The Latest Book Reviews

Late Fall Reading For October 2013

Reviews for the following books:

REBUILDING CATHOLIC CULTURE: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life. By Ryan S. Topping. (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2012), 265 pp.  PB $19.95. (Reviewed by Charles D. Robertson)


POPE FRANCIS: The Pope from the End of the Earth. By Thomas J. Craughwell. (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2013), 175 pp. HC $18.86. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)


HOLY DAYS: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church. By Pope Benedict XVI. Edited by Jean-Michael Coulet (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 86 pp. PB $10.60. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)


JOSEPH RATZINGER IN COMMUNIO, VOL. 2: Anthropology and Culture. By Pope Benedict XVI. Edited by David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013). 199 pp. PB $20.27. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine.)


REBUILDING CATHOLIC CULTURE: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life. By Ryan S. Topping. (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2012), 265 pp.  PB $19.95.

In Rebuilding Catholic Culture, Ryan Topping offers a “series of essays upon the Catechism’s central conclusions with a view to the renewal of Catholic culture.”  He begins by addressing the charge that a catechism is an impediment to serious intellectual work. He points out that faith, understood as a set of objective propositions, limits our freedom, but not in a manner that restricts it unduly. Rather, “Faith does impart to our freedom a distinct form.” It is this form that is the dynamic principle of Catholic culture. Consequently, Topping’s plan is “to present the key themes in the Catechism with reference to the renewal of Catholic culture and that with a view to those challenges that would undermine it.” The two basic assumptions that run through these essays are that we must do something positive and something negative: we “need to master and muster resources of the Church’s tradition to shape Western Culture,” and ridicule the “idolatrous creed of modernity.” The reader is, thus, led to expect a serious intellectual critique of common modern assumptions about reality, a series of correctives to these anti-Christian patterns of thought, and a practical application of these correctives in our lives and the life of the Church.  Topping executes this plan in a rationally compelling and rhetorically pleasing manner.

The book is a series of eight essays on the themes of the Catechism, namely, Faith, Creed, Worship, Sacraments, Virtue, Law, Family, and Prayer. Topping begins by stressing the risky nature of faith, and points out that even on a human level, a certain amount of natural faith is required to preserve sanity and justify action. He discusses different notions of faith, emphasizing both its objective and subjective aspects.  In this context, he outlines the importance of Tradition, as including scripture, tradition, and magisterial guidance as the objective norms of faith, while delineating the historical accidents that have shaped the Church’s mind on these issues in the modern era. In his discussion of Christology, Topping examines two forms of secular humanism, founded alternately on a rationalist or voluntarist view of man, and how authentic Christian humanism, founded on the Incarnation of the Son of God, strikes the balance between, and rises above these two false humanisms. In that connection, the integrity of nature and the supernatural role of grace each have an important role to play. In contrast to those who would advance a mode of evangelization of our children that focuses on merely communicating personal experiences testifying to the power of faith in the risen Lord, he suggests that the teaching of natural theology, proper catechesis, and fundamental apologetics should be at the forefront of our efforts to inculcate a true humanism in our children.

The chapters on worship and sacraments discuss two causes of the failure of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform: first, there was, and is, a deficit in our understanding of Catholic worship; second, there was, and is, a deficit in the presentation of Catholic worship. With regards to the first, Topping emphasizes the centrality of liturgical worship in the mission of the Church. To be a Christian, first and foremost, is to give glory to God, and this is achieved most perfectly in the public celebration of the sacraments. In elaborating this point, he discusses the history of the liturgical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pointing out that as time went on, a shift occurred from focusing on the restoration of liturgical piety, i.e., the internal action of the worshippers, to focusing on creating opportunities for more external actions, leading to various distortions and abuses of the liturgy. In regaining a proper appreciation of the role of liturgy in the life of the Church, we should have the conviction that, “Since liturgy forms faith and is God’s favored means of dispensing grace, every act of disregard for the liturgy is an insult to, or, rather an assault upon the faith.” In discussing the presentation of the Church’s corporate worship, Topping stresses the evangelizing power of beauty with a special focus on how Church architecture can re-enchant the liturgy. There is a need to heal the breach between reason and imagination so that well-trained craftsmen may build churches that communicate transcendence.  He urges us to dedicate our financial resources to the training of such craftsmen, in other words, to regain the dedication our forefathers had to ensuring that our places of worship were befitting the celebration of the Church’s liturgy. In times past, communities would make great financial sacrifices to hire the best architects and artists to adorn their places of worship. These days, people are more likely to say, with the well-meaning but mistaken disciples, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold for much and given to the poor” (Mt 26:8). There is a special need in the present time to recover the attitude of the woman who anointed Christ without giving thought to the expense; the Lord is deserving of the best we can offer.

