Summer Reading for August 2015

Soul-Centered: Spirituality for People on the Go. Jim Clarke. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) 144 pages; $14.95. (Reviewed by Melinda Selmys)


Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms. Benjamin Wayman. (Brewster, MA:Paraclete Press, 2014) 256 pages; $17.99. (Reviewed by Robert Louis Wilken)


The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education. Peter M. Mitchell. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015) 311 pages; $19.95. (Reviewed by Richard J. Janet, Ph.D.)



Soul-Centered: Spirituality for People on the Go. Jim Clarke. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) 144 pages; $14.95.

Usually when I read a book, I have a very strong sense of whether I would recommend it or not. Occasionally, I encounter one that I would recommend for some people, but nor for others. This is one of those books.

Jim Clarke writes with a tremendous amount of wisdom. His style is straightforward, his examples are accessible, and there’s a tremendous amount of content packed into a very small book. This is probably one that I will be returning to frequently—if for no other reason than that it would be almost literally impossible for an individual to use all of the spiritual tools that he offers at the same time. The book makes it clear that that’s not a problem: Clarke’s intention is not to make a person’s life even more hectic by piling on spiritual busy-work. Rather, it is to provide an extensive selection of different spiritual practices that will be appropriate to different people at different times, so that every reader will, hopefully, find what they need.

This, though, is where my caveat comes in. There are basically two approaches to reading: one is to search through a text in order to find what is good, whatever will nourish and sustain, leaving the rest behind. The other is to examine a text to see if you are able to take every single word that the author says wholesale, on authority, with, perhaps, only the odd bit of gristle to spit out. I would not recommend this book to readers of the second type.

When I was younger, especially when I was first forming my faith, it was very important to me to have resources that were clearly free of error, and I became very unsettled if I encountered anything that might be incorrect or confusing. Clarke’s book would have frequently set off alarm bells, and I don’t think I would have gotten much out of it, even though I could have benefited tremendously from a lot of what he has to say.

Considering where I am now, this book was able to speak to me profoundly. A lot of the questions that Clarke asks really helped me to penetrate areas of my life that are in need of grace and healing. The variety of spiritual exercises he offers has helped me to expand my repertoire of prayers, so that I don’t get stuck ritualistically performing the same exercises over and over again, even when they have ceased to bear much fruit. The text itself is very soothing, and the book encourages a kind of quiet, meditative reading that feels like sitting in a monastery garden. For someone who is rarely able to get away, being able to take a half-hour retreat, simply by sitting in my bed with a book, is tremendously useful.

I do have criticisms. Although most of Clarke’s insights are spot-on, he does seem to incline toward a kind of superficial celebration of the body. Christ comes across less as an incarnate deity and more as a very spiritual man—yet, it is precisely the Incarnation that provides Catholic spirituality with the conviction that the body is good. Again, much of what he says about sexuality is true, but he leaves pregnancy and procreation out of the equation, neglecting the very means by which human beings come to have bodies in the first place.

I also found that there was often an assumption that most of the busyness taking place in the reader’s life is largely self-imposed, and probably optional. That’s true to a certain degree for everyone, but mostly this book seemed to assume that the reader was single, or had few children, or had children who were already grown. I still found it helpful, but would have appreciated it if there was a little more for people who are overwhelmed by unavoidable responsibilities.

Overall, I found the book was very helpful, but that it required a certain amount of critical engagement. If you’re looking for theological correctness or catechesis, you probably won’t like this book. If you’re looking for a book that will help you to probe your own heart, to become more open to the God of silence and slow time, and will help your spirituality to be a source of calm, rather than another obligation to be scheduled into an overwhelmingly busy life, then you should be able to get a lot out of it.

-Melinda Selmys
Catholic speaker and blogger


Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms. Benjamin Wayman. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014) 256 pages; $17.99.

Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, is best known for his defense of the faith of Nicaea. His major work, Orations against the Arians, is a chapter by chapter interpretation of biblical texts to refute Arian thinkers who believed that Christ is not fully God in the way in which God the Father is God. It is his greatest theological work. But among other writings, Athanasius also wrote a small book on praying the psalms. Few modern readers know the work, perhaps, because it has come down to us under the title, Letter to Marcellinus, or because the modern English translation is at the end of another, more famous work of Athanasius, his Life of Antony. Whatever the case, Make the Words Your Own by Benjamin Wayman, pastor at St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois, and a professor of religion at Greenville College, is sure to awaken interest in Athanasius’s prayerful meditation on the psalms.

The letter was a response to a request from a sick person in his diocese. Athanasius knew that, of all the books of the Bible, Marcellinus loved the “Book of Psalms” most. Athanasius, too, had “great fondness for this same book” and wrote the letter to share with him what he had learned from a “learned old man” about the psalter. The psalms, he says, are like a “garden” with plants that display all that is found in the other books of the Bible, the creation of the world, the deeds of the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, the exploits of King David, and the prophecies of Christ. But it is more, for it is a book that teaches us how to pray.

I had read the Letter to Marcellinus many years ago and, on occasion, had used it in teaching, but this beautiful and practical book awakened new admiration for Athanasius’s essay. Much to my delight, Wayman has not written a historical or literary study of the Letter to Marcellinus. His small book is a guide for the life of prayer that draws on the advice Athanasius gave to the ailing Marcellinus.

Wayman’s central point is a simple one: when you pray the Psalms, make the words of the Psalmist your own. The psalms offer a language and a vocabulary which, with practice, can become our language and our vocabulary. In Athanasius’s words: “each person sings what has been written as about himself, not as if receiving and reciting what was intended for someone else.” If we make the words of the Psalter our own, they will give the words of our prayer a richness and resonance that extempore prayer lacks.

To this end, Wayman has printed out the text of the psalms in groups following the plan of Athanasius. There are Psalms for the Suffering, Psalms for the Harassed, Psalms for the Thankful, Psalms for Reflection, Psalms for Daily Life, and the like. Each section has 10 to 12 psalms and each psalm, or group of psalms, is prefaced by a brief statement drawn from Athanasius. So: When you see the arrogance of the crowd and realize that nothing is considered holy, “run to the Lord and say psalm 12.” If someone is scheming against you, say the words in Psalm 59. When you wish to give thanks, say psalms 106, 107, 108, et al. When you are taken captive by foreign thoughts, say the words in Psalm 137. When you want to sing something about the Savior, turn to Psalms 45 and 110.

Make the Words Your Own is a book for reflection, meditation, and prayer. Like all Christian prayer, it invites us to pray, not as individuals, but with the company of Christians around the world and through the ages who have prayed the psalms. In an “afterword,” Fr. David Meconi, S.J., reminds us that the psalms are the book of the Church. Though written centuries before the coming of Christ, by its constant use, Christians have found in them the mystery of God that came to be known in his fullness in the light of the Incarnation. Wayman’s guide to the psalms brings its readers into contact, not only with one of the Church’s great teachers, but with the living God who is present among us, as we make the words of this ancient book of prayer our own.

-Robert Louis Wilken
(Endowed Chair: William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emeritus, History of Christianity)
University of Virginia


The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education. Peter M. Mitchell. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015) 311 pages; $19.95.

Divisions in the American Catholic Church, like beauty, are often revealed in the eye of the beholder. Even the labels used to designate diverging viewpoints, or groups in the American Church, differ. And those divisions shift as issues change, along with ecclesiastical and cultural politics. However, one bedrock factor looms in the history of American Catholicism in the past half century: in one way or another, many of the issues that have divided American Catholics frequently come down to the question of authority (or, from another vantage, obedience). The broad history of the Catholic Church in the United States reveals a constant tension over issues of authority, perhaps, most clearly expressed in debates over how the Church can (or should) be both fully American and authentically Catholic. How can the Church benefit from both the rich tradition of freedom represented by the American experiment, and the even longer tradition of faith in the truth revealed by the Catholic Church? At times, this tension has enriched the American Church while, at other times, it has divided and threatened to consume the American Catholic community.

