Book Reviews – June 2023

As a Priest Thinks, So He Is. Ed. by Beth Rath McGough and Patricia Pintado-Murphy. Reviewed by M. Ross Romero, S.J. (skip to review)

Pray, Think, Act: Make Better Decisions with the Desert Fathers. By Augustine J. Wetta, O.S.B. Reviewed by K.E. Colombini. (skip to review)

The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and the Church. By Joseph Ratzinger. Reviewed by Philip Primeau. (skip to review)

Scripture: A Unique Word. By Francis Etheredge. Reviewed by Aaron Martin. (skip to review)

Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God through Art and Time. By Stephen F. Auth with Evelyn Auth and Fr. Shawn Aaron, LC. Reviewed by Clara Sarrocco. (skip to review)

As a Priest Thinks, So He Is – Beth Rath McGough and Patricia Pintado-Murphy, eds.

McGough, Beth Rath and Patricia Pintado-Murphy, eds. As a Priest Thinks, So He Is: The Role of Philosophy in Seminary Formation. Omaha, NE: Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF) Publications, 2023. 161 pages.

Reviewed by M. Ross Romero, S.J.

As a Priest Thinks, So He IsThis practical volume offers seven essays on the role of philosophy in seminary formation, each from a different seminary professor/formator. Each essay explores the contributions of philosophy as a discipline to the formational needs of future Catholic priests. The Program of Priestly Formation in the United States of America (Sixth Edition) outlines a seminary formation that takes place across four stages: Propaedeutic, Discipleship, Configuration, and Vocational Synthesis. These stages are developed and deepened through intellectual, human, spiritual, and pastoral dimensions.

While this volume does not directly engage the most recent PPF, it helpfully provides an understanding of philosophy’s contributions to a distinctive stage of seminary formation. Philosophy studies contribute to the dimension of intellectual formation in the discipleship stage in which a seminarian discerns his calling to the priesthood. It follows that the kind of discernment necessary in this stage should be complemented by an intellectual formation that, while preparing the seminarian for in-depth study of theology, also fosters discernment. The intellectual dimension, moreover, impacts the other dimensions. While the entire volume responds to this need, essays by Joensen, McGough, and Pintado-Murphy provide specific articulation of these points.

In “Night Unto Night Imparts the Knowledge,” Bishop William Joensen develops the insight that “the disciple is made by his own need” to show how the intellectual dimension of the discipleship stage develops human needs for truth and kenotic love by means of a kind of dark night of sense. Joensen cites St. Augustine’s call to “‘studious love’ . . . the ability to remain with the word of God, a singular image, or an icon, or to abide in a meditative stillness” (11) as well as Pope Francis’s warning in Laudato Sí, to avoid “the sort of spiritual voyeurism that flits from one thing to the next, superficially occupying our senses before passing on to the next thing” (11). Proper to the kind of conversion and discernment of the discipleship stage is, as Joensen explains, cultivation of “discernment, patience, and profound humility,” which are needed “to say no more and no less than is appropriate when questions arise by the Spirit’s prompting, or when life experience calls into question one’s worldview or novice theodicy” (13).

Such discipline “spill[s] over” so that “intellectual formation in philosophy and theology . . . penetrate[s] through to the heart and spill[s] over into the spiritual life and pastoral encounters. The reverse is also true: a deep spiritual life is needed for adequate study of truth” (14). This “spill over” is a sign of conversion in the discipleship stage as it fosters the pastoral dimension where “love from and for God flows from us into the lives of others around us” (17). Thus, philosophy and grace purify and cultivate reason as it plays a defining role in the discipleship of the seminarian.

In “An Anthropology of Self-Gift: The Self-Giving Love of the Priest,” Beth Rath McGough maintains that seminarians, and priests, function from “an adequate anthropology that makes sense of self-giving love” (74). Such an anthropology draws on the Thomistic personalism of Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J. that shows substance-in-relation as self-communicative. To the extent that self-giving love animates the pastoral dimension of the priest, it flows forth from the heart. McGough clarifies, “The spiritual part of the human person, which includes the intellect, will, the spiritual affections, and perhaps even deep emotions of the sensory appetite to the extent that they are in harmony with reason, may collectively be called ‘the heart’” (80). The heart must be formed in the seminary so that frozen hearts are melted. McGough cites St. Thomas who writes, “Melting denotes a softening of the heart, whereby the heart shows itself to be ready for the entrance of the beloved” (80).

The discipleship stage, then, can be directed intellectually in the pursuit of the truth of a proper anthropology of self-gift that allows for the correction of individualism, hyper-rationalism, and sentimentality that may harden the heart of a seminarian who struggles to receive formation and know that he is a beloved son of the Father (70, 82). Intellectual formation can “help a man to discern the movements of his heart and direct his activities” (81).

