Book Reviews – March 2021

 

Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration. By Francis Etheredge. Reviewed by Fr. Aidan Nichols. (skip to review)

A Year with the Mystics. By Kathryn Lopez. Reviewed by Lawrence Montz. (skip to review)

Wisdom from the Psalms. By Peter Kreeft. Reviewed by Lawrence Montz. (skip to review)

Wisdom of the Heart. By Peter Kreeft. Reviewed by Fr. Stephen Rocker. (skip to review)

Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age. By John Sexton. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

Mary and Bioethics – Francis Etheredge

Etheredge, Francis. Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration. St. Louis, MO: En Route Books and Media, 2020. 269 pages.

Reviewed by Fr. Aidan Nichols.

Francis Etheredge has already made a valuable contribution to a Catholic Christian view of bioethics by placing the subject-matter in not only a human and philosophical but also a Godly and theological perspective. In this new work, he focuses his theological gaze on the Theotokos or “God-bearer”: the woman who carried in her womb the human being who was personally God. The book is curiously structured. After a foreword and a substantial prologue, and a summary of its seven chapters, each chapter has its own preface, consisting of a word-for-word repetition of the original summary together with an introduction by an invited commentator — two of whom interpret their remit in generous terms, amounting to almost half the word-count of the chapter they are introducing. The reader should not be put off by this, since the author’s content is impressive — and I would not have missed for the world one of the guest-contributors, who describes the work of the organization she has founded: soliciting from laboratories “waste” embryos which would have been incinerated or flushed down the sink and for which “Sacred Heart Guardians and Shelter” provides decent burial.

The organizing motif in Mary and Bioethics is the importance of the doctrine of Mary’s “immaculate conception” for an understanding of the relation between the conceiving of the embryonic human being and its ensoulment, and the wider significance of Mariology for belief in human life as divine gift, and human suffering as having redemptive value. The technological misuse of advances in scientific knowledge about biological origins threatens the deepened anthropology to which the figure of Mary, understood with the mind of the Church, gives access, and this menace doubles in its force when it is coupled with contemporary ideologies of a feminist, pansexualist, or gender-critical character, all of which seek to deal with symptomatic anxieties, imperfections, disorders, in human affairs while all the time failing to realize that the only explanation of the symptoms that is pertinent to the entire human race lies in the primordial fracture that is the Fall of a graced Creation.

Some bioethical problems caused by misconceived medical technologies, like what to do with frozen embryos, are insoluble. But most bioethical problems will yield an answer once placed in the perspective of revelation. The secret key lies in ecclesial consciousness: in their gifted uniqueness human beings have a divine origin, an origin mediated by the unitive love of spouses which, in procreating, produces, at the moment of fertilization of the ovum, a person, in a state of potency — a claim which, for Etheredge, could be more robustly set forward if the Roman Catholic Church moved to a doctrinal resolution of the question, “When, precisely, does human life begin?”, basing itself on the already defined dogma of Mary’s original righteousness from the first moment of her own conception. Incidentally, Etheredge would also like a doctrinal definition of Mary’s mediation of all graces — but this he situates in the distinct yet related context of an exaltation of womanhood as spiritual motherhood, a Christian response to the competitive claims of different versions of feminism.

The seven chapters unfold different aspects of the governing theme. In the union of Mary and Joseph, Jewish marriage gives way to Christian in an inchoate, proleptic form of sacramental marriage in Christ (Chapter 1). Mary is the type of the Church inasmuch as her intercession expresses the divine will to redeem, thus rendering her “a word of salvation” (Chapter 2, where the commitment is made to a third Marian dogma). Mary is a sign of hope for the race insofar as her own hope-filled dependence on God made possible the beginning of the new creation in Christ (Chapter 3). Marian prayer is not an additional kind of prayer but is the prayer of the Church, taken at an appropriate level of depth — a claim which follows from the Maria-Ecclesia identification made earlier (Chapter 4). The Immaculate Conception dogma is a protest in advance against all unwarranted manipulation of the beginning of human personhood (Chapter 5, where the request is made for a magisterial clarification of the moment of ensoulment). The “triangular” relation of God, man, and woman, in the vocation of Mary and Joseph in their relation to the Logos, is the initial simplicity out of which the complexity of the structure of salvation is built up, a complexity anticipated in natural society where the biological/psychological resources of woman, vis-à-vis the “poverty” of masculinity, always require calibration by reference to the power of God (Chapter 6). In the light of the Holy Family, spousal love, seen as “being-with,” not only “precedes” and “accompanies” child-bearing but “supersedes” it — leading to the possibility that an infertile couple (Joseph was not the natural father of Jesus) can also bear fruit in doing good to other souls, as indeed any family is always called to do by opening itself to both a wider biological kin and to the biologically unrelated neighbor (Chapter 7). An epilogue draws attention to how a Christian understanding of the “equality” of husband and wife will turn on the indispensability of each to the other in their difference (a claim compatible, I note, with the Pauline headship doctrine), and ends by urging a renewed understanding of devotion to Mary as a rediscovery of the “anthropology of gift.”

Mary and Bioethics is not as systematically written as this epitome might make it appear. I would advise the reader to look at the introductions by the author’s friends after reading the chapters rather than before, and to read the chapters themselves with a highlight-pencil in hand, marking the points that strike them as especially insightful. They will, I predict, find quite a few.

Fr. Aidan Nichols, O. P. is arguably the most prolific theologian alive today, author of dozens of monographs and hundreds of articles. Fr. Nichols served as the first John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at the University of Oxford for 2006 to 2008, the first lectureship of Catholic theology at that university since the Reformation. He is currently serving at St Michael’s College in Kingston, Jamaica.

A Year with the Mystics – Kathryn Lopez

Lopez, Kathryn.  A Year With The Mystics. Charlotte, NC: St. Benedict Press, 2019. 365 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Montz.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review Online, a daily webzine (a web-based magazine) and also a nationally syndicated columnist with United Media’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. The noted speaker and journalist also serves on the Archdiocese of New York’s Pro-Life Commission. The book is labeled as “Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living” and contains daily thoughts and readings from scripture, as well as both noted mystical authors such as St. Bernard and St. Francis de Sales and lesser known mystical writers who have influenced her prayer life. She presents meditations that, with some reflection, may prove useful to us in truly living as Christians in community with others and our Lord.

A Year With The Mystics is more than a prayer book despite being segmented into 365 daily meditations, it is a source for personal growth. The offerings are configured to be begun at any time of the year and in any order the reader finds useful. Just let the Spirit be your guide in adapting the thoughts and prayers to your daily life. The stated goal of the book is to is for us to come to know God more and to reflect his glory to the world. This biblically based aspiration is right out of Mt. 5:16: “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

The meditations suggested every day are broken down into four parts, beginning with an exhortation or argument related to the theme of the selected meditation. This is followed by the writing of the day, some inspired words of God from the Bible or inspirational writings from Christian authors. At this point we are challenged to settle in God’s presence considering a question related to the writing. The daily meditation is closed with a prayer asking for God’s blessing on our thoughtful considerations.

Without prayer we cannot truly know God or have a relationship with him. Our Lord always makes the first move, but we must be careful, as St. Jane Frances de Chantal cautions, to make sure our gaze does not turn inward but remains fixed on God. If we are beset by distractions, do not be distraught but stay calm and have patience. Don’t over-analyze a meditation but thankfully seek to conform to his will in the moment. St. Gemma Galgani advised that when we meditate, use no effort, and simply let your soul be “absorbed in the immense greatness of God.” St. Ignatius of Loyola instructs us in the famous Suscipe prayer to surrender ourselves and all we possess to God, seeking only his love and grace.

Meditation according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC §2705-2708) is above all a quest where we seek to understand what the Lord is asking. To the extent that we are humble and faithful, we can find in meditation movements that stir our hearts. “Prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord, to union with him.” The true mystic desires union with the divine that is not simply based upon knowledge but a connection or relationship. One does not need to be a saint to be a mystic but simply willing to patiently listen to His inspirations. A Year With The Mystics can help the reader be transformed on a regular basis from a self-centered child of God to one who is open to the divine by this path to discovering the font of Love.

Lawrence Montz is a Benedictine Oblate of St. Gregory Abbey, past Serran District Governor of Dallas, and serves as his Knights of Columbus council’s Vocations Program Director. He resides in the Dallas Diocese.

Wisdom from the Psalms – Peter Kreeft

Kreeft, Peter. Wisdom From The Psalms. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020. 243 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Montz.