Peter M. Mitchell identifies a key moment in that ongoing tension in his book, The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education. Mitchell, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a doctorate in Church history from the Gregorian University, reviews and interprets events at the Catholic University of America from 1967 through 1969, including the Charles Curran affair, and the dissent of theologians over Humanae Vitae. For Mitchell, these events comprised a virtual coup, in which the authority of the American bishops was usurped by the CUA School of Theology. The ensuing controversy represented a revolution in American Catholic higher education and, indeed, in the history of the Church in the United States. “This elimination of the bishops’ authority would have profound consequences for the entire program of Catholic education, at every level, throughout the United States,” Mitchell concludes, with the transmission of authentic Catholic teaching as passed on “from generation to generation for centuries … all but entirely undone within the space of the one modern, relevant, media-savvy, ‘fully American’ post-Vatican II Catholic generation that came of age in 1968” (p. 259).

Mitchell’s interpretation is based on a careful reconstruction of the events at CUA from 1967 to 1970. His solid historical narrative draws on official documents from the CUA archives, as well as the unpublished letters of the principal antagonists (including key American bishops, like John Krol of Philadelphia and Patrick O’Boyle of Washington) and personal interviews with Charles Curran himself. The result is a compelling story, a cautionary tale of the nature (and excesses) of authority, and a moral tragedy owing to the ignorance and miscalculations of the parties involved in the controversy.

For Mitchell, the revolution at CUA went well beyond the particular details of Curran’s career or the disagreement of some American theologians with Paul VI’s proscription of artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae. The issues featured contrasting ideas about the nature of the Church and the identity of Catholic institutions of higher education. Those ideas ultimately centered on opposing views of the role and composition of the Magisterium. That disagreement, in turn, reflected broader historical tensions over what it meant to be both American and Catholic, and an even older debate over the relationship between freedom and truth. Mitchell portrays those tensions in the CUA controversy as a confrontation between the American hierarchy (defenders of doctrinal orthodoxy) and the American Association of University Professors (whose ideas and policies enshrined the inviolability of absolute academic freedom). At the Catholic University of America in the late 1960s, the ideals of the AAUP ultimately triumphed over the authority of the American bishops, with profound results for a generation of American Catholics.

The story began in the spring of 1967, when the CUA Board of Trustees voted to terminate the contract of the popular moral theologian, Fr. Charles Curran, who embraced a Vatican II-inspired concept of the role of “the experience of Christian people” in molding conscience-driven moral principles. Given Curran’s status as an untenured professor, the dismissal was couched as a purely procedural matter involving the nonrenewal of Curran’s annual contract. The Board, however, failed to consider the popularity of Curran, and the strength of faculty feeling about contractual issues. Students and faculty responded to Curran’s “dismissal” with a late-semester strike that threatened to shut down the essential work of the University. With both the Catholic and the secular media championing Curran’s cause (the result, Mitchell asserts, of a brilliant reframing of the essential issues by Curran and his supporters) and pressure mounting, given the upcoming accreditation visit of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the Board reversed its decision within one week, and reinstated Curran to his faculty position. For many faculty members at CUA and other Catholic institutions, the affair seemed a victory for the principles of the AAUP, and its undiluted advocacy of academic freedom—principles soon enshrined in the “Land O’ Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” drafted at a meeting of prominent Catholic educators in July 1967.

Following the strike and the reinstatement of Curran, the CUA School of Theology demanded a thorough overhaul of governance structures and policies at the school—for Mitchell, a virtual “takeover” of the University. Backed by the report of the Middle States Association visiting accreditation team, a number of structural and procedural changes were instituted at CUA. When Fr. Eugene Kevane, dean of the School of Education, opposed those changes, and enunciated a more traditional view of the relationship between the right to freedom and the role of hierarchical authority at a pontifical University, he was essentially targeted by the “progressive” faculty, and removed from his post. Kevane emerges as a hero in Mitchell’s narrative, a martyr to the Catholic idea of balance between freedom and authority, whose ouster illustrated the hypocrisy of the AAUP’s advocacy of academic freedom.