In “Reform and Renewal of Philosophy in Seminaries” Patricia Pintado-Murphy begins her reflection on the Decree of the Reform of Ecclesial Studies of Philosophy (2011) through three main cultural challenges to contemporary seminary formation: 1) a mistrust in the adequacy of the human knowing faculty to arrive at objective truth, 2) a deeply rooted scientism fostered by a technological age, 3) a fideism that may nullify the work of reason. Seminary formation must resist these by conveying confidence in a unified vision of knowledge and recovery of reason emphasizing metaphysical dimensions of philosophy. For Pintado-Murphy this means that “the wise man is the one who seeks not only the truth but also the good.” Thus, “faculty ought not to seek to transform seminarians into philosophical experts but to impart the wisdom to pursue a unified view of life based on truth and love” (147).

These reflections can be helpfully applied the discipleship stage of the PPF which is situated between propaedeutic and configuration stages in which theology proper is studied. The wisdom of philosophical studies relates to theology as “They both study themes such as the nature of God and of the human being. Though using different methodologies, the results of the inquiries complement each other. The point of departure of theology’s method is the reception of God’s Word to shed light on the truths about the world and the person. Instead, philosophy starts with the search for the meaning of the world and the person, albeit relying either on faith or on reason for their methodologies” (150).

Four additional essays by Kartje, Feingold, Wright, and Lutz round out this volume and relate seminary formation to philosophy of science, the role of beauty across the four dimensions of formation, the contributions of modern/contemporary philosophy and Aristotelean Thomistic moral philosophy to pastoral formation, respectively. Overall, the volume is the fruit of years of personal formation of the scholars and of the efforts toward forming seminarians in the United States. Those of us who travel the same road are grateful for their guidance.

M. Ross Romero, S.J., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He has published articles on Plato’s dialogues and a monograph entitled Without the Least Tremor: The Sacrifice of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (SUNY, 2016).

Pray, Think, Act – Augustine J. Wetta, O.S.B.

Wetta, J. Augustine. Pray, Think, Act: Make Better Decisions with the Desert Fathers. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2023. 128 pages.

Reviewed by K.E. Colombini.

Thanks to popular best-selling writers like Ryan Holiday, the ancient Stoic philosophers and their pithy sayings on self-mastery are back in a big way for those seeking personal improvement and enlightenment. In fact, it’s not just Holiday, but celebrity philosopher Jordan Peterson who seems to point the way, without even dropping names like Epictetus and Aurelius. They are, arguably, the secular version of the Desert Fathers, offering up worldly wisdom on how to live the good life in a way that is at odds with today’s focus on ambition and consumerism. And more power to them; much of what they say is helpful.

Enter a Benedictine Monk from the Midwest, Augustine Wetta, O.S.B and his newest book, the slim volume (it’s only 88 pages before the appendices) Pray, Think, Act: Make Better Decisions with the Desert Fathers. In an age where the human attention span is a little less than that of goldfish, it is perhaps written to a length that will have maximum impact on those of us in a hurry from one thing to another.

Fr. Wetta’s guide is written to provide a more godly approach to personal decision-making — starting as it does with prayer. One has the sense it was written for those trying to discern whether they have a vocation to the religious life, and Fr. Wetta offers portions of his personal journal as an example. But it is really about more than that. In the course of our daily lives, we’re confronted with numerous decisions, large and small, about which his via can be helpful, starting with whether to hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off the morning. Pro tip: Don’t.

Each point he makes is amplified by a brief story from one of the great Desert Fathers (or Mothers, as the case may be). Each of Fr. Wetta’s three steps is itself broken into three parts, all nine of which start with the letter R. For Think, for example, we are urged to Reduce, Refer, and Reflect; under Reduce, he shares the story of a monk who tells an apprentice that the many temptations he faces are really just one demon with many heads. “Do not try to fight them all at once. Attack one head, and the others will bleed out.” As we think about a decision, the first step is to break it down and focus on what is truly important.

In the first appendix, Fr. Wetta guides the reader through a decision-making process using these three steps and nine parts. The second one is more personal, portions of his diary from the years he spent in the discernment and formation process to become a Benedictine. One easily can see the seeds of these three steps in his life, even if at that point it was not informed by the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, and we can be grateful he went back and thought deeply about the decision-making process in their light.

