Spring Reading for April 2016

Book Review art 4-13-16

What Would Pope Francis Do? By Sean Salai, S.J. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2016), 144 pages; $14.95. Reviewed by David Paternostro, S.J.

Paul: Windows on His Thought and His World. By Maria Pascuzzi; (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic) $31.95, 302 pages; ISBN: 978-1-599982-214-3. Reviewed by Ken Colston.

My Battle Against Hitler – Faith, Truth and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich. By Dietrich von Hildebrand.  Translated and edited by John Henry Crosby with John F. Crosby; (Image, New York,  2014.) ISBN: 978-0-385-34751-8. Cloth. $28.00. (pp.341). Reviewed by Clara Sarrocco

Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? By Guy Consolmagno, S.J., and Paul Mueller, S.J. (Image Books, 2014.) Reviewed by Melinda Selmys.

“The Gospel of Happiness”- Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology. By Christopher Kaczor. (New York: Image, 2015) 205 pages; $22.00. Reviewed by Deacon William F. Urbine D.Min., LMFT


What Would Pope Francis Do? By Sean Salai, S.J. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2016), 144 pages; $14.95. 

Pope Francis has often proven to be an enigmatic figure. No less an expert on the Vatican than John Allen has referred to the pope as being “almost metaphysically unpredictable.” Writing a book that captures his spirit is, therefore, an almost Herculean task. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were careful scholars, and so a book laying out their thought, and the program of their papacies, would be relatively straightforward. Look at their papal statements and academic writings, and one can see their concerns. Like his name-sake from Assisi, Francis is much more of a live-wire. His statements may provide a solid background, but his day-to-day actions are really the heart of his papal program. Salai (whom I have known since we were Jesuit novices together) has a clear grasp of this in his book What Would Pope Francis Do? It shows us Pope Francis, not only by examining his writings, but his actions, and their impact on the Church. And from there, can give the reader a clear sense of Francis and his mission.

As befits a book on a pope known for his humility, the ultimate focus of the book is not Francis himself—though he is the book’s constant point of departure. Pope Francis is calling us to a renewed sense of joy in the gospel, and the news of Jesus revealed to us in the gospel, and so Salai labors in the book to help us respond to that call. The ultimate focus of the book is Jesus, and the joy that comes from knowing Jesus in one’s own life. Thus, this book may just as accurately be thought of as a book on Christian spirituality as a book on Pope Francis. Salai says at the end of his introduction that “as I hope the stories in the book will show, nothing is impossible with God. Not even a Jesuit pope” (p.21). To be true missionaries of the gospel, as Pope Francis asks us, is to see Jesus at work in our daily lives, and share the reality of that with others as we go about living our lives. This requires attentiveness and courage—the insight to see God at work, and the trust to know that God will continue to be at work, even in unexpected ways.

Salai sees “the fullest revelation of Francis’ vision for the Catholic Church” (p.17) to be the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). While Francis did release the encyclical, Lumen fidei, several months prior, that was a work which was in no small part composed by Pope Benedict. Evangelii gaudium is the first major document begun by Francis, and touches on a matter which is at the very heart of the Church—the proclamation of the gospel. Looking at chapter five of the exhortation, Salai has discerned six major themes which he sees as being at the heart of Francis’ papacy—and, arguably, his spiritual life as a whole—longing, closeness, dignity, weariness, tenderness, and Mary.

The way in which Salai develops these themes seem to mirror the development of the spiritual life as a whole. We all begin with a longing of some sort for God, and to enter into relationship with him; drawing closer to God then leads us to draw closer still to other people, and to the world which God has created, and is redeeming. As we draw closer to other people, we begin to recognize their God-given dignity and true worth (as well as our own), and see how each person is truly beloved of God. As we go to people whose dignity is often unrecognized, we come to a point where we reach our limits, recognizing our own humanity, and the need for rest and union in Jesus. Having accepted our human frailty, we recognize more clearly the tender care which God shows to us and others, and try to mirror this tenderness ourselves. Finally, as disciples of Christ, we turn to “the ideal disciple,” Mary, who models for us the themes of the book, and Christian discipleship as a whole (p. 119).