Dr. Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and one of the most noted Catholic authors of our time. He is considered by some to be the foremost living apologist for God’s existence. The Bible is the top selling book in the world and the Psalms are the most read book in the Bible, forming the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours, deeply entwined with every Mass during the Responsorial Psalm, a major component of Jewish temple worship, the most quoted book of the Old Testament by Jesus in the Gospels, and most significantly, these are the prayers of Jesus himself.

The book is essentially a collection of twelve closely related essays covering what Dr. Kreeft considered to represent a straightforward sacred continuation that gives prominence to Psalm 1 which forms the foundation of the book of Psalms. This modern Midrash reflects a method for understanding the scriptural texts in a coherent unity. Using the King James translation because of its beauty, accuracy, and universality, we are helped to delve into the depths of meaning on seemingly straightforward terms but often words with nuanced interpretations.

The psalms are temple prayers meant to be sung during Temple worship services, a tradition carried on by sons and daughters of St. Benedict in a “modern” paean of praise. Each of us has a mission to lead others to the truth. We can share our faith by both words and actions being true reflections of God as his servants and friends. What we receive from God needs to be reflected in our lives. Certainly, we can pray the psalms mentally to great personal effect, but in singing the psalms our response to God is not a mere human emotion but the very breath of our faith. St. Augustine wrote, “To sing is to pray twice.” Singing is an outward expression of our love that can help convert the listener. We may be reluctant to sing out loud out of shyness, but without hearing the good news, the “other” may not be touched. It is written, “O Lord open thou my lips: and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” Hebrew poetry (songs) translate well into other languages because they do not simply depend upon sound for meaning but on the technique of repetition, whereby a thought is stated one way and immediately reinforced in parallel words that are clearly reflective of providential divine inspiration. Today, verbal prayer is viewed by some as less meaningful than contemplative prayer, yet they are not competitors but both necessary paths to God. After all, Jesus gave us the Our Father, the quintessential verbal prayer.

The selected psalms are analyzed in detail on a verse-by-verse basis with often witty musings on their applicability to our faith and prayer life. Enumerating the many insights of Dr. Kreeft drawn from these crown jewels of worship are beyond this brief review and await the readers’ personal study of the twelve essays. However, there are key concepts that can be highlighted. Psalm 1 is the guiding prophecy of our relationship with God, a light to the straight path to our salvation that tells us that believers will be blessed like a “tree planted besides the flowing waters” unlike sinners who will be “winnowed chaff blown away by the wind.” The wicked will be judged and perish but the Lord “knows the way of the just.” The way of righteousness is either positive for those who reject sin or negative for those who embrace wickedness.

The beloved Psalm 23 is frequently misunderstood as a depiction of a pleasant pastoral scene, but our God is not a simple peaceful Shepherd but the “Lord of the universe,” an awesome Shepherd that we must know and respect. His goodness is not simply comforting but amazing. Psalm 51, a plea for God’s mercy, teaches that there are two diametrically opposed ways of life, the path to God or the path of denial and unbelief. Some selected psalms cause readers angst, but they show that moderns should not judge David for his imprecatory pleadings, which do not seemingly reflect our concept of hating the sin but not the sinner. His intent was only to promote God’s righteousness, not to make a personal judgment. Psalm 150 brings closure to the book and leads us to praise God for his wondrous deeds by public acclimation in the temples of our world for the benefit of ourselves and others.

We cannot make God happier by praising him, we cannot change God. Our blessings, like prayers and songs, improve us and those who hear us, and this is our loving God’s will. God’s inherent beauty is enough to keep us totally entranced for eternity. We pant or yearn for God as C.S. Lewis wrote, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” The psalms echo this sentiment and call us to respond to God’s invitation in public praise and personal metanoia.

Lawrence Montz is a Benedictine Oblate of St. Gregory Abbey, past Serran District Governor of Dallas, and serves as his Knights of Columbus council’s Vocations Program Director. He resides in the Dallas Diocese.

Wisdom of the Heart – Peter Kreeft

Kreeft, Peter. Wisdom of the Heart. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2020. 369 pages.

Reviewed by Fr. Stephen Rocker

Like Biblical wisdom literature, Peter Kreeft’s Wisdom of the Heart puts forth answers to life’s problems as believers reckon with suffering, sin, and death. The book is spiritual as well as philosophical, though not primarily academic and so has no bibliography, index, or endnotes.