In reading this section, I was reminded of another monk-writer from the last century, who perhaps could be accused of over-sharing his own life, a trap Fr. Wetta does not fall into. Among faults Thomas Merton could be suspected of, however, is that he did not know to Resolve (Part 1 under Act). The grass was always greener on the other side of the monastery wall, whether it was on the streets of Louisville, in a hermitage on or off the property, or, finally, at a conference in a Bangkok. Merton didn’t settle into his vocation as a Trappist but kept moving, distracted by one conflicting vision after another.

Fr. Wetta sees the value here of the vow of stability, to remain attached to one place for the rest of one’s life. “If you want to keep your thoughts on the Almighty, it is best not to keep moving around, because novelty is the enemy of concentration.”

Smartly, Fr. Wetta applies this beyond the monastery to married life and the need to truly commit to the other, and accept the commitment. His conclusion here is marked by a sense of humor seen throughout the book. “This is equally true for just about any decision you make. Nothing will ruin your dinner out like ordering the steak and thinking about the lobster for the rest of the night — and nothing will ruin the waiter’s night like changing your order five times.”

In short, this short book would be most useful for anyone whose life is full of decisions, but especially it should appeal to younger Catholic adults, and those becoming adults, because it is written in a way they can especially appreciate. One can hope it also will whet their appetites for the books listed in his resources section, whether on the Desert Fathers themselves or on discerning — and accepting — God’s will for our lives.

A former journalist, St. Louis-based writer K.E. Colombini has been published in First ThingsNational Catholic Register, the American Conservative and elsewhere.

The Divine Project – Joseph Ratzinger

Ratzinger, Joseph. The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and the Church. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2022. 177 pages.

Reviewed by Philip Primeau.

Is the Christian faith still relevant to Modern Man, that storied creature defined less by his position in time than his orientation toward reality? And, if so, is its relevance rooted in truth or mere sentiment? This twofold question haunted the mind of Joseph Ratzinger from his university days until the close of his life, shaping his scholarly career and his pastoral ministry.

The Divine Project — composed of six lectures delivered in 1985, recordings of which were lately discovered and transcribed — represents an attempt to provide a persuasive affirmative answer. The book can be divided into two parts: the first four lectures consider creation, sin, and redemption; the fifth and six lectures explore ecclesiology. However, the two halves are conjoined, for Ratzinger understands the Church as the fullness of Christ, and therefore as the goal of God’s gratuitous self-communication in creation and salvation alike.

Ratzinger’s opening lecture asks whether the contemporary believer can honestly distinguish the culturally conditioned form of the creation accounts from the enduring truth they intend to convey: namely, that the universe is the good, free, and orderly expression of the Logos. Ratzinger avers that this distinction is, in fact, textually warranted, as the sacred authors themselves observed such a distinction. The creation accounts are, he writes, subversive appropriations of pagan myths, subsequently refashioned and refined across generations in light of Israel’s experience. Moreover, such a progressive and comprehensive hermeneutical paradigm is theologically justified, since Christ is the divine Word, from whom all human words spring, toward whom all human words point, in whom all human words find their definitive interpretation.

The second lecture develops Ratzinger’s thesis that the creation accounts affirm that the world is born of transcendent intelligence, freedom, and love, rather than violent elemental struggle or inscrutable laws of chance and necessity. The images of Scripture, despite their cultural contingency, artfully signify the hidden structures of reality. Ratzinger uses the numbers ten and seven, which so fascinate the sacred authors, as a case in point: the former number intimates the correspondence between human nature and the moral law; the latter number testifies to man’s vocation as cosmic priest. Ratzinger further proposes that a right reading of the creation narratives refutes those who would trace various systems of oppression and exploitation back to Genesis.

The arch-mystery of the human person is the subject of the third lecture. Here, Ratzinger takes as his anthropological coordinates two evocative images drawn from the second creation narrative: dust and spirit. On the one hand, we are formed from humble earth, our common matter; on the other hand, we are imbued with the divine likeness, whereby we enjoy an affinity with the Creator. To be human, for Ratzinger, is to enjoy a certain openness to, and relationality with, God, the world, and the future. The human person is ultimately the “Divine Project,” an enterprise that reaches its culmination in Jesus Christ, the exact character of the Father, who by his condescension illuminates our nature, while ennobling it to an ineffable degree. Ratzinger maintains that this dynamic Christological anthropology, with its rudiments in Genesis 1-2, is the only reliable bedrock of human dignity. How can man be of infinite value, and worthy of sacred treatment, unless he bears the very impress of God?

