Late Fall Reading


What Does It Mean to Be Catholic?
by Jack Mulder, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). Reviewed by Dr. Rick Janet.

The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ by James Keating, (Paulist Press, 2015) 79 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8091-4917-9, $12.95.

The Bible and Covenant: Using Sacred Text and Images to Understand Salvation History by Robert Letellier (Staten Island, NY: St Pauls) $16.95, 172 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8189-1360-0. Reviewed by Ken Colston.

Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries, by Patrick Gray (Baker Academic, 2016) 262 pp., $32.99. Reviewed by S. P. Rugg.


What Does It Mean to Be Catholic? by Jack Mulder, Jr., (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). Reviewed by Dr. Rick Janet.

The compatibility of faith and reason is, of course, a hallmark of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Many books on Catholic beliefs and values expound on that relationship, often highlighting prominent examples of Catholic thinkers and ideas. Jack Mulder, Jr.’s book: What Does It Mean to Be Catholic? he offers a working model of the principle that speaks louder than mere exposition. While he clearly asserts the primacy of faith, peppering his text with references to his own beliefs, Mulder insists that even “something being a mystery does not mean it is allowed to be nonsense” (151). The result is a rare combination—a work that is both intellectually satisfying and spiritually uplifting.

Jack Mulder, Jr., holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Purdue University, and is currently an associate professor of philosophy at Hope College, founded in the Reformed Protestant tradition, in Holland, Michigan. Mulder converted to Catholicism before returning to his alma mater as a faculty member, and the book draws on his philosophical expertise, and his experiences as a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant institution. His impressive knowledge of various Christian traditions strengthens his efforts to identify a distinctively Catholic worldview or “the way Catholics tend to approach the world.”

What Does It Mean to Be Catholic? explains WHAT Catholics believe (and think) as well as WHY they do so. The “why” is particularly important as it both illumines the topics addressed in the book, and provides a basis for extrapolating to areas left untouched in this brief volume. Mulder offers a nuanced, philosophical (in the best sense of the word) approach to understanding Catholicism. His clearly reasoned prose doesn’t just describe Catholic beliefs, it reasons its way to them in a sensitive manner that takes faith seriously, and moves from faith to carefully articulated doctrine. And it does so in a calm, almost understated manner. Some catechisms or manuals on Catholicism become pedantic in their recitation of facts, others wax enthusiastic and emotional. Mulder avoids both extremes as he carefully exposes and explains the foundations of Catholic beliefs.

Mulder wears his learning lightly as he references Scripture, official Church documents, and an impressive array of classic and contemporary Christian works. While the approach is never heavy-handed, this is not a children’s book. Some parts, especially passages of philosophical and historical analyses, require focused concentration and commitment on the part of the reader. As Mulder demonstrates, such analysis is profitable for “the doctrines of the Catholic Church do not [always] come prepackaged” but require “theological development” (p. 141) that yields to serious spiritual and intellectual reflection.

Mulder’s balance of erudition and popular appeal is maintained over eight topical chapters (with an introduction and conclusion), each beginning with examples drawn from his personal experience or with references to popular culture. Those references lead to clearly stated delineations of Catholic beliefs, followed by reflections on the meaning and consequences of those beliefs. In the chapter on “God and Humanity,” as an example, Mulder uses his young daughter’s reluctance to admit that she was wearing her nightshirt backwards as a touchstone for a discussion of such complex issues as the nature of God, free will, and Providence. Similarly, a chapter on “The Person and Work of Christ” begins with a reference to the 2009 film Avatar as a prelude to a review of the dual nature of Jesus. These opening “hooks” never seem forced or trite, however, but flow naturally into more sophisticated reflections on the nature and meaning of Catholic thought and doctrine.

The chapters themselves move progressively, building on each other as they consider major areas of Catholic belief. The introduction addresses the divisions in the Christian community and the need for understanding a distinctively Catholic worldview as a prelude to true Christian dialogue. The first chapter links the Catholic understanding of Scripture and Tradition as the basis for that worldview, and subsequent chapters discuss Church authority, God’s relationship to humanity, the person of Christ, the role of Mary and the saints, the sacraments, and heaven/hell/purgatory. The final topical chapter (“The Human Person”) rightly notes that Catholic beliefs find expression in fully lived lives, reflective of the spiritual, physical, sexual, and social dimensions of personhood, leading to an interesting discussion of Catholic moral teachings.

In every chapter, Mulder directly confronts those points of Catholic belief that non-Catholics find odd or that provoke controversy in contemporary culture. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that hiding the controversy does little good, precisely because I think all of the church’s teaching is an authentic expression of her spiritual devotion to Jesus” (218). Mulder calmly discusses pointed issues (denial of Communion to pro-abortion politicians, the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, details of sexual morality, etc.), offering reasoned explanations of orthodox Catholic teaching. What emerges is not a strained or disconnected apology for Catholicism but an appreciation for the consistency and coherence of the Catholic worldview.

