Sunday, August 30, 2009

Changing Habits: Women's Religious Orders in Canada

Edited by Elizabeth M. Smyth, 312 pages, 312 pages, Novalis.

While a book on the history of women religious in Canada shouldn't emphasize the recent, sorry years of misplaced feminist bravado and ambition, nor the resulting tragic, precipitous decline of vocations for Canadian female Catholics, this precipitous decline is a fact that historians cannot avoid, however ideologically motivated they happen to be.

Some of the essays in Changing Habits are excellent because they appreciate the immeasurable artistic, intellectual, and medical achievements of Canada's female religious. Yet the cloud hanging over this book is the sometimes openly confrontational and sometimes hidden anti-male bias.

“Gender and Mission,” chapter 13, negates any shared vision between the male priests and brothers on the one side and the female religious on the other. The reader is left supposing that a perpetual wrestling match took place with the subordination of women by men.

From a power-oriented view of history, such as put forth by Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, or Joseph Stalin, yes, subordination did take place. But this chapter, and the entire book, fails to consistently emphasize the sense of service, love, duty, honor, and mission – vocation, in other words – that all religious communities, male or female, had. Nor does it show consistently how, or even if, male and female religious had any shared vision.

In Changing Habits, feminists often confront the reader with a version of history pitting men against women, each with their own agendas. We hear of the archetypal unfeeling, power-hungry yet ultimately impotent (male) bishop, central to some feminist mythologies of male power and domination:

“Sister Mary Lumena, the longtime superior at St. Mary's Mission wanted to keep 'her' orphans and her commitment to their parents to educate them locally. Bishop Durieu succeeded in having Sister Mary Lumena transferred to St. Ann's Convent in Kamloops. Within a year, however, she was caring for a new set of 'her' orphans as she liked at the Cowichan convent.”

The author suggests no other motivations for the removal of the sister. Rather than giving the bishop the benefit of the doubt – he surely knew that this strong-willed person would pick up in her new place where she had left off in her old – or suggesting that, Heaven forbid, he knew what he was doing, the writer paints him as a rascal.

Again, the author uses confrontational, we-they language: “The sisters' system and the Oblates system came together at mission residential schools, where, owing to gender politics, the women religious who taught were officially subordinate to the Oblates. But the women religious had a separate culture and were not entirely integrated into that male system.”

This author defines women religious largely in terms of their relationship to the Oblates rather than in terms of their relationship to the truth as preached by the Catholic Church. This reflects the feminist tendency to objectivize men and turn men into objects of worldly power and success rather than seeing men as human beings. Repeatedly, men in this book are portrayed as givers and takers of power, with women as their humble and humiliated servants and beggars.

Another chapter uses excessive academic jargon – inspired from Michel Foucault, a Nietzschean – to reduce the physical buildings of the women religious to meaningless academic conjecture. What on earth does the following mean?

“In the case of the nineteenth-century representations in runaway nun tales, the convent stood at the crossroads of urbanity, modernity and new formulations of the sacred-profane divide that made it both and neither. It was certainly not total but was discursively incomplete, unresolved and incompatible with its wider environment.” This empty wind continues for some time.

The beginning pages of Changing Habits outline the great professional opportunities women religious had within the Catholic Church in, say, the nineteenth century – teaching, administration, health. This reflects something very important about the Catholic Church. Why can't Changing Habits or other books acknowledge more openly (or at all) that the Church is not the terrible, misogynist organization mainline and radical feminists paint it to be? (After all, the vast majority of churchgoers, in every church, are women!)

Despite some promising material and some very good historical research, this book fails because it does not boldly enough counter lies, exaggerations, and emotional half-truths used by feminists against the Church. In fact, it sometimes falls prey to these.

At the end of the book, the question is irresponsibly left hanging: How did radical and mainline feminism, and an accent on power rather than on Christ-centred ministry, change and eventually reduce these orders to a shadow of themselves? Read between the lines at the words and attitudes of the book's authors themselves to get an answer.

Beloved: In Conversation with Henri Nouwen

By Philip Roderick, 52 pages hardcover with a cd containing the conversation between Roderick and Nouwen, Novalis.

The late Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born priest who eventually lived at L'Arche Daybreak in Toronto, truly practiced theology by approaching God, others, and life through the eyes of love. Dogma became for him another way to reach out, rather than a way to judge, control, or intellectualize. Through his books, he continues to pastor to millions of readers around the world and to evangelize in this way.

The conversation of Beloved, which is transcribed into the small book, focuses largely on central issues of modern living. His discussion returns again and again to loneliness and solitude in an over-busy world; living God's truth in a world of lies; and the contemplative who lives in the world.

Nouwen parallels Thomas Merton in teaching and living a contemplative life from within the great expanse of the Catholic tradition:

“[I]n the biblical understanding, heart is the centre of our being. It's not a muscle, but a symbol for the very centre of our being. Now the beautiful thing about the heart is that the heart is the place we are mostly ourselves. It's like the core of our being, it's the spiritual centre of our being. Solitude and silence, for instance, are ways to get to the heart, because the heart is the place where God speaks to us, where we hear the voice who calls us the beloved. This is precisely in the most intimate place.”