The heart is the self, as source of feeling, thought, and choice. Kreeft is much indebted to St. Augustine who spoke of love as one’s gravity. Our task, then, is to form a wise heart by properly ordering our loves. The distinctively human emotions such as guilt, forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, and wonder bring us in contact with reality beyond ourselves. The highest form of love is agape, the paradoxical love in which the giver and the gift are one. It’s ultimately a participation in the Trinity in which the Divine Persons give themselves to each other.

Kreeft gives a new formulation of the seven deadly sins as 1) autonomy, 2) self-esteem, 3) technologism, 4) lust, 5) passivity, 6) equality, and 7) irreverence with their correlative virtues of 1) humility, 2) modesty, 3) detachment, 4) chastity, 5) courage, 6) contentment, and 7) piety. The sin of autonomy has its quintessential expression in Justice Kennedy’s statement in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992): “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It’s the sin of pride in which each of us makes him or herself God. Its opposite, humility, is God’s view of oneself.

Our culture’s demand for sexual freedom combines lust with pride. The rejection of the Church’s teaching on chastity leaves consent as the sole moral criterion of sexual conduct, which, in effect, makes the human will divine in this area of human choice. As concerns lust, Kreeft says we have made the moral law relativistic in regard to sex and have changed the “reproductive system” into the “recreational system.” Lust is the vice that makes sexual desire selfish and thus self-indulgent, promiscuous, and impersonal. Kreeft identifies sloth with lack of religious passion or indifference to the ultimate, and he insightfully places the craving for gadgets and smartphones with greed and gluttony.

Kreeft offers demonstrations (not strict proofs) for God’s existence, noting God is not a concept but the reality beyond our concepts, which St. Anselm described “as that beyond which nothing greater can be conceived.” These arguments cannot be convincing for many (post-)moderns because the premises are not accepted. For example, if there is a universal moral law, there must be a law-giver, but since moral relativists don’t accept a universal moral law, they can’t be convinced there’s a divine law-giver. In another variation of this reasoning, Dostoevsky accepts that God exists because everything is not permissible, while Sartre accepts that God does not exist because everything is permissible. For Sartre and other atheists, the will to power has priority over the will to truth.

Kreeft argues that the heart’s desire for truth, goodness, and beauty manifests the desire for God as their source. He gives an especial place to beauty because it’s the most appealing of the three. Ultimately our desires point beyond a settled satisfaction. Joy is not the satisfaction of the desires we know (which, once satisfied, no longer engage us), but joy in its perfection is having all that we want and more.

As regards suffering, Kreeft argues we can believe, but not know, that all things work for good. We observe most suffering doesn’t seem to conduce to good, but if God exists who is all good and all powerful then we must believe God will bring a greater good from the evils of this world.

Kreeft elucidates the confused currents of thought prominent in our time by way of philosophy, the major ideas of non-Christian religions, and Catholic doctrine. The sympathetic reader might argue with Kreeft that the only good Jesus movie is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or want to nuance Kreeft’s attack on our culture’s teaching the value of self-esteem. Kreeft has many clever turns of phrase, but he tends to be wordy, for example, “at time zero, in the beginning, at the very first moment of creation” or “some one peripheral thing on the circumference,” when he could have just said “at time zero” and “one thing on the circumference.” These are small criticisms of a book which can greatly help the reader to navigate the confused and shallow thinking in popular culture and to gain a deeper and more rigorous way of thinking, living, and praying.

Stephen Rocker is a priest of the Ogdensburg diocese and is pastor of the Catholic parishes in Colton and Potsdam, NY.

Standing for Reason – John Sexton

Sexton, John. Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. 204 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

Presently, public discourse is marked by entrenched divisions, hand-wringing, and epistemic arrogance that once characterized religious conflicts in premodern society. In this penetrating analysis of the state of society, John Sexton, President Emeritus of New York University (NYU), diagnoses a pathology of secular dogmatism” and prescribes a “secular ecumenism” to remedy continually-deepening cultural fault lines that threaten to weaken society’s institutions and endanger society itself. At a time when many people are questioning the value of colleges and universities, Sexton compellingly argues that institutions of higher education are incubators of societal renewal.