Each chapter—including the introduction and conclusion—begins with a short passage from Evangelii gaudium. From there, Salai presents stories from his own life which he weaves in an out of each chapter to help illustrate the theme. He is a gifted storyteller, and his wit and talent for self-depreciation only helps to draw the reader further in. And in all of the stories he presents, there is a fundamental humanity which shines through. I was particularly arrested by his recounting of his encounters with Ashley, a homeless woman who was often outside a coffee shop he went to in New York, when he was speaking of dignity. The way in which he told her story made me think of all the “Ashleys” I have come across in my own life—the times when I have recognized her dignity, and the times when I have not. He moves almost effortlessly between these stories, accounts of lives of the saints, concepts from Ignatian spiritualty and Catholic theology and, of course, moments from Pope Francis’ own life. In doing this, we see how these themes and ideas can play out in our own lives, how they have animated Pope Francis’ life from the very start, and how the example of Pope Francis’ life can help transform our own lives so that they are more centered on the joy of Christ, and the proclamation of the gospel.

Salai concludes his book with the theme of courage. He tells us in detail of the life of St. Ignatius, the founder of Pope Francis’ spiritual home for nearly all his adult life, and then speaks of how Ignatius, and the Spiritual Exercises, changed Pope Francis so that he was able to go and proclaim the gospel—and how we can do the same. Having seen the example of Pope Francis, having had the opportunity to reflect on the themes of his pontificate, how they can play out in our lives, and how God is at work in the day-to-day world, we are then challenged and given the courage to make the themes of the book a reality, just as Pope Francis would want.

Perhaps, the best thing that I can say about the book is that I was sorry when it ended. Salai has a very engaging style, and he has applied his skills to the timely and important topic of how the Church is to engage with the world under the leadership of Pope Francis. For all those interested in understanding Pope Francis, and the Ignatian spirituality which motivates him, this is an excellent way to begin.

-David C. Paternostro, S.J.
Jesuit School of Theology
Berkeley, CA


Paul: Windows on His Thought and His World. By Maria Pascuzzi; Winona, MN: Anselm Academic $31.95, 302 pages;ISBN: 978-1-599982-214-3. 

Maria Pascuzzi puts Paul in his place without losing sight of his status as an apostle. For those who want an introductory textbook that might become the standard introduction to the subject, she has given a lively Paul who stands out from both his Jewish and Roman contexts. She sorts through the vast literature on the transformed rabbi, not shying away from historic and contemporary controversies, and enlightening contentious partis pris.  Her trim but ample book can inform without riling Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and even secular readers.

Pascuzzi’s approach to Paul is thematic, not chronological, or epistle-by-epistle.  Ten chapters are organized around the Roman and Jewish contexts, Paul’s distinctive message of “cruciform” faith, his criticism and appreciation of Judaism, the Gospel community, his attitude toward sexuality and women, and his anti-imperial challenge.  She presents also the various ways that Paul has been read, throughout time, by the early church, Luther, and contemporary scholarship.

Her irenic tone does not mean that she does not take stands on Paul. In Chapter Ten, for example, which could serve as an example of her method throughout the book, she supports the view that Paul preached a dangerous, anti-Imperial message (one that the anti-Christian West might now especially heed) even though he also famously counseled obedience to the authorities in Romans 13: 1-7.  Her evidence is his subversive appropriation of Imperial titles for Jesus Christ in every epistle, his rejection of the Roman patronage economic system for self-sufficient and “abasing” manual labor (2 Cor 11:7), and shared collection (Gal 2:1-10), and his counsels to avoid imperial courts (1 Cor 6:1-9), and temples (1 Cor 8:10).  So why should “every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1)?  These seven verses in Romans, according to John C. O’Neill, “have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament by the license they have given to tyrants, and the support for tyrants the Church has felt called on to give.”  Pascuzzi explains this “contradiction” by offering contemporary scholarly perspectives: the Anglican, N.T. Wright, argues that the passage, in fact, demotes the imperial authorities by placing them below the one true God; post-colonial theorists demonstrate that subjugation requires ambivalent and pragmatic strategies for survival.  This forceful lining up of the crucial arguments is Pascuzzi’s methodology.