These words, like Nouwen in general, unite theology, spirituality, philosophy, and psychology, a nearly-impossible feat outside of the Catholic tradition.

Free Spirits: Portraits from the North

By Bern Will Brown, 146 pages, Novalis.

“Albert, having gotten drunk on the home brew, luckily forgot about crossing the river and staggered back to his planing bench. He took hold of the plane, made one long pass along the plank he had been working on, went right off the end and buried himself in the pile of shavings. Not a perfect ending to the day, but at least Albert Faille survived another of his misadventures.”

Free Spirits offers a pure, direct history of Canada's North in the twentieth century through short chapters on various eccentrics. For Brown, these characters made the culture special. Imagine a society without pop culture, but with deeply personal, intense, and interdependent relationships. The book portrays people being as genuine as the day they were born.

Any refusal to help another person could mean death because of the unforgiving climate. Most of the white society in the North revolved around solitary men and their attempts to draw a living out of the bush through hunting, trapping, and fishing. Often from the France-based OMI order, which had a special charism to this part of the world, the priests who survived there had to adapt to this way of life.

The Oblate priests lived heroic lives, serving and loving the people well. Rather than imposing an alien, European culture, the kind of priest who stayed for many years necessarily fit in with the natives. This love and understanding for the people came from a simple, very Christian theology:

“Léonce was never openly critical of anyone, especially his flock. He found an excuse for any misdemeanor. He realized that the people had only recently emerged from [a simpler] age and that Christianity introduced a whole new set of guidelines that they would need time to assimilate. Although they had always believed in a god, Léonce told me that they had never imagined a son of God – Christ and his redemption.”

The author displays through this basic “theology of the North” a love for the people yet also a love for the Church and its mission to these people. He never criticizes or seems ashamed of this mission, in contrast to so many writers and former priests. Rather, his stories center around the comical and human sides of a harsh environment, and the importance of the Church to this society, where life before government social assistance programs was fragile and often unsuccessful.

Contrary to media portrayals, the Catholic Church succeeded in the North because it served the people and fit into their culture. People built their society around countless individual acts of generosity and self-sacrifice:

“Noticing that I didn't have a bell for [the new church], she kept an eye out for one. The next winter, on her promotion tour for the lodge, she found a bell in Indianola, Iowa, outside Desmoines, and delivered it to my dock in her Norseman aircraft the following summer. At a thousand lbs it was the biggest bell in the Northwest Territories.”

Free Spirits counters the negative, one-sided propaganda surrounding white-native relations which portrays the Church and white Canadians as taking advantage of the natives. Brown's thoughts reflect the much richer, deeper, and more human reality.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the Papacy from Gregory the Great to Zacharias, A.D. 590-752

By Andrew J. Ekonomou, 347 pages hardcover, Lexington Books.

This scholarly book examines a little-known area of papal history and thereby accomplishes the important task of adding to our ecumenical self-consciousness. Ekonomou clearly shows just how closely East and West worked in the sixth to eighth centuries.

First, the papacy had not yet fully developed a sense of political independence. Often, for instance, the Byzantine emperor's political man in Ravenna, its Italian capital, would have the last word on the bishop of Rome's appointment of other bishops. The papal fight for the right to appoint its own bishops in the West was to be fought later in the Middle Ages with the Germanic emperors and French kings.

The pope therefore paid close attention to the happenings of the court in Constantinople. The future Pope Gregory the Great was sent there for a number of years to try to increase imperial support of Rome actacles into the religious rites and practices of the Roman church. Nowhere was this attraction to Eastern ceremonial more evident than in the elaborate papal processions that took7s cause before the emperor, there seems to have been little left for him to do once imperial policy toward Italy became evident. Papal representatives who pressed their claims with excessive vigor could quickly become a nuisance and find themselves excluded from the imperial presence altogether.”

Second, the Latin West, through the conduit of the papacy, became greatly enriched by Byzantine spiritual practices:

“[I]t was in Constantinople during the first half of the sixth century...that the cult of the Theotokos [a Greek name for the Virgin Mary] began to develop with what has been justifiably described as 'an astonishing rapidity.'” Emperors ruling a besieged empire “invoked the patronage of the Virgin Mary as the special protector and guardian of the empire generally and of the city of Constantinople in particular.”

Third, Greek liturgical practices spread to Rome because the clergy of Rome and many parts of Italy at this time contained an important Greek contingent, including in the monasteries of Italy:

“The oriental popes also absorbed Constantinople's fascination with great liturgical ceremonies and spectacles into the religious rites and practices of the Roman church. Nowhere was this attraction to Eastern ceremonial more evident than in the elaborate papal processions that took place on great feast days. In a manner nearly identical to that of the emperor processing with great pomp from the imperial palace to the Great Church of St. Sophia to attend the Divine Liturgy on major ecclesiastical holidays in Constantinople, the pontiff would depart from the Lateran patriarchum and proceed through the city to one of Rome's titular basilicas to preside at mass.”

This dense book contains an amazing amount of information on a poorly-understood era of Christian history.

Our Life Together: A Memoir in Letters

By Jean Vanier, $ 32.95, 565 pages hardcover, Harper Collins.

