Book Reviews – July 2020

Catholic Marriage: A Pastoral and Liturgical Commentary
By Edward Foley, ed. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

Vocation to Marriage and the Christian Family
By Thomas McGovern. Reviewed by Matthew Rose. (skip to review)

Common Sense Catholicism: How to Resolve Our Cultural Crisis
By William Donohue. Reviewed by Fr. Martin Pable, OFMCap. (skip to review)

The Day Is Now Far Spent
By Cardinal Robert Sarah. Review by K.E. Colombini. (skip to review)

A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life
By Nicolas Diat. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

Western Culture Today and Tomorrow: Addressing the Fundamental Issues
By Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Reviewed by Msgr. Richard Antall. (skip to review)

Living the Mystery of Marriage: Building Your Sacramental Life Together
By Perry J. Cahall. Reviewed by Michael Brummond, STD. (skip to review)

Catholic Marriage – Edward Foley

Foley, Edward, ed. Catholic Marriage: A Pastoral and Liturgical Commentary. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019. 178 pages.
Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

Developed under the auspices of the Catholic Academy of Liturgy and the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, this collection of essays by a diverse cadre of contributors offers insightful reflections on the recently-issued translation of the Order of Celebrating Matrimony (USA 2016).

James and Evelyn Whitehead open the volume with a reflection on the spirituality of Christian marriage. “The most mature gift of fidelity is flexibility,” they observe (4). “The greatest gift of devoted relationships is presence—the promise that we will be there for one another, the assurance that we will not be abandoned” (9). In chapter two, Professor Kimberly Hope Belcher uses the structure and text of the rite to sketch a sacramental and liturgical theology of marriage. The ordering of the rite, she observes, “presupposes that the sacramental action of the assembly is a response to the revelatory Word of God proclaimed within the Church and that the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the consummation and perfection of that sacramental action” (17). In the third chapter, Professor Anne McGowan traces “the evolution of marriage rites from the dawn of Christianity to the present day” (vi). Interestingly, the Gallican blessing of the bedchamber for which there is evidence as early as 404 A.D. came to envelope a large swath of Europe territorially and temporally (34). In the fourth chapter, Professor Gilbert Ostiek, OFM, offers a close textual reading and examines the promulgation of the ritual text. In a veritable tour de force, Professor Edward Foley, OFMCap, and Professor Richard N. Fragomeni next compare and contrast the American English translation to the German, Italian, Mexican, French, Australian, English and Welsh, and Canadian English translations. In the sixth chapter, Deacon Paul Covino explores how the ritual text can be a resource for preparing the wedding liturgy, specifically, and preparing for marriage, more broadly. Interestingly, wedding sales in the United States exceeded $56 billion in 2017, signaling that couples take weddings seriously. In the seventh chapter, Diana Macalintal articulates a mystagogical approach to marriage in order “to help engaged and married couples recognize their own potential for encountering the Risen Lord” (107). In the eighth chapter, Professors Timone Davis and Edward Foley, OFMCap, share best practices for preaching at weddings. They highlight that the homily may “take its cue” from the scriptural readings, the nuptial promises exchanged by the couple, the collects, the prefaces, or even the nuptial blessings (124). In the ninth chapter, Jennifer Kerr Budziak and Richard N. Fragomeni share best practices about the musical soundscape at weddings. The key is presenting couples with good options (137). In the tenth and final chapter, Father Patrick R. Lagges offers canonical reflections on the Order of Celebrating Matrimony.

In offering an overview of the theology of marriage, Belcher writes:

Canon law suggests that any valid marriage contracted by two baptized persons is sacramental, but faith is necessary for all sacraments to be efficacious. … This question needs substantial and careful study, since it is connected to the pastoral and often painful issues of annulment, divorce, and remarriage. (16)

It is, therefore, worth reaffirming here that marital jurisprudence and the consensus of canonical experts firmly maintain that subjective faith is not linked to the validity of the marital bond. As Rotal Judge Cormac Burke states in The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine, and Canon Law (The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), “Absence of faith may hinder the fruitful reception of the sacrament (that is, the fruitful operation of sacramental grace, within marriage in facto esse) but does not hinder the actual reception of the sacrament in the moment of consent (marriage in fieri)” (20). “Sacramentality,” Burke explains in his germane text which is unfortunately not cited in the chapter under discussion, “is a consequence not of their will, but of their condition as Christians incorporated into the economy of salvation” (27). In sum, the indissolubility of a given marriage is not dependent upon a certain minimum degree of active Christian faith at the moment of its constitution. Divergent speculation by some academics is tenuous and should not be afforded more weight in the popular mind than it is worth.

