Book Reviews — September 2020

U.S.-Vatican Relations, 1975-1980: A Diplomatic Study. By P. Peter Sarros. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

A Man, a Mission, a Miracle: Brother James Gaffney, F.S.C., and the Transformation of Lewis University. By Andrew C. Langert. Reviewed by Fr. Michael Monshau, O.P. (skip to review)

Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton. By Dale Ahlquist. Reviewed by Fr. John P. Cush. (skip to review)

Mercy and the Bible: Why It Matters. By Ronald D. Witherup, PSS. Reviewed by Fr. John P. Cush. (skip to review)

When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. By John W. O’Malley. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church. By Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

The Challenges of Christian Community: Loving, Correcting, Forgiving, and Searching for the Lost. By Carlo Cardinal Martini, SJ. Reviewed by Liam A. Farrer. (skip to review)


U.S.-Vatican Relations, 1975-1980: A Diplomatic Study – P. Peter Sarros

Sarros, P. Peter. U.S.-Vatican Relations, 1975-1980: A Diplomatic Study. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020. 425 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

Fittingly published near the thirty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between the United States and the Holy See, this diplomatic memoir chronicles the largely successful period of activity by special envoys “to enlist the power of the pope and Vatican diplomacy in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives” in the years preceding the upgrade to full and reciprocal diplomatic relations (ix). The enthralling firsthand accounts shared by the author, a retired senior foreign service officer who served as chargé and ambassador of the presidential mission to the Holy See, offer a front-row seat to several global events of enduring significance.

The first chapter surveys the history of U.S.-Vatican relations and traces the transformation of that relationship from one of so-called benign neglect to greater collaboration. The year 1978, which included preparations for American delegations of dignitaries to participate in the funeral of Pope Paul VI, the inauguration of the newly-elected Pope John Paul I, the funeral of John Paul I, and the inauguration of the newly-elected Pope John Paul II, marked a dramatic increase in the outpost’s activities and public profile (11). The second chapter recounts the role of the United States in persuading the Holy See to formally mediate the heated dispute between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Channel. Papal mediation, which resulted in the 1984 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Argentina and Chile, prevented the outbreak of war and led to a cessation of hostilities.

The third chapter describes the mission’s consultations and reporting on “the rise and demise of communism in Italy” (53) and the depoliticized role of the papacy in Italian politics (73). As the author relates, “Two top U.S. foreign policy objectives were to prevent the advance of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) into the Italian government and to impede Eurocommunism from infecting any member of the NATO alliance” (53). Sarros affirms that the Vatican served as an eminently valuable listening post that supplemented and broadened the stock of information available to U.S. officials (74). Chapter four recapitulates Vatican Ostpolitik — “the papacy’s diplomacy for negotiating a rapprochement with Eastern European regimes” (76). Sarros argues that Vatican Ostpolitik was “brilliantly conceived and carefully pursued” (99). It ultimately “strengthened the Vatican’s ability to coax the Communist governments to allow greater exercise of the religious mission of the Catholic Church” (97).

Chapter five examines the Holy See’s strategies during the Helsinki process and high-level consultations that were intended to persuade the Vatican into evolving its position. Chapter six treats the papacy’s position on the neutron bomb and NATO theater nuclear force (TNF) modernization. “The Soviets wanted papal support in stopping both initiatives, while the United States and its allies wished to obtain the pope’s neutrality on the first issue and support on the second issue” (122). The author concludes that the Holy See acted with perspicacity and prudence in advocating for peace (135). Chapter seven describes the multiple rounds of consultation regarding the return of the historic Crown of Saint Stephen to Hungary from Fort Knox in the United States.

Chapter eight deals with consultations during “the civil war in Lebanon and the initial Syrian intervention in 1975-76” and “the resumption of the civil war in early 1978” (158-159). “The consultations were designed to coordinate parallel actions by the United States and the Vatican to mitigate the conflict and to preserve the territorial integrity and national independence of Lebanon” (159). Chapter nine chronicles U.S. consultations at the Holy See on the Camp David Accords of 1978, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, and the status of Jerusalem (183). Chapter ten describes the role of Catholic hierarchs in attempting to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980. Although unsuccessful in bringing an end to the crisis, several ecclesiastics achieved a number of positive results. For example, the papal nuncio to Iran, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, was among the first to visit the hostages, reported on their condition, secured permission for consecutive visits, delivered mail to the hostages from their families, tended to their spiritual needs, and arranged for the recovery of the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in the aborted rescue mission (225). While this crisis revealed the limits of papal diplomacy, it also proved that the Holy See can serve as a desperately needed bridge for humanitarian purposes. Chapter eleven reports on liberation theology in Latin America and the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador in 1979 and 1980.

In sum, this diplomatic memoir documents the strenuous efforts of Vatican and American diplomats to promote reconciliation between peoples and secure a more peaceful world. It is a riveting read for students, scholars, and other followers of political science, international affairs, and ecclesiastical history.

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


A Man, a Mission, a Miracle: Brother James Gaffney, F.S.C., and the Transformation of Lewis University – Andrew C. Langert

Andrew C. Langert. A Man, a Mission, a Miracle: Brother James Gaffney, F.S.C., and the Transformation of Lewis University. Chicago: Eckhartz Press, 2019. xiii + 281 pps. Soft, $20.00.