“[W]e can and must work on the wound of rejection, by giving new confidence, encouragement and support to those who are weak and who live in a world that seems only for those who are strong. Our second objective is to create a community spirit for those who are living in our homes and who, for one reason or another, are not called to complete autonomy.”

These words and letters reveal the more intimate side of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, communities that welcome people with mental limitations and those who want to live with them and help them. This intimacy does not show a different Jean Vanier, because any of his books display the same humility, honest struggle to live the gospel, and even fresh innocence.

Our Life Together does reveal how Vanier lived the more banal and difficult momentsently get out of whack when weng up and then participating in vaOn a trip to Russia in 1990, and feeling the newfound sense of freedom in the air, he writes that

“The Russian Church has such a deep sense of what is sacrednd shows a straightforward, Jesus- and community-oriented spirituality, as in this one from India, 1973:

“I went into a church not far from the station. It was large and deserted, and had a marble floor. There were about twenty people at Mass, which was in Bengali. There was such a difference between the station full of poor people and the empty church with a few well-dressed people like myself. I felt a bit crushed.... My only consolation came from knowing that Jesus was crucified, poorer than the people in the station and on the streets, and that he died naked on the cross, and that he gives his crucified body.”

The letters indicate a life of simplicity and even hardship:

“I arrived in Calcutta on Friday evening. They had fixed up a little room for me in a storage shed in the garden behind the house. It is like a little cell, with a bed and a table.”

As usual, Vanier asks the hard questions. He does not assume that the spiritual life is simple. He notes the tension, so common to Christian history, between social justice and reverence for God. These two poles frequently get out of whack when we favor one or the other too much. On a trip to Russia in 1990, and feeling the newfound sense of freedom in the air, he writes that

“The Russian Church has such a deep sense of what is sacred. They criticize the Western churches sometimes for having lost a sense of the greatness of God and for being too taken up with political and social matters. Yet, I felt that they were touched when they rediscovered the place of the poor at the heart of the Church, the poor as an image and real presence of Jesus.”

Vanier wrote that “the challenge of L'Arche” revolved around living with the poor and the suffering and also finding a place for the presence of God.

Solanus Casey: The Story of Father Solanus

By Catherine M. Odell, 267 pages, Our Sunday Visitor, $14.95.

Catherine Odell begins atthe same time. All indications are that he was otherwise quite intelligent, but he just couldn't handle studying in German. He was therefore ordained as a simplex priest, otherwise known as a Mass priest. This meant that he could say Mass, and marry and baptize people, but he couldn't preach or hear confessions.

The Story of Father Solanus shows the compatibility of the American dream with Catholic holiness.

Saints of Asia, 1500 to the Present

By Vincent J. O'Malley, Our Sunday Visitor, 221 pages.

Saints of Asia, 1500 to the Present reminds readers that the age of martyrdom never really passed for Christians. We often make the mistake of seeing Christian martyrs from Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia as the exception rather than the rule.

Yet anti-Christian violence in Asia, as in nineteenth-century China, shows another kind of martyrdom. Rather than due to madmen and their minions, it tended to be more of a slow, sometimes imperceptible grind. Christians simply had to live with the threat of martyrdom.

Sometimes years of peace and religious freedom would break out, followed of course by anti-Christian policies.

Yet countless believers not only went to their deaths, but joyfully and willingly. “Saint Lucy Wang Cheng and Companions” exemplifies this:

“The four girls were placed in a cart to be transported back to Wangla Village. Along the way, the soldiers verbally abused the girls, their Christian faith, and God. The three youngest girls felt terrified and wept profusely. Lucy encouraged them, saying, 'Don't cry. We are going to heaven soon. God has given us life; He will take it back. We should not be reluctant givers, but offer ourselves cheerfully.'”

Saints of Asia also includes paths to saintliness besides martyrdom, including those such as Thomas Kurialacherry, who was known even in his seminary days in Rome as a saintly person and who as a priest and then bishop in India focused on education, the building of physical churches, and improving the moral standards of people.

Romero's Legacy: The Call to Peace and Justice

Edited by Pilar Hogan Closkey and John P. Hogan, 112 pages, Rowmanlittlefield.

“Eucharist means the real presence of Jesus both in the elements of bread and wine and in the body of believers. The majority of Catholics would probably agree with the former but scratch their heads at the latter. For most of us, Eucharist is an interior retreat – a 'spiritual' thing. One corollary, as we have seen, is the virtual absence of liturgy and Eucharist from official Catholic social teaching, as well as the relatively recent separation of liturgy from social thought and action. Both of these developments are serious betrayals, not only of the liturgical movement, but also of the New Testament and patristic traditions, since they deny the Eucharist its rightful educational role.”

These strong, condemning words reflect the downside of liberation theology. This theology developed among the poor and their priests in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1960s. It led to some confrontations with Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1980s and '90s for many reasons, such as turning rather enthusiastically to Marxist principles even as Central and Eastern Europe were being terrorized by their own Communists.

The words at the top reflect the divisiveness of this theology. It derives from a zero-sum, we-they manner of thinking. Zero-sum thinking asserts that there exists a finite amount of resources, and that humans cannot easily create new resources or wealth using, for instance, science and technology. Instead, the wealth and resources that we have are limited, and so the poor must rise up and take by force from the rich through changing social structures or through sheer hatred of people who aren't poor.