In the third chapter, McGowan writes: “These conflicting positions contributed to debates among scholastic theologians, who settled on the exchange of consent as the outward form of the Sacrament of Marriage and consummation (presuming prior consent) as the act that made a marriage canonically indissoluble” (35). The preceding formulation fails to appreciate the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic indissolubility articulated by Pope Alexander III as a result of the competing schools of thought.

The chapter on preaching at weddings has an ambiguous and possibly erroneous statement about when marriage comes into being. Davis and Foley write: “It is also clear that besides the sacrament not ending with the wedding ritual, it also does not begin with that ritual” (121). “From a theological perspective,” they add, “the Sacrament of Marriage emerges as the couple begins to commit themselves to each other in love and faith” (122). Such statements are potentially problematic. The teaching of the Church is that the efficient cause of marriage is the mutual consent of the partners exchanged and received in a valid manner. Sacramental theology maintains that the matter is the mutual self-giving (traditio) of the spouses and the form is the mutual acceptance (acceptatio) of this self-giving. Sound teaching maintains that a marriage comes into existence at a distinct moment in time—namely, the exchange of the nuptial promises. Moreover, the chapter mistakenly refers to the “Latin Rite.” Properly speaking, it is the Roman Rite. Latin refers to the church sui iuris, not to the liturgical tradition. The Latin Church acknowledges and uses rites other than the Roman, such as the Ambrosian and Mozarabic.

Despite a few instances where greater precision or clarity would have been beneficial, this is a fine and timely resource. This work is recommended for seminarians in ministerial formation, graduate students in theology, scholars of liturgy, clergy, and lay ecclesial ministers who are involved with weddings and marriage preparation. Each chapter is self-contained, so that even undergraduate students can be fruitfully presented with certain selections in a class on marriage. On the whole, Capuchin Father Edward Foley of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago has assembled and edited a stimulating anthology to coincide with the implementation of the new American English translation of the Order of Celebrating Matrimony.

Christopher Siuzdak is a canonist in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Portland.

Vocation to Marriage and the Christian Family
– Thomas McGovern

McGovern, Thomas. Vocation to Marriage and the Christian Family. London, UK: Scepter, 2016. 252 pages.
Reviewed by Matthew Rose

One of the positive effects of the two Synods of the Family, held in Rome in 2014 and 2015, has been a plethora of books, essays, and conferences offered by some of the finest minds in the Catholic intellectual world. Through these intellectual works and conferences, theologians measure the modern ideas concerning the family against the traditional teaching of the Church, as seen in the Magisterium and in the writings of the saints. While the waters around issues of marriage and family are indeed still muddy, at least for those who hope to keep the waters in such condition, for those asking “what has the Church taught about marriage and the role of the family?” one need look no further than Fr. Thomas McGovern’s recent book.

Fr. McGovern, a member of the Opus Dei Prelature, possesses a wealth of learning about the Church’s teaching on Marriage and Family, as well as over thirty years of personal experience advising families and priests in the realm of marriage and family life. This book reflects that experience and learning.

Fr. McGovern does not seek to offer novel ideas or solutions to the controversies facing the family today. Rather, through this book, he seeks to remind the faithful that marriage is a vocation, not merely another facet of our society. To do this, he begins his reflection on marriage by going back to the Biblical roots of the sacrament. From there, he looks at the theological facets of the sacrament, including the connection of Matrimony with the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation. He likewise lays out the responsibilities of family members, repeatedly highlighting the place of children as gifts and special opportunities for grace within the family and the world.