Reviewed by Fr. Michael Monshau, O.P.

The Catholic School. Recorded history, the dramatic arts, fiction and non-fiction literature, and the folk memory of generations of American Catholics, have appropriately accorded the Catholic school system pride of place in the historical account of Catholicism in this country. Whereas the selfless dedication of the teaching Sisters in the nation’s parochial schools has been correctly accorded precedence within that narrative, there is an equally important chapter parallel to the Sisters’ account that often remains unwritten: that of the teaching Brother. The Brothers were fewer in number than the Sisters and so typically were less well-known, but church history remains woefully incomplete as long as the Brothers’ story remains insufficiently reported. Fortunately, in A Man, a Mission, a Miracle: Brother James Gaffney, F.S.C., and the Transformation of Lewis University, Andrew C. Langert recounts the story of one remarkable teaching Brother whose life and mission span from his pre-Vatican II Catholic boyhood and religious formation through the present time. Although conspicuously effective in his endeavors and running far in advance of any cohort that would recognize him as one of its own, his story also serves as a representative chronicle of the teaching Brother in the Church. In effect, Brother James is “Everybrother,” and in that, his story deserves promotion on a wide scale.

James Gaffney was born into a Catholic family of “the upper lower-income class,” as he describes it, on Chicago’s west side in 1942. His Catholic education would occur in the late 1940s and throughout the fifties, before the pope who summoned Vatican Council II was elected to office. Accordingly, his recollections of those years, of his interactions with the school Sisters and the Christian Brothers who were his teachers and of the family and neighborhood of his youth expose the reader to primary sources of information about the urban Catholic experience in place before the sweeping cultural revamping of the 1960s. His religious formation as a Christian Brother would unfold during the course of the Council itself so that almost immediately upon the commencement of his teaching career, the consequences of Vatican II began to reveal themselves in the sweeping adjustments they represented for Catholic education, the religious life and Catholic practice.

Brother James’ memories of this period, along with information gathered from collaborating sources, construct an engaging report of this fascinating time in history. Further, the majority of his career in Catholic education occurred during a period of dramatic and unpredictable diminishment for much of the institutional life of the Catholic Church. Brother James reached retirement in 2016, having raised a mediocre midwestern college to the status of an outstanding university during a time when mere survival proved to be beyond the reach for many comparable institutions. Brother James’ story delivers insight, and in many cases first-person reporting, about this era of remarkable and rapid change.

Teaching Brothers arrived in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century with St. John Baptist De La Salle’s Christian Brothers, the oldest and the largest Brothers’ Congregation in the world, usually setting the standard. Religious Brothers served in many various ministries in the Church, but those with whom most Catholics were familiar were the school Brothers, that multi-talented, highly educated corps of non-ordained consecrated Religious men who founded, staffed and maintained a meaningful portion of the Church’s educational institutions, ranging from elementary to graduate and professional schools.

For various sociological and religious reasons whose examination is not pertinent here, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of women and men who have chosen the religious life since the 1960s when Brother James Gaffney was an aspiring candidate for the Order. The number of religious Brothers has been radically reduced since the 1960s. By way of example, today there are approximately 4,000 Lasallian Christian Brothers throughout the world, 75% less than half a century ago. Those who remain in the Church’s numerous brotherhoods comprise strong, hope-filled associations of dedicated church men who have typically articulated anew their sense of mission by assiduous study of the values of their various founders and then placing those values in dialogue with the current needs of church and society. In that dynamic, among religious Brothers, the Christian Brothers have consistently occupied a position of numerical advantage and dynamic leadership. While not spared the diminishment that has touched practically every quarter of institutional contemporary religious experience, the Lasallian Brothers have emerged from the confusion of the past fifty years having repurposed their original vision so that they remain leaders in Christian education. When Brother James Gaffney is considered in this context, he assumes a prophetic role within this leadership group. The particular focus of this book is the four decades of service and twenty-eight years of inspired presidential leadership that Brother James gave to Lewis University in suburban Chicagoland.

Many Catholic universities came into existence as non-accredited teacher training programs for the young members of their sponsoring religious communities transitioned into degree-granting university level institutions. The odyssey of Lewis University is far more complex. Lewis was founded as Holy Name Technical High School in1932 under the care of the Archdiocese of Chicago rather than under the customary sponsorship of a religious community that usually promised a school some degree of support and stability. Chicago philanthropist Frank J. Lewis took an early interest in the school, so that by 1934 it had been renamed Lewis Holy Name Technical School, reflecting Mr. Lewis’ generous benefactions. Because the technical character of the institution caused it to include aviation technology in its curriculum, post-high school courses were gradually introduced, so that by 1952 it was renamed Lewis College of Science and Technology.

Not only did the various name changes reflect efforts to stabilize a destabilized school, but in the meantime the institution had already weathered the storm of the quick arrival and even quicker departure of one religious community that tried to sponsor it, while finding itself outside the jurisdiction of its original sponsoring archdiocese when the Diocese of Joliet was formed and Lewis was included in the area transferred to the new diocese. It was one unfortunate transition after another for Lewis until the bishop of Joliet invited the Lasallian Christian Brothers to assume responsibility for Lewis College in 1960. The Brothers augmented the lay faculty they found upon their arrival with a solid corps of Brothers who were master teachers and experts in educational leadership. An inspired English professor, Brother Paul French, F.S.C., held the presidency from 1967 to 1971, at which time Lewis was involved in an attempted merger with the neighboring College of St. Francis; this plan never materialized.