The final judgment of liberation theology, as reflected in Romero's Legacy, is that the rich (including middle-class Canadians) are bad and that the poor, wherever they are, are good. This romanticizing of the poor parallels the noble-savage, Garden of Eden ideal that people have concocted for the first nations peoples who lived in Canada before the white man came.

Fortunately, this divisive, zero-sum way of thinking does not completely seize hold of liberation theology. Much of its thrust is to create gainful employment and educational opportunities for the poor. Other issues include clean drinking water, physical and psychological safety from brutalization in war zones, and fighting government and societal corruption.

These are all great ideals, but the devil's snare in liberation theology is ultimately that, like many brands of mainstream and radical feminism, after decades of intellectual and spiritual moaning and groaning, liberation theology cannot seem to grow beyond its need to blame. In this way, liberation theologians tend to call not for restorative justice in the model of post-apartheid South Africa, but for retributive justice.

This failure of liberation theology (and feminism) to move beyond zero-sum thinking harms the fight against poverty, because while these thinkers' blame-game tends to alienate the wealthy and supposedly powerful from sharing their concerns, liberation theology's analysis of structural sin is often bang-on:

“Poor nations have debts even though they have paid off the original loans received back in the 1970s many times over, but they are further in debt now than they were back when they got the original loan. There are structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund forcing nations to cut back on their social programs to pay the debt service, therefore depriving their own people of essential programs.”

Finally, liberation theology has failed to grow up because of its excessive emotionalism (which, again, parallels mainstream and radical feminism): “To be awake and set on fire with passion is the greatest grace that we could ever have.” No, that is not the greatest grace we could ever have, and anyone who writes it, even Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, is not proclaiming the most important part of the gospel – divine grace through Christ's resurrection.

Catholic Education: A Light of Truth

By Dennis Murphy,, 154 pages.

Msgr. Dennis Murphy takes on one of the most timely, contentious matters today – the place of religious values and tradition in education, especially in some form of publicly-funded education. He offers a succinct though not overly-intellectual analysis of secular and postmodern ways of thinking, and how these have affected Canada's education system.

“Secular and postmodern” refers to the tendency nowadays to reject any truth as ultimate, and to believe that the highest truths and satisfactions, spiritual or otherwise, come from within each person. People holding such beliefs reject tradition, especially Catholic tradition, and claim that the latest fad is as good as anything coming out of Rome or the local church.

Importantly, Murphy observes that while it is bad enough when secular people hold such skeptical, cynical, selfish beliefs, it becomes a whole new type of problem when many Catholics also hold these beliefs. Though he only touches on some of the issues arising from suct capricious or cruel or amoral like the Greek gods. The Trinity says that the mystery of God is the relationship ofia concerning their own spiritual and religious heritage.

They also do not understand the fundamentals of the faith, such as the importance and meaning of the Eucharist. Many such Catholics do not know how to behave in Church. Most worrying, these people, though good-hearted and ambitious, often become teachers in the Catholic school system of Ontario.

Murphy claims that we have no one to blame but ourselves if we and all of society misunderstand Catholicism. Msgr. Murphy spends no time pointing his fingers at government officials; he refuses to play the blame game or see Catholics as victims of a vast secular conspiracy. Instead, he simply describes what he sees in secularism, and how a decent Catholic education can be the antidote.

Catholic Education does not get rolled up in educational theory, but spends some time on each of the significant issues. He adopts Ron Rolheiser's thoughts in reminding us that the biggest issue of all – one so frequently forgotten – is the nature of Jesus Christ and the true meaning of basic Catholic belief:

“The Trinity tells us that God is not solitary like the gods of mythology or of many pagan religions. He is not capricious or cruel or amoral like the Greek gods. The Trinity says that the mystery of God is the relationship of persons – Father, Son and Spirit – and the basis of that relationship is love. We are made in that image. That is why we are most happy, most fulfilled, and most godly if you will when we too are in loving relationships. When in some way we are Trinity.”

Building a faith-based community that educates children to be more than financial managers or technocrats overshadows education technique or politics. Murphy gives us a good sense that the Catholic school system should educate the whole person in the freedom offered by the gospel.

The Eucharist: God's Gift for the Life of the World, 70 pages, CA$8.95.

This brief document emphasizes that the Eucharist is so much more than ritual; it involves the core of Christian spirituality, which it defines as the “art of prayer.” This book reflects on the Eucharist as the basis for a mature Catholic interior life, that is, for a relationship with God.

It calls for a large role for Eucharistic adoration so that we can avoid seeing the sacrament as simply a “social ritual;” so that we can have a larger experience of it than simply at Mass. Through adoration, the sacrament can become a larger part of our daily living.

This guide envisions, then, a Eucharistic spirituality as the basis for Catholic living as individuals and as a community. “Contemplating Christ in a state of self-offering and immolation in the Blessed Sacrament teaches us to give ourselves without limit, actively and passively, to the point of being given like the Eucharistic bread which is given from one hand to another in holy communion.”

This thought leads to the next one, which is evangelism: “Does not the One whom we visit and adore in the tabernacle teach us to persevere in love, day in and day out, welcoming the circumstances and events of life and everything about them, leaving out nothing but sin, as we try to produce as much fruit as possible?”