This foundational material makes up the first third of the book. The remaining two-thirds of the work focuses on how the Christian family lives out its vocation in the modern world. To support his proposals for a properly lived family life, Fr. McGovern turns to the writings of the saints and recent magisterial statements. Foremost of the saints quoted in this book is St. Josemaria Escriva, although the wisdom from the early Church Fathers frequently appears as well. Of the magisterial statements, Fr. McGovern makes many references to Popes Pius XI, St. Paul VI, and St. John Paul II. The inclusion of a full Bibliography at the end of the book, referencing each homily, document, and speech, is a welcome aid, particularly for those who wish to hunt down the primary sources for Fr. McGovern’s ideas.

The quotations from the saints and popes alone make this book worth a place on the shelf of pastors of souls and educators of the young. Something must be said, of course, for Fr. McGovern’s own reflections. He has a healthy balance of quotes from spiritual and theological masters and his own insights into the human condition. This is not a work of rosy-glassed idealism; Fr. McGovern addresses real problems faced by families today. Those seeking merely another fight over the Church’s teaching about divorce and remarriage, however, will be sorely disappointed. Fr. McGovern knows that that controversy is only one of the struggles of the modern family.

As said above, Fr. McGovern places a great emphasis on the future of the Christian family, that is, the children. Thus, he devotes a substantial amount of the book to questions of education and raising children in the virtues. He devotes special attention to raising adolescents, a particularly important topic in light of recent statistical information regarding the disaffiliation of young people; the Church is losing her future, and Fr. McGovern seeks to stem that tide by strengthening the family first.

Fr. McGovern has produced for the Church a fantastic work, an enduring resource designed to educate and guide us not only in how we view the Christian family, but also how the Christian family lives out its vocation in the world. Pastors of souls, particularly those involved in marriage prep and family counseling, would do well to obtain a copy, highlighting key passages and bookmarking important resources. Married Christians will find in this book spiritual and practical advice and encouragement as they seek to raise their children in a world hostile to the vocation of marriage. This is a book for all who seek to restore our broken society by raising up a new Christian generation, a goal which can only be accomplished by the triumphant restoration of the Christian family.

Matthew Rose is a theology instructor at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA.

Common Sense Catholicism – William Donohue

Donohue, William. Common Sense Catholicism: How to Resolve Our Cultural Crisis. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. 291 pages.
Reviewed by Fr. Martin Pable, OFMCap.

In the introduction, Mr. Donohue — the President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and publisher of the league’s journal, Catalyst — begins by stating: “Survey after survey shows that most Americans believe we are going in the wrong direction. . . . Why does everything seem to be out of whack? . . . We seem to be coming apart at the seams.” Our problems are not political or economic, he continues. Our society is in trouble “largely because our social and cultural house in broken . . . and our culture is in a state of decline” (7). The reason for that, he claims, is that so many of our social and cultural leaders are highly educated but are lacking in common sense: “In fact, the collapse of common sense is driving our derailment” (8). Several pages later, he gives some very dramatic examples. For example, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCL) which advised the homeless (many of whom were mentally ill) that they had a constitutional right to freeze to death. In one week alone, three homeless men were found dead (36). In the next twenty pages or so, the author brings forth other dramatic examples of “civil rights” that most people would regard as violations of common sense.

In the next five chapters, the author uses the framework of the French Revolution’s cry for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Under “Liberty” he decries the lack of moral restraint that has replaced common-sense restrictions on sexual and other moral activities in today’s culture. Under “Equality” he cites the social psychology research of Donald Brown on the similarities and differences between the male/female genders. And in “Fraternity” he presents a very thoughtful reflection on the positive role of religion in marriage and family life.

My one surprise with the book is the disconnect between the title (“Common Sense Catholicism”) and the actual contents. I found very little reference to Catholicism; his critique was focused on U.S. culture in general as lacking in “common sense.” Still, I found the book helpful in understanding the cultural world we live in.

Fr. Martin Pable, OFMCap, is a Capuchin friar residing in Appleton, WI. He has a doctorate in Counseling Psychology and has written ten books, the latest being Great Men of the Bible: A Guide for Guys.

The Day Is Now Far Spent – Cardinal Sarah

Sarah, Cardinal Robert. The Day Is Now Far Spent. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. 349 pages.
Review by K.E. Colombini.

In 2016, Robert Cardinal Sarah published The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. In a noisy age and a very noisy political year, it was a beautiful reflection, and its power remains today. Just as Ecclesiastes tells us that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven . . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak,” so too has Cardinal Sarah realized it is time for silence to end, and states this at the beginning.

