Friday, April 30, 2010

Secular Sabotage: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America

By Bill Donohue, $26.99, Faithwords, 258 pages.

Regarding Catholic dissidents, America's Catholic League president Bill Donohue writes: "What would make them happy? It's not clear even the dissidents know at this point. That is why they have become dissidents: they reckon that if they can't get their way, neither should the rank and file get what they want. Indeed, they'd rather be a nuisance than bolt."

Donohue, trained as a sociologist, writes primarily from his personal experiences battling against both Catholic dissidents and secular anti-Catholics – terming them all “nihilists.” A nihilist is someone who wants destruction for the sake of destruction. As Donohue points out, this contrasts with Marxists, who wanted to destroy capitalism so that they could build the perfect socialist society.

Secular Sabotage shows how nihilism has a particularly nasty edge to it. Nihilists don't take responsibility for their actions, nor have any respect for the Catholic individuals or the Church that they attack. They blame the targets of the attacks for the attack, much as Nazis blamed the Jews for antisemitism.

Donohue sees through the nihilist and radical left's smokescreens. These people, he notes, love humanity in the abstract, but have little respect or love for real people. They go so far in their disrespect of people to disrespect democracy, which is why such radicals rely on judicial activism in Western countries to overturn Judeo-Christian values.

Donohue as Catholic League president has had to fight a constant stream of lies and slander against the Church and Christianity, such as the claim – often made by Catholic dissidents – that the Church has more than 1 teaching on abortion.

Other lies and slander include: the Church has long opposed science; America's founding fathers were not deeply Christian; the separation of Church and state means that religion cannot enter the public sphere (when in fact, while that was allowed, the state's interference in religion was what was actually meant); the notion that pedophile priests result from the vow of chastity, when Richard John Neuhaus and others have correctly argued that if these men had been following their vows in the first place the pedophilia would never have happened.

Donohue's words often capture the spirit of opposition to the Church, such as the following: "Fixated on church-state issues, the ACLU has had much to say about paring back religion's role in society, but precious little about its free exercise. That's because the ACLU actually fears religion."

Radical feminists also hate and fear the Church and its stances on human sexuality and reproduction, and carry this hatred into the whole world, including the diplomatic world of the U.N. Donohue notes the "prevalence of anti-Catholicism" at the 1994 U.N Cairo Conference on Population and Development.

Secular Sabotage reflects the fact that Donohue is a tough character, which probably comes from having to fight a multi-frontal assault against his Church. He doesn't avoid examining the role of Catholics themselves in this malice, singling out nuns and sisters as having been particularly hurtful to the Church: "Most Catholics ... would be shocked to learn just how out of control some of these nun/activists have become." Donohue's hope for the Church and society is a tough hope. He doesn't seem ready to give up the fight just yet.

Friday, April 23, 2010

As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

By Catherine Clare Larson, 284 pages, Zondervan.

"And so they worked, former murderers and survivors, pressed together inside a small yard, breaking the hard, bitter outer shell away from the sustaining grain."

Larson's above words testify to the entire point of this book and the hoped-for result of forgiveness: It is to restore community and trust after violence has shattered those things. Forgiveness, she notes, is "fundamentally, a social action with social implications." As We Forgive teaches that such forgiveness is not easy, but can only come by acknowledging the truth. Rwanda's violence between the Hutus and Tutsis, which peaked after April, 1994, in the violence against Tutsis and Hutu moderates, is presented through the personal stories of both victims and killers.

Decades of division and rivalry, sponsored by the colonialist Belgians, led to political domination by the Tutsis, and violent outbursts following political unrest, such as when the Tutsi king died in 1959.

After the violence of 1994, victims and perpetrator would often run into each other as they went about their daily business. Thus the rebuilt communities were fragile, in danger of falling back into terrible violence.

Larson presents the mysterious force of evil and violence alongside the mysterious force of goodness and forgiveness, believing firmly that the latter will win out because it is stronger and can build something. However, that construction is long and arduous, and absolutely necessary because the extreme violence of Rwanda changed the hearts for many for the worse:

"After killing, Saveri was changed. 'Something happened to me,' he said. 'I was not the same. I was void of peace in my heart from that moment.'" The demonic forces unleashed by the violence had deep roots not only because of the personal implication of people such as Saveri, but because of the "psychological foundations for this violence which the Hutu government had taken great pains to build before the slaughter had even begun.