In the chapters on virtue and law, Topping clarifies the nature of conscience. Using Dante’s Purgatorio, he emphasizes four ways of forming our characters to be in accordance with God’s law. It is necessary to have a proper notion of conscience to understand how it relates to the acquisition of virtue. Recognizing that conscience can be ill-formed and lead us astray, we must have a right estimation of what constitutes virtue and vice. Conscience is healed by the acquisition of virtue, and Dante’s Purgatorio is instructive in this regard. First, it is in the nature of human psychology that we are motivated by the promise of pleasure and the fear of pain; indeed, moral education begins with pleasure and pain. In this context, preaching and meditation on the last things have a powerful impact on the moral life, helping us to keep before our eyes the promise of heavenly beatitude and the disastrous consequences of sin. Second, we must recognize that conscience is a witness to the natural law, and so needs to be measured by reality.  Sound judgment about the facts of our existential condition must be added to virtue in order to execute moral action. Third, penance is required for moral progress; we must submit ourselves to the virtues contrary to our vicious inclinations in order to grow in virtue. Virtue, then, cannot be attained without serious efforts to mortify our wayward passions. Fourth, we must recognize the primacy of love in the moral sphere, for both virtue and vice spring from love. Virtue springs from loving God above all else—and above all creatures—for love of him, whereas vice springs from preferring the creature to the Creator. By our faith, we are led to see all things in their order to the Creator, and to order our loves of created things to the glory of God, who is our ultimate end.

In the chapters on prayer, Topping emphasizes the respective roles of the family and the celibate in the formation of a Christian culture of prayer. The family, which is under continual attack in the modern age, is the foremost school of prayer. It is in the family that young Christians first learn to lisp their prayers to God. The devotional life of the family leaves an enduring impression on the following generations. It is the natural place for the formation of culture. But it is also necessary to recognize and unmask the enemies of the family so that families can be strengthened in their mission to revitalize Catholic culture. To that end, Topping discusses the negative impacts of Marxist ideology, the modern expression of the eugenics movement, and the relativizing influences of academic gender theories, showing their ideological commitments to be inimical to the very notion of the family as the fundamental building block of society. He points out that current research in the social sciences supports the traditional view of the family, and urges us to use this research to buttress the importance of the family in our catechesis. The family is also helped in its mission by the witness of those consecrated to the celibate life, for they point out that our hope is not ultimately on this earth, but in heaven. Their witness frees Christian culture from tying itself to a particular period of time. We live for eternity, not for time, which is ever fleeting. They also teach us a “fruitful inefficiency,” by which we learn not to judge all things by utilitarian standards.

Topping makes a convincing case of the importance of cultural renewal for the life of the Church and her evangelical mission. Each chapter incorporates a judicious blend of deep insights into history, philosophy and theology, together with practical guidance that can be implemented by the reader. At times, his practical suggestions seem to spring out of thin air, but he is always careful to show how they relate to his theoretical considerations, and how they will serve to renew the culture. Rebuilding Catholic Culture is not a book to be read at a quick pace, nor are its insights easily digested in a single reading. The author is evidently a man of deep learning, and has the masterful ability to summarize, analyze, and synthesize competing strains of thought in order to identify common assumptions and to subject these to penetrating scrutiny. One comes away from a reading of this book with a deeper and clearer knowledge of the Catholic intellectual tradition, as well as of the current intellectual trends that stand in stark opposition to it. The means he proposes as correctives to the stagnation of Catholic culture appear to be particularly fitting to our current situation.