In my last book, I invited you to silence. However, I can no longer be silent. I must no longer remain silent. Christians are disoriented. Every day from all sides, I receive calls for help from those who no longer know what to believe. Every day I meet in Rome with priests who are discouraged and wounded. The Church is experiencing the dark knight of the soul. The mystery of iniquity is enveloping and blinding her.

While one can reflect this is quite a way to start a book, and wonder how much a difference three years makes, just consider: For Cardinal Sarah, this is last year’s book, about last year’s controversy. In today’s headlines, the focus is more on his follow-up effort with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church. For priests, one of the primary audiences of this particular website, Cardinal Sarah has much to say in his books, including the one we are reviewing here. And it all comes down to one key point, the importance of personal sanctity in the sacerdotal life.

Just as The Power of Silence stressed the importance of personal silence for listening for the will of God, a will that so often comes in a whisper (when we’re lucky enough), Cardinal Sarah moves from there into what sets priests apart from others, their complete dedication to their bride, the Church, and to their life as an alter Christus. It is impossible for this reason, he argues, to talk about a non-celibate priesthood, and Sarah clearly agrees with Pope St. John XXIII that celibacy is “one of the noblest and purest glories” of the priesthood. The minute the discussion moves away from that, the fundamental essence of the ordained shifts toward something else.

Even today in Catholic media, there has been the call not just for a non-celibate priesthood or for women priests, but to make the priesthood a temporary, limited-term assignment for men and women, removing the distinction between the lay and clerical state. After all, they argue, using an analogy that does not hold, even Pope Benedict XVI did not see the papacy as a job until death. Cardinal Sarah would argue, rightly, that that is a total obliteration of what the Catholic priesthood is all about. “We have forgotten to let ourselves be immersed in Christ,” he writes. Priests are “the incessant reminder that God breaks in at the heart of the world.” The truly holy life of sacrifice the priestly vocation calls for cannot come to full power, cannot fully flower, without the permanent ontological change that comes at ordination. Put another way, today the priesthood is split into “secular” and “religious” branches. When priests become too secular, they fall into the trap of the world. As much as possible, they need to regain their true vocation to stand apart.

In the course of these books, Cardinal Sarah points the way. There is a time for silence and prayer and meditation, and there is a time for action. A time to lead the way. If it is true that “the day is now far spent,” now is the time for priests to arise from their reverie, and for the laity to pray for them, thank them, support them, encourage them — and, yes, to awaken them to be, as he puts it, men “radically dedicated to God!” There’s precious little time left.

Ken Colombini is a Catholic writer in St. Louis, MO. He also has written for First Things and other publications.

A Time to Die – Nicolas Diat

Diat, Nicolas. A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2019. 174 pages.
Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

Written in the vein of ars moriendi (“the art of dying”) literature, French journalist Nicolas Diat confronts the taboo topic of human degeneration and shatters the denial of human finitude that characterizes swaths of present-day society. The author shares simple stories of how monks at the brink of death prepare for the final act of earthly existence — namely, the passage from earthly life to eternal life. The sequestering of aging people in nursing homes, the medicalization of the dying process, and the geographic dispersion of families that prevents kin from accompanying their dying relatives — among other factors — have made death a foreign and feared topic, even though it is a common denominator among all human persons. These simple yet moving stories about the rhythm of life and reactions to death help rehumanize death, which is veritably an entrance into new life.

Against the backdrop of the post-industrial, efficiency-obsessed West, monastic communities have been able to preserve and cultivate more humane sensibilities toward human mortality. Indeed, it is said by some that the whole of monastic life is a meditatio mortis (“contemplation of death”) (40). “The monks are preparing all their lives to meet God” (75). It is fitting, therefore, to look to communities of monks as experts on and models of living and dying well. The author weaves together anecdotes containing golden nuggets of wisdom about the last things from a diverse array of abbeys in France — namely, the Benedictines of En-Calcat, Solesmes, and Fontgombault, the Trappists of Sept-Fons, the Cistercians of Cîteaux, the Augustinian Canons of Lagrasse, the Premonstratensians (Norbertines) of Mondaye, and the Carthusians of the Grande Chartreuse. Readers are reminded that life is not a farce that ends in a dark hole in the ground. On the contrary, “our existence must be a novitiate for eternity” (71). The whole of life is like a dress rehearsal for the afterlife. As Dom Olivier explains, “Little deaths of the ego are the big deaths, and they allow for a good death” (104).