It is at this point that Lewis’ story reveals the intense drama that many small private colleges (particularly many Catholic ones) had to endure. Like many peer institutions, Lewis’ sponsoring religious community was anxious that Lewis find its way to financial independence. Money was scarce. At that time, a number of Christian Brothers withdrew from the religious life causing an unprecedented and unpredictable drop in the number of teaching Brothers available for Lewis’ classrooms; most Catholic colleges faced the same situation.

Perhaps what caused Lewis to suffer more intensely at this time was that the stabilizing presence of the Christian Brothers was so new at the time and its various changes in nomenclature so numerous and recent that Lewis had very little collateral stability to weather it through the storm. As the Brothers were beginning to be heard saying, “Many of us responded to a vocational call to working with students; most of us are disinclined to seek administrative positions in higher education,” Lewis followed the trend, becoming popular at the time of appointing first one and then another lay president. Lay CEOs of Catholic institutions are hugely successful today, but Lewis had inadequate stability and the Brothers were yet too inexperienced in knowing how to draw lay colleagues into the Lasallian charism sufficiently to lead with confidence, and the university suffered; it even looked unkempt. Its reputation plummeted.

Whereas it finally seized upon the fitting new name, Lewis University, in 1973, Lewis’ problems would continue to deepen in many respects. At this point, many peer institutions ceased operations. Lewis did not, partly because of the membership on its board of a promising young Christian Brother who was at the time engaged in doctoral studies while also serving as the formation director for the young Christian Brothers of his Province, a role in which he was beloved. This man was visionary and incredibly well-organized, and he enjoyed the trust and esteem of the rest of the Brothers. His name was Brother James Gaffney.

As a matter of fact, much of Brother James’ positive influence over Lewis first occurred when he served on its board, then later, while Provincial Superior of the Brothers, as the Chairman of the Board at Lewis. As provincial, he was always highly committed to Lewis, and when his terms as provincial had run their course by 1988, he become its president, a position he retained until his retirement in 2016.

Brother James is not a sentimental person, and accordingly, this book is not a literary pep rally in his honor written by his friends. The author may indeed be his friend, but the content records for history the remarkable story of how one vital Teaching Brother, upon assuming the leadership of a frail Catholic institution during a period when Catholic institutions were negotiating one of their greatest periods of instability in church history, turned that institution into a badge of pride for the Church, for Catholic education, for higher education and for the international Lasallian world.

History is often conveyed through the lives of individual persons. Several of Catholicism’s outstanding leaders are remembered today because their stories do not simply acquaint readers with their own lives, but the narratives of their lives shed rare light on their milieu. This catalogue must necessarily include such persons as the great Sister Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., poet, author, innovator of women’s access to the graduate theological study and President of Saint Mary’s College at Notre Dame, Indiana, from 1934-61; Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara, bishop of Kansas City, Missouri, founder and director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and one-time Chair of Industrial Welfare Commission; and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, candidate for canonization, who harnessed the television waves for evangelization. Brother James Gaffney’s life story ranks among these, for while his accomplishments were herculean, their chronicle even more significantly makes accessible an insightful description of the important role the Teaching Brother rightfully occupies in church history.

This is Andrew Langert’s first book. He attempted to reach many readerships and to accomplish many tasks in this volume. It is indeed a history, a tribute, a public relations project for his alma mater, perhaps even a fund-raising effort. It is remarkable that he attempted and succeeded in this multi-missioned opus. Undoubtedly, various of Lewis University’s public relations projects will be enhanced; rightful tribute will be paid to Brother James Gaffney, perhaps even extending his gracious influence even further. The story of the Christian Brothers, who have been educating youth, especially the poor for more than three centuries, will enjoy another telling.

However, addressing this wide target also involves a liability for the book. This volume, containing quotations and remarks from many of the people involved in its various narratives, actually stands as a primary historical source. It will be a valuable record of religious life, Catholic education, the Lasallian Christian Brothers, Lewis University and of the life of its subject, but in doing so, by failing to include the recognizable tools of the historian (i.e. indexes, bibliographies and appropriate footnotes), it will disappoint historians whose mission is academic. Of course, that was probably not the author’s intent, and even with that shortcoming noted, anyone interested in understanding better the role of the teaching Brother in American society or in exploring the transition in Catholic society, religious life, Catholic schools, higher education and the Lasallian world that occurred from the middle of the twentieth century to the present will want to include A Man, a Mission, a Miracle: Brother James Gaffney, F.S.C., and the Transformation of Lewis University, by Andrew C. Langert, in their library. I recommend it highly.