In addition to looking at how survivors learn to forgive, inspired by Christ, As We Forgive makes the extremely important point of reflecting on the psychological and spiritual harm suffered by the killers by their own acts. People like Saveri were themselves deeply broken, and in need of counseling and forgiveness.

Christian leaders have been doing much of the community rebuilding work in Rwanda, because trust and transparency can only be re-established through the transformative gift of forgiveness. As We Forgive portrays pastors who have gone to the prisons to talk with the killers, trying to bring Christ to them even as the prisoners, stuffed into overcrowded prisons, try to come to terms with their guilt.

Only when they confess and receive forgiveness from their victims can the killers move on from their own brokenness. The victims themselves also experience a new freedom when they confront and then forgive their family's killers. Monique experienced this freedom only after walking for hours into the district where her violator still lived, knocking on his door and announcing to him that she forgave him, before turning around and walking back home.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

After the Hangover

By R. Emmett Tyrrell, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 272 pages.

Emmett Tyrrell tells the history and perspectives of the conservative movement in the US through the personalities involved. After the Hangover shows that these thinkers, originally a tightknit group fighting against the tide of big-government Liberals in the 1950s and after, changed the political landscape in the country, eventually leading to the Reagan years.

Readers get a strong sense of the major ideas of conservatives, including the belief in individual freedom, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. For conservatives, the human is a mixture of good and bad, perfectly capable of choosing virtue yet easily swayed in the other direction. Government cannot legislate virtue. If someone is forced to do good deeds, rather than freely from his heart, it is not virtue.

Tyrrell calls on conservatives to quit the careerism and backbiting that became pronounced, he argues, during the Second Bush years. As one way to avoid this, conservatives must continue to work at changing American culture, and not only politics. The author fears many of the projects, including Obamacare, that are currently remaking America. Yet he confidently believes that conservatives are in or near the center of American life, even if the Liberals control the media and universities.

Aside from a few swipes at conservative personalities such as William F. Buckley's son, which tend to be confusing rather than informative, Tyrrell offers a solid introduction of the main beliefs and characters of American conservatism from the mid-twentieth-century onwards.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology

By Martin C. Albl, 402 pages, Saint Mary's Press.

Albl shows how philosophy is critical to explaining Catholic theology. Bad philosophy can harm the Church's message just as much as bad theology can. Modern secular philosophy, he notes, starves itself intellectually by cutting itself off from the transcendent. It has rejected God and believes that the materialist universe is all there is – hence the term "materialism."

While Catholic thinkers believe that God gave humans freedom, materialists often believe in determinism, which claims that human actions and feelings are determined by brain biochemistry. They have no spiritual or ethical meaning.

This philosophy believes that "nothing is sacred," questioning all authority including the Church and scripture. Albl argues that this is faulty, and that such thinking damages the proclamation of the gospel. Only after this beginning does he get into Catholic theology proper.

Albl introduces Catholic theology with this philosophical landscape in mind. He addresses the many criticisms the Church often faces, such as the atheist criticism that theology relies too much on authority. He shows that scientists themselves depend on their own traditions and authorities, and that new theories must break through the old guard to gain acceptance. The Big Bang theory took a long time to get accepted because its opponents feared that it left room for a Creator.

Albl shows how Catholicism, through its belief in a rational universe with a rational Creator, opened the way to science and empirical study. Thus clerics opposed astrology and alchemy as superstitions because they were not rational enough.

Reason, Faith, and Tradition examines how reason is nourished by the transcendent through the Church's natural law tradition. The Church claims that the truth is written on every human heart. We all have a sense of right and wrong even without revelation. We can discover this though reasoned examination of the conscience:

"Natural ethical laws are simply guidelines that correspond with our human nature; our reason allows us to recognize these rules."

Albl demonstrates how the faith is reasonable, though we have to believe first. A miracle, then, is a break in the normal functioning of nature's laws. But many miracles, including Jesus' healing miracles, acted to restore the normal, natural functioning of something. Jesus making the blind see is a restoration of the natural functioning of the eyes. Miracles therefore restore nature to its rightful state. In this sense, a miracle can be accepted with the eyes of faith as reasonable, and not only as a superstitious or fideistic belief. Miracles reasonably fit into God's providential care of humans and of all creation.