This book does not endeavor to theologize about death or even to provide a full-fledged spirituality of death. This work, rather, is a collection of real stories that strike the reader as unparalleled in genuineness and authenticity. These humble stories have a certain nobility, which salubriously shapes the Christian imagination. The reader feels as if he or she has been invited into the family and told of both edifying and challenging realities. The reader learns of monks who departed in sleep “like a feather falling to the ground without making a sound” or after receiving Holy Communion at Mass to monks who suffered considerably at the end of their lifespan. Their suffering, however, is not purposeless or meaningless. “The suffering body itself becomes a prayer” (30) because “prayer is a surrender into the hands of God” (130). There is consolation in the recollection that “Christ himself did not die in tranquility” (109). “On the contrary, the Lord died in agony” (109). Knowing that countless others have faced a wide array of unique circumstances and have managed to be united to God, the reader finishes the book with less anxiety about death. The book’s overarching theme is that “death is the time of the realization of the promises of faith” (93).

Originally written in the French language for an audience in France, the book appears to be a retort or at least a partial response to the 2016 Claeys-Leonetti law that introduced a legal right to “deep and continuous sedation.” Some of the stories that accentuate a desire for consciousness at death or eschew medical hyperinterventionism make more sense in light of these French cultural and legal debates. A footnote on page 129 outlining the new law and the questions it raises would have been a helpful addition for Anglophone readers. Second, the work focuses solely on male monastics (understandably, given that the male author relied on personal visits and stays at male monasteries). A future work could explore nuns’ stories and spiritualities of death in female monasteries.

In conclusion, this work casts attention on a sorely neglected topic — namely, mindfulness of human mortality and what it means for human morality. It is recommended in particular for reading during Lent, a season whose unofficial motto is memento mori (“remember death”). Death need not be a jarring occurrence because individuals have their whole lives to prepare to meet God. As Dom Forgeot observes, “The stronger the supernatural life, the greater the familiarity with the afterlife, and the simpler the death” (131).

Christopher Siuzdak is a canonist in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Portland.

Western Culture Today and Tomorrow – Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

Ratzinger, Joseph/Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Western Culture Today and Tomorrow: Addressing the Fundamental Issues. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. 170 pages.
Reviewed by Msgr. Richard Antall.

Anyone who has formed an impression of Pope Benedict XVI from the Netflix fantasy flick Two Popes should read the latest edition of the collection of essays by Cardinal Ratzinger dealing with the fundamental issues of geopolitics from the perspective of Christian faith. The depth of thought, the breadth of culture, the warmth of a Christian humanism grounded in the gospels and the courage to tell the truth that Cardinal Ratzinger exhibited in his essays about the future of Europe, morality and politics and the great cultural challenges of the twentieth century will do away with the movie cliché of the poor old conservative pope in need of enlightenment by a charismatic newcomer whose ideas sometime sound more like gestures that would provoke buzz around the punch bowls at Hollywood receptions.

A more interesting movie would be about the real interactions between two popes, a Pole and a German which helped shape the intellectual history of the Church in our time. The one a natural leader, a commander expansive in grasp of people and situations, a universal intellect wed to a man of action and the other a visionary. The dialectical quality of their gifts made for a unique kind of synergy when they worked together. That one would succeed the other seems now inevitable but did not seem so before Benedict’s election.

The contrasts between St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were intellectually, cultural, psychologically more dramatic but would require a modern Shakespeare to capture. Instead we got a formula piece about contrasting styles. It did not pretend to deal with some of the tension of two ministries so distinct because one man sublimated his personality to ideas and pastoral exigencies and another uses his personality as a crucial part of his pastoral strategy. Only after Benedict “retired” from the Petrine ministry did he acknowledge that there was prejudice against his books in German seminaries. His books!

