Friday, October 30, 2009

American Babylon: Notes of an American Exile

By Richard John Neuhaus, Basic Books.

The late Father Neuhaus takes on America's morally relativist intelligentsia in his new book, principally by focusing on the late philosopher Richard Rorty, whom the author sees as one of the bedrock voices of relativism.

Neuhaus spends considerable effort explaining how the thin American understanding of church results in a too-great sanctification of the country. In this erroneous view, America replaces the church, and people bestow on the country a sacred calling that no state or political endeavor should or could ever have.

In fact, America to a large degree parallels the Babylon of ancient Israelite exile. America, or any country, is exile for Christians because Christians ultimately give their hearts to heaven, not to mammon and country. Humans must work within the world, just as the prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites in Babylon that they should work for the betterment of their new country. Yet this kind of progress occurs only when people of faith, then or now, look to a higher good than the world:

“What we should have learned from the past 200 years, and especially from the catastrophes of the twentieth century, is that history is not the answer to the question that is history.” History can only “participate in its own redemption” when it recalls its higher purpose, thus when “the transcendent and the immanent, the infinite and the finite, are so conjoined,” Neuhaus argues.

American Babylon examines some of the awful ethics thinking brought about by the current round of relativism, including that of professor Peter Singer, who takes controversial positions on animals rights and eugenics:

“His ethical theory exults in its liberation from particular time and place and from the authoritative references that have shaped our traditions of the moral life.” Like Rorty, Singer believes that the moral truth is what we say the moral truth is. Without a higher reference, based on religious and ethical traditions like Christianity, the possibility of not only abortion but also infanticide is open to humans.

The heart of this book is Neuhaus' discussion on Rorty, the great American relativist who like Singer and Nietzsche believed that humans make up their morality, and so can change their ethical thinking at any time. Ethics, like everything else, is a will to power for these thinkers.

Rorty's manner of ethical and philosophical relativism is highly relevant to Catholics and any one who cares about right and wrong. People with his attitude confront Christians almost every day when the religious and ethical issues arise.

Since for Rorty right and wrong do not exist outside of human definitions of right and wrong, he thinks it is imperative that liberals try to change the way people talk about ethical issues because we will never be able to solve our irreconcilable differences. Rorty invites his followers to simply duck the whole debate.

First, people can turn the deep, serious ethical conversation into something lighthearted. They can tease and joke and “josh” the concerned person of morals into giving up the conversation. If this doesn't work, good old-fashioned ignoring can work as well.

Thus we see on university campuses the attempt by pro-choice groups to limit or deny campus and student union services to pro-life groups. Rather than inviting an open, honest, and intellectual debate, pro-choice groups simply shut down the conversation and define the issue as how they see fit. In other words, from their more powerful position they simply will the debate to go away.

Such groups believe that they are creating a morality-free public zone, and that Catholics and others can keep their religious and ethical thoughts off campus and in their homes, safely out of sight. Yet Neuhaus doesn't buy this argument. American Babylon is a search for the proper response to such people, and an attempt to show just how moralizing and value-laden these secularists really are.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Personhood in Islam and Christianity: Harmony in John Paul II and Seyyed Hossein Nasr

By Brian Welter

1. Dignity and Rights

2. Male and Female

3. Sexuality

4. The Economy, Work and Leisure

5. Community and Hierarchy

6. Creation

7. Philosophy, Science, and Knowledge

8. God and Being

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World

By Stephen Mansfield, 273 pages hardcover, Thomas Nelson.

More a biography of the family and corporation than of the beer, The Search for God and Guinness nevertheless interweaves several interesting strands, including history, beer-making, and vast societal change. Mansfield keeps the storyline close to the people involved, painting interesting, believable, well-researched character portrayals.

The religious temper of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries played a major role in the company, from the top down and from the beginning. Company founder Arthur Guinness was influenced by evangelical preacher John Wesley, “who inspired him [Guinness] to use his wealth and talents to care for the hurting of mankind. Taking Scripture as his guide, Arthur did indeed serve the needy of his time and did indeed try to use his gifts in honor of his God.”