-Charles Robertson
University of St. Thomas
Houston, Texas



POPE FRANCIS: The Pope from the End of the Earth. By Thomas J. Craughwell. (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2013), 175 pp. HC $18.86.
The famous cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is especially apropos for Thomas J. Craughwell’s Pope Francis: The Pope from the End of the Earth. If that phrase were to be taken literally, this already well-crafted book would have 62,000 more words. What jumps out at the reader upon first glance is the wealth of beauty conveyed in the over sixty photographic images contained in this book. Craughwell does a superb job of inserting stunning pictures of Pope Francis and the conclave within an already thorough and lucid account from the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s shocking resignation from the papacy to the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as his successor, and the chain of events which followed shortly after. Cardinal Sean O’Malley sums this book up best in the foreword, “It is a beautiful encounter—in pictures and in words” (p. 20).

The first section entitled “Habemus Papam” concerns all the surprise swirling around Bergoglio’s selection. Within this chapter, Craughwell includes a small section on the reason the newly elected pope changes his name and includes a few insights on papal appellations (p. 32). The second chapter centers on Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation and his legacy. He also details four chief issues discussed by the cardinals before the conclave. These included: reform of the Curia, pastoral sensitivity, the Third World, and evangelization (pp. 52-54).

Within the chapter on the conclave, the author presents the gripping atmosphere through two photographs—one during a Mass with the cardinal electors and another in the Sistine Chapel after Francis’s election (pp. 62-63 and 70-71 respectively). Craughwell enlightens the reader with general information and minute details about the conclave, including EWTN’s coverage of when the black and white billows of smoke left the Sistine Chapel flue and what hymns were sung at the conclave Masses.

The next chapter chronicles Pope Francis’s Italian ancestry and his father’s emigration to Argentina. Cleverly coined by the writer as the “End of the Earth”—due to its close geographical proximity to the South Pole, Argentina’s population is comprised of over 60 percent who claim some Italian descent. Craughwell allows the reader to glimpse the Pope’s life and see him as an outgoing boy who enjoyed cooking, the tango, and soccer. In fact, Pope Francis, “lives in a permanent state of suffering for San Lorenzo {a local soccer team},” says Craughwell  (p. 80).  Perhaps the most profound statement of the chapter, maybe even of the book, is taken from a conversation with Bergoglio and his mother after she found out he had decided to give up a career in medicine and enter the seminary. The future Pope asserted with gentle ease, “I am going to study medicine of the soul,” (p. 85).

His time as a Jesuit superior is related in the next section. Craughwell cogently addresses Bergoglio’s stance and involvement during the Dirty War in Argentina in the 1970s. Despite allegations that the Jesuit superior divulged information to the junta, Bergoglio is acquitted. According to 1980 Nobel Prize Winner Perez Esquivel, “There were many bishops who were passive {and} the Church hierarchy in many cases remained silent. … There were bishops who were complicit, but not Bergoglio” (p. 99). What is more, the Argentine Secretary of Worship, Angel Centeno, once said, “He saved the Society of Jesus from collapse in the country” (p. 101).

Along with his staunch opposition to corruption, Francis has a propensity for helping the underprivileged. Strong on moral teaching, he is against a “culture of discarding” the elderly and believes that legislation for gay marriage is not merely a political battle, but rather a ploy from the Devil to undermine the Church (pp. 111-113). His pastoral ministry shows that he is not a “one-sided” Catholic, but rather unites social justice with his ardent obedience to magisterial moral teaching. A good example of Francis’ beliefs is summed up in his words about clergy who refuse to baptize a single mother’s child, “These are today’s hypocrites” (p. 118). After comparing the new Pope’s pastoral zeal with that of St. Peter Claver’s ministry toward black slaves, Craughwell goes on to show Francis’ ecumenism, ability to build bridges in interfaith dialogues, and his humble nature. Like St. Francis of Assisi, the author declares, “he is not comfortable with pomp.” In fact, Francis even prefers the title “Bishop of Rome” over Pope.

