The Latest Book Reviews

For March 2014

Late-Winter Reading for March 2014


A Concise Guide to Catholic Social Teaching. By Kevin E. McKenna, revised ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 192 pp., $16.95. (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.)


Francis, A New World Pope. By Michael Cool. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013) 83 pp., $11.35. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine)


If Aristotle’s Kid Had an iPod. By Conor Gallagher (Charlotte, North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, 2012) 222 pp., $26.95, ISBN: 978-1-61890-414-0 (Reviewed by Ken Colston)


The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. By John L. Allen Jr. (New York: Image, 2013), 299 pp. HC $18.81. (Reviewed by Matthew Chicoine)


A Concise Guide to Catholic Social Teaching. By Kevin E. McKenna, revised ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 192 pp., $16.95.

This précis of Catholic social doctrine is a useful manual for an adult-education class or a high school religion elective course.  McKenna organizes his presentation of the vast documentation in the Church’s social-doctrine corpus along seven major themes: the human person, the family, human rights, option for the poor, work, solidarity, and care for God’s creation.  Each chapter presents appropriate extracts from Church documents, usually papal encyclicals and statements by the United State Catholic Conference of Bishops, which illustrate and clarify the socio-ethical theme of the chapter.  The discussion questions following each chapter would be especially helpful in a parish setting since they are often action questions, challenging the audience to apply this particular social teaching to its specific ecclesial and cultural context.

Of particular interest is the last chapter, devoted to care of the environment.  The chapter ties this comparatively new Catholic environmentalism to the Church’s longstanding commitment to integral human development.  A relevant passage from Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritatis in veritate (2006) lucidly makes the connection.  On an issue that easily invites New Age sentimentality, the Concise Guide is remarkably sober, always cognizant of the priority of the human good.

Despite its merits, this guide to Catholic social teaching must be used with caution.  The hierarchy of truths in moral teaching, and the hierarchy of authority in church teaching documents, are not always respected.  The opening chapter, “The Life and Dignity of the Human Person” illustrates the problem.  The chapter opens with extracts from the USSCB pastoral letter on racism (1979), moves to a USCCB statement on capital punishment (1980), and concludes with John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (1995), including excerpts from the latter’s condemnation of abortion and euthanasia.  The reader could easily have the impression that the church’s categorical rejection of abortion as an intrinsic evil, and its prudential rejection of capital punishment as unwise in our society, carry the same degree of moral authority.  Similarly, there is no discussion of the difference between the authority of a papal encyclical―especially one where the pope explicitly invokes his Petrine authority when he condemns abortion and euthanasia―and a simple statement of concern issued by an office of a national episcopate.

There are odd omissions in the treatment of other topics.  The chapter “Call to Family, Community, and Participation” contains no discussion of same-sex marriage.  Nor does it discuss divorce or contraception.  There is no reference to sexual complementarity or difference.  John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio (1981) and Mulieris dignitatem (1988) are ignored.  The focus on family ethics is almost exclusively economic.  The chapter on “Rights and Responsibilities” contains no discussion of the right to religious liberty, despite the burning contemporary controversy over the issue, and the immense literature recently generated by the USCCB, and various state Catholic conferences, on the question.

This synthesis of Catholic social doctrine carries a definite theological-political slant.  The alert teacher using this manual will apply some corrective vision to highlight some Church moral teachings that have been suppressed.

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



Francis, A New World Pope. By Michael Cool. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013) 83 pp., $11.35. 

Francis: A New World Pope is a journalistic biography on the 266th Roman Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Written by Michael Cool, a French journalist, this book highlights the novelties of Francis’ selection, relevant issues for the papacy today, and dedicates a couple chapters to the pope’s writings prior to his election, and firsthand testimonials about his character. A pleasant surprise by the Holy Spirit, Cool states, “Pope Francis has been revealing a new feature of his complex and endearing personality every day” (p. vi). Accompanied with a section of photographs of Jorge Bergoglio, both pre- and post-conclave, this treatment aims at unveiling the life and personality of the most recent successor of St. Peter in a readable manner.