This book, all but an epilogue concerning the priest sexual abuse crisis, was originally published in Italian in 2004. It is a collection of various types of discourse, from the scholarly to the homiletic, but all the writing carefully demonstrates both a profound sense of history and an awareness of intellectual currents and thinkers. Of course, such a description will ensure that few people will buy or read the book. Saul Bellow, the Nobel Laureate in Literature was once told that many contemporary readers could not understand his cultural nuances and he said something to the effect that, “And no doubt fewer and fewer will be able to do so.” I am afraid of the same thing about these brilliant essays. Few priests that I know would be likely to take up this book and that is nothing less than tragic, because the teaching here will fill the gaps in the weak historical and philosophical formation that has become, in my view (limited as it may be), characteristic of American seminaries (at least those I know of, dedicated to the formation of Diocesan clergy).

For a priest up to the challenge, I would recommend beginning with the third section of the book, which includes four talks given by then Cardinal Ratzinger on the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy in the Second World War. “In Search of Peace” is a talk Ratzinger gave in Caen, France. The German deserter, reflecting on what is regarded as the turning point of the war, says that the Normandy Invasion was a sign of hope even for “many, many” of his own people. He summarizes the Nazi nightmare thus: “A criminal and his fellow Party members had managed to seize power in Germany. And once the Party was in power, law and injustice became intertwined, one often being inextricably confused with the other.”

What follows on this reflection is an argument about how a society that denies truth can never expect to live in peace. God is Eternal Reason and Love. “Faith in the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and in his suffering and death for mankind, is the supreme expression of a conviction that the heart of all morality, the heart of Being itself and its deepest principle, is love.” Reversing the proverb, such words are worth a thousand photo ops. This is how Benedict teaches.

At the Cathedral of Bayeux on the same trip, the cardinal preached on Trinity Sunday, June 6, 2004, a homily entitled “Faith in the Triune God and Peace in the World”. He spoke of the mystery of the Triune God and the rebellion against Him in the modern mind. “Man does not feel free, he does not feel that he is truly himself, until God is set aside.” This so-called liberation is really a despairing servitude. God “is the fundamental requirement of our very being” it is He “who makes us live.” The clarity makes this other than a mystical statement but it resonates with a union with the divine that mysticism appeals to.

“The Responsibility of Christians for Peace” is a reflection given at an ecumenical gathering the same day. Ratzinger called for “reconciliation, peace and responsibility.” In the space of a few pages, he sketches a profound theological support especially about what Christians must do. Our hope of heaven, our belief that the world belongs to God, “not to the Evil One, however much territory the latter might acquire,” and our Christian ethos, our sense of right and wrong. There is no magical formula about that. “God sustains the world, but He does this essentially by means of our freedom; this should be freedom to do good, which is capable of opposing freedom to do evil.”

At the cemetery for German soldiers, the man who had been recruited for the Wehrmacht as the Nazi tyranny collapsed in Europe spoke about those of his nation who had died at Normandy and after. He opened very simply, “This is the moment to get down on our knees with utmost respect for those who died in World War II.” That reverence, especially because “their idealism, their enthusiasm, and their loyalty to the State were exploited by an unjust regime.” There is so much humanity in this terse reflection, enlightened by historical experience and by profound Faith, that it gives the lie to so many caricatures about Pope Benedict and is a useful model for any preacher.

The first two sections of the book are deep philosophical-theological essays about the future of Europe understood culturally and about politics understood in terms of what it is truly meant to do. Both of them could be syllabi for seminary courses. There is a depth of thinking in them that begs for study. “Europe” as a civilization began in the Mediterranean basin and fused together what symbolic shorthand would call Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome.

Hilaire Belloc wrote eloquently fierce books about the vicissitudes of the civilization called European or Western (“The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith”), Ratzinger, in a much less rhetorical fashion, in dialog with thinkers like Spengler and Toynbee, delineates the present crisis in terms of the original Roman Catholic civilization, split into a North-South antagonism by the Reformation and the Byzantine or Orthodox pole of European self-understanding, all three wounded by the secularism and skepticism of the Enlightenment.

