for careful arguments for God’s existence?  Are you seeking a reasoned effort to reconcile Christian belief with contemporary science?

If so, you won’t find it in The Godless Delusion.  But if you’re looking for a feisty Catholic attack on the moral and political perils of modern atheism, this might well be the book for you.

In their jeremiad, Catholic apologists, Madrid and Hensley, argue that the new atheist critics of religion, Richard Dawkins in particular, not only fail to discredit religious faith; they cannot provide an adequate theory of morality.  The naturalism popular in the new atheists’ quarters, tinged by a eugenicism targeting the vulnerable, can only push humanity toward self-destruction.  Their crassly materialist vision of human nature destroys the foundation of human rights, the virtues, and human happiness.  Only a violent void, rooted in an ever-shifting subjectivism, remains.

The strongest chapters are the middle chapters which dissect atheism’s inability to construct a substantial and convincing moral code.  “The Death of Right and Wrong” chapter demonstrates how the frequent substitutes for religious ethics, such as utilitarianism with its calculus of pleasure and pain, cannot develop moral norms which are binding, let alone absolute.  The chapter entitled, “The Bitter Fruit of Atheism,” details the violent injustices performed upon humanity in the name of an atheistic ethics, especially in the totalitarian form of communism and national socialism.  In “The Arbitrary Ethics of Atheism” chapter, the authors argue that much of the moral code defended by contemporary atheists is simply a deification of the individual will.  Such a voluntarist approach to ethics stifles the cultivation of virtue, and undercuts social cooperation for the sake of the common good.

An interesting epistemological chapter, “Atheism Eliminates Knowledge,” analyzes the logical and practical contradictions of the skepticism often defended by agnostics and atheists.  Such skepticism not only undercuts the claims of believers to knowledge regarding God and the soul; it reduces all claims of knowledge to unverifiable bursts of emotion.

This bombastic work is full of rash judgments and abrupt conclusions.  “In the end, to be consistent with what he has said to be true about the world in which we live, the atheist must say that right and wrong do not really exist, and that they are merely words individuals and societies have adapted to express their preferences” (73-74).  Few atheists are this shallow.  Many a utilitarian and deontologist would reject such a breathtaking reduction of their position.  The book also might have been helped by examining how certain religious positions have fostered violent conduct just as destructive as that practiced by atheist dictators.  Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Regensburg Address (2006) is a courageous example of just such a critical examination

Despite its hyperbolic overreach, the book amply demonstrates the moral void which has opened up in our society with the recession and, in some elite sectors of our society, the collapse of belief in a personal God.  The arguments of the new atheists may be thin, and not especially new, but they are the arguments increasingly convincing the young to abandon religious affiliation, and our political guardians to rule as if only the material world were real.

-Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.
Loyola Maryland University
Baltimore, Maryland   



David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.