The fallout from the Curran affair, however, did not end the controversy at CUA. With the publication of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in July 1968, the newly-emboldened theologians responded with a “Statement of Dissent” that questioned the authority of the encyclical, criticized its theological foundations, and advocated the rights of conscience in determining the moral implications of birth control. The formal dissent of the theologians triggered another round of confrontation at CUA. Cardinal O’Boyle, chancellor of the University, called on the theologians to explain their position, but was out-maneuvered by the more articulate academics, who essentially refused clarification based on the incompetence of the Board of Trustees to adjudicate (or even understand) its position. The Board responded with a demand for a faculty board of inquiry (essentially accepting AAUP procedures on challenges to faculty prerogative). The report of the board of inquiry fully backed the actions of the dissenting theologians, congratulating them for their courage, and berating the Board for its intrusion into academic affairs. While O’Boyle, and others, continued to challenge the stance of the dissenters, and sought to reassert the role of the hierarchical Magisterium in the governance of Catholic schools, the majority of the Board preferred to let the matter rest after the turmoil of the preceding months, in order to deal with other University business. The resulting “exhausted truce” prevailed for the next generation, as both bishops and theologians avoided further direct confrontation.

Of course, the status quo did not prevail at CUA. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church pronounced more confidently on the nature of Catholic higher education, and the relationship between freedom and authority. Curran was officially removed from his CUA post in 1986. In 1990, John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesia reaffirmed the role of Church authority in insuring doctrinal orthodoxy in Catholic faculties. Mitchell, however, recognizes that an entire generation had been invested in the triumph of AAUP ideals in American Catholic universities. His attempt to understand the tragedy of that generation focuses on the failure of the American bishops to articulate their position clearly, and assert their authority appropriately at a crucial moment in the history of Catholic higher education. He also credits the success of dissenting theologians in depicting the debate as a conflict between American freedom, and arbitrary authority, which won public support for their position. Indeed, Mitchell concedes that long-standing problems in the American Church contributed to the frustration of the generation of 1968. Unfortunately, the positions of the opposing sides in the CUA controversy of 1967-69 precluded any possibility of compromise. “It was impossible,” Mitchell intones, “that even an exponential number of dialogues, commissions, and committee meetings would bring about any sort of mutual agreement” (p. 259). However, Mitchell ends with the hope that a new generation might be inspired by the example of Fr. Eugene Kevane in pursuing an “authentic academic freedom united with authentic fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church at America’s Catholic universities” (p. 260).

Fr. Mitchell is a talented historian who tells a good story well, and substantiates his findings with impressive research in previously untouched sources. There is, however, a melodramatic—indeed, almost apocalyptic—tone to his book. Time after time in the text of the book, Mitchell steps back from his narrative to remind the reader of the awesome implications of the story. Every meeting becomes fraught with historical significance, every decision threatens the very future of American Catholicism, every miscalculation leads inexorably to the decline of American Catholic culture. The events and personalities of the story do lend themselves to certain conclusions, but the author’s ominous interpretation seems unnecessary to a story so pregnant with moral lessons. A more temperate tone might recognize that there is, indeed, “nothing new under the sun,” and that events of seemingly catastrophic and immediate consequence form one part of the larger tapestry of the historical experience past, present, and future. And overstating the consequences might complicate the prospects of fruitful resolution that Mitchell aspires to, in his conclusion. The events of 1967-68, after all, are less than 50 years past, and the ecclesiastical and academic climate has changed in those years. On the other hand, the issues and divisions illustrated by the CUA “coup” remain operative in Catholic colleges and universities today—ask any Catholic scholar who has dared question the sanctity of absolute academic freedom, or assert the absolute objectivity of truth—but these problems might best be addressed in the positive context of the Catholic intellectual tradition itself. Fr. Mitchell relates an important chapter in the story of that tradition, as lived in a particular time and place. The Coup at Catholic University stands on the solidity of its research, and its effectiveness in telling the truth about events whose import speak for themselves in the historical record.

-Richard J. Janet, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of History
Rockhurst University
Kansas City, Missouri

Book Reviews About Book Reviews

Expert and interested readers can review our Books Received page to see what is available and for instructions on how to review for HPR.