The Eucharist calls for us to “re-evangelize Sunday,” by which we confront, through the Eucharist, contemporary society's hedonism and selfish individualism. But this does not mean that Catholics are to live a renewed clericalism; this Eucharistic life is not about rules or control but about belonging, especially belonging to the Lord.

The Eucharist
starts with individual spiritual growth that encompasses a way of life and a spiritual disposition rather than simply going through the motions of church-attendance, and leads to community-building through love, “for the glory of God and the service of the neighbour.”

The Eucharist is the centre of the individual Catholic and of the Catholic community as well. Because of the communitarian nature of the sacrament, the document calls us to remember – to remember especially Jesus' words of institution and His salvific work on the Cross.

Because of the greatness of this gift, God's Gift for the Life of the World uses traditional words such as “obedience,” “sinners,” “humbled,” and Saint Paul's idea that “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth.” This combines traditional Catholic piety with the more people-centred style of Vatican II.

In other words, the Eucharist plays a central role in the handing on of Catholic tradition from one generation to the next.

But the core of the Eucharist ever remains that of Christ's sacrifice which “reestablishes the communication and communion between heaven and earth, between the God who is love and the humanity who is called to communion with God's love by faith.”

The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming

By Tony Weis, 217 pages, Fernwood Publishing.

“In their quest to increase markets and profits, agro-TNCs [transnational corporations] are relentlessly forging input dependence and standardizing the nature of agriculture production, subjecting soaring farm animal populations to brutalizing treatment, toxifying soils and water and externalizing environmental costs, reshaping dietary aspirations, breaking local bonds between production and consumption, devalorizing labour” and so on.

Tony Weis' above words reflect the harsh reality that The Global Food Economy discusses from a geographic and historical view. He condenses the history of capitalism, from English enclosure (privatization of the land) in the late middle ages until the twentieth century.

He examines the devastation of capitalism on the “commons,” the land held by all and on which people's animals pizza, thout charge to the owners. While enclosure started in England, almost no country has been spared, as it spread throughout Europe and then overseas to the Americas and beyond. As much as 50% of the world's population was affected by this rapid transition after WWII.

Clearly, the people most affected, the peasant-farmers, had no say in this shocking reorganization. In some cases such as China, daily calorie counts went up rapidly. But Weis consistently points out that while many poor people often did benefit, they usually didn't (especially in the long run), and the process inflicted – and continues to inflict – deep ecological damage.

Agribusiness hurt human ecologies by eliminating millennia-old farming cultures and techniques. When people moved from the villages to factories in the cities, they broke with their rural traditions and they failed to pass on their farming knowledge to their children. The food industry replaced this culture with pseudo-culture:

“Also related to branding strategies and the de-spatialization and de-culturation of food is the corporate manipulation of place and culture, with many packaged items given an exotic facade that often bears little or no connection to where the food was actually produced and processed: 'Mexican' corn chips, 'Moroccan' soup, 'Mediterranean' pizza, 'Caribbean' fruit punch, 'Cantonese' spring rolls.”

Weis shows the process and results of the “commodification of everything,” specifically how “sentient life has been commodified” through extreme violence. Ethics of food production no longer revolves around what is good for the community nor around what is the most respectful and least painful for animals and the environment. Instead, industrial agriculture dominates animal life and obeys only “the almighty law of competitiveness.”

Capitalism's imperialism has gone way beyond imperializing humans, to taking over the entire planet. Weis spends a great deal of time examining how agribusiness treats animals. Male chicks are ground live into feed or fertilizer, while the hens are packed, 10,000 to a building, their beaks clipped without anesthetic even though the beak contains dense nerves. Their feet are so cramped that they sometimes grow around the cage. And so on.

The same fate awaits pigs and cows, with male calves quickly removed from their mothers “and sentenced to solitary crates so small they can barely move so as to inhibit muscle development before they are killed for veal after three to four months.”

Good grief.

Canada's Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System

By Jim Harding, 272 pages, Fernwood Publishing, ISBN 9 7815 5266 2267, $24.95.

Jim Harding offers nothing less than a blockbuster with this densely-packed book that will make readers rage at the cynicism of politics. The “Nuclear Development Party” – Saskatchewan's NDP – come off as a particularly nasty bunch.

Harding paints the province's sometimes-fabled left-wing party that brought medicare to Canada as an organization that time and again turned its back on good environmental sense and ignored the clear and constant wish of its grassroots. Once re-elected in 1992, it abruptly rejected the anti-nuclear position it had adopted while in opposition to the Grant Devine Tory government.

The NDP's close dance with nuclear goes back to the venerable Tommy Douglas himself. The author, who idolized Douglas, was shocked when as a young political neophyte he discovered that the Great Leader had such links.

One often thinks that faraway, sparsely-populated flatlands like Saskatchewan have somehow retained their purity. All the nastelling the truth.

“One is really talking about storage ient Saskatchewan right in the eye of the hurricane when it comes to geo-politics. In fact, the province played a vital role in the twentieth-century's love-affair with nuclear bombs and nuclear power.

Harding cuts to the chase quickly, repeatedly, and from countless angles.