A second dispute that Pascuzzi negotiates is the traditional Lutheran-Catholic difference on Paul’s criticism of the “law.” She presents this as the “old” and the “new” perspective on Paul, which she attributes to Luther and summarizes neatly thus:

Paul was a Jew who tried to earn his salvation by doing the works of the law. However, he was always frustrated and discouraged because no matter how hard he tried, he could never quite do them perfectly (Rom 7: 7-25).  In consequence, he was filled with anxiety, afraid he would not attain salvation.  Then, one day, Paul had an encounter with the Risen Lord.  As a result, Paul converted from Judaism, a legalistic religion of works-righteousness, to Christianity, which he perceived to be a superior religion of grace. (138)

She recounts an unfortunate consequence of this interpretation, one that is still frequently heard from the pulpit and in schools, which was both anti-Catholic  and anti-Judaism: Roman Catholic works of mercy, devotions, and even sacraments were seen as Pharisaical attempts to buy grace. The breakthrough to a new perspective came, Pascuzzi maintains, first from a Lutheran revisionist, Krister Stendahl, who argued that Luther misread Paul as a result of his own anxiety and scrupulosity, for Paul in fact shows a “robust” conscience, one that was “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). Further, scholars have added a new perspective that Paul rejected the law, not because it failed to yield grace, but because it excluded Gentiles (“covenantal nomism”), but of course academic consensus on this point has not been reached.  The heart of Pascuzzi’s book is thus the heart of Paul’s theology.

Two more areas of even more contemporary controversy, not only academic, occupy two more chapters: Paul’s sexual ethics, and his view of women. She negotiates these choppy waters not by offering the usual excuse that Paul was a product of benighted times, but by probing Paul’s Greek, and by comparing Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish sources to discover an original thinker who promoted “cruciform living,” and “total body ethics,” beyond sex and gender.  The linguistic evidence for Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality is there, she maintains, as well as that for women deacons, but she claims that such evidence alone cannot settle current cultural and intra-ecclesial wars.  She lays the foundations, however, for using Paul today.  The reader at times wishes to know Pascuzzi’s own conclusions on such questions, but she (and/or her publisher) probably decided that this textbook was not the place to do so.

Features of the trim paperback (not expensive for a undergraduate textbook) include extensive footnotes on nearly every page; excellent bibliographies, key Pauline passages, and questions for reflection for every chapter; engaging sidebars; precise chapter summaries; decent photographs; and suggested Internet links. I’d also recommend it for an adult formation group at a parish or church: it’s readable and yet scholarly, and it wouldn’t immediately start a fight.  It might even help a priest stop one.

-Kenneth Colston
Kenneth Colston’s reviews and essays have appeared in New Oxford Review, LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Commonweal, St. Austin’s Review, The New Criterion, and First Things.


My Battle Against Hitler – Faith, Truth and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich. By Dietrich von Hildebrand.  Translated and edited by John Henry Crosby with John F. Crosby. (Image, New York. 2014). ISBN: 978-0-385-34751-8.

For many of us, the events in Germany leading up to World War II are part of a history that happened over 80 years ago. In My Battle Against Hitler, Professor von Hildebrand provides us with his first-hand account of the conditions in Germany and Austria that led to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, the son of the famous sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand, studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. He became an exponent of the Munich school of phenomenological realism, and Christian personalism.  From the time of his conversion to the Catholic Church in 1914, he was an ardent defender of the Church. His many books on philosophy and theology, both in German and English, were and are praised by many from Pope Pius XII to the then-young Father Josef Ratzinger.

My Battle Against Hitler is von Hildebrand’s memoir written in the last decades of his life. His story begins in 1921 when he spoke against the German invasion of neutral Belgium in 1914 at the start of World War I.  He takes us on his odyssey, year-by-year, up to 1938 when he was forced to flee for his life in a true life adventure that one thinks only takes place in spy novels.

Throughout his career as an adjunct professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Munich, von Hildebrand became an outspoken critic of National Socialism.

His remarks were often blunt and pointed, and he encouraged his students to take action by attending meetings of the National Socialists, and asking pointed questions to expose the intellectual errors of Nazism. One of his main attacks was against the rise of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, even many of the Catholic clergy did not see anti-Semitism, or even National Socialism, as the great evil it was.  This was most disturbing for von Hildebrand because he was such a staunch Catholic, and devotee of the Truth. He left Germany because he felt he could no longer live in a country that bore such animosity. His hope rested in Austria, but this was also short-lived.

