Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sex Au Naturel: What It Is and Why It's Good For Your Marriage

By Patrick Coffin, 134 pages, Emmaus Road.

A small book that packs a lot of punch, Sex Au Naturel counters secularism's lies about sexuality, procreation, and family through clear arguments and strong philosophy. Coffin's method shows that secularism's way of arguing, with its dollar-sense and false notion of rights, needs to go the way of the dodo because of its profoundly evil, culture of death orientation.

By separating sex from babies, society has dehumanized us all. Children are no longer seen as gifts, but as nuisances. Then, when they are desperately wanted, prospective parents claim them as "rights", demanding reproductive technology services. Coffin makes the point that the abortion and IVF (in vitro fertilization) industries are tightly connected.

They are also linked by the same mindset: Whether a child is seen as a nuisance to be contracepted or aborted out of existence, or fabricated into life by a lab tech (with the attendant tossing away of the less-than-desirable fertilized ova), the person is dehumanized. The lab, the government and its regulations, the parent or parents (which include all manner of male-female, single-couple combinations) regard the clump of cells as if it is a product.

Coffin shows with his excellent Catholic reasoning that it all begins from the acceptance of contraception. This leads to abortion, and thence to reproductive technologies, which enable designer babies.

The commodification of babies, and therefore of all of us.

The Church has been crystal clear throughout its history, despite the claims by dissenting post-Vatican II theologians. The encyclical Casti Connubi, released in 1930, was Pope Pius XI's response to the Anglican Church's acceptance of contraception, and used much tougher language than the non-combative Humanae Vitae. The popes and Vatican II have been remarkably consistent on this teaching.

Coffin puts things into perspective. Humanae Vitae came out at the most raucous point of the de-civilizing work of the 1960s, with the sexual revolution and feminism in full swing.

The author offers his own experience at a Canadian Catholic university, where the nice professors, not out to destroy anyone's faith deliberately, were nonetheless dissenting theologians. In fact, some of the speakers invited to the Catholic campus, a who's who of theological rebels, were on the way out of Christianity altogether, having long ago jettisoned their Catholic beliefs.

Again, as any good Catholic theologian, Coffin turns to natural law. He notes that moral theology's main argument against abortion and contraception has long relied on the natural law. Humanae Vitae used this line of reasoning extensively.

Coffin offers a clear and much-needed definition of the natural law. It is human participation in divine wisdom, accessible to all humans and not only through the Bible or the Church. All humans everywhere have this law of good and bad written on their hearts. The 10 Commandments, aside from the enjoinder to keep the Sabbath, are a recapitulation of the natural law.

By rejecting this law, modern secular society has turned its back on historic Church teaching and has created the culture of death. Sex without procreation is a cornerstone of this society.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture

By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 163 pages, Paraclete Press.

Hartgrove asks readers to stop and ask themselves for a minute where they are and where they are headed. The modern world's "placelessness" contrasts with the rootedness required by spiritual growth.

The Bible and the Christian tradition are filled with journeys, certainly, but also with the advice that we can grow only when we confront our demons rather than run from them. We face them when we find stability. The desert fathers found their greatest demons, their greatest spiritual warfare, in their caves, alone with their thoughts.

Hartgrove returns repeatedly to the wisdom of the monastery in ancient Egypt and with the Benedictines. He writes simply of the integration of this spirituality of place into anyone's daily life:

"Stability of heart does not come naturally. But the simple rhythms of tending to body and soul - making oatmeal and saying prayers, keeping house and singing songs - bring me back to a center, to a still point that is fixed in this place."

Throughout the book, Hartgrove repeats his commitment to his physical home in a decaying part of gunshot, drug-dealing urban America. He blames restlessness for this violence, as Americans are always physically moving in the quest for the better-paid jobs.

His small, college-town city, on the way to somewhere else for thousands of students, is never a place where people put down roots. Drugs and violence result, as transient students fail to build true community.

The author warns that more and more American neighborhoods are places to somewhere else, where the fabric of community is unwinding.

America and its culture is placelessness, a sort of spiritual and community violence. People cannot put down roots and develop a community, yet neither can they put down roots to fight their personal demons. We find those demons not only in the mundane of daily life, but also in the daily grind of community.

With humor, Hartgrove reminds us of the value of clashing with others. Fighting can be good, and can draw us closer together.

The spiritual struggle is a battle over community-building, the author notes: "standing on my front porch surveying a neighborhood that has both suffered and survived this death-bound system, I cannot help noticing how our spiritual struggle is inextricably tied to this place - its heat and humidity, its highways and horticulture."

Ever the observer of practical things, he argues that one of the great tragedies of his community was the interstate highway, which made it easier for people to move to the big city. It connected his town to the wider world, and the exciting call of the wider world stole many.

The author admits, then, that even when someone does commit to staying put, community is often lacking because no one else has stayed put. Even the crack dealers move on or get arrested.

This lack of community gives modern North Americans a close spiritual connection to the desert fathers, who lived isolated lives on the fringes of their society. Anyone wanting to build community and stay somewhere is likewise on the fringe, as we have become a society without a center.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Center of the World

By Barnaby Rogerson, 482 pages, Overlookpress.

Swashbuckling Portuguese overran the African coast town by town, fortress by fortress, in the name of loot and trade, and Christ. Money and religion were rarely so bound together as during the period between 1450 and 1590, as European countries, especially Spain and Portugal, built the first wave of colonies in the Muslim world, the Americas, and towards the Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese and Spanish brought a new, moneyed and power-oriented sense into Christianity and the notion of being a part of Christendom.