Father Michael Monshau, O.P., S.T.L., Ph.D., formerly of the faculty of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (the “Angelicum”) in Rome, is a professor of homiletics and spiritual theology as well as a formation director at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton – Dale Ahlquist

Ahlquist, Dale. Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton. San Francisco: Ignatius Press/Greenwood Village, CO: Augustine Institute, 2018. [ISBN 978-0-9993756-4-8]

Reviewed by Fr. John P. Cush

The president of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, in the introduction to his new work, Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton, writes:

Here is the wise man described by Sirach, the man who is happy because he meditates on wisdom and makes it his dwelling and then welcomes us in. Chesterton never used his gigantic intellect to crush others or even to take advantage of them, but only to serve something larger than his own large self. Most of his opponents recognized this, which is why they loved him even if they did not agree with him. Most of his friends came to take it for granted, which is why they were able to work alongside him without being over-awed by him. But the average person who encountered him were simply astonished by him. They found him as dazzling as a fireworks show. His fame was widespread. His literary and intellectual achievements were praised across the globe. At the same time, the world did not quite know what to do with him. He did not fit into any of their categories. (x-xi)

For many of us who have become familiar with G.K. Chesterton, we, like the average person described by Ahlquist in the paragraph cited above, are “simply astonished by him.” Chesterton is among the most quoted Catholic writers in the world. My own introduction to Chesterton was as a boy in grade school, when I found a copy of The Innocence of Father Brown in a used bookstore across the street from my parochial school. As a seminarian, I was enthralled with his novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (by the way, I still am). Currently, in my Introduction to Theology seminar that I offer to first-year seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome for the Gregorian University, I have begun to assign Chesterton’s books Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Yet, when I was asked by my students to give some basic facts about Chesterton’s life, I realized that I was at a loss. Ahlquist’s Knight of the Holy Ghost has helped me to “fill in the gaps.” He offers an entertaining, accessible, and, ultimately, spiritually enriching introduction to the life and legacy of one of the most important apologists of the 20th century.

Ahlquist divides his text into three parts in his attempt to offer a full picture of G.K. Chesterton: “The Man,” “The Writer,” and “The Saint.” Each of these sections flow seamlessly into the next and help to make this book into a helpful introduction to a man whom Ahlquist describes as a “friend.”(xiv)

Section one, “The Man,” is a delightful examination of who Chesterton was as a human being. One could opine that Chesterton was a complex man, but this really doesn’t seem to be the case. Ahlquist paints a rich picture of a brilliant man in love with his life, his wife, and his faith. The great apologist, when asked why he became a Catholic, simply responded: “To get rid of my sins.” (8) Chesterton enjoyed life. He loved a drink and opined: “Let a man walk ten miles steadily on a hot summer’s day along a dusty English road, and he will soon discover why beer was invented.” (9) He was a man who enjoyed a good smoke: “Some men write with a pencil, others with a typewriter. I write with a cigar.” (10)

Ahlquist allows his reader to clearly see the natural virtues that Chesterton so clearly lived in his life. And yet, in this section, the author does not shy away from accusations that have been leveled against Chesterton over the years, namely his purity (11-12) and, perhaps more importantly, his alleged antisemitism (13-14) and his alleged racism (15-18). In a particularly well-written section, Ahlquist describes the greatest temptation in Chesterton’s early life, namely, a flirtation with the occult and darkness, with what is described as “the ultimate act of selfishness…[S]uicide.” (21) He writes:

Chesterton would go on to write about suicide in a manner that some have criticized as being callous and unsympathetic to those who suffer from depression. But he was anything but unsympathetic. He went through that kind of depression himself, but he would not refrain from condemning a terrible act, whatever its pitiable motivation. And he had to condemn categorically the person he was and what he almost did.

The thing that saved him was “clinging to one thin thread of thanks.” Thankfulness is the antithesis of selfishness. It was just enough to pull him out of the pit. He would never return to that place. (21)

In section two, “The Writer,” Ahlquist examines what he considers as Chesterton’s five most important works: Orthodoxy, What’s Wrong with the World, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, and The Everlasting Man. He proves to his reader that Chesterton is not only a brilliant writer, but a man who borders on the mystical. Ahlquist further offers an overview of Chesterton’s poetry and his journalism. Of particular interest to me was Chesterton’s prescient awareness of the dangers of technology (133-134):

Even if I did not dislike Birth-Control, I should dislike the propaganda of Birth-Control. It is not fighting out a fair battle on the high seas of the intellect; it is poisoning the wells of innocence and ignorance and simplicity. And it prevails, as all advertisement prevails, simply because there is money behind it. It is an unexpected complication in Capitalism. But the practical effect is that Liberty, Equality and Fraternity have come to mean Plutocracy, Publicity, and Pornography. (133)

Ahlquist beautifully presents Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries (133-147), viewing them through the lens of the mystery that is Christ’s incarnation.

In section three, “The Saint?” the author presents Chesterton as the model of lay spirituality. In a simple yet profound anecdote, Ahlquist quotes Chesterton’s maid upon the occasion of her employer’s death: “‘Oh Miss,’ she said, the tears in her eyes, ‘Oh Miss, our Mr. Chesterton dying — he was a sorter saint, Miss, wasn’t he? — just to look at him when you handed him his hat made you feel sorter awesome.’” (150)

Yes, Chesterton makes us feel “sorter awesome.” Ahlquist certainly does a good job in introducing us to his friend. Fr. Vincent McNabb writes of Chesterton: “It was hard to speak of Gilbert Chesterton and not to think — and think of God.” (169) Ahlquist’s Knight of the Holy Ghost offers the reader not only a beautiful introduction to the life and work of one of the world’s greatest writers but also encourages his reader to emulate his subject’s sanctity and wit.