The first chapter concerns the momentous events in the Sistine Chapel on March 13, 2013. A truly historic conclave, Bergoglio became the first Jesuit pope and first non-European pontiff since the eighth century! Moreover, his papal appellation is another unique aspect to the recently elected leader of the Catholic Church (p. 4). Despite all these originalities, Cool purports that the real awe came in Bergoglio’s election alone. Far down on the media’s “top- choice” lists for possibility of becoming pope, Francis’ selection, inspired by the Holy Spirit, shocked the secular world, and even some parts of the Catholic world.

Cool provides a cogent section on how Bergoglio’s name arose during the conclave. He suggests four possible criteria which venture as to how the red-hatted Argentinian became pope. These include Bergoglio’s personal aura, his international standing, his pastoral and spiritual sensibilities, and his diocese’s focus on bringing the Gospel to the impoverished (pp. 8-9).

The French journalist concludes chapter one with a brief biography and sketch of Pope Francis’ personality. Perhaps, the chief trait of the new pope is his ability to effectively communicate, and his willingness to listen. “To facilitate communication with the clergy, he installed a direct phone line so they could reach him more easily,” states Cool (p. 17). Francis also is able to strike a good balance between charity and truth. Vehemently voicing his opinion against Argentina’s legalization of gay marriage in 2008, may have earned him the title of being a “conservative,” but Francis cannot be tagged by a particular political label. As his namesake suggests, the Argentinian pope is a man dedicated to the penurious and destitute. Cool laconically states, “His name choice of “Francis” signifies that his papacy will have a great devotion to justice, peace, and to the poor” (p. 27).

Chapter two focuses on the ten most prominent issues that the Catholic Church currently faces, according to Cool . Some of these items are carry-overs from Benedict XVI, and others pertain to events of today. The list goes as follows: modernizing the Curia, rekindling evangelization, a new style of papacy, relations with Beijing, the Lefebvrian Quarrel, interfaith dialogue, redefining ecumenism, violence against Christians, liberalization of morals, and the worldwide economic crisis. According to Cool, it is the revamping of the Roman Curia that is, perhaps, the most imperative issue facing the new pope. Already within the first 30 days as bishop of Rome, Francis appointed nine, high-ranking bishops to a permanent advisory group. Interestingly enough, these appointees hail from six different continents−thus showing the true universality of the Church (p. 30). Regarding the novel style of the papacy, Cool makes an intriguing remark about how Benedict’s resignation makes the papal office less monarchial (from a secular standpoint). Such a gesture by the emeritus pope, says Cool, “actually freed his successor of a certain number of constraints, and taboos, that hitherto had prevented popes from being more themselves” (p. 36).

The third chapter of Francis: A New World Pope is a collation of Pope Francis’ writings prior to becoming Roman pontiff.  In a 1995 address to the Jesuit Universidad del Salvador, Bergoglio likens the post-modern world to a shipwreck, and Christians as castaways who are called to help rebuild a storm-torn society (p. 56-57).  Later on in the same speech, the cardinal cites three “Charter Principles” he urged his audience to hark back to: “fight against atheism, progress via a return to our roots, and universality through diversity” (p. 58). Those wise words are salient for any era in human history. Another work of Francis, inserted by Cool, was his first papal homily after his election. The Jesuit pope told the cardinal electorate, “When we journey, build, and profess without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord,” (p. 68). The pope’s forthrightness and personal view on the reality of evil became concrete in a May 15, 2013, address before a group of cardinals. In that speech, he designates the devil as the source of all pessimism (p. 70).

The final chapter of the book is an assortment of testimonials from various Argentinian laity and clergy on the character of Pope Francis−Maria Constanza Fazio, a lawyer, commented about Jorge Bergoglio that: “He was a guide to the poorest, accompanying them in their daily lives with concrete, down-to-earth actions” (p. 82). Alain Durand, president of the Friends of DIAL, calls the historic election of Francis both original and typical due, in part ,to Latin America having 40 percent of the Catholic population (p. 98).

Francis: A New World Pope is an insightful glimpse at the man who became the first Argentinian pope. Composed in a journalistic style, this book can be both a read for leisure as well as for information. Situated in the middle of this manuscript are six pages of pictures showing Bergoglio throughout his ministry. At times, Michael Cool seems to interject his personal predictions for Francis’ papacy, giving the writer of this review the impression that the author occasionally implies a dichotomy between Benedict XVI and Francis. However, such instances are few and far between, and his journalistic vantage point probably plays a role. Nonetheless, it is still a recommended read for any ardent Catholic, and fan of the papacy.