In the fourth lecture, Ratzinger deals with the themes of sin and redemption against the backdrop of Genesis 3. Man becomes himself by entering into communion with the God whose image he bears, and on whom he radically depends. Sin occurs when man views the order of creation as a burden and an affront, embracing a misbegotten autonomy and severing himself from the source of truth and life. Redemption consists in the reestablishment of this relationship, which can only be accomplished by the initiative of God, who possesses what we lack. Assuming our flesh, Christ associates us with his perfect dependence on the Father, and by his self-giving charity, which manifests and communicates the divine agape, he gradually heals the vast web of human relations.

The fifth and six lectures are the natural culmination of the first four, for the church is the new creation and privileged locus of salvation. Ratzinger deftly traces the development of nineteenth and twentieth century ecclesiology, which was characterized initially by a growing appreciation of the church as a living organism born of the Eucharist, then by a deepening sense of the episcopacy as a collegial phenomenon, and finally by a recovery of the eschatological vision of the Church as a pilgrim people.

At last, Ratzinger tackles the question of pluralism and unity, arguing that Christianity, by joining men in and to the Truth, relativizes secular bonds, opening space for legitimate social and political variety. This insight feeds into a closing discussion of ecclesiological and theological pluralism, with Ratzinger contending that the centripetal force of the papacy enables the rich multiplicity of Catholic religious forms, and that a mature diversity of theological perspectives presupposes a commitment to the first principles of the faith as preserved in creedal and dogmatic formulas.

The Divine Project is an engrossing, if challenging, text, the fruit of admirable piety and formidable intellectual ability. Ratzinger weaves profoundly Catholic notions of progressive revelation and divine accommodation with conclusions gleaned from an array of academic disciplines, all within an integrative Christological and ecclesiological framework.

However, one is left with certain misgivings. For not infrequently Ratzinger proffers supposed determinations of science and critical methodology without due qualification or skepticism, and he seems unaware that some of his appropriations (concessions?) are not easily reconciled with sacred tradition, and even tend to corrode confidence in revelation and the historic magisterium. Moreover, he occasionally displays a frustrating inclination toward philosophical abstraction and evolutionary thinking, and one observes in his reflections the subtle influence of dialectical ideologies popular on the Continent. In short, one must admit the limitations, no less than the advantages, of Ratzinger’s approach.

Despite such shortcomings, this book is a valuable little work, manifesting Ratzinger’s trademark synthesizing Christocentric humanism, which seeks to engage creatively with the philosophies, sciences, and sensibilities of modernity, perfecting and uniting all things in the Word incarnate. It is recommended for the educated Catholic seeking to better grasp the heart and mind of a fine theologian, a thoughtful evangelist, and an earnest pastor of souls.

Philip Primeau holds a bachelor’s degree in theology and works as an attorney in Rhode Island.

Scripture: A Unique Word – Francis Etheredge

Etheredge, Francis. Scripture: A Unique Word. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014. 421 pages.

Reviewed by Aaron Martin.

Scripture: A Unique WordWhen Saint Augustine had his famous conversion, and received the command to “take up and read,” he quickly discovered the transforming nature of Scripture — “for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” To Augustine, God was speaking directly to him through the words of St. Paul, telling him to put away his life of sin and pursue the adventure of holiness. And Augustine had the only appropriate response to God’s word: he made a lasting and drastic change to his life. And many others, saints and sinners alike, have had similar experiences through the years. The encounter with Scripture is an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, an encounter that always has consequences.

In Scripture: A Unique Word, Francis Etheredge gives us a glimpse into his own encounter with scripture and how it has impacted him. This is not an academic exegesis so much as a discussion of several questions related to Scripture — why it is “unique,” how it speaks to issues in our current culture, and how scripture interacts with philosophical and theological concepts — as well as some catechetical or apologetical questions: “Whether Adam and Eve were the first parents of mankind,” the intention of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, and broader questions of biblical interpretation.

Several of these discussions are interesting and thought-provoking, such as the discussion of the nature of a covenant and how the covenants with Israel relate to God’s progressive disclosure of Himself. Other more technical discussions, such as that on biblical exegesis and criticism, fall short. Etheredge’s discussion of biblical interpretation, for example, lacks the depth of a Raymond Brown or other scholar who devotes his entire life to such inquiries. Etheredge’s discussion is necessarily incomplete both due to his own training and because it is one among many topics in a larger work.

Like the section on biblical criticism, the book falters in other areas where Etheredge tries to do too much or edit too little. Many essays in the book read as if they were term papers or one-off treatments of individual topics. The essays, which Etheredge says are taken from a “very wide period of time,” end up as a collection without a unifying theme. Had Etheredge only included those essays focused on Scripture, the volume would be a stronger contribution.