This is a book that serves many purposes — a compendium of Catholic beliefs for the inquisitive Catholic, an analysis of the Catholic intellectual tradition for scholars, a primer for non-Catholics seeking to understand essential Catholic ideas, a reflection on the beauty and coherence of the Catholic worldview. Maybe I need two copies, one for my bookshelf as a reference to points of Catholic doctrine and another for my nightstand as a source of reflection and inspiration. In a universe of clamoring voices, partisan division, and polemical invective, Mulder’s approach to the question “what does it mean to be Catholic” demonstrates the value of a calmly reasoned, coherent, and thoroughly orthodox response.

Richard J. Janet, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of History at Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri


The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ by James Keating (Paulist Press, 2015) 79 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8091-4917-9, $ 12.95.

On the list of ecclesiastical institutions experiencing welcome renewal, even if amid worrisome distractions, the (permanent) diaconate surely ranks high. Reflections on the diaconate by Dcn. James Keating, the erudite and experienced director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Omaha, are most welcome, and I warmly recommend Keating’s Heart of the Diaconate to those considering, living, or supervising the modern diaconate. Because this already short work could only be inadequately summarized, I would like to spend a few paragraphs directly engaging some of Keating’s remarks. Consider what follows, then, as the kinds of observations on Keating’s ideas that I would offer to a small group reading Keating’s latest work together.

First, Keating seems to have two audiences in mind throughout Heart of the Diaconate, diaconal formators and supervisors on the one hand and diaconal candidates or inquirers on the other. Keating’s remarks well serve both groups, of course, but it is useful to notice, I think, when one group seems uppermost in his mind, and when his words might be more applicable to the other. By the way, Keating’s suggestions about the various questions an inquirer might want to ask himself as he considers the diaconate—questions to guide a man in distinguishing between a natural desire to help others and a supernatural drive to serve (remarks offered mostly in chapter one)—are among the most insightful passages I have ever seen along these lines.

Second, the demarcation between Keating’s objective commentary on the diaconate and his personal spiritual advice to deacons is not always clear. Keating moves so seamlessly from one manner of speaking into the other that the reader might mistake comments that are, I think, more goal-oriented as if they were necessarily currently descriptive. It could be discouraging, in other words, to readers if the discrepancy between where they are now and where they should strive to be in some years from now is not always clearly acknowledged, or to mistake some goal of diaconal formation as if it were actually a perquisite for starting formation.

For example, at p. 38, Keating writes that the “diaconate contains a further and necessary purification: the elimination of any residue of affective and spiritual immaturity.” As phrased, I doubt such a state of maturality could ever be achieved by man on this earth, of course, but, especially in a paragraph aimed, I think, at those discerning the diaconate, such a comment could easily dissuade candidates from pursuing a state so apparently unattainable by them.

Next, in its context, Keating’s description of permanent deacons as “clergy leading the lay life” works well enough. True, I slowed down some when I first saw that phrase, but I never needed to stop and defend Keating’s point. But if taken out of context (as pithy phrases are wont to be taken), the idea that permanent deacons are “clergy leading the lay life” is dangerous. Deacons are not laity, of course, and they cannot lead “a lay life”. At a minimum, I would suggest using something like “clergy leading a lay life-style” to describe married, permanent deacons.

Among Keating’s many good suggestions (including, moving deacons from an excessively parochial orientation to more of a diocesan one, and encouraging deacons to underscore their liturgical services instead of stressing only their humanitarian works), Keating directly calls for more diaconal (as opposed to presbyteral) spiritual directors for deacons. Response to that call would, of course, demand from diocesan bishops further stretching scare personnel resources (and to some extent financial, as the formation of formators costs money) to yet one more highly specialized pastoral field. Keating himself serves as a diaconal spiritual director so he is aware of the efforts involved here; thus he does he makes this suggestion lightly. I second Keating’s call.

I also might have phrased more lightly some of Keating’s otherwise useful cautions against thinking that the diaconate is primarily to be thought about, instead of something primarily to be lived, that is, Keating’s warnings about ‘intellectualizing’ the diaconate and the formation process leading up to it. It is too easy, I think, for men like Keating (who already have top-level academic credentials) to down-play the importance of those credentials. Credentials are not, of course, essential, but they are important.

Keating does not engage the question of diaconal continence (see Canon 277) nor need he have done so in this work, and his relatively few remarks on how the vocation of marriage among most ‘permanent deacons’ interacts with their vocation to orders (e.g. pp. 28-32) are sound. I might observe, though, that virtually everything in Keating’s remarks could be squared with an interpretation of Canon 277 that reasserts the Western tradition of complete continence among all clergy. Indeed, several of his comments lend themselves quite well, I suggest, toward a re-grounding of the canonical demand of continence in the Eucharistic identity of the deacon as servant.