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


If Aristotle’s Kid Had an iPod. By Conor Gallagher. (Charlotte, North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, 2012) 222 pp., $26.95, ISBN: 978-1-61890-414-0 (Reviewed by Ken Colston)


The Church has known the value of Aristotle for at least 800 years since his greatest commentator turned out to be not a pagan but a Dominican.  Chesterton wrote that St. Thomas Aquinas saved the Church from the Gnostics and Platonists, for the angelic doctor understood that a God who disclosed Himself in the material could therefore be explicated by a philosophical realist.  Conor Gallagher’s traditionalist achievement is right there in his sub-title: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents.  This book is thankfully a long way from Jean Jacques Rousseau and Dr. Spock.

Gallagher offers a parent-friendly reading of the Nicomachean Ethics, with just a sprinkling of the Politics and even the Metaphysics.  Each of the fifteen chapters begins with a pithy (but unreferenced) quotation from Aristotle.  Those chapters are divided into three units: virtue theory, personal affectivity, and eudaemonics—in Gallagher’s less technical language, how to be good, have friends, and be happy.  Aristotle was not merely a theorist: Gallagher reminds us that Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics for his only son, Nicomachus, after hands-on experience as the tutor of Alexander the Great. (Whether that experience turned out to be successful or not depends on your politics.)

The fundamental insight of Aristotle that Gallagher keys in on is that virtue, friendship, and happiness, which are all related, are not aleatory states but developed habits of character: that is, not only virtue but also friendship and happiness can be taught.  What American millennial parents are now bringing children into the world with that pedagogical assumption?  Most parents in our individualistic republic believe that goodness is relative, accidental, and mysterious.  Knowing that virtue is a habit of choosing the mean between an excess and a deficiency may not make parenting easier—in fact, it makes it harder than simply turning on the electronic gadgets and letting things coast—but it will make it more fruitful.  Gallagher insists upon Aristotle’s qualification: “virtue is a habit of choosing the mean between extremes in accordance with the right reasoning of a wise person.”  Aristotle knew the importance of models and mentors for the young: mimesis or imitation is the royal road to character.

And so the book is laced with illustrative stories of characters, good and bad, from the Bible, popular literature and movies, and American biography: the weak-willed King David, whose passions overcome reason; the strong-willed Frodo Baggins, whose reason overcomes passions (not always happily); Darth Vader, whose reason and passion desire evil; Socrates, whose reason and passion desire the good (the model par excellence); Bill Gates and the Beatles, who practiced Malcolm Gladwell’s prescription for success, 10,000 hours of practice; Hugh Thompson, whose true courage saved ten My Lai villagers from the butchery of five hundred civilians slaughtered under the command of the cowardly Lt. William Calley; Tiger Woods, whose athletic discipline in one area of his soul has been undone by intemperance and imprudence in another.

Gallagher reminds parents, however, that children are quite unlikely to persevere in virtue if its practice is drudgery, and so in addition to cautionary and inspiring tales he offers the example of the super-athletic Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who run barefoot joyfully.  Their saying is, “Children run before they walk.”  He shares the lesson (I hope koanic and not literal) of an elder monk who water boards a novice to show him that he must seek God as he just sought air!

Gallagher has buttressed Aristotle’s observations with famous contemporary psychological experiments.  Dr. Stanley Milgrim of Harvard showed in 1961 that ordinary human beings will usually obey authority in administering evil even when they hear their subjects screaming in pain.  Dr. Phillip Zimbardo of Stanford in 1971 became implicated in his own experiment of students abusing each other as role-playing prisoners and guards.  Gallagher’s point is Aristotle’s: since human beings are social animals who will follow a crowd, it’s important for parents to find good crowds for their children.

Thus, friendship is also a virtue that parents must teach.  The deepest friendship, not of utility and pleasure, but of the good, is rare and cannot be pursued on Facebook.  First, a friend must know, practice, and appreciate the good, which is the task not only of childhood but also of a lifetime.  Second, and Gallagher must emphasize this in our age of virtual reality, friends must interact not with buttons and remotes but with real people, on the sandlot and at the prom if they expect to make it to the altar.