In “Political Visions and the Praxis of Politics,” Ratzinger identified the modern “mythology” about concepts like “Progress,” “Science,” and “Freedom.” He said the situation demands a “de-mythologizing” of various ideologies “to restore reason to its proper place and function.” There is a “crisis” of political reasoning behind the “crisis” of politics. A false consensus about the triad of “peace, justice and respect for the environment” results because its content is “completely indeterminate.” The words mean different things to different people. In the face of some accepted modern values, like opposition to racism, equality of the sexes, freedom of thought and freedom of religion, the cardinal spoke of three exceptions to a general agreement on values, “the right to life for every human being, the inviolability of human life at every stage,” the “gray area” of the failure to respect “what is sacred to others,” and the fundamental values of marriage and family.

The essays recall the theme of an encyclical of St. John Paul II on which Cardinal Ratzinger is said to have collaborated exceptionally, “Fides et Ratio.” Pope Benedict was and is a vox clamantis in deserto, crying for rationality to be combined to Faith. He is unique in speaking of the complementary dangers of the “pathologies of religion” and the “pathologies of reason.” This book is not for once over lightly reading but for study, but will repay the time and effort. Sometimes we priests read books that distract us or confirm us in our ideas. This one is about stretching horizons and gaining new perspective.

The epilogue of the book deals with the pope emeritus’s reactions to the news reports of the priest abuse scandal. What he says there is worth the price of the book because he is the only commentator I’ve seen who tries to put the problem in context of the broad culture and its misunderstanding of sexuality, the culture Cardinal Francis George described as permitting everything and forgiving nothing. His ideas deserve much more attention than they got, starting with the fact that it was only published in a German Catholic newspaper although he had sent it to Pope Francis as a resource for his meeting with the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the world. I have a concern about one of his ideas that Archbishop Sciacca has pointed out. I think that his perspective on how preoccupation on the rights of the accused priests, which he called a species of “garantismo,” is different from mine because I have seen priests suffering from false accusations and the often pseudo-psychological analysis of the review boards in various places. But the essay “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” merits much more than mention in a review.

Msgr. Richard Antall is the Pastor of Holy Name Parish in Cleveland, Ohio and has published widely in Catholic magazines, as well as three books with Our Sunday Visitor and a new novel from the Lambing Press.

Living the Mystery of Marriage – Perry J. Cahall

Cahall, Perry J. Living the Mystery of Marriage: Building Your Sacramental Life Together. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, Hillenbrand Books, 2020. 158 pages.
Reviewed by Michael Brummond, STD.

For several years I have taught seminarians a class on the theology of marriage and the family using Perry Cahall’s text, The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament. Frequently, students have lamented the fact that no comparable book is available for engaged couples who would certainly benefit from a similar formation in the theology of marriage. With his new book Living the Mystery of Marriage, Cahall sets out to provide just that. Intended primarily for engaged and newly married couples, it is a unique and useful resource for marriage formation.

Throughout the book, Cahall proposes a particular vision of marriage, one rooted in theological anthropology and in the sacramental character of marriage. “In particular,” Cahall tells the reader, “the goal of this book is to encourage you to understand the real nature and purpose of marriage as God has created it, not some counterfeit fairy tale version” (xv). The consequences of adopting this vision are then presented in terms of spirituality and morality as lived out in the context of marriage.

Cahall writes as a married man and father, and in fact says that he wrote the book as if he were speaking to his children about what was essential for them to know about marriage (ix). Additionally, he brings both academic expertise and pastoral experience to bear in this work. He is a professor of historical theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH, and has assisted in preparing couples for marriage in his parish and diocese for several years.

The author begins by discussing the nature of the mystery of marriage, designed by the Creator. A biblical foundation leads into a sacramental vision of marriage as a sign of God’s free, faithful, permanent, and fruitful covenant love. This understanding of marriage includes a vision of the human person. Cahall lays out fundamental notions of the anthropology of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body such as the human person as gift, the spousal meaning of the body, and the language of the body. Indeed, one unique contribution and a great strength of Cahall’s approach is how thoroughly permeated the work is by a compelling Christian anthropology, an area either sorely missing or gravely distorted in so many contemporary discussions about marriage and sexuality.

Following this exploration into the meaning and purpose of marriage, Cahall includes a chapter on discerning the call to marriage. After discussing marriage as a vocation to holiness, the book provides pointed and practical questions to aid in discerning the vocation to marriage in general as well as in reference to a particular person. This chapter alone makes the book a worthy addition to any marriage formation process, reiterating to the readers yet again a unique vision of Christian marriage while asking them to consider their own relationship in light of that vision.