Mansfield is a good theologian, and emphasizes the consistent outlook of the company and family, inspired as they were by this founding vision. The Guinness Company looked after its employees until the 1960s in almost unmatched, revolutionary ways, educating them, providing doctors, nurses, and social workers, and even offering housing assistance.

The Guinness Company was also at the forefront of technological change, including the logistics to bring its product to the Caribbean and West Africa, and the Japanese-like attention to detail and drive to constantly improve in all areas.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Conscience

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI, hardcover 82 pages.

“Morality of conscience and morality of authority, as two opposing models, appear to be locked in a struggle with each other,” writes then-Cardinal Ratzinger, getting to the heart of the matter.

On Conscience, from talks he gave to American bishops, reflects the brilliance of the current pope. His great strength is his integrative, holistic view. His many writings look to different eras and geographic locations, and from theology, philosophy, Greek mythology, and the current cultural situation in developed countries such as Canada.

As with Pope John Paul II, much of Cardinal Ratzinger-Benedict XVI's teachings have addressed the descent of freedom into immoral license in modern societies, where individuals believe they can do whatever they please:

“[T]he identification of conscience with superficial consciousness, the reduction of man to his subjectivity, does not liberate but enslaves. It makes us totally dependent on the prevailing opinions, and debases these with every passing day.”

The decay of modern society into instant gratification sounds too depressing; many people, even Catholics, wish that the magisterium would simply relax and lay off of the moralizing.

But the sharp analysis of Cardinal Ratzinger-Benedict XVI's words help us see the immaturity of this request: “First, conscience is not identical to personal wishes and taste. Second, conscience cannot be reduced to social advantage, to group consensus, or to the demands of political and social power.”

Cardinal Ratzinger skillfully offers the Catholic theological insight behind the true meaning of freedom, and once again parallels John Paul II's writings:

“The love of God, which is concrete in the commandments, is not imposed on us from without ... but has been implanted in us beforehand. The sense for the good has been stamped upon us, as Augustine puts it....The true nature of the Petrine office [the papacy] has become so incomprehensible in the modern age no doubt because we think of authority only in terms that do not allow for bridges between subject and object. Accordingly, everything that does not come from the subject is thought to be externally imposed.”

The author emphasizes a special kind of remembering, which he calls anamnesis. He believes that this reflects the Christian belief of a divine spark within each of us. This spark allows us a special kind of knowing that is similar to remembering. Made in God's image, when we hear the Gospel, we experience a kind of remembering or returning back to our true selves as God made us. Here, in our true selves, we find our true freedom.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII

By Dan Kurzman.

Kurzman writes: “Finally, [Gerhard] Gumpert argued that the only answer was to tap the Vatican's influence—indirectly. The two men then considered how to achieve this, and came up with a devious maze of intrigue. They wrote a letter to General Stahel, who was sympathetic to their cause, requesting that the arrests be halted. They then asked a 'high Vatican official,' Bishop Alois Hudal, rector of the German Catholic Church in Rome, Santa Maria dell'Anima, to sign it because he was reputed as being pro-Nazi and would have special credibility.”

A Special Mission, written by a veteran foreign affairs journalist, moves as quickly through the maze of Nazi and diplomatic intrigue as an Indiana Jones movie. It deals with good guyound out that if he spoke out against the atrocities against the Jews, they would feel forced to kidnap him and take him to Germany or actions—or inactions, as some critics assert—of Pope Pius XII during the holocaust. It mainly focuses, however, on the Nazi evil-doings in Rome, and particularly as how they affected the pontiff. The Nazis could never decide on whether to murder Italy's Jews and / or to kidnap the pope, though both plots had been put into motion to varying degrees.

The Nazis in Germany failed to convince their Nazi German underlings in Italy to carry out these deeds because by this time, 1943, it was clear that the war was slipping away from Germany and that the Allies would win or that some compromise with the Brits and Americans would be necessary to fend off the Soviet threat, which even menaced Italy.