This last point, of course, is not one that Aristotle himself made: friendship was not the basis for marriage for him that it is for a Christian, in part because he thought women, with some exceptions, were less rational than men.  Marriage was less likely to be a union of souls loving the good.  Indeed, Aristotle apprehended dimly agape, self-giving love; the friendship of the good was about as close as he got, well short of love of God, neighbor, and enemy. Gallagher is aware that Christian tradition since Dante has for that reason put Aristotle in limbo, but he reminds us that Aristotle saw a connection between contemplation, our highest happiness, and sport and music: both are done for their own sake.  These activities make youthful training for our supernatural end—seen in a glass darkly by Aristotle, called the beatific vision by his greatest commentator.

Where, therefore, to put love?  Is it a virtue to be taught like the cardinal virtues or is it only a supernatural virtue that is infused and received?  If it can’t be taught, then why does the Church spend so much effort in cataloging the models of love, the saints, and why would she call it a virtue at all, which suggests that in some respect at least it is a habit of the soul for the good that can be practiced?  If it can be taught, what is the proper pedagogy?  Doesn’t love make supernatural demands?  Love your enemy seems a long way from the natural law.  Aristotle may have not had the grace to see love like that, but I wish Gallagher had included a chapter on it and had written more about the saints and the Christian tradition and less about Bill Gates and the Beatles.

Despite the somewhat gimmicky packaging, the newspaper-length paragraphs, and the neglect of the divine word, Gallagher has brought the wisdom of the wisest pagan to today’s millennial parents.  Catholic parents could get the same material on the cardinal virtues from the Catechism, but there’s less detail there, no narrative, and very few examples.  So it would make a good book for priests to require of parishioners who are taking baptism or marriage instruction.


-Ken Colston
 Retired Chairman, English Dept.,
Jefferson School
St. Louis, Missouri


The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution. By John L. Allen Jr. (New York: Image, 2013), 299 pp. HC $18.81.

John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent to the National Catholic Reporter, presents a grisly and carefully researched work on the clandestine global war influencing Christians. Providing continental overviews, and snapshots at individual nations where anti-Christian sentiment is most pervasive, The Global War on Christians gives the reader a look at the big pictures of such heinous violence while also learning about unique cases of martyrdom. Allen then dispels five myths about this covert battle against Christians. He concludes his study with follow-up questions pertaining to the fallout, consequences, and possible responses to this conflict.

Already on the opening page of his introduction, Allen clearly states the severity of violence many 21st century Christians face. He says, “We’re not talking about a metaphorical ‘war on religion’ in Europe and the United States, fought on symbolic terrain, such as whether it’s okay to erect a nativity scene on the courthouse steps, but a rising tide of legal oppression, social harassment, and direct physical violence, with Christians as its leading victims” (p. 1). A horrifying fact, further showing the realness of the situation, is the sheer amount of persecuted Christians worldwide−100 million! (p. 4).  A microcosm of the war could be found in the juxtaposition of pre- and post-Gulf War Iraq. The number of Christians in that country during those times numbered 1.5 million and 500,000 respectively. Allen then goes on to clarify the terms “war” and “war on religion” to differentiate between the Obama administration’s whittling away at religious freedom with regards to the health care mandate, and more acute persecutions worldwide (p. 3). The acclaimed Catholic journalist also successfully explains away the apparent “silence” in Western churches over this matter in a twin-fold way. First, most Americans have a myopic view of the Church, and have no personal experience with persecution. Secondly, churches are on a tight budget, and unable to allocate funds to help (pp. 15-19).

Part One of Allen’s book presents anti-Christian persecution from around the world over the past 20 years (1993-2013). Allen further distinguishes the ambiguous terms of “repression,” “persecution,” “harassment,” and “discrimination.” He then delineates ten specific kinds of harassment Christians suffer in this global war (pp. 30-32). A couple of pages later, Allen gives the reader ten possible reasons—according to German scholar, Thomas Schirrmacher—why Christians have been singled out. Chiefly among them is that Christianity is simply the world’s largest religion (pp. 38-40). Allen then lists the 25 most deadly nations to be a Christian citizen—the top three are North Korea, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia (p. 41). Five significant factors that will increase, or decrease, future martyrdom are as follows: belief versus unbelief, migration, fragmentation of Christianity, the mercurial relationship between Christians and Muslims, and the relationship gap between Christians and non-Christians (pp. 45-46).