Albl handles the challenging question of the trinity with precision, clearly explaining the relationship between the 3 persons of the trinity after first explaining what theologians mean by "person." He also distinguishes between the "economic trinity" and the "immanent trinity." The former regards the persons of the trinity as they relate to humans and creation, while the latter examines how the persons of the trinity relate to one another, with no reference to humans or creation.

While Reason, Faith, and Tradition may at first seem like an overly-challenging read, because of Albl's adherence to the clarity and simple explanations of good philosophy, it is good for people of many levels of theological understanding.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Mass of the Early Christians

By Mike Aquilina, 255 pages, Our Sunday Visitor.

The wonderful, almost poetic concluding chapter stands out in this excellent, beginner-friendly yet academic-oriented look at the ancient Mass.

Aquilina imagines a worship day in the life of a persecuted Christian in the Roman Empire – getting up before sunrise and dressing without light so as not to attract the attention of Roman authorities on the lookout for suspicious activities on Sunday (so they could gather up the local Christians); leaving the still darkened house alone or by two and taking secretive, back-ways to the gathering; finally finding the old house of a converted aristocrat, now used mainly as a Christian gathering place and home for the bishop and his priests; and to find within survivors of past repressions, people with scars and missing fingers.

The rest of the book also opens the reader's imagination. Rather than a dry read or a systematic, historical run-through, the majority of the book centers on the church fathers and ancient bishops who developed the theology behind the rite. This leads to interesting reading because a lot of the writings are cryptic references – allegorical, in other words. Ancient Christians felt that the Eucharistic prayer should not be written down for the general reading public, but kept secret.

These early believers also practiced secrecy around this prayer for people at the Mass, as catechumens had to leave after Bible readings were finished.

Aquilina successfully bridges the ancient with the post-Vatican II Mass by emphasizing the humanness, including this deep reverence and respect for the Mass and the sacraments, and the similarities in prayer and practice.

How to Pray With the Bible

By Karl A. Schultz, 157 pages, Our Sunday Visitor.

Karl Schultz shows how the Bible can and should be the chief prayer book of Christians. He combines biblical insights with spiritual wisdom to show that even in this fast-paced world church-goers can live a prayerful, Christ-centered life.

He argues that Christians must let scripture judge their lives, rather than the opposite. Spiritual growth through biblical wisdom counters pride and emphasizes lectio divina, or sacred reading.

The author warns against having agendas for the prayer life: “Praying with the Bible is a dialogue whose objective is not agenda fulfillment and achievement, but rather awareness, acceptance, assimilation, and actualization of God's word and providence, that is, His will and plan for us.”

He therefore avoids “complex theories or esoteric jargon,” because these do not apply to a life of prayer. He also avoids New Age stuff, and occasionally explains why New Age eclecticism is as harmful as rigid dogmatism. (Eclectics take a bit from every belief and point of view, and create an inedible spiritual or religious stew.)

Schultz' no-nonsense, direct approach to spirituality and lectio divina strengthens the book and helps him to avoid the wishy-washy feel that some spiritual writers develop.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Story of the Church

By Alfred McBride, 310 pages, $16.95.

McBride does not mince his words at some of the faults of the Church in history, such as in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, "when it became clear that monarchy was a dying institution. Altar clung to throne and both tumbled in the chaos of various revolutions."

Yet he goes through the trouble of showing that the roots of even the Church's mistakes in every historical era were well-intentioned. At the end of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes had devastated Western Europe, and no government infrastructure existed. The Church led by the pope endeavored to meet the people's physical needs, providing cheap food, managing abandoned farms, and collecting taxes. This papal government was so successful that the Church came to rule a large part of Italy, known as the papal states. This material success led to later corruption of the papacy, but many pope's reformed the office and thereby created new opportunities for evangelization.

The Story of the Church shows how the Church would often become the victim of its own success and sense of service. The Benedictine monastery at Cluny was established in 910 and emphasized the beauty of the liturgy over manual work. It became the greatest religious movement, and was so materially successful and its liturgy so beautiful and intricate that about 200 years later people began to look for something more austere.