First, people can't claim with clear consciences that Saskatchewan uranium is only used for peaceful purposes. It is impossible to know for certain whether the province's uranium ends up in nukes. Second, supposing that it doesn't end up in nukes, when used in America or France's nuclear energy system, Saskatchewan's uranium frees up a corresponding amount of uranium in those countries which they can then put into their weapons programs.

Second, Harding rejects the belief that uranium is a clean fuel. This is wrong for two reasons. The extraction of uranium from the ground takes an exorbitant amount of fossil fuel, and theno matter what the general public wants.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Introduction to his Thought

By Sabine Dramm, Hendrickson, p. 258.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed on Hitler's orders after having endured almost two years in prison for his opposition to the Nazis. Bonhoeffer played a leading role in the formation and leadership of the group of Lutherans that opposed Hitler and became associated with the attempt on the dictator's life in 1944.

Sabine Dramm emphasizes Bonhoeffer's people-centeredness and full participation in building a role for himself in his society:

“Even the final photographs, taken early in the summer of 1944, show him in a group, together with Italian prisoners in the prison courtyard. As he wrote to his friend on August 14, 1944, 'There is ... almost no happiness greater than the feeling that one is valued by others. What is important is not their number, but the intensity of this experience. After all, human relationships are simply the most important thing in life, and even the modern 'career' person cannot change this.'”

These words reflect the different kind of society in which Bonhoeffer lived – one that was still largely based on local community, extended family, and even on agriculture. This society was grappling with the horribly destabilizing effects of industrialization and urbanization, as families broke up, the economy grew further and further away from its agricultural roots, and people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe grew increasingly desperate, eventually allowing the Nazis to take over in Germany and for World War II to start.

Bonhoeffer belongs to the old Christian cultural and spiritual guard of Europe – Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant – that failed to hold society together. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century popes also fought these tough, losing battles to secularism. Sabine Dramm makes clear that Bonhoeffer and his theology had been deeply affected by this Culture of Death even before the specter of the Nazis placed further demands on his theology:

His “reflections on religion-less Christianity and the world come of age make clear that he himself had traveled the road to what has been called in modern times 'the death of God, from Hegel to Nietzsche,' only to go beyond Nietzsche.”

Dramm makes the significant connection between this modern atheism and Nazism, and specifically Bonhoeffer's concrete suffering:

“[T]he theology he developed in Tegel Prison offers his most direct response to Feuerbach's critique of religion....In response to the central point made in Feuerbach's critique of religion – namely that religion is simply a product of human projections – Bonhoeffer presented an interpretation of the Christian proclamation,” which emphasized that “The congruence between the suffering God and suffering man in the Christ-event does not correspond in reality to religious images of God and man.”

Bonhoeffer and his theology incarnate the catastrophes and moral chaos that have resulted from the West's rejection of Christianity and subsequent adoption of extreme individualism, materialism, and secularism. Because he belongs to the increasingly frail and brittle liberal Protestant tradition, contemporary mainstream Christianity tends to overlook him, to its own loss.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Life in Letters: Thomas Merton,

Edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, $27.95, hardcover 402, Harper One.

This collection of letters, covering many of Thomas Merton's interests, demonstrate the depth and breadth of his vocation. A Cistercian monk who lived at Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky, Merton (1915-1968) wrote poetry, theology, an autobiography, and on the contemplative life. This included books on Eastern religions.

The writings found in A Life in Letters witness the unitary, simple roots to Merton's vocation and thinking. Everything he reflected on came from his deep Catholic piety. He knew every corner of the Church's teaching and spirituality even though – or perhaps because – he was a convert.

Thankfully, the editors have left out much of the writing Merton did regarding his agonizing over whether to become a Carthusian or stay a Cistercian and try a hermit's life. The letters we read here tend to avoid some of the self-absorption into which Merton fell from time to time.

While Merton was famously well-versed in ascetic theology, and had become an expert on Western mysticism, through these letters we can see just how grounded he was. He refers to the everyday events around the monastery more than he does to the abstract, precise theology of the masters of Western Christian spirituality.

In fact, Merton spent a lot of time in his correspondence discussing politics, contemporary pop culture, war, and the economy. He deeply disliked the economic and political direction his country was taking, and articulated this from a Catholic viewpoint: “Technology now has reasons entirely its own which do not necessarily take into account the needs of man.”

Like many Catholic writers, including JRR Tolkien, Merton had a fondness for the pre-industrial landscape and the human culture that inhabited it. This drove him to call the economic model of his country diabolical:

“[B]ehind the cloak of specious myths about technology and progress, there seems to be at work a vast uncontrolled power which is leading man where he does not want to go in spite of himself.” Merton pointed to the evil “powers and principalities” about which St. Paul wrote.

War, Catholic spirituality and mysticism, the economy, politics, poetry: Merton somehow tied them all together, showing that modern living is largely incompatible with traditional spirituality. He called for an art of living more than for anything else.

He sometimes took the Church and his order to task because of its own love for power. The Church, being more concerned at times with power than with saving souls, in some ways seemed to parallel the secular world for Merton. In his letters he fearlessly made explicit connections: “The greatest danger is identification of the Church with a prosperous and established economic and cultural system, as if Christ and the world had finally settled down to be friends.”

