Saturday, September 19, 2009

One Hundred Great Catholic Books: From the Early Centuries to the Present

By Don Brophy, 240 pages, Novalis.

Throughout One Hundred Great Catholic Books, the reader can enjoy the author's precise and to-the-point explanations about the complicated intellectual twists and turns of Catholicism:

“Bonaventure, the eminent Franciscan of the thirteenth century, was both a philosopher and a theologian. He was one of the great figures of the High Middle Ages, ranking alongside Aquinas in influence. But while Aquinas was a follower of Aristotle whose world consisted of real objects and perceptions. Bonaventure was influenced by Plato who believed that the world is a reflection of a greater, preexisting principle, which in Bonaventure's terms meant God. It bore God's fingerprints and shone with God's being.”

The author gives us the circumstances in which Bonaventure composed his central book, The Soul's Journey Into God. While Franciscan Minister-General, “he had gone to pray on Mount La Verna in Tuscany – the place where Francis of Assisi's hands and feet were pierced by an angel....It occurred to him that the angel's six wings symbolized the six steps of a soul's ascent to God. Struck by the elegance of the idea,” the saint began on The Soul's Journey Into God.

The strength of One Hundred Great Catholic Books is that the author does not only include the obvious ones. He picks a medieval Arthurian tale by the German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach and points out that this book contains a good deal of pre-Christian symbolism that Christian writers later adapted to the gospel.

Though a weakness of the book is the author's preference for modern writers, this long list of modern books means that even the well-read audience can come across a few surprises. For instance, he includes A Guide For the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher, who reflected a popular Catholic view of economics by stating that the best economic system is based on small-scale capitalism and a belief that we should revere things. Brophy cites interesting words by Schumacher:

“'Anything that we can destroy but are unable to make is, in a sense, sacred, and all our 'explanations' of it do not explain anything.'”

One Hundred Great Catholic Books emphasizes the inclusiveness of the Church by claiming that Hans Kung and Anthony de Mello, two writers at varying degrees of odds with the Vatican (but who have never been officially defrocked), should also have books on this list. She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist call to arms, is also included.

These interesting inclusions reflect the need to avoid whitewashing the troublesome, quarrelsome past few decades of the Church. The Church has faithfully preached the gospel and remained true to itself, but numerous theologians ran far ahead and away from Catholic theology. It will be important in the coming decades to reevaluate these writers and discover what went awry -- why so many well-educated, seemingly well-intentioned theologians ended up in such conflicts with the magisterium.

While orthodox books are always more interesting and balanced than rebellious ones, Brophy's book succeeds by giving the beginning student of theology a simple overview of the Good, the Bad, and the Heretical.

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