The last pages of the book present a selection of Francis’s homilies delivered at the Masses with the cardinal electors and during his installation. These words are great to meditate on in a quiet space.

Thomas Craughwell’s book, The Pope from the End of the Earth, is a well-researched treatment of the events surrounding the election of Pope Francis I. Craughwell’s clear prose allows for a diverse audience to appreciate this subject, and the awe-inspiring pictures he includes capture the writer’s experiences in Rome which he was unable to put into words. The photographs and interesting papal facts together with the short timeline of Bergoglio’s life at the beginning make this book an insightful leisure read for any person of faith.

-Matthew Chicoine, Graduate Student, Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio



HOLY DAYS: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church.
By Pope Benedict XVI. Edited by Jean-Michael Coulet (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 86 pp. PB $10.60.

Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church is a great companion for Catholics in their yearly liturgical journey. Consisting of various homiletic and address excerpts from the pope emeritus, this book charts out the liturgical year as it is celebrated in Rome. In his introduction, Pope Benedict XVI says, “The feast days in the Church’s liturgical calendar give a rhythm to our lives as we pass through the year, a rhythm that follows the major events of Jesus’ life as recounted in the Gospels” (p. vi). The operative word from Benedict’s quote is rhythm. This book helps situate the reader into a proper mentality when approaching the Mass.

Advent begins the liturgical season, and the pope speaks of this period as a special time of joy. For him, the essential meaning of advent is that God is here, immanent in creation, not a withdrawn deity (p.3). One of the most insightful facts gathered from this section was that the Fourth Sunday of Advent marks the only time the celebrant offers the Eucharist in a rose-colored chasuble (p. 9).

The pope then reflects on the Christmas Season. He describes this time as a feast of light. He also mentions the uniqueness of the Holy Family and concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany. In fact, this feast is among the most respected in the country of Italy (p. 20).

After a short section spent on Ordinary Time, and highlighting the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, the pope prayerfully meditates on Lent with his Angeluses and Sunday homilies. Regarding the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent, he calls the Transfiguration of Jesus, in its essence, an experience of prayer (p. 34). Falling during Lent in 2009, the Feast of St. Joseph holds special importance for the Holy Father because he is named after the Patron of the Universal Church. He cogently describes the significance of Joseph, “We are asking the Lord to protect the Church always—and he does!—just as Joseph protected his family and kept watch over the child Jesus during his early years” (p. 41).

The meditations on the Easter Season highlight Divine Mercy and Good Shepherd Sundays along with the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. The pope spends the most time on Pentecost. Reiterating the Acts of the Apostles’ images of the tempest and fire to indicate the Holy Spirit, Benedict rightly links Luke’s account with the theophany at Sinai in Exodus 19:16-19. Moreover, he purports, “what air is for biological life, the Holy Spirit is for the spiritual life” (p. 63).

The last of Benedict’s liturgical feasts’ reflections concern the second part of Ordinary Time. Within the homily for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he notes, “God does not lose heart in the face of ingratitude or rejection by the people he has chosen; rather, with infinite mercy he sends his only-begotten Son into the world to take upon himself the fate of a shattered love …” (p. 69). Reflecting on the First Vespers of the Feast of St. Paul, he focuses on the opposite pole of Christianity—man’s response to God. Using Paul as an example, the pope says that in order to transform the world, man must become new. He states simply: “The apostle exhorts us to non-conformism” (p. 71). Only through Christ does humanity become a new creation. In his Angelus for the feast of Christ the King, Benedict shows the significance of this day as portraying Jesus as ruler of the entire universe. But what is more important is to understand that the Cross is a paradoxical sign of this kingship (p. 79).

This little book is an excellent collection of Benedict’s liturgical writings. For those who have read Joseph Ratzinger, one can truly understand the gift the Holy Spirit has endowed on Benedict XVI in his ease and ability to communicate to the entire Catholic Church. It is strongly suggested by the author of this review to purchase this book to use as a Mass companion for years to come.

-Matthew Chicoine, Graduate Student, Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio


JOSEPH RATZINGER IN COMMUNIO, VOL. 2: Anthropology and Culture. By Pope Benedict XVI. Edited by David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013). 199 pp. PB $20.27.