Kurzman clearly appreciates Pope Pius' predicament: “The strongest justification offered for Pius's public silence was that any papal protest would provoke Hitler into drastic retaliation. The pope's supporters argue that because Dutch prelates protested vehemently against Hitler's deportations in Holland, several hundred additional victims, mostly Jewish converts, including Edith Stein, the philosopher, were dragged out of Church institutions to their death.”

Also, the pontiff had found out that if he spoke out against the atrocities against the Jews, they would feel forced to kidnap him and take him to Germany or a neutral place. Kurzman argues that Pius did not fear being kidnapped, but feared more than anything Nazi reprisals against the Catholic Church not only in Germany but across Europe.

Kurzman, though thorough in his historical research, is more the journalist in his rendition of events, surmising dialogue between various players and focusing on the peculiarities and relationships of the men, which makes for interesting reading:

“Miglione [the Vatican Secretary of State] thus followed, often with frustration, the priorities set by Pius, especially in his conversations with the German bishops. He didn't mention the extermination camps but stressed the need to save the treasures of Rome and the Vatican. Why provoke a backlash? Why stir up a storm with Catholics who, intimidated by Hitler, might feel it necessary to declare their primary loyalty to him?”

A Special Mission offers us another slice of this great tragedy of modern history. Unafraid to ask hard questions about the Catholic leadership during the war, it also does not unduly criticize or negate the Magisterium's good intentions.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Contemplative Reading of the Gospel series of three books: Matthew: The Journey Toward Hope

Series also contains Mark: The Risk of Believing; Luke: The Song of God's Mercy, by Elena Bosetti, Pauline Books.

Sister Elena Bosetti has written three excellent, simple books that combine contemporary scholarship with an interactive, spiritual perspective. The chapter on parables in the book on Luke is particularly instructive. First, she neatly defines parables: “They dynamically involve their listeners, challenging them personally and arousing them to critical judgment on the situation being presented and, implicitly, on the reality to which the parable alludes.” She then discusses the Greek origins of this word, parabol√©, before drawing on the rich Hebrew use of parable in an exchange between Nathan the prophet and King David. Lastly, before beginning her study of the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep in the Gospel of Luke, she offers a prayer for her readers: “We will dedicate this lectio to allowing ourselves to be evangelized by this delightful parable.”

Bosetti follows this general formula of information-Greek scholarship-spiritual direction throughout the three books, which makes the series interesting to all sorts of people. She avoids oversimplifying the academic side, and challenges the reader with some punchy personal questions that prevent the reading from becoming dry.

The author therefore occasionally adopts the role of prophet, as in her interesting discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, where she proclaims, “There is no excuse instead for our laziness and injustice. If the Master calls the poor blessed, it is not so that the rich can rest easy.”

In this part of Matthew she enters into the entire Catholic tradition, first in explaining the Greek roots to the word 'cathedra', where Jesus sits down on the Mount not to rest but, professor-like, to teach. Second, she adds, “This image was the inspiration for the magnificent mosaic decorating the apse of St. Apollinaris Church in Rome. In the mosaic, the disciples are depicted as sheep that the Master feeds with his word.” Bossetti links the origins and biblical rendition to the artistic and intellectual heritage of the faith. She gives Catholics a sense of the biblical roots of spirituality.

Her scholarly lay-outs for the three gospels help to clarify their message and flow. Through simple diagrams, she simplifies even the long and somewhat complicated set-up of Matthew. She also lays out on the same page the gospel parallels, that is, the same stories or information told in two or more of the gospels. Both lay-out techniques help readers unfamiliar with the basic scholarly approach to the Gospels to understand quickly some of the issues.

Because of her “Dialoguing with the Word” approach throughout these works, where she has us, for instance, prayerfully situate ourselves at the Jordan River at the time of Jesus' baptism, she never swamps the reader with her academic tendencies.