The next chapter focuses on married spirituality, which Cahall describes as a spirituality of tenderness, exploring the themes of reverencing, sacrificing, suffering, and repairing. This section of the book could well serve not just engaged couples or newlyweds, but all married couples who could benefit from periodically examining how effectively their married life is serving to conform them to Christ. The chapter includes a clear call for couples to encounter the source of their covenantal love in the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation.

Cahall then turns to issues of morality in living out the mystery of marriage. He begins by explaining four principles of sexual morality: we are not our own; sex is about a union of persons, not merely bodies; sex is about giving and receiving, not taking; and sex is meant to give and receive life and love. Again, the chapter is permeated by an authentic anthropology that convincingly grounds what might appear to be otherwise arbitrary commands. In this context, Cahall briefly but directly tackles most issues of Catholic sexual morality. A whole chapter is devoted to the issue of contraception and natural family planning under the heading of responsible parenthood.

Finally, the book concludes on an eschatological note with a chapter on the meaning of marriage and the human person’s ultimate destiny through an examination of the complementary call to celibacy. Cahall highlights what married couples and committed celibates can teach one another, while pointing to the marriage of Mary and Joseph as a model of self-giving, spousal love.

Two further strengths of the book are worth noting. First, each major section of the book concludes with “self-discovery” questions. These well-crafted, open-ended questions could prompt both personal reflection as well as provide the basis for discussion between the couple. They also serve both as a check for understanding of the content of the section, and as a helpful step toward applying the proposed vision in their own relationship. Second, Cahall sprinkles his text with quotes from the Order of Celebrating Matrimony. He shows couples that the vision he is proposing is the same as that contained within the very words of their marriage ceremony. Additionally, the text of the questions before consent and of the consent itself are given in an appendix. This focus on the Church’s lex orandi offers the couple the potential to experience their own wedding liturgy in a more profound way.

While the content of the book is superb, it risks being poorly received because of an issue of tone or presentation. The author regularly addresses the reader directly as “you.” When done too frequently or in contexts of challenging moral teachings, the resulting tone can sound off-putting and preachy. For instance, “you need to be willing to sacrifice your self-centeredness in order to focus on each other. You need to embrace a life of self-discipline and self-denial” (44). A revised edition would benefit from a more generalized address, or switching to the more inclusive “we.”

In any attempt to bridge the gap between academic theology and pastoral practice, an author is faced with the unenviable task of striking a balance between depth of content and popular accessibility. Should the author aim at the lowest common denominator of reader for the sake of reaching a broader audience, and thereby risk superficiality; or should the author presume more of the readers at the risk of unintelligibility? While Cahall says that he does not presume any background knowledge of the Catholic view of marriage (xv), I would argue that, those who would most benefit from this book are couples or individuals who already have some foundational grasp of salvation history and their place in it, and who desire or are open to further reflection on the place of Christ within their marriage. To use the terms of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, this book would best be used as a tool for those who have had the benefit of a robust remote preparation for marriage, as a stepping stone along the way of proximate and immediate preparation. It should not be taken, therefore, as a stand-alone resource, nor do I believe the author intends it to be so. It would be best used in conjunction with both a broader marriage preparation process and with mentor couples who are well-versed in the tradition standing behind what Cahall presents.

Despite these critiques, Living the Mystery of Marriage stands as a unique and much needed contribution to Catholic marriage formation resources. It achieves much in both its breadth and depth, as well as in presenting those aspects of a vision of marriage that cannot be readily found other than in the Catholic tradition.

Michael Brummond, STD, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Studies and the Director of the MA Program at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, WI.

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  1. Avatar Christopher Siuzdak says:

    For the benefit of readers, I note that the International Theological Commission (ITC) recently published a document on “The Reciprocity Between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy” (2020). The document explores “baptized non-believers” in relation to marriage. The document emerged after I typed and submitted the above review of Catholic Marriage: A Liturgical and Pastoral Commentary. Studious persons interested in further exploring this complex topic can access the thoughts of the ITC at the following link: