Book Reviews – April 2021

The Sacraments: Discovering the Treasures of Divine Life. By Rev. Matthew Kauth. Reviewed by Aaron Martin. (skip to review)

Telling Stories That Matter: Memoirs and Essays. By Marvin R. O’Connell. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

Walking the Parables of Jesus: A Journey into the Words, Life and Times of Jesus Christ. By Dcn. Bob Evans. Reviewed by Dcn. Peter Lovrick. (skip to review)

Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World. By Sally Read. Reviewed by Catherine Godfrey-Howell. (skip to review)

Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age. By Rémi Brague. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

The Sacraments – Rev. Matthew Kauth

Kauth, Rev. Matthew. The Sacraments: Discovering the Treasures of Divine Life. Charlotte, North Carolina: Saint Benedict’s Press, 2018. 145 pages.

Reviewed by Aaron Martin.

Anyone who has read a book on sacramental theology and struggled to keep all the distinctions straight — sacramentum tantum, res et sacramentum, res tantum — has probably wondered whether there is a better way to explain these concepts. After all, they are not very accessible to your average Catholic in the pew who has no formal philosophical training. And despite being important for understanding the reality of the sacraments, the distinctions would not compel your average Catholic to frequent the sacraments. In fact, these distinctions might have the opposite effect for your average Catholic, making the sacraments seem too mysterious to approach at all. In an age when ex-Catholics are a sizeable population of believers in America, and when average Catholics distrust the Church institution because of scandals and abuse, it is perhaps not the time for an overly technical explanation of the instruments of salvation.

That is partly why Fr. Matthew Kauth’s book, The Sacraments, succeeds so well. Although Kauth explains the theological nuance of the sacraments that the medievals developed (see, e.g., p. 28), he does so with an approachable style and just enough theological explanation for those who want to dive deeper. This book is particularly appropriate for RCIA courses, parents of children receiving their sacraments, or others who are looking to have explained what they never learned in Catholic elementary or high school.

Sacraments are a privileged encounter with Christ through the mediation of “stuff.” Whether that be bread and wine, oil, or the words of a priest, there is a very incarnational nature to the sacraments. In that way, they tap into who we are as human beings more than other parts of our faith. Although reading a book on theology may be a wonderful intellectual exercise, something is very different about worship in which we sit, stand, kneel, speak, and use all of what specifically makes us human in worshipping God. And that is where Kauth begins, with our own experience of using reason, having a body, and understanding the “stuff” that makes up the sacraments.

But the stuff is obviously not all there is, and Kauth explains well how God works through matter to accomplish what He has in mind. This is what makes the sacraments efficacious. “The sacraments effect what they signify. They signify by both the material employed by God (water) and the further signification of the words God employs through his agent (minister).” (25)

Kauth refers back to St. Thomas’s analogy of how the sacraments are similar to the growth of a body, and uses that lens to discuss each sacrament in turn, discussing its elements, its effects, and its fruits. This structure for explaining the sacraments implicitly demonstrates the unity of all the sacraments. Kauth’s many references to scripture — as well as our own human experience of friendship, reconciliation, natural growth, and other phenomena — give added context and relevance to Kauth’s explanation of the sacraments

In 2020, a story in the Catholic news told how a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Fr. Matthew Hood, was not actually baptized as a child because the deacon performing the baptism used the wrong formula (“We baptize” rather than “I baptize”). As one would imagine, an invalidly baptized priest led to a cascade of invalidity issues — not only were the sacraments he received invalid, the sacraments he performed as a priest were invalid. In an interview about the situation, Fr. Hood was not angry at the deacon for what happened, but awed by the power of the sacraments. It is important to administer the sacraments correctly, he noted, because they are not ours. They are Christ’s, and are given to us as a gift. It is Christ Who acts (hence, “I baptize”) through the person of the priest or deacon. The sad situation in Detroit has led to a greater awareness of the power and meaning of the sacraments.

The past year — and the COVID-19 pandemic — has also highlighted the power and meaning of the sacraments. Many Catholics around the United States are still cut off from the sacraments, or at least receive them with less frequency than they were used to before March 2020. And many have expressed their longing for a return to the sacraments. The longing for a full sacramental life is a good thing — it shows that we innately understand and feel their power. Kauth’s book complements that desire by explaining the theology behind the sacraments in an approachable way, offering readers a glimpse into the depth and beauty the sacraments offer.

Aaron Martin, JD, PhL, and his wife, Jenny, live in Phoenix, AZ with their four children. Aaron owns his own law practice and teaches in both the Kino Catechetical Institute and the Diaconate formation program for the Diocese of Phoenix.

Telling Stories That Matter – Marvin R. O’Connell

O’Connell, Marvin R. Telling Stories That Matter: Memoirs and Essays. Edited by William G. Schmitt. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2020. 250 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

The vocation of the priest has many similarities to that of the historian. A zeal for truth motivates both the order of presbyters and the guild of historians. They are truth-seekers and truth-tellers who differentiate the essential from the extraneous, parse the meaningful from the vacuous, and disseminate the fruits of their critical reflection. Both the priest and the historian serve as mediators: the priest as an intermediary between the earthly and celestial realms in an effort to secure eternal salvation; the historian as an arbiter between the past and present generations, resurrecting, as it were, the experience of forebears for the benefit of the living.

Although their means and methods differ, both the priest and the historian help people understand who they are and where they are situated in the grand scheme of things. The priest is a storyteller of salvation history in particular while the historian is a storyteller of human history more generally. (The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive for salvation history unfolds within human history.) Both the priest and the historian pursue justice by giving people their deserved glory and, in so doing, preserving from oblivion the memory of those who did great deeds. Professional historiography is, of course, much more than merely a species of ethics or poetics, yet it is impossible to completely excise those aspects or elements. Vicarious experience— be it gained in the confessional box or an archival storage box—makes both the priest and the historian more expert than most in human nature and the drama of human existence. The natural affinity between these two callings coalesced in the late Father Marvin O’Connell (b. 1930 – d. 2016), who served as a presbyter of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis and a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

This posthumously published partial memoir and selection of essays consists of two main parts. The first half of this book, divided into twelve compact chapters, contains personal reminiscences by Father O’Connell. An inveterate storyteller, he shares vivid memories of being a high school seminarian in the period leading up to the Second Vatican Council, pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Notre Dame under the tutelage of Monsignor Philip Hughes on the English Counter-Reformation figure Thomas Stapleton, teaching at the University of Saint Thomas as a freshly-minted historian, serving as a columnist for his diocesan newspaper in the early nineteen-seventies, and returning to Notre Dame as a faculty member. It is a pity that the unfinished memoir stops short of recounting his long tenure as a professor at Notre Dame, which included a period as departmental chair.

A smorgasbord of thirteen informative essays penned by Father O’Connell between 1978 and 2001 comprises the second half of the book. The diverse array of concise essays ranges from tackling hackneyed narratives about the Spanish Inquisition and exposing the anachronistic portrayal of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s 1966 film to presenting some of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s enduring insights on higher education and sharing strategies for evangelization in the contemporary United States. In his critical reviews of Father Richard McBrien’s books, Father O’Connell showed that sound theology seldom, if ever, comes from shoddy history. Salvation history is interlaced with human history and ignorance of or sloppiness with the latter is bound to distort the former. Theology and history, as faith and historical fact, intersect such that Father O’Connell poignantly called the historian a “midwife to our faith” (226). The work is bookended with a foreword by Father Bill Miscamble and an afterword by Professor David Solomon, both faculty colleagues and long-time personal friends of Father O’Connell.

Students, colleagues, and admirers of the late Father Marvin O’Connell will delight in the memories conjured up by this book. Even those who did not personally know him will come to feel as if they did thanks to his lucid narrative prose. This highly readable work will allow readers to peer into the lifeworld (lebenswelt) of a midwestern youngster who grew up in the Depression-era and navigated the thrills and travails of the ecclesiastical and academic orbits in a time of great flux. “This volume,” as the foreword explains, “will be especially valuable as a tool of inspiration and enlightenment for all those who practice the challenging art of writing history, as well as those who appreciate learning from it” (xi). Although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does tend to rhyme. There are many insights to be gleaned from Father O’Connell’s contextualization of a wide range of ecclesiastical figures and monumental events, including his down-to-earth contextualization of his own life and ministry. This posthumously published volume is a fitting tribute to a distinguished priest-historian.

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

Walking the Parables of Jesus – Bob Evans

Evans, Bob. Walking the Parables of Jesus: A Journey into the Words, Life and Times of Jesus Christ. St Louis: Enroute Books and Media, 2018. 459 pages.

Reviewed by Dcn. Peter Lovrick

Dcn. Bob Evans’ considerable experience teaching Scripture for Homiletics comes together in Walking the Parables of Jesus in the best “both-and” Catholic tradition. This superb book is at once meaty and readable, discursive and academic, historical and contemporary. Walking the Parables of Jesus takes the reader on ten journeys with Jesus and His apostles listening to the parables in the order that they were told. Dcn. Evans does much more than retell the parables or present oft-repeated interpretations. His purpose is to help modern people hear the parables in the way that they would have been heard at the time when Jesus told them. He makes the convincing case that the parables were not designed to be explicit. Instead, the listeners at the time would interpret these stories based upon their own background and experience. Not only is that experience radically different from that of modern listeners, but it also changed from place to place at the time of Jesus.

Walking the Parables of Jesus keeps the reader attuned to the different audiences and contexts, noting how a parable told in Magdala was heard differently from one told in Tiberias. It brings the readers along with the chosen twelve so that, as Dcn. Evans points out, we hear the whole trajectory of Jesus’ teaching in the parables in different contexts, along with explanations only given to the apostles who were being formed to spread the Good News. In this way, Dcn. Evans’ book is nothing short of eye-opening.

Readers of Walking the Parables of Jesus, traveling with Jesus and the apostles, discover just two parables in the first half of Jesus’ ministry, but then hear more and more, sometimes multiple parables in one day, as they approach the world-changing events of Holy Week. Dcn. Evans makes a convincing case as to what the significance of that is. He leads readers through a method of considering both the parables and the events in the life of Jesus along the way to Jerusalem, to develop a habit of reading the Gospels in a different way. They are then encouraged to read the Passion Narrative which follows the final journey in his book using this method.

Whereas many modern readers have pat interpretations of the various parables, Walking the Parables of Jesus aims to show what we may be missing. The way to do that, Dcn. Evan’s proposes, is to look not at the plots of the parables, but rather at their details. His approach is to focus on specific references in the parables that can be easily overlooked by modern readers, but which would have been telling for those first hearers. These details make all the difference. For contemporary people, however, that means filling in a lot of blanks. Dcn. Evans does just that.

That method of hearing these parables as they were meant to be heard involves enriching readers with insights into geography, cultural mores, and history. Dcn. Evans demonstrates that understanding the wedding practices in the Holy Land in the first century, for example, is key to understanding not only events like the wedding at Cana, but for gaining insights into Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven. In the same way, knowing about the plant life in the region opens up not only events like Zacchaeus’s climbing of the sycamore tree, but also the parable of the mustard seed. Dcn. Evans provides all that information and context along with maps, a glossary, a comprehensive bibliography, indices, and photographs of various locales to make the journeys, and the parables in particular, come to life.

The material in Dcn. Bob Evans’ Walking the Parables of Jesus is the fruit of a six-month course originally offered to deacons in formation as preachers. The value of this extraordinary book does not stop there. Walking the Parables of Jesus certainly is a wonderful resource for anyone engaged in either homiletics or lay preaching, but it is also of great value of to anyone who wants to get beyond a superficial reading of the parables. Readers who hunger for a deeper level of meaning of the parables than what might readily come to mind will benefit from Dcn. Evans’ careful and thoughtful approach to how to be a hearer of the parables.

Deacon Peter Lovrick holds a doctorate in homiletics from Aquinas Institute of Theology (St. Louis University), is professor of homiletics at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, Canada, and is director of the diaconate formation program for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Annunciation – Sally Read

Read, Sally. Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. 150 pages.

Reviewed by Catherine Godfrey-Howell.

God is with us. Ours is a time worthy of great hope, for there is much to gain by allowing our faith to lead us with confidence into a future that promises great loss. A loss from which we cannot recover, however, will be our decision if we refuse this pass into the night on account of our certainty of defeat. Why is any peace of heart contingent upon assurances that are formulated just to answer our anxiety, rather than in the imagination that longs for a victory far more glorious than our own designs? Sally Read answers us: We have forgotten the Annunciation and the place of this mystery in our hearts. This event is absent in us, and so the powerful fiat of Mary is not to be found in our lives, in our world. We will succumb to the confusion of our times instead of holding open the gates to the overshadowing of the Advocate. We circle our own shadows in important speculation, rather than live humbly, courageously, and in hope.

Read’s Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World is indeed an invitation to pause. Her reflection brings time to a standstill. Remember when history was actually disrupted? It happened quietly and with one single heart that in all unreasonableness refused fear and in with all rational faculties chose the suspense of faith. Mary is the only person who truly faced the end of the world. How could we be so tempted to think our times are of more consequence than that brief “watershed” moment between Mary and mankind’s great friend, Gabriel? (One of the unexpected delights of this book is recognizing how much the archangel Gabriel loves man. It seems because Gabriel was there at this pivotal moment, he will involve himself in those events that most demand our attention on Mary’s fiat and our like response.)