Rather than focusing his work on various aspects of Scripture specifically, many essays stray into philosophical and theological ground that detracts from the book. It is unnecessary, for instance, and actually distracting, to find topics such as “interpersonal communication,” “the identify of man, male and female, from the perspective of the man,” “the unspeakable crime of abortion,” “sacramental marriage is a liturgical act,” and “a reflection on the moment a person comes to exist” in the opening chapters of a book that one thinks is primarily about Scripture. And while a discussion of John Paul II’s theory of personalism is good in itself, it does not make sense in the overall context of this book. Etheredge’s failure to connect these disparate themes to the more central theme of Scripture makes the work seem like a lackluster or discordant riff on Love and Responsibility or the Theology of the Body.

But the book is not without merit. Many of Etheredge’s discussions present useful questions for us to consider in our modern age. If the book is read as a collection of essays on various topics rather than something meant to be a cohesive whole, the individual sections seem to have more merit. And one wealth of information is the extensive footnotes and other references Etheredge provides, which are the product of a life lived reading and thinking about the most important things.

Etheredge does not propose to write the definitive work on these various issues, so we should not hold him to that standard. As a collection of essays — attempts to work out certain issues — Etheredge’s book succeeds in raising timely and important issues. Read together, the reader starts to see a mind at work wrestling with weighty topics over many years, and a development of thought and understanding over that time.

Augustine’s moment of conversion may have been instantaneous and profound, but the consequences of that conversion played out over time and in the very mundane work of daily life. God’s word is with us on the mountaintop and in the trenches of work, ministry, and family life. Etheredge reminds us that Scripture is central to the Christian walk of faith and the encounter with the person of Christ. And that is worth remembering.

Aaron Martin, JD, PhL, and his wife, Jenny, live in Phoenix, AZ with their four children. Aaron owns his own law practice and serves in various ways in the Diocese of Phoenix.

Pilgrimage to the Museum – Stephen Auth

Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God through Art and Time. Stephen F. Auth with Evelyn Auth and Fr. Shawn Aaron, LC. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2022. 230 pages.

Reviewed by Clara Sarrocco.

 In Pilgrimage to the Museum Stephen Auth takes the reader on a spiritual journey on a visit to one of the world’s most remarkable museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Being a native New Yorker, I have visited this museum countless times, always with the same effect. It is, by any standards, enormous. Immediately upon entering I become exhausted. Where does one begin? What does one look at? One could spend hours studying just one painting, not to mention many galleries of paintings. Stephen Auth has done us a great service on two fronts. He not only highlights certain paintings but has given us a true philosophy of art.

It is his contention that art satisfies man’s longing for things eternal — something that is transcendent. A painting contains canvas and color pigments, and it has shape and form, but that is what it is made of, not what it is. In reality it is a window into the soul of the artist and all the more into the soul of the viewer.

In his history of Western art, Auth’s spiritual journey begins with the ancient Egyptians, whose paintings confirm their belief in the afterlife. He then shows us the development of the various stages of the artists’ points of view. In the Middle Ages the artists depict life in eternity. The next stage moves to the world on earth. Each depiction by the artist is not an accident. Even the position of the hands as well as the look on the subject’s face gives an insight into the soul. With the rise of atheism, the subjects begin to have expressionless faces. Instead of painting the inside of churches, the artists begin painting the outside without any ornamentation as if to remove God from life’s experiences. It is in the modern era that Auth sees a return to spirituality. He sees this as a beginning, a middle and end, and then a new beginning.

The book has many beautiful illustrations to help the reader understand his commentary. Auth and his wife, Evelyn, give tours of The Met that last for about three hours. From what he has described in the book, his tour would be a life-changing experience, and certainly a few hours well spent. No need to feel “overwhelmed” ever again.

Even though Auth’s book focuses entirely on The Met’s main building, it is disappointing that he does not mention The Cloisters Museum. It is a division of The Met located in upper Manhattan, a medieval monastery reconstructed stone by stone from its original homes in France and Spain. It contains many artworks from various medieval churches, including stained glass windows, tapestries, statues, and illuminated manuscripts. It is a journey through the Middle Ages. I spent many a Sunday afternoon sitting in the Cuxa cloister taken from the Benedictine abbey of Sant Miquel de Cuixa on Mount Canigou, listening to Gregorian Chant.

Auth’s knowledge and love of the spirituality of art would certainly enhance the experience of those seeking a deeper level of timelessness that God put in our hearts. For now, the book will do what time and place cannot.

Clara Sarrocco is Secretary of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

Book Reviews About Book Reviews

Expert and interested readers can review our Books Received page to see what is available and for instructions on how to review for HPR.


  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Dear Aaron,
    The Peace of Christ.
    I am delighted you both read the book and even more that you found something good in it!
    God bless, Francis.