The first chapter, entitled “Dogmatism, Complexity, and Civic Discourse,” argues that “unless current trends are reversed, the enterprise of thought is in danger, as Americans develop an allergy to nuance and complexity and civic discourse warps into a virulent secular dogmatism. Political positions now have been elevated to the status of doctrinal truths, embedded beliefs that are taken as givens and cannot be questioned; they have been ‘revealed’” (xxix). The author defines the word “dogmatism” as “a habit of mind — a close-mindedness, or lack of intellectual openness” (6-7). Bald assertions and “gladiatorial soundbites” displace true understanding, which is the product of hard work and careful discernment conducted in a spirit of trusting openness and healthy skepticism (12).

The second chapter, entitled “The Traditional University as Sacred Space for Discourse,” argues that higher education is an antidote to diagnosed malady of balkanization. With total honesty and a firm grasp of the on-the-ground reality, the author also cautions that “our campuses are not immune from the trends that are roiling society” (20). Conversations on campus face the temptation of devolving into monologues disguised as dialogues and becoming exchanges where “volume replaces reason” (36). In the final analysis, the university is the natural habitat for encounter, critical thinking, and the cross-pollination of ideas.

The third chapter, entitled “A University for an Ecumenical World,” re-envisions colleges and universities as “incubators of secular ecumenism” that consist of “communities of interlocking communities” (xxix). He explains that “globalization is not leveling the playing field but redrawing it so that places that attract a disproportionate share of the world’s creative capacity will have the brightest future” (78). So-called idea capitals, anchored by colleges and universities, have a promising future in a globalized economy, according to Sexton.

The fourth chapter, entitled “The Final Ingredient: Meaningful Access for All, acknowledges “disparities of wealth and opportunity” (130) and argues that every person ought to have a meaningful opportunity to attend the college or university that matches his or her talent” (xxx). By “meaningful access,” Sexton means the accessibility of schools that match talents and needs (134). The author discusses practical ideas, such as income-based repayment of student debt, for renewing “our traditional commitment to the idea that higher education is a public good and should be available to every citizen who can benefit from it”(173). Universities are not merely corporations with commodities to peddle to consumers. They pursue truth, advance knowledge, form persons, unlock potential, and shape culture. Indeed, colleges and universities are vital institutions, with a critical role in rescuing a fissiparous society that has become unmoored from truth.

This work is jam-packed with valuable insights about the role of institutions of higher education in contemporary society and the emerging future. The way in which Sexton frames his reflection is refreshing. Given that people of faith are often skewered for having appropriated modernity insufficiently, it is refreshing to hear a member of the establishment argue that the modern age has a malady that can be remedied with lessons borrowed from the ecumenical dialogue of churches and ecclesial communities which has taken place over the past sixty years. People of faith are not agonists; they are protagonists.

This work is not without areas for improvement. Sexton laments “a marginalization of seriousness” and instead calls for “a marginalization of dogmatism”(178). The former phrase, however, remains unpacked. It would have been beneficial to elaborate upon the potentially rich concept of the “marginalization of seriousness.”

Sexton describes NYU’s partnership with foreign governments to create undergraduate colleges “in the liberal arts tradition” in various cities around the globe. This begs several questions that remain completely unaddressed. How does a premier research university deftly balance leading-edge discovery and the advancement of scholarship in highly specialized fields with interdisciplinarity and excellence in teaching? What constitutes the curriculum in liberal arts colleges located beyond the Western world? In other words, do undergraduate students in Abu Dhabi or Shanghai study the classical texts and questions of Western civilization? Why or why not?

Problematically, religiously-affiliated colleges and universities with institutional commitments to theological integrity appear to be in Sexton’s blind spot or, at least, in his peripheral vision. He asserts: “Important as it may be to the believer, however, revelation cannot count as argument in the contest of ideas” (55). Sexton softens his claim by adding that “faith has insights to contribute” and distances himself from some who “in the name of pluralism, would go so far as to drive the faithful from the dialogue, which is not healthy and would result in loss of the conversation’s most expansive possibilities” (59). Nevertheless, leaders of Catholic institutions of higher education would have many points on which to press Sexton. Would he admit that a Catholic university is possible, or would he see it as an oxymoron? Misguidedly, Sexton takes a swipe at the papacy of Benedict XVI as “retrogressive,” “repressive,” and “antithetical to the Vatican Council’s ecumenical spirit” (56). He seems to overlook the fact that Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) is intimately familiar with the teachings and spirit of Vatican II due to his role as an influential expert (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council. Despite these quibbles and some other debatable points, this work is a timely and worthwhile read about creating a culture of encounter and saving society from certain deleterious aspects of post-modernity.

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

 

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