This book is a compilation of fourteen essays written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and published in the journal Communio. In fact, the pope emeritus himself was one of the founders of the prestigious Catholic publication, together with theologians Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. David Schindler, the editor, qualifies in the beginning of the book that lines between the three volumes’ themes (church, anthropology, and theological renewal) are not clean and crisp. Most of Ratzinger’s writings on the church have implications for anthropology and vice versa. Nevertheless, the grouping of essays in distinct categories helped to better situate the reader in the former pontiff’s thoughts.

Because nearly each and every single sentence from the German pope’s pen is a gem filled with wisdom, it is an immense challenge to convey all the arguments in a limited space without watering them down. As a result, the writer of this review will focus on the three most insightful and pertinent to the Church today.

The first essay, entitled “Beyond Death,” concerns a perennial Christian question. Ratzinger purports, as a result of Marx and Nietzsche’s influence, “The ‘beyond’ looks like a flight from the distress and tasks of this world” (p. 1). He goes on to reject the modern resurgence of Platonic dualism by affirming the unity of body and soul. Highlighting the work of St. Augustine, the former Tübingen professor explains his panacea for solving the problem of death. “It seems to me that it is high time theology set about rehabilitating the taboo concepts of ‘immortality’ and ‘soul’” (p. 13). To live as though God exists gives man full meaning to this life, and is the only meaningful response to Kant’s categorical imperative (p. 14).

The next few journal articles relate to the topics of Christian hope, technology as infringement upon freedom, and man’s freedom of conscience. Though each is significant, the essay, “Man Between Reproduction and Creation: Theological Questions on the Origin of Human Life,” contains a particularly critical message for post-Roe v. Wade America. With the cutting intellect of a scholar, Ratzinger shows the importance terminology has in soothing contemporary strife over this issue. The new word for passing on humanness is reproduction. While this seems to be a novel concept, Benedict XVI delineates in succinct fashion a history of the concept of the “homunculus.” Dating as far back as 500 A.D. in Jewish Kabbalism, the idea of “making” a human started with the Golem, or artificial human. The pope writes, “Through the proper recitation of all possible creative combinations of letters, the homunculus, or Golem, will come into being” (p. 74). Latter variations occurred throughout history, but the most famous example came from Goethe’s Faust.

Both of these cases view such a creation as purely artificial and ultimately not lasting in reality. The result of the Golems is destruction. Ratzinger then goes on to discuss the biblical rendition of the origin of mankind with God as creator. Responding to the jettisoning of God’s involvement with man’s origin, Benedict states, “Demythologized man is only a combination of information … the freedom which emancipates man and his research from ethics thus presupposes at its inception the denial of freedom” (p. 81). The conclusion for the pope is simple: to understand man’s origin as creation, and dependent on the Creator, in no way denies freedom (p. 83).

The last articles pertain to the subjects of Sunday worship, John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pneumatology, Europe’s culture crisis, and a short funeral homily. But his essay, “Concerning the Notion of the Person in the Trinity,” is deemed by the reviewer as the salient article in the final half of the book. Ratzinger charts out a concise history of the term “persona.” Ultimately, he says, “This definition correctly sees that, in its theological meaning, ‘person’ does not lie on the level of essence, but of existence” (p. 113). Finally, it is in Christology that the word “person” originates and culminates. “In Christ is the man who is completely with God, human existence is not canceled, but comes to its highest possibility” (p. 116). A healthy approach to understanding “person” leads to an orthodox view of the Trinity.

This book is a fantastic selection of truly notable anthropological writings of one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, Joseph Ratzinger. The writer of this review must warn the reader that such reading is not for the faint of heart. Due to the occasional density in prose, in        Joseph Ratzinger in Communio, Vol 2: Anthropology and Culture, it is sometimes necessary to reread an article multiple times to ascertain its meaning. But, that is mostly a result of the topic the pope deals with, and is not a weakness in Ratzinger’s writing. That being said, it is still a recommended read for any devotee of the pope emeritus or authentic Catholic anthropology.

-Matthew Chicoine, Graduate Student, Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio



David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

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