Chapters Two and Three of the book portray an overview of Christian persecution in Africa and Asia. The former continent has been the pacesetter for Christian growth over the last century. For example, in 1919, only 9 percent of Africa was Christian, while as of 2013, the number burgeoned to 63 percent (p. 49). Allen focuses on the countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sudan as microcosms of the global war. A salient point to be taken is that the Nigerian jihadist military group, Boko Haran, have regularly attacked Christians on Christmas Day. The most heinous violence occurred on December 25, 2011, when 50 people perished, and hundreds more were injured (p. 56). Concerning persecution in Asia, Allen opens up with an anecdote about a Christian woman, Aasiya Noreen Bibi, who was sentenced to death by merely drinking at a “Muslim” well, and also fined 300,000 Pakistani rupees (p. 65). Allen then snapshots the Asian countries of: China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam as examples of prominent anti-Christian sentiment. Arguably, the most insidious of religious persecution came from Indonesia where, in 2006, three Christian girls were beheaded as retribution for prior deaths in an Islamic/Christian riot! (p. 81).

The final three chapters of Part One outline violence in Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. While South America is home to the largest boon of Christian evangelization efforts, paradoxically, large amounts of strife exist as well. According to the Vatican, Columbia is the single most lethal place to work in a parish worldwide (p. 95). Allen analyzes the specific persecutions Christians face in Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela (pp.97-110).  He opens the chapter on the Middle East with the story of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani—an international symbol for human rights in Iran. Accused of being a Muslim apostate, Nadarkhani has suffered “slow-motion” martyrdom through a seemingly endless cycle of arrest, prison stay, release, and re-arrest (p. 112). Focusing on the nations of Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Syria, and Turkey, Allen points out that in little more than a century, the Christian population has dwindled down from 20 percent to a meager 5 percent (pp. 115-116). Regarding Eastern Europe, the Catholic author limits his attention to Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Russia. He concludes Part One with a story about Fr. Tudor Marin, a martyred Orthodox clergyman (p. 168-169).

In Part Two, Allen debunks five myths about the global war on Christians. The first misconception is that Christians are only at risk when they are a majority. He gives the example of Isaias Duarte Cancino’s assassination in Columbia—the seventh largest Catholic nation—as a rebuttal to that myth (p. 181). The second myth is that no one saw this global war coming. It is important to debunk this falsity because, in doing so, it promotes accountability wherever innocent people are harmed (p. 198).  The third myth—that it is all about Islam—is simply wrong. In terms of raw numbers, the Congo claims the “title belt” for most Christian casualties.  Communist societies were much worse than Islam in de jure discrimination against Christians (p. 201-202). Allen’s final two myths are similar: the former asserts that persecution only exists if the motives are religious; and, the latter states that anti-Christian persecution is a political issue (p. 214-239).

The last section of the book charts out the fallout, consequences, and responses to the global war on Christians. Allen boils down the effects of such worldwide persecution as leading to three implications: it will accelerate Christian leadership in the 21st century; religion will become a resilient, pro-democratic force; and religious freedom will be a prime social concern (pp. 244-245).  Allen goes on to say, “Martyrdom may well be the most powerful tool in the missionary toolbox” (p. 245).  He also cites a statistic from a September 2012 survey which found 37 percent of nations have high restrictions on religious liberty (p. 252). This may be a harbinger of future eroding of religious freedom. Chapter thirteen outlines the spiritual fruits from this global war. Chief among them is an ardent, new martyrdom upon which Allen speaks of teaching a “theology from below” (p. 269).  He reflects, “In the martyrs, we see a more human vision of the world, one that’s unharmed and fragile” (p. 269).  Allen gives the reader a panoply of practical means to assist the persecuted in his concluding pages. (pp. 279-292).

The Global War on Christians is a carefully researched book, chockfull of interesting and disturbing facts about the reality of Christianity’s current tumult worldwide. Though not recommended for light reading due to its dense prose, Allen’s work is a fantastic evangelization and research tool to excerpt—in particular his anecdotal evidence of 21st century martyrs—in the pulpit, or in the religious education classroom.

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


David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

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


  1. Avatar Michael Baker says:

    We seem to give accommodation to Muslim communities in Britain with mosques built in most towns and cities yet the Muslim community is silent about the persecution of Christians in their homelands. This must be reversed