And so, Read unpacks the words of the Annunciation, and line by line, with the clarity and excitement we might attribute to Gabriel’s spirit as well, repositions the fiat in our minds. The future is God’s. The present is ours to give or withhold from Him, but if we do not live Mary’s fiat, we are the instruments of our own demise and despair, the fulfillment of our own fear. In this sense proving ourselves to be right means choosing to be forgotten. In a memorable line Read remembers, “the frightening moment that you fear will completely overwhelm you is not yours to fall apart over. It belongs to God, and so do you (Ps 100:3). Let him lead you through it.” In the calm offering of her fiat, “Mary was held to the moment through the love of God. Without the weight of God binding us to this world, we risk flying into pieces.” And if we go mad, so goes our world. As St. Augustine urged, our times are such as we are, and not vice versa. Our Mother aligned her will with the Father, and thus reign the currents of joy, humility, and trust in the victory of peace in our lives. If we are not joyful, humble, and at peace, we are on the losing side.

There are so many captivating elements of Annunciation. Read, a poet, cannot assemble words without leaking beautiful stories. She shows the history of salvation playing out in every corner of every narrative of every soul. The fiat is a daily drama, a proclamation to be rendered repeatedly, incessantly. Her words on the experience of pregnancy and motherhood are in some ways more insightful than the modern images of science and biology, for she instills reverence and communion beyond the dual shock of awe and wonder.

She is writing to her young daughter, Flo, but I fantasized at times that the audience was the late Christopher Hitchens. When once asked whether he had ever even momentarily been challenged by the possibility of God’s existence, Hitchens without pause answered in the negative. No one had ever succeeded in making him feel the burden of being wrong about God. He derived his inspiration elsewhere. Read unwittingly thrusts the reach of her hope into the pneumatics of which Hitchens and others spoke so respectfully. God cannot overwhelm, but nature might, they might say, and bring about the noble elevation of spirit. Read responds: Seeing grandeur in this way entices us to think we see the big picture. She tells her daughter, but also I think Hitchens, that this is all wrong. It’s small-mindedness. Go on, take a “big gulp of nature,” but you have not filled yourself with anything if you have not already acknowledged in creation the Word of God. If we were earth-only, destined to be landscape, we would need these experiences in nature as if they were gasoline. We are meant instead to bear the Creator within us, and so there can never be anything more inundating and breath-taking to our souls than Adoration. (Read’s accounts of her time in Adoration, throughout her body of work, are exquisite and not to be missed.)

The Annunciation is not an argument or demonstration. It is the day the world was saved. Mary was literally filled with the Word of God, and in her resolve to endure in calm, prayerful hope, she shows us how to save the world again. And again. If we respond to the call of faith, Read proclaims, our broken world will not lead us to mourn an end but live the new beginning. Faith is indeed veritable proof of something, Read exclaims to Flo (to us all, Hitchens included), for it casts out the fear and distrust of the future that would only seem warranted. Faith makes of the heart, instead, a resonance of the Annunciation, and each time we give our fiat is a moment in which God actually saves the world.

Catherine Godfrey Howell, JCD, is a canon lawyer, editor and translator. Her dissertation completed at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross is a profile of consensual incapacity to marry in American canonical jurisprudence. She presently lives in South Bend, Indiana, with her husband and three children.

Curing Mad Truths – Rémi Brague

Rémi Brague. Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019. 142 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

In this collection of nine lectures delivered to anglophone audiences at leading universities and scholarly associations across the Western world, Rémi Brague, Professor Emeritus of Medieval and Arabic Philosophy at the University of Paris and the Emeritus Guardini Chair of Philosophy at Ludwig Maximilians Universität in Munich, offers a trenchant analysis of the ills afflicting modern society. The curious title is an allusion to G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip that the modern world is “full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.” The undergirding argument is that, unmoored from their Christian origins or severed from the matrix of interconnectedness in which they were crystallized, modern virtues are woefully refracted and in much need of renewal. “The premodern form of some basic ideas might prove more stable than their modern perversion,” Brague writes, “hence more fraught with future, more capable of nurturing our hope” (6). Brague, therefore, offers a diagnosis and an antidote for recalibrating or recovering the virtues and ideas that are vital for the flourishing of humankind.

Chapter one argues that the modern project is undergoing demise, paradoxically, because of its own success at setting humanity’s existence “on its own ground, determined by itself and itself only” (20). The modern project, Brague argues, is characterized by three main prongs: an antipathy toward tradition and history, an attitude of boundless self-determination of humankind in the present, and an idealistic metanarrative of unlimited opportunities for the advancement of humanity in the future (12). The modern project’s goal of an autonomous humanity taking control of its own destiny has floundered due to the pushback of Nature, the lack of a unifying principle that would give universal meaning to human experience, and an inability to answer why the existence of human beings is better than their disappearance (20-21).