Thus the simple, hardworking Cistercians grew at a great pace in the twelfth century, especially after St. Bernard of Clairvaux joined. This order moved into the forests and swamps of Europe, and became successful at farming new lands. They too became materially successful and lost their original zeal. By this time, the rural orders were being eclipsed by the Franciscans and Dominicans, who evangelized in the fast-developing medieval cities such as London, Cologne, and Paris.

McBride follows the natural renewing energy of the Holy Spirit in the Church through the major personalities involved and through some fiction. He invents dialogues or short stories to bring the reader closer to the saints and sinners, surrounding each of these with historical and theological analysis, often reflecting on the meaning for today.

McBride also constantly reminds us that because the Holy Spirit has always been with the Church, the Church has never lost its mission of service, even though this service has often hurt the position of the Church in the world. For example, the Black Death of 1347-51 and later episodes, hurt the clergy disproportionately because many priests and friars stayed behind in the towns and cities to minister to the dying, thereby catching the Plague themselves. The Church lost thousands of priests and friars, and many orders had to lower their entry requirements, leading to the later corruption that troubled Martin Luther and others.

The Story of the Church takes a long look at the Church in the modern world, including its collisions with American and modern, liberal culture. Despite all of this, and the controversies and divisions from Vatican II, for McBride, the Holy Spirit is doing the same work of making saints for all the world to see:

"Who would believe that a small woman working in the slums of Calcutta would become the most famous and recognizable woman in the world? Who could expect a woman wearing a blue and white sari to have powers of persuasion with cardinals, bishops, mayor and heads of state eager to be seen with her and do what she wanted?"

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Francis & His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Order

By Dominic V. Monti, 166 pages, St. Anthony's Messenger Press.

St. Francis and his brotherhood answered a deep need of the Church of medieval Italy, as the older institutional forms and practices had not been meeting the pastoral needs of rapidly-changing society. A new, urban merchant and professional class was keen for a bigger place in the world, including within Christianity. They sought a personal, intimate spirituality somewhat at odds with the early medieval, rural, monastic spiritual life, according to Monti:

“Attracted to the Gospel portrayed by Jesus and his first disciples, more people came to think that a truly 'apostolic life' should be poor and humble, divorced from feudal wealth and power, and engaged in evangelical preaching.”

Francis' acceptance of the life of poverty, though he was form this merchant class, can be seen therefore as a stunning, even revolutionary move. He did not directly oppose the socio-economic direction of society, but through his saintly, simple life, offered Christians another choice. The Church could make room for him because at this time many eccentrics had taken on the penitential life. Yet Francis' saintliness and vision changed far more hearts than other penitentials did, and the Church would have to accommodate this new, energetic order.

Monti shows how the institutionalization of the movement, which occurred while Francis was still alive, diminished much of the original charism. This caused tremendous grief and division within the order and the Church itself. Victims of their own numerical success, the Franciscans soon set up their own educational and administrative structures, moving from the radical to the normal part of society and the Church.

The radical wing of the Franciscans never accepted this accommodation, even with the exemplary pastoral skills of St. Anthony of Padua (actually from Lisbon; died 1231) and the skilled uniting leadership of St. Bonaventure (General Minister, 1257-75). The Spiritual movement died with the burning at the stake of 4 of their members in 1318.

Francis & His Brothers captures the wider social, political, and economic issues of the day, and how this influenced the Franciscans. The Black Death (1347-51) decimated their numbers; the Great Schism of the papacy (1378-1417) divided them as much as it did the rest of Europe; the Reformation saw Franciscans kicked out of some countries, but some members joining the Protestants; and Franciscans and Capuchins (founded in 1529) played a central role in the evangelization of the New World.

The eighteenth-century's Enlightenment, which targeted the Church more than anything else, led to much suffering within Catholicism and the Franciscan orders. The French Revolution persecuted the Church, including the Franciscan orders, but Catholicism staged a rapid, stunning comeback in Western Europe, so that things were in full swing again by the late 1800s.

Vatican II and the vast social changes of the following decades in Europe and North American means that for today, the order finds its greatest growth and energy in countries like India and Poland. Perhaps Monti could have been more critical of some of the excesses of Franciscans involved in liberation theology, as well as the sometimes-schmaltzy spirituality of Catholic groups, including some Franciscans, after Vatican II. Like many Catholic writers, he seems to fear making strong judgments against the failed spiritual practices that have turned many people away from the Church.