In his year-by-year chronicle, von Hildebrand tells us of the many social and political personages his path crossed. One of his friends in the struggle was Father John Oesterreicher, himself a convert from Judaism,  who eventually authored the book, Walls Are Crumbling—Six Jewish Philosophers Discover Christ, and founder of Judaic-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. Von Hildebrand’s great hope for salvation from the Nazi curse was Chancellor Engelbert Dollfus whom he described as:  “so kind, so well-wishing toward everyone, {and} who fought against the Anti-christ of National Socialism. . . .”  It was a great blow to him when Chancellor Dollfus was assassinated. It was Dollfuss who encouraged von Hildebrand to establish and publish his anti-Hitler journal, Der christliche Ständestaat. It was because of the outspoken essays against the regime that appeared in this journal that Hitler put a price on von Hildebrand’s head. He and his wife, Gretchen, were forced to flee Austria, with only minutes to spare, before they would be arrested and most assuredly killed. The Crosbys have thankfully identified by footnote all the various names of dignitaries, political figures, clergy, professors, artists, and musicians that von Hildebrand mentions. Without this aid, the narrative would have suffered.

Although Part I of the narrative ends with von Hildebrand’s escape form Vienna in 1938, he eventually was able to emigrate to the United States, and begin a long professorship in philosophy at Fordham University.

Part II: “Writings Against the Nazi Ideology” is the most compelling part of the book. The Crosbys have translated excerpts of some of the marvelous essays which appeared in the journal, Der christliche Ständestaat.  Most of the topics relate to the evils of nationalism, anti-Semitism, such as “German Culture and National Socialism,”  “The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted,”  “The Jews and the Christian West,” “The Parting of Ways,” “The Struggle for the Person,” and the very prescient  “The Chaos of Our Times and the Hierarchy of Values,” among others.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, who made her husband’s story available, and to both John Henry and John F. Crosby, for their translation and editing. If the book suffers from anything, it is from a lack of an Index.

As a student at Fordham University, I was fortunate to study under Dr. William A. Marra, philosophy professor, who was a grateful and most ardent student of Dr. von Hildebrand, his mentor. Dr. Marra spoke our language, and brought von Hildebrand’s philosophy to us in an exciting way. Some of the stories von Hildebrand relates about his life in this troublesome time involves the many meetings and philosophical discussions he had with students and friends.  He actually continued this practice while teaching at Fordham University, and even more so, after his retirement.

Thanks to the graciousness of Lyman Stebbins, and his wife, Madeleine, who held Saturday soirees in their home, many of us were able to meet and hear Professor von Hildebrand, who also established the The Roman Forum, an organization dedicated to the broad defense of Catholic doctrine and Catholic culture. It was precipitated by the publication of the encyclical, Humanae vitae, and he often lectured on this topic at Keating Hall on the Fordham campus.

The battle against Hitler may be part of the past, but Dietrich von Hildebrand’s words are as imperative today as they were when he penned them on May 27, 1934: “In light of this, how could false prophets still impress us? …  Let us break the spell that the false doctrines of a world alienated from God are spreading all around us, doctrines long since obsolete, disposed of, and discarded even before they arose again in our time.”  (“The Parting of Ways” from Der christliche Ständestaat,  p. 304-5)

Clara Sarrocco

Clara Sarrocco is the longtime secretary of The New York C.S. Lewis Society and a graduate of Fordham University. Her articles and reviews have appeared in TouchstoneNew Oxford ReviewSaint Austin Review, Gilbert MagazineThe Chesterton ReviewCatholic Historical Review, and The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly.  She has taught courses on C.S. Lewis at the Institute for Religious Studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York and at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, New York.  She was recently elected president of the Long Island Chapter of the University Faculty for life.


Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? By Guy Consolmagno, S.J., and Paul Mueller, S.J., Image Books, 2014. 

There are a lot of books out there written specifically to evangelize atheists who see a conflict between religion and science. Most of them fail because they’re too heavy handed—offering a slew of traditional, and usually predictable, arguments for the existence of God, glued together with some personal testimonial material. Consolmagno and Mueller take a completely different tack: showing how relations between science and religion have actually functioned historically, and what it looks like for a serious scientist to also be serious about religion.

This is the kind of apologetic work that I personally like best. Instead of engaging in the same tired debates that we’ve seen over and over again, the authors instead provide a glimpse into their own work at the Vatican Observatory, showing rather than telling how religion and science can work together. Topics covered range from the nature of the Star of Bethlehem, to the end of the world, the Galileo controversy, to the status of Pluto, and of course the title question: would you baptize ET?