Rev. John P. Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is the Academic Dean and a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. He holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. Fr. Cush also serves as an adjunct professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church History at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, both in Rome, Italy.


Mercy and the Bible: Why It Matters – Ronald D. Witherup, PSS

Witherup, Ronald D., PSS. Mercy and the Bible: Why It Matters. Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, 2018. [ISBN 978-0-8091-0651-6], $ 17.95.

Reviewed by Fr. John P. Cush

Fr. Ronald Witherup, PSS, is the superior general of the Society of the Priests of San Sulpice and a noted professor of Sacred Scripture in many seminaries throughout the United States. His text Mercy and the Bible: Why It Matters! derives from articles published by Fr. Witherup in The Pastoral Review during the Year of Mercy proclaimed by His Holiness, Pope Francis, in 2015-2016. Consisting of seven chapters, bringing the reader from the definition of mercy, through the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the epistles of Saint Paul, Fr. Witherup never fails to connect this theme of mercy to the life and the person of the Pontiff, Pope Francis. And, naturally enough, as a Sulpician, part of a community of priests dedicated to the formation of priests, Fr. Witherup often connects the concept of mercy to the life and ministry of priests.

In his introduction, Fr. Witherup offers the rationale for Pope Francis’ declaration of the Year of Mercy, placing it in the context of the many other special “years” proclaimed by recent popes. He also offers, in a clear, concise manner, three “assumptions” that one needs to have in order to understand his text. The first assumption is that “the Bible’s teachings remain perennially relevant to all the Christian faithful.” (xiv) The second is that “the teaching of Pope Francis on mercy remains relevant,” (xv) and the third and final assumption that Witherup wishes his readers to have is “that we live in a world sorely in need of the message of mercy.” (xv) And, in his introduction, in a passage that will excite some readers and cause others to want to disregard the book, Witherup states what I think might be the central question of this text:

Admittedly, exploring this project brought some trepidation. Many scholars talk about living in a postmodern, post-Christian world in which the Bible and Christian faith are considered irrelevant. Moreover, some speak of a “post-truth” society, one in which “alternative facts” and “fake news” win the day. It is a world where the message of power has seemingly swayed many people to look inward and search for self-protection. They yearn for a more rigid and controlled environment, where there is little left to chance, where lines are clearly drawn, where everything is black and white with no gray areas to cause confusion. In such a world, what role could mercy possibly play? Is mercy not merely a sign of weakness? A quality for “losers”? A leftover from a bygone era? (xv)

Chapter one, “The Language of Mercy,” demonstrates Fr. Witherup’s skill as a biblicist and as a teacher, clearly tracing the rich concept of mercy throughout Sacred Scripture, culminating in hesed, God’s steadfast love (5-6). The chapter continues with an examination of Pope Francis’ concept of mercy, describing it as having elements deriving from “the pope’s apparently preferred theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper.” (9) Witherup then takes the reader through what has become in many ways Pope Francis’ mission statement, 2013’s post-synodal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. He then offers a section of this chapter entitled: “Priests- Agents of God’s Mercy,” in which he describes some of the concrete ways the Pope has demonstrated that “the Church is a field hospital.”

This chapter offers an analysis of Francis’ 2016 post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, in a section entitled “Disquieting Reactions.” Witherup acknowledges that this small section of his book is not meant to “enter the intricacies of a doctrinal and moral debate on marriage and divorce,” but is a “focus on the question of how mercy impacts the day-to-day ministry of the Church.” (16-17). He uses this as an opportunity to demonstrate, in his opinion, that Pope Francis is not promoting “laxity” (17), and “has not proposed changing any doctrines.” (17). Witherup notes: ‘Moreover, he [Pope Francis] has explicitly upheld Church teachings on such hot-button items as abortion, traditional family structure, and restricting priestly ordination to men.” (17)

Chapter two, “Is God Really Merciful?” takes the reader through the Old Testament, examining the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the Prophets, leading to conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is a God who is full of mercy and love, not vengeance.

“Jesus, ‘The Face of The Father’s Mercy,” Witherup’s third chapter, is well written and will prove to offer homilists some helpful preaching points, culminating with a look at Pope Francis’ bull of induction for the Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus. Witherup notes: “When I was a boy, I regularly heard preached, ‘Condemn the sin but not the sinner.” He asks his reader to perform a self-examination to determine whether one is being righteous or self-righteous. (61).

Chapter four, “Luke, the Gospel of Mercy,” offers a more explicit examination by Fr. Witherup of the third Gospel, focusing especially on the rich parables in the Gospel of Luke, as well as Acts of the Apostles. No doubt some preachers will find some helpful insights to develop their own ideas in homilies when the Evangelist Luke is proclaimed in the lectionary cycle.