Keating’s book Heart of the Diaconate educates and edifies those concerned with both of the the (unhappily named) permanent and transitional diaconates. Its sophistication would make me think twice before putting it into the hands of initial inquirers, but its insights would certainly support its inclusion in more advanced pre-ordination studies.

Dr. Edward Peters is Professor of Canon Law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI.


The Bible and Covenant: Using Sacred Text and Images to Understand Salvation History by Robert Letellier (Staten Island, NY: St. Pauls) $16.95, 172 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8189-1360-0. Reviewed by Ken Colston.

Father Robert Letellier holds that the Bible can be summed up as the story of covenant, salvation history, the gradual unfolding of God’s plan for man and successive intrusions into history: in Hebrew, berit, in Septuagint Greek, diatheke, at first a “unilateral gift such as bestowed or given in a will or contract.” Exquisitely arranged, nearly catechetical in its succinctness, larded with apposite facts, Letellier’s précis traces this story from Adam not only to Paul but even to Marc Chagall, using both German historical criticism and the typological method of the Church Fathers. Even in its layout and design, it strikes the reader as the basic course notes in salvation history that should be given at a Catholic university with a good overhead projector.

In eleven short chapters, Letellier guides the student through the six Biblical covenants prefaced by the “implicit covenant” with Adam of “promise, obedience and blessing” Sin, Letellier reminds us, as “intellectual and spiritual arrogance,” is the continuing reason that the covenants need the unflagging persistence of divine rebooting. Letellier’s approach is to boldface these covenants, deliver their loci biblici, add patristic and contemporary commentary, offer reflections and questions for further study, synchronize with such classic academic studies as Boadt and Bright, and, most originally, illustrate with dozens of visual art works (not reproduced in the book), occasionally with in-depth analysis.

The result is, overall and especially in the discussion of the visual art works, a little too much summary statement and not enough analysis, an outline of a very organized course perhaps but missing original content—even if interest and originality are, as a theology professor once said, signs of heresy. Nonetheless, it’s good to have solidly such an outline, in bold. The First Covenant, with Creation and through the righteous servant Noah, is the Rainbow Covenant, “mysterious and luminescent,” which consecrates the created order and “pledges purification and regeneration.” Google to Hieronimous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes on the Flood if you want pictures.

The Second Covenant is the Circumcision Covenant with Abraham, promising everlasting paternity and suggesting “a putting away of evil” (Dt. 10:16; Jr. 4:4), symbolizing the purification of life at its very source of sexual generation.” Letellier illustrates this covenant with his most perceptive art commentary in the book, on the medieval Russian ikon The Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, depicting the three angelic visitors received at the oaks of Mamre.

Letellier details much more amply the Third Covenant with the People of Israel, the Torah Covenant, or Covenant of the Law. In this chapter, he outlines and explains the various categories: agrarian, ritualistic, ethical, and holiness, wherein “every aspect and area of life is claimed for the LORD, from the details of agriculture and animal care, to the complex ramifications of sexual behavior,” an “amalgam of legislation and encoded mercy.” Letellier includes in this chapter his longest “reflection” with eight points and questions to consider, including the observations that recent medical knowledge upholds the wisdom of respecting natural principles and sensible pragmatism of nomadic and agrarian practice.

The Fourth and Fifth Covenants, with David and the Prophets, are the Messianic Covenant and the Covenant of the Heart, complete the first half of the book.  Monarchy seemed necessary because of the lawlessness depicted in the Book of Judges, but apostate human institutions led to invasion, captivity, and exile and required an internalization of the Law, a restoration of righteousness and circumcision on the heart.

It takes several interesting chapters of inter-testamental and Gospel history and contexts for Letellier to bring Christology and soteriology to the covenant theme, which, he stated in his “Preface,” is the purpose of the book: to show, in the spirit of Nostra Aetate, that the first five covenants are one and unrevoked in the Sixth and Final Covenant, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  His argument is that Paul’s critique of the Law is essentially that it had become “the basis of the person’s union with God and not the effect of that relationship” (emphases his).  Letellier balances a detailed account of Pauline “justification,” replete with the chapter and verse of each step of the argument, with a Catholic presentation of works of charity as the life of faith and a tour through the sacraments as moments of covenant renewal, followed by a reminder that Israel lives on as the Church as the People of God with moral theology as the Law.  A long commentary on Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Allegory of the Old and New Testaments” ends the book.