Chapter two “elaborates in more detail the contradictions of the atheistic worldview” that undergirds much of the modern project (7). Given that the human species risks the possibility of self-destruction by nuclear weapons, environmental devastation wrought by rampant industrialization, and unsustainable birthrates caused by chemical contraception, humankind needs a reference point beyond itself to ascertain its own legitimacy and value. “We must be able to tell why the existence of human beings on earth is a good thing” (31, italics original). In short, rationalism’s shunning of the supposed shackles of theology and metaphysics has tuned out to be a source of imprisonment instead of liberation. A free-floating humanity finds itself dejected and despairing.

Chapter three calls for a rehabilitation of a more Platonic concept of the Good as the ethereal form of all forms, for only a transcendent view of the Good as summum bonum can rescue modern humans from the mires of modern skepticism (35). Chapter four calls for a restoration of a premodern sense of Nature (essentia) as “that which truly is,” a concept that has been rather vehemently assaulted beginning with Francis Bacon’s rejection of final causality and call for humankind’s right to dominate and subjugate Nature (46–47). Brague exposes the schizophrenic logic of the modern project: “On the one hand, contemporary science, or rather the ideological use made of it by the mainstream media, leads us to believe that we are hardly more than lucky monkeys, produced by the chance encounter of irrational forces. On the other hand, we harp upon the ‘dignity’ of man, endowed with ‘human rights’ that are supposed to provide us with the unshakable ground for our moral choices and legal rulings. Little wonder that some people propose to enlarge the notion of rights to animals, since human beings themselves are conceived of as endowed, nobody knows why, with sacred and unalienable rights” (51).

Chapter five calls for a recovery of the premodern (classical cum biblical) view of freedom as that which separates humans from the beasts and makes us truly rational, a freedom that is ipso facto connected to Being and Truth (John 8:32). Humanity needs the wisdom of both Athens and Jerusalem, echoing the metonymy of Tertullian’s famous adage, to combat the dangerously amoral notion that freedom is simply the ability to follow one’s whims (59). Chapter six explores culture as “an endeavor to answer the call and challenge of what is anterior and superior to human beings” (7). “There can be culture,” Brague observes, “if and only if we are convinced that, in the teeth of whatever evil is rampant, being is intrinsically good” (82). Chapter seven makes a compelling case for abandoning the nebulous and tired Nietzschean term “values,” since they fall short of the call to genuine moral excellence embodied in premodern virtues in both the Greco-Roman and biblical traditions (88). The chapter would have benefitted from a consideration of the project of virtue ethics, particularly of the neo-Thomist school.

Chapter eight discusses the role of the family in society. Brague observes the topsy-turvy outlook of modernity: “In our societies, divorce is becoming a sign of social promotion, faithfulness to one’s husband or wife a sign of poverty or lack of stamina and/or imagination” (92). He notes that the market tends to erase the necessary distinction between a person and a thing. In other words, people are often reduced to the level of commodities when the logic of familial love is replaced with the cold logic of unbridled consumerism (92-93). In the ninth and final chapter, Brague calls for a restoration of sorts to a premodern civilization in contrast to the barbarism and spiritual dryness of the modern project (102). He views civilization as both a conservation of timeless truths and virtues that are — or ought to be — the common inheritance of all humanity and a conversation among all human cultures — past, present, and even future (104-106). In a sort of philosophical version of the concept of the communion of saints, Brague aspires to unite all humanity in the great project of cultural revitalization, noting that modern humanity must relinquish its prideful disdain for past generations simply because they had the great misfortune not to have lived today.

Overall, Brague is very effective at pointing out the glaring weaknesses, contradictions, and failures of modernity, but somewhat less so in developing his own vision for what his “Second Middle Ages” would look like. Nevertheless, this intriguing cultural critique will prove useful to anyone exploring how the modern world came to be and how a disciple of a more classical tradition might respond to the decadence of society in the modern period. This valuable anthology, which flows from and contributes to the Catholic intellectual tradition, distills extensive philosophical conversations about the limitations of the modern project into digestible and appetizing portions. The wide range of sources cited and synthesized succinctly is proof of the author’s unparalleled intellectual prowess. This profoundly thought-provoking work is a cri-de-coeur from an accomplished scholar of the history of ideas and is sure to be of interest for philosophers, intellectual historians, medievalists, graduate students in philosophy and theology, seminarians, and all keen observers of culture.

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

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