The fifth chapter, “Saint Paul and the Mercy of God,” offers a brief examination of the epistles of the Apostle to the Gentiles, focusing on Paul himself as the recipient of God’s mercy. Most readers will find chapter six, “Saint Paul Revisited: Misperceptions About Mercy,” to be most interesting and perhaps the most controversial chapter. In this chapter, Witherup tackles what he describes as “hot-button issues” such as “the roles of women or homosexuality.” (88) He opines:

The impetus for my concern is a lingering attitude in the popular mind that Paul had almost irredeemable negative attitudes towards women and homosexual persons. Others imply he was obsessed with sex or perhaps was sexually repressed. From an objective biblical perspective, I view such judgments as anachronistic and lacking nuance. Moreover, I think there is an underlying crypto-fundamentalist attitude that wants to see every modern trend or tendency justified somehow in the Bible. It seems to be a way to rationalize our modern preoccupations. Our modern cultural context, especially in the West, is obsessed with issues of sexuality in a way that goes far beyond any New Testament document, let alone Paul’s letters. The fact is that there are only a few passages that address such topics. So we should not exaggerate Paul’s teachings on such delicate themes because of our modern issues. (89)

Witherup states that Paul is addressing specific concerns that the community to which is addressing have raised to him and thus, he is responding to specific “pastoral context.” (89) Paul, according to Fr. Witherup, a scripture scholar devoted to the historical-critical method, responds to these pastoral questions with the formation of a devote Jewish man of his era. According to Witherup, the Apostle could not even conceive of the issue of homosexual marriage.” (91). He states:

…we can only admit that such a modern scenario rooted in secular Western culture goes beyond anything the Bible could envision. This does not mean that contemporary Christians have nothing to say on the topic. Nor does it mean that we cannot glean some basic principles from the Bible to address such issues. (91)

For Witherup, Phoebe in Romans 16:1 is a “deacon,” possessing “some form of official ministry, although it is difficult to determine precisely what the exact duties of a deacon in those says were.” (92). As we know, this is still a highly debated passage, and, as was stated by the Commission on female diaconate convoked by Pope Francis, there is no official justification for an ordained female diaconate.

As for homosexuality, Fr. Witherup contends that the Apostle Paul “was hardly obsessed with the question.” (93). According to the author, “Paul simply viewed homosexual activity as sinful and a corruption of what God intended. As with his Jewish contemporaries, homosexual behavior was particularly associated with the Greco-Roman world. Jews generally considered it an aberration.” (93). For Witherup, the Apostle’s teaching on homosexuality must be viewed in the context of his day and age. He states: “But note well: there is no blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Paul knew nothing of sexual orientation. That is a modern concept. He could not distinguish identity or orientation from actions.” (94) Witherup emphasizes the fact that “all who are sinners, that is, all human beings, need the saving action of Jesus Christ.” (94)

Chapter eight, “Mercy in the Church and the Modern World,” places the concept of mercy in an ecclesial perspective, looking to the example of Pope Saint John XXIII, Pope Saint John Paul II, and others. Fr. Witherup goes into a section in chapter eight, “Mercy from an International Perspective,” on what he describes as “one of the thornier questions of the modern life that touches our theme of mercy, namely, an ecclesial perspective on the issue of war.” (114) He examines this question of peace through a biblical perspective.

Fr. Witherup’s book has much to recommend it. Fr. Witherup offers questions for reflections at the end of each chapter which some readers might find useful. As I have mentioned, no doubt homilists might find some of his illustrations and examples very helpful. The author exhibits an appreciation of Pope Francis’ and his re-emphasis on mercy in the Church and the world. Even in his described “thornier” issues like homosexuality and the just war, Witherup never offers any opinions which are contrary to the faith of the Church. However, as was stated above, his dependency on the historical-critical method and the contextualization of controversial biblical passages will, no doubt, not be viewed favorably by some readers.

Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as the academic dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. He is also an adjunct professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church History at both the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy.


When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II – John W. O’Malley

O’Malley, John. When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019. 223 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

The offspring of historical monographs treating, respectively, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), this latest work by Jesuit Father John O’Malley of Georgetown University offers a side-by-side analysis of “how the three councils relate or do not relate to one another, how certain basic issues recur and are handled in similar or different ways, and how some of those issues have been and will probably continue to be of concern” (211).

What do ecumenical councils do? Is Church teaching subject to change? Who is ultimately in charge? These are the overarching questions treated in the first part. At its core, an ecumenical council is “a meeting principally of bishops gathered in Christ’s name to made decisions binding on the church” (34). The Second Vatican Council represents a paradigm shift in conciliar history. The style and content of the conciliar constitutions, decrees, and declarations reveal that the Council Fathers gathered at Vatican II viewed their role less along the heretofore predominant lines of a legislative-judicial assembly for “proscribing and prescribing” (26). O’Malley observes that Vatican II ushered in a fresh understanding of councils as “a meeting in which the church explored and articulated anew its identity, recalled and developed its most precious values, and proclaimed to the world its sublime vision for humanity” (34). O’Malley argues that the twin aims of the Second Vatican Council—namely, aggiornamento (“updating”) and ressourcement (“return to the sources”)—reveal an undergirding assumption that “the Catholic tradition was richer, broader, and more malleable than often perceived in the past” (50). The author also considers the problem of conciliarism and where authority is vested in the Church.

In the second part, O’Malley “analyses the changing roles of different categories of persons who participated in the councils” (4). How did the Roman Pontiff, the curial officials of the Apostolic See, theologians, the laity, and what can be called “the other,” that is, a person or a situation whose looming presence exudes influence, factor into conciliar proceedings at each of these momentous convocations? Interestingly, Vatican I marked “the first ecumenical council without direct lay participation” (136).