His frustration over the excessively institutional nature of Catholicism led to fruitful ideas, many of which were in tune with the Vatican II era, of which he was a close part spiritually and theologically.

Yet despite this criticism of the Church, we must be careful not to fall into the mistaken belief that Merton was a sort of hyper-liberal. He simply wasn't ever what many liberal Catholics and Protestants have made him out to be. While he was set-against the war in Vietnam and the nuclear build-up, and supported Martin Luther King Jr., he did so from a very traditional theological basis. While he pushed for social and economic change, as well as for certain reforms in the Church itself so as to give greater place to spirit over institution, he remained solidly orthodox. In fact, he consisently rejected Christian theologies that no longer respected orthodoxy and tradition:

“[M]y coming into the Church was marked by a pretty strong and dazzled belief in the Christ of the Nicene Creed. One reason for this was a strong reaction against the fogginess and subjectivity and messed-upness of the ideas about Christ ... in various kinds of Protestantism. I was tired of a Christ who had evaporated.”

Merton didn't use this orthodoxy to try to cement people into certain roles or institutions. He believed in people and their spirit. This tied together many of his different interests, since it led to a precise, articulate anthropology, one in keeping with the theologians who influenced Vatican II's embrace of personalism and the human individual:

“Christianity is fundamentally humanistic in the sense that its chief task is to enable man to achieve his destiny, to find himself, to be himself: to be the person he is made to become. Man is supposed to be God's helper in the work of creating himself.”

These words reflect the kind of freedom that Merton – echoing the Catholic Church and, later, John Paul II – espoused. This freedom is a freedom for rather than a freedom from; it is a freedom of the spirit that does not lead to sexual confusion and gross materialism. It is a freedom that balances the individual and society; contemplation and action; freedom and duty; spirit and community. If this seems like an enormous task, it wasn't for Merton, since he believed in simple living and humility, in living in harmony with fellow humans and with the environment, something reflected in A Life in Letters.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Formation and Struggles: The Birth of the Church AD 33-200

By Veselin Kesich SVS Press, 206 pages, $18.00.

The author's theological clarity parallels that of our current pope. Kesich offers a sturdy foundation of theology and history, unlike most contemporary scholars. He counters current arguments that depict St. Paul as a woman-hater and the earliest Christians as believing in different theologies.

Because of the turmoil in Church and wider society since the 1960s, we need clarity more than anything else. First, clarity regarding the ancient heresy of gnosticism, since secular academics paint the gnostics as victims of Christian violence and as honouring women and other outcasts.

Formation and Struggles has none of that romanticizing, instead simply and clearly explaining why gnosticism was heretical. Among other things, gnostics misused the Bible: they “'pluck words and sayings and parables from here and there and wish to adopt these words of God to their fables,' making every effort to deceive the inexperienced.”

Second, clarity regarding divisions in the early church. Kesich, unlike most contemporary scholars, emphasizes the almost miraculous ability of Christians in the first two Christian centuries to stay united. Jewish Christians – with their dietary, marital, and health obligations – and gentile Christians made up the two main groups.

These two groups, Kesich writes, united behind their main missionary goals and identical theology concerning Christ's human and divine natures: “It was a bilingual church, praying and worshiping in two languages, Aramaic and Greek. This diversity helped the community to articulate its distinct christological beliefs. The church never existed without creedal statements.”

This last sentence leads to the third piece of clarity. The church never strayed from its mission, and existed from the beginning with core beliefs.

Fourth, Kesich brings clarity to the muddled scholarly debate concerning Christianity's relationship to ancient Greek, Roman, or Egyptian “mystery religions.” These religions had secret initiation practices and dealt with, among other things, people's concerns over fertility and disease.

Current scholars suggest that Christianity was just another mystery religion, since many of these religions had similar rites and beliefs as Christianity, such as a divine being who rises after 3 days. Formation and Struggles sets the record straight by showing how these mystery religions did not originally have similar rites and beliefs, but developed them in their competition with Christianity.

As well, he notes that “The church never lived in a vacuum. The disciples of Christ entered the world to exorcise and transform it. In their mission they used recognizable means of communication.” He also writes that Paul and the churches he established had nothing to do with these mystery religions.

Lastly, Kesich clarifies early Jewish-Christian relations, showing how bitter words in the New Testament pointed at Jews were actually part of an inner-Jewish squabble, with the Jewish Christians taking the heat from the synagogue and temple establishment. Strong words typified inner-Jewish debate.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Human Embryo Adoption: Biotechnology, Marriage, and the Right to Life

By Rev. Thomas V. Berg and Edward J. Furton, editors, 349 pages.

The various authors take on the difficult task of analyzing the moral implications of women adopting frozen embryos that are not their own and carrying them to term as a way to rescue these embryos from “an absurd fate.”

Since the Vatican has not yet given official guidance, we only have previous writings dealing with related issues such as 1987's Donum Vitae from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a document that deals with procreation, but before this current technology was developed.