The book is constructed in the form of a dialogue between the two authors, which allows them to offer different perspectives on the questions posed, and to show that there is plenty of breathing room within Catholicism for freedom of thought, and authentic skepticism. There’s a lot of humor, much of it the kind of geeky, adorable humor typical of scientists. The tone is intelligent but casual, and the authors come across as very relatable human beings who have sincerely held beliefs but aren’t especially interested in grinding any axes.

Personally, I found this book really refreshing and enjoyable to read. There’s very little in the way of dogmatism, and it’s clear that the authors have a deep respect for truth, and for authentic intellectual engagement with difficult questions. Some readers might find that it’s not sufficiently doctrinally rigorous for their tastes. The authors are Jesuits, and that does comes across in the text. If you don’t like the easy, off-the-cuff manner of Pope Francis, you will probably not appreciate this book. They’re also scientists more than they are theologians; if you like lots of quotations from Vatican documents, and you don’t know what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, this may not be the book for you.

On the other hand, if you want to read about a couple of astronomers trying to take readings using an aged Vatican telescope after a few too many glasses of wine, you want a balanced and realistic analysis of what went wrong with Galileo and Pope Urban VIII, or you’re interested in discovering why planetary geologists might disagree with astrophysicists as to how to classify planets, you will probably enjoy this one. It’s full of interesting scientific and historical trivia, amusing anecdotes, and enthusiasm for the mysteries of Creation, and of the faith. And, it’s a lot of fun.

-Melinda Selmys 


“The Gospel of Happiness”—Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology. By Christopher Kaczor. (New York: Image, 2015) 205 pages; $22.00. 

Is there a direct correlation between faith and well-being? Will a robust faith provide you with more happiness? Dr. Christopher Kaczor sets out to prove that there is a direct correlation between healthy religion and religious practice which makes one happier and more positive about life. The text is heavily researched, and filled with contemporary, positive psychology sources.

In this volume, he demonstrates how the tenants of positive psychology, and traditional and contemporary Christian spiritual disciplines, lead one to a happier life. Using the applied research of positive psychology, practitioners’ recent theory about positive psychology, and Christian prayer and virtues, can raise one’s self esteem, and also deepen one’s practice of traditional Catholic virtues.

Using Seligman’s recent volume entitled, Flourish—A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (2011), he points out the five elements of a life fully-lived. They are positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement (PERMA). The five elements ground the discussion for this volume. Kaczor states that neither the psychology of happiness, nor Christianity, nor its beliefs, undermine each other. He notes that “Grace does not destroy natural happiness; grace perfects natural happiness.” (40). Kudos to Kaczor for his rich integration of Scripture, our beliefs, and especially the application of our Scriptures

A thorough reflection on the “Our Father” as it correlates to positive psychology principles is fascinating and revealing. He suggests that prayers of this nature are meant to remind us of our innate sense of community. He also provides a global prayer practice by many religions entitled “The Loving Kindness Prayer” (or “Loving Kindness Meditation”) as another example of the integration of one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Chapter tittles include “Three Way to Happiness,” “The Way of Faith, Hope and Love,” “The Way of Virtue,” and “The Way of Willpower.” Each chapter draws heavily on recent positive, psychological research, and the practical “how to” of this new discipline. Kaczor freely acknowledges that positive psychology is not a substitute for the Gospel, nor traditional virtues and practices; rather it enhances existing virtue development, and suggests newer strategies for promoting healthiness through positive psychology.

His chapter entitled “On the Way of Willpower” encourages those individuals and groups to use “social proof” as a way to motivate the kind of behaviors that we want to encourage. “Stroke, don’t kick” is the often-expressed phrase in the vernacular. One disappointment is the very minimal review for those in recovery who have embraced the opposite maxim “I am powerless over____, and I need to give up, and turn my will and life over to my higher power.”

One significant summary observation of Kaczor is his acknowledgement that “positive psychology vindicates the wisdom of Christian teaching on the importance of forgiveness, of gratitude, of humility, and of serving one’s neighbor. (p. 183)

This is not a self-help volume; rather, a well-researched text that can assist us in our journey of faith, and also provide us a rich appreciation for the new field of positive psychology. It does not seek to create a dichotomy between religion and science, but an integration of the two. This is especially valuable for spiritual directors, and those seeking to give richer meaning to the texture of life as a faith-filled Christian.

-Deacon Bill Urbine D.Min., LMFT
Deacon Bill Urbine is an assistant director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate, Allentown, Pa.

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