In the third and final part, the author looks at the impact of past councils upon the Church and the world. O’Malley also explores the prospect of a council in the future. He suggests that the next ecumenical council is likely to take place in the Global South. Commenting on the vital importance of collegiality and synodality as a fulcrum for balancing the center and the periphery, O’Malley writes: “For the institution to remain vital, however, the authority of the center must be balanced by a periphery empowered to act on its own authority. If the balance between these poles is lost, it will almost inevitably result in either stagnation, on the one hand, disarray, on the other, or, in extreme cases dissolution” (212).

O’Malley espouses a hermeneutic of continuity and discontinuity. While it is entirely correct to note that the documents of Vatican II shifted away from juridical language and forms, it bears noting that this difference in genre did not constitute any endorsement of antinomianism. When Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convoke an ecumenical council, he simultaneously announced his decision to revise the existing Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II on January 25, 1983 can be considered a direct outcome of the Second Vatican Council because it sought to translate the doctrinal and ecclesiological insights of the Council into clear, concise, and actionable juridico-canonical language. Some commentators even refer to the Johanno-Pauline Code of Canon Law, metaphorically, as the final document of Vatican II. The point of this excursus is that the mind of the Council Fathers did manifest itself juridically in time. Although the approach represented a visible shift or recalibration, Vatican II did not jettison the role of law from the Church in a rift or rupture, as some postconciliar interpretations mistakenly held. One must be careful not to overplay or underplay this difference in accents or genres.

All in all, Father O’Malley’s insightful synthesis traversing nearly a half-millennium of history is a treasure trove of historical tidbits and erudite insights. It serves as a fitting coda to 67 years of teaching, well over two dozen books, 150 journal articles, and 20 honorary doctorates. He dispenses with the standard scholarly apparatus of footnotes in this work (referring readers to his prior monographs for bibliographic citations), rendering the work clutter-free and more easily readable. It is a worthwhile read for anybody interested in ecclesiastical history in general and conciliar history in particular.

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

From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah. From the Depths of our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church. Translated by Michael J. Miller. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020. 148 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

In the 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Pope Paul VI encouraged continuing reflection on the gift of priestly celibacy. The Holy Father wrote: “We invite you, venerable brothers, and you, eager students of Christian doctrine and masters of the spiritual life, and all you priests who have gained a supernatural insight into your vocation, to persevere in the study of this vision, and to go deeply into the inner recesses and wealth of its reality” (n. 25). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah, two eminent ecclesiastics with a venerable span of priestly ministry and an ever-youthful zeal for passing on the Gospel, offer fresh reflections on the link between priestly service and the charism of celibacy in From the Depths of Our Hearts.

The book consists of a “letter” or “essay” by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and an independent “letter” or “essay” by Cardinal Robert Sarah, who serves as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. These two contributions are bookended by a jointly authored introduction and conclusion.

The introduction offers the poignant reminder that celibacy is “a proclamation of faith” (21). This unique way of life is a powerful testimony because it flies in the face of worldly logic and “makes sense only in terms of God” (21). “Our celibacy is a witness,” the authors reflect, “in other words, a martyrdom” (21).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI identifies a problematic “abandonment of the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament” by many contemporary exegetes and offers some erudite exegetical insights that demonstrate the relevance of cultic dimensions of priesthood in the New Covenant. He points out several interesting facts from the Hebrew tradition. For example, “In the common awareness of Israel, priests were strictly obliged to observe sexual abstinence during the times when they led worship and were therefore in contact with the divine mystery” (40). He proceeds to share three biblical passages that imprinted themselves on his mind as he journeyed to ordained ministry — namely, Psalm 16:5-6, Deuteronomy 10:8, 18:5-8, and John 17:17 — and how these scriptural passages illuminate a proper notion of priestly identity.

In his essay, Cardinal Sarah offers some ecclesiological and pastoral reflections on priestly celibacy. The celibate priest, he reminds readers, mirrors Christ the Bridegroom’s love for the Church and Christ’s total gift of himself. Priestly celibacy, moreover, “is a powerful driving force of evangelization” because it “makes the missionary credible” and available to undertake whatever the mission requires (76). He points out some problems with the idea of married priests. He asks, for example, “What is to be said about the freedom to which the couple’s children can legitimately aspire? Must they, too, embrace their father’s vocation? How can anyone impose on them a way of life they did not choose?” (79). “Divorce by priests has become a cause of ecumenical tension among the Orthodox Patriarchates,” he notes (80). Sarah shares examples of a lively faith even in areas deprived of a permanent priestly presence. He argues that the relaxation of celibacy in an attempt to increase the number of priests available is not the best solution. He writes: “It is up to the baptized first to be responsible for this presence of the faith. Why would anyone want to clericalize them at all costs? Have they no faith in the grace of Confirmation that makes us witnesses to Christ?” (96). Elsewhere, he asks rhetorically, “In the Church, is the clerical state the only way to exist and to have a place?” (94). Efforts to devalue priestly celibacy or rework the long-standing norm into something optional are myopic, Cardinal Sarah argues.

The jointly written conclusion acknowledges that the priesthood has been tarnished by many distressing scandals in recent times. The authors seek to affirm faithful priests who heroically pour out their lives for the benefit of others. The authors, moreover, seek to encourage everyone “to take a fresh look with the eyes of faith at the Church and at priestly celibacy, which protects her mystery” (146).