This is a tough subject, and even a well-read theologian can get discouraged from the following complications:

“Part of the confusion is the effect of separating the procreative from the unitive dimensions of marriage. The whole context of frozen embryos is so divorced from the ordinary, from the understandable, that ordinary moral intuitions are no real guide. Clearly the problem should not have been created in the first place....The context of reproductive technology lacks the sacredness that is a feature of marital love.”

Aquinas 101: A Basic Introduction to the Thought of Thomas Aquinas

By Francis Selman, 219 pages, USD 15.95.

This solid introduction to one of the Doctors of the Church is accessible to anyone interested in a wide-ranging philosophy-oriented analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thought has been so important to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholicism.

It examines Aquinas on the sacraments, good and evil, creation, and the know ability of God. It also includes some biographical material and short introductions to Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine, perhaps the three most important influences on Thomas.

Bioethics Matters: A Guide for Concerned Catholics

By Moira McQueen, 105 pages, $9.95.

This concise, informative book begins at the beginning – by introducing important underlying philosophical and theological currents to modern ethics. This includes utilitarianism, consequentialism, and pragmatism. These are the common ways of thinking in North America now.

When thinking about euthanasia, palliative care, abortion, or suicide, McQueen calls for a Catholic rather than utilitarian approach. When discussing reproductive technologies, McQueen turns to Donum Vitae and the Catholic view of personhood. She avoids starting an argument with philosophers – as this would be neverending - and wisely states that

“Personhood cannot be proved or disproved by philosophical argument; in fact, different jurisdictions have asserted that personhood begins at different times on the human development scale.”

McQueen spends a lot of time examining such tensions between current philosophical-ethical views and that of the Catholic Church.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to Over Sixty Common Protestant Claims

By Dave Armstrong, 141 pages, Sophia Institute, $14.95.

“Excommunication is a formal declaration that a Catholic is 'outside the Church'; because such a person has egregiously diverged from its doctrines, he is excluded from the sacraments and from the Christian fellowship of believers. The purpose of such an exclusion is not to punish the sinner but to encourage him to repent; the goal is restoration, not damnation.”

Dave Armstrong's above words, clear and to the point, counter one of many Protestant misgivings about Catholic teachings.

While many in the ecumenical movement search for sweeping documents by which hierarchies from different churches can show in black and white the resolution of religious differences, a much more forceful ecumenism can happen at the grassroots between lay members of different churches.

Yet such discussions often end in polite deadlock. One reason for this is the ignorance many churchgoers have about their own church. This is particularly true about Catholics. An astounding number of Catholics raised in the post-Vatican II church, whether or not they continue to attend Mass and consider themselves Catholic, are deeply ignorant about countless articles of faith.

This is therefore a good book not only if your cousins are born-again Christians. The One-Minute Apologist is a good read for Catholics trying to understand more deeply their own faith. It addresses the theology of the veneration of Mary and the Saints, the papacy, original sin, the supposed sexism of the male-only priesthood, and whether Catholics are allowed to read the Bible for themselves, something many Protestants apparently still don't believe Catholics do.

Catholics & Fundamentalists: Understanding and Response

Martin Pable, $9.95, 91 pages, Acta Publications.

Pable calls for the middle road between fundamentalism and apathy, between liberals and conservatives. Though short, his book succinctly defines Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim fundamentalism, and also discusses the more moderate versions of these religious communities.

He criticizes American Protestant fundamentalism's lack of “historical perspective,” “unalloyed Christian individualism,” and inconsistency. He traces Protestant fundamentalism to a reaction against the modern, secular world and against liberal Christians' frequent disrespect for the Bible.

Many of these fundamentalist Christians come full circle on certain issues. Instead of following the Protestant ideal and interpreting the Bible themselves, they almost totally depend on their local pastor. Yet they accuse Catholics of robotically accepting Church authority. Pable believes that Protestant churches are more rigid than Catholicism, notwithstanding the Protestant emphasis on freedom and individualism.

Catholics & Fundamentalists comes down hard on Protestant fundamentalists, accusing them of mixing justification with salvation. Protestants erroneously believe that they are going to heaven because of their action at one point in their lives.

Pable criticizes fundamentalist Catholics for being too harsh and judgmental, and for the practice of informing the bishop of priests who stray from perfection at Mass through altered prayer or a relaxed attitude towards some things.

He also criticizes Catholics in general, fundamentalists or not, for lacking the evangelical zeal of Protestants: “Too many Catholics have been catechized and sacramentalized, but not evangelized,” he quotes one bishop as writing. Catholics often fail to reach out to newcomers, need to brush up on their scripture knowledge, and must put Christ at the centre of their lives.

Turning the Wheel: Henri Nouwen and Our Search for God

Edited by Jonathan Bengtson and Gabrielle Earnshaw, 231 pages.

Yet another Nouwen book, but this one comes from a conference on his writing and legacy 10 years after his death. Contributers are from the academic but also pastoral and community leaders. These writers are people who knew Nouwen personally. The book is part scholarly, part personal, part biographical.

Turning the Wheel deals with many of the personal issues Nouwen with which Nouwen had to deal, including extreme loneliness, the coldness of academic life (he was professor of psychology at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale), and his sexuality.

As with many books with academic leanings, it includes strange combinations that can stretch the reader's understanding, including a chapter on “Nouwen, Emerson, and the Emerging of the American Dream.”