I’m not sure that such a painting inspired by the “Reformist Bible interpretation” of the Old Testament as a “time of sin and penalty” and the New Testament as “the way to grace and mercy” is the best illustration with which to end a book with an ecumenical goal, but the final commentary offers a good look at a great painting of a big story.

Kenneth Colston’s articles have appeared recently in First Things, The New Criterion, New Oxford Review, and LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.


Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries, by Patrick Gray (Baker Academic, 2016) 262 pp., $32.99. Reviewed by S. P. Rugg.

Albert Schweitzer famously likened the quest for the historical Jesus to gazing down a dark well – as our eyes adjust a face emerges, one remarkably similar to the one peering down the well. Subsequent searches have revealed the perennial relevance of Schweitzer’s observation, but it may be time to modify the simile. Patrick Gray examines the history of anti-Pauline voices in his most recent book, Paul as a Problem in History and Culture. Like the man Paul proclaimed to the Mediterranean world as the Christ, Paul has been a magnet of myriad musings. But unlike Jesus, Paul often attracts our darker loathings rather than our lighter desires. We can now notice that two faces have emerged as seekers of all stripes have peered down the dark well of history for the origins of Christianity: the shining face of Jesus reflecting the searcher’s ideals and the face of Paul glowering back with the perceived wrongs of the world.

Patrick Gray’s study proceeds in two parts. He first chronologically follows those “bewitched, bothered, and bewildered” (9) by Paul. As one might expect, a marked shift in the reception of Paul occurs during the Enlightenment, and the modern period is a “turning point” for the proliferation and tone of Anti-Paulinism. But Gray’s presentation is anything but predictable. Peppered with wit, Gray chronicles a stunning array of writers; these vignettes are feats of research and add considerably to the delight of discovery that Gray unfolds on each page. While modern criticism has certainly been most prolix, Paul has always attracted controversy – both for his character and his theology. Defenders of Paul (a camp in which I happily count myself) will find themselves simultaneously astounded by the claims and challenged by Paul’s unique ability to attract such noxious faults.

In the second part Gray examines this history through five different lenses: Paul and Judaism, Paul and the “spiritual not religious” seeker, the counter-factual presentations of a world without Paul, other candidates for “founders” of Christianity, and the discipline of comparative religion. While each of these chapters function as separate essays, together they reinforce the kaleidoscope-like variegation of criticism leveled against Paul. I want to highlight two of these essays – the first to suggest a modification, the second to promote an application.

Reassessing Paul’s relationship with Second Temple Judaism(s) has marked academic debates for nearly half a century. The faltering of the long-held Jewish reading of Paul as the “bad goy” to the “good guy” Jesus has coincided with a critical assessment of traditional caricatures of first-century Judaism(s) among Christians. Readings that have attempted to understand Paul by locating him within his Jewish context have been broadly called the “New Perspective.” As the New Perspective has increasingly become the dominant perspective, some scholars have begun leaping off the foundations to reach for less certain conclusions. Recognizing that they are doing something different, new names have been coined, like the “Radical New Perspective” (arguing primarily that Paul’s soteriological and communal interests were limited to the Gentiles) and “Paul within Judaism” (arguing that Paul never really ceased being a Torah-observing Jew). Unfortunately, Gray does not make any distinction between “mainstream” New Perspective readings and its more recent manifestations. He (quite rightly) moves to criticize the more recent exuberance as “overcorrecting for perceived problems” and “strained readings or questionable determinations” (128), but in failing to separate the far-flung from the mainstream, he seems to describe the New Perspective through its most radical readings – a presentation akin to mistaking Paul for his most extreme interpreters.

Gray’s chapter, “Jesus versus Paul: Spiritual but Not Religious?,” makes a brilliant connection between critiques of Paul and the stated contemporary preference for spirituality over religiosity. Paul is often criticized as the one who attached the anchors of dogma and institution to the balloons of Jesus’ egalitarian spirituality. This is a pastorally relevant connection, one especially relevant for New Evangelization efforts. Gray’s connection allows all of us to be challenged anew by Paul’s vision of community, and those who are intimately involved with the ongoing formation of Christian communities can learn a great deal from the Apostle whose life’s mission was the formation of communities that resembled and imitated the one he heralded as Kyrios and Messiah.

In his assessment of Paul’s critics, Gray notes that “it is one thing to be skeptical of efforts to align Paul with Jesus. It is quite another to willfully misunderstand him” (205). Quite right. Countering such misunderstandings requires an equally willful effort to understand Paul more and more deeply – and our own projections in the process. Paul as a Problem in History and Culture is a readable, scholarly, and entertaining study, and I highly recommend it to pastoral care providers and scholars alike.

Stephen Rugg is a graduate student at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

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  1. […] Does it Mean to Be Catholic? by Jack Mulder was reviewed in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, which offers this praise: “In a universe of clamoring voices, partisan division, and […]