This compelling set of reflections is intended primarily, but not exclusively, for priests, seminarians, and discerners. By offering fruitful insights on certain aspects of priestly celibacy and Christian discipleship, this work contributes to the conversation about ecclesial life and ministry in regions of the globe experiencing a paucity of priests. The authors humbly limit themselves to an easily readable length and do not attempt an exhaustive treatment of the topic. For a systematic theology of priestly celibacy, see Father Gary Selin’s Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations (The Catholic University of America Press, 2016). For a historical sketch of norms relative to clerical celibacy, readers can consult Cardinal Alfons Stickler’s The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations (Ignatius Press, 1995). For a comprehensive treatment of early practices, consider Father Christian Cochini’s The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (Ignatius Press, 1990) or Father Stefan Heid’s Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West (Ignatius Press, 2000). For a spirituality of priestly paternity, see Father Carter Griffin’s Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019). In short, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah help readers to steer clear of reductionistic understandings that conceive of the priest as merely a functionary.

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


The Challenges of Christian Community: Loving, Correcting, Forgiving, and Searching for the Lost – Carlo Cardinal Martini, SJ

Martini, Carlo Cardinal, SJ. The Challenges of Christian Community: Loving, Correcting, Forgiving, and Searching for the Lost. Translated by Fr. Edmund C. Lane, SSP. New York: St Paul’s Publishing, 2014.

Reviewed by Liam A. Farrer.

 There can be no doubt that in the year 2020 tensions within the Body of Christ are high. As Bishop Robert Barron has recently observed, the incidents in Pennsylvania have left us a suffering church. (See the Bishop’s Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis).While Bishop Barron was referring specifically to a Church recovering to from the wounds of the sexual abuse scandal, his observation is just as apt with regards to a Church now attempting to stand in solidarity with victims of racial injustice while negotiating a worldwide pandemic that in many cases has forced Church communities to become physically separate from each other to the point of suspending the access of the laity to the sacraments.

These wounds are, all too often, unfortunately, made worse by what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin describes as “the content and tone of daily messages on social media by Catholic pundits on the left and the right that are anything but kindly” (see Diarmuid Martin, “Homily for the Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of St. John Henry Newman,” 13 October 2019). Given this current situation, a reviewer must ask: in this tumultuous time, is a book composed of Lenten meditations delivered seventeen years ago, by a prelate who passed away a year before its publication, relevant for today’s Church? The answer, in this case, is a resounding yes. In a time when the concept of community seems so distance, Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini offers a opportunity to reengage and to reflect on the beauty of Christian community itself, and how all aspects of Christian community, particularly the challenges we face serve to orient us to “the ultimate and full realization of the Kingdom” which will only take place with the “glorious return of the Lord.”

It is clear from the onset of this text that unlike the academic works published by Cardinal Martini, which readers may be more familiar with, the purpose of this text is to provide a companion to prayer. The first four chapters, which compose the aforementioned lenten mediations are divided in such a way as to encourage this. In a catechetically rich and pastorally accessible way, that is clearly the result of his own well-balanced combination of careful study and thoughtful prayer Cardinal Martini leads the reader through the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew using the concepts found in scripture to instruct the Christian community on how to “rule its internal life basing itself on the word of Jesus” and “live internally the rapport between the persons of a Church founded on the word of God.” Martini does this by focusing on four themes which are fundamental to the Christian community: the bonds of love, the need to search for the lost, the art of fraternal correction, and finally the importance of forgiveness. Each theme comprises one Lectio Divina, all of which conclude by highlighting the importance of doing this through the lenses of both the communal relationship within the body of the Church and individual relationship with Christ her head.

In order to help one pray with each meditation, they are all divided into various sections for the reader’s convenience. They begin with the section of the Gospel that Cardinal Martini wishes to address. This is followed either by an introduction explaining how the theme of the week relates to the concept of community, or by moving directly into the section labeled Lectio Divina wherein the Cardinal offers a brief homiletic style reflection on the passage. The Cardinal follows by using his immense knowledge of biblical scholarship to provide an analysis of key and parallel words in the text in order to enrich the readers exegetical understanding of the passage before concluding with a meditatio in which he focuses on the how the teachings found within this passage can be used to help one reflect on ones place in the Christian community. It must be noted to that while no specific instruction to do so has been inserted by the editor, Cardinal Martini, in his second meditation, recommends “that you keep in mind for your reflections also verse 10.” The original sessions then must have included a period of one’s own reflection and it would perhaps be prudent for those praying with this text to follow this model.

One cannot end without discussing the final section of the work, “A Snapshot of Christian Community,” wherein Cardinal Martini offers what he refers to as a brief “synthesis in order to bring out that image of a community which results from this entire discourse on Chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew.” Rather then being seen as a postscript, this passage ought to provide further material for mediation so that the reader, alongside Cardinal Martini may enter into a dialogue with the Creator and Source of all Christian community in order to be able to help to build, to use Martini’s words “a community in which Jesus is at the center and, with the power of his resurrection enjoys the miracles of a union based on faith, hope, and charity.” It is precisely this type of community which we need in this fallen and broken world.

Liam A. Farrer is a PhD Candidate at Regis College, Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto and a Junior Scholar at the Lonergan Research Institute.

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