Concerning the ruthlessness of Ferdinand of Aragon, Rogerson notes, "Ferdinand used 'the colour of religion' to bind the Spanish people in obedience to him."Thankfully, the author does not make the common mistake of blaming Christianity and religion in general for the violence. He skillfully separates religion from power and moneyed-interests.

Again, he judges King Ferdinand's motives objectively: "Ferdinand's diplomacy was ruthless, cunning and duplicitious... Beneath the front of a Europe-wide holy crusade he had plotted the annexation of two neighbouring Christian states and betrayed both his cousins and his allies."

This understanding of the King of Aragon can be extended to the period as a whole. Medieval Christendom's deep penitential piety was long-forgotten. All players, Muslim or Christian, traded on religious zeal like they did in gold dust and ivory. Not surprisingly, the French favored diplomacy with the Muslim Turks over an anti-Ottoman alliance with Christian Emperor Charles V.

Much of the book examines the growth in trade around the Mediterranean and the world. Portugal was the first to tap into the North and West African trade routes, transforming itself from Europe's forgotten backdoor into a thriving, wealthy leader. The purity of Portugal's gold crowns rivaled the coinage of Florence and Venice, and was sought by all of Europe. The kingdom also opened up direct trade between Indian and Europe.

Portugal excelled at Christian propaganda, and fronted its expansion with Christian crusading rhetoric, using medieval chivalric orders in the fighting. The kingdom became the inspiration of all of Christendom, and was along with Spain the only powers able to fight back against the Muslims.

Rogerson details the bureaucratic and military efficiency of the Ottomans, and their legendary rulers and highly-disciplined janissaries, the only professional standing army of the time. Its corps came from the "blood tax," the practice whereby the Ottomans took a fifth of all young men from its Christian lands. These men had to convert to Islam and remain single until their military service had finished.

Just as the Spanish and Portuguese seemed impossible to stop in their constant march against the Moroccans and West Africans, so the Ottomans kept taking over bits and pieces of the Balkans. Without the heroic Hungarian Janos Hunyadi, who knows how far the Turks would have gone. This Hungarian did revive something of the romantic Christian warrior:

"He first emerged, like some personification of their ancient god of war, and the Battle of Semendria in 1437, riding into the battle as an unknown knight, on his shield a black raven with a golden ring in its beak."

The Last Crusaders recounts the tales of Muslim and Christian men, most of whom were motivated by far less noble ideals than religion.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Catholics Are Right

By Michal Coren, 228 pages, Mcclelland.

Canadian journalist and writer Michael Coren addresses much of the basic Catholic-bashing that has become a normal part of culture. Rather than defensive, he often takes the battle to the atheists and liberals, who delight in slandering the Church, regardless of the truth.

Half-truths are the specialty of anti-Catholics, as they highlight such historical episodes as the Crusades, Galileo, or papal infallibility despite knowing very little about these things. Half-truths, though easily refuted, fit into our sound bite, intellectually careless culture where "I feel" is more important that "I think".

Coren's exuberance is as important to his argument as the facts he lays bare. He can inspire readers to take the fight to the slanderers: "in a culture where various forms of religious and atheistic fundamentalism, crass materialism, and clawing decadence eat away at civility and civilization the only permanent, consistent, and logically complete alternative is the Roman Catholic Church."

The fundamental flaws in Catholic attacks make it easy to go on the offensive, but many Catholics refuse to demand respect from others. That is why this book is so refreshing.

In dealing with the sexual abuse cases, he notes that Protestant denominations, with their married and female clergy, have had similar problems, as have public institutions such as schools. Catholic leaders at the time did what government and education leaders were also doing, sending offenders for counseling and moving them elsewhere. This was the liberal outlook at the time, yet liberals today produce scathing reports on the Church for simply following the liberal guidelines of the day.

Coren, again taking the argument on the offense, makes the point that one of the roots of the sexual crisis was the liberalism of the 1960s and 70s, which allowed for more permissive seminaries that accepted undesirable but politically correct candidates into the priesthood.

Throughout the book Coren notes deep anti-Catholic media bias. The UN, and its fabled peacekeepers, and sports teams have had similar sexual scandals, yet they have not been in the media spotlight.

Concerning history and such liberal sound bites as the Inquisition, the Crusades, and witch burnings, Coren shows that often the numbers are skewed, as with the witch burnings. "Millions" of women did not die; the numbers are in the tens of thousands, and it was in Protestant lands where the worst excesses occurred. Men were targeted as least as frequently as women, so this was not a case of hatred of women, as feminists have often mis-argued.

Regarding medieval and early modern justice, Coren notes: "the Church has generally been ethically and politically ahead of its time and throughout history has been an enlightened and enlightening force."

This includes the Inquisition, which was fairer and much less likely to use torture than royal instruments of law. The Spanish Inquisition is a special case. Initially approved by the pope, it soon became an instrument of Spanish government power, something Rome strongly disapproved. Its nastiness reflects the Spanish crown, not the Catholic Church.

And on it goes, slander after slander debunked. The Church needs more Michael Corens to set the record straight against a long anti-Catholic campaign. One hopes he writes a similar book to debunk all the current male-bashing.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite

By L. Michael White, 516 pages,

It is clumsy and simplistic to argue that we cannot reconcile the differences in the 4 canonical gospels. They were written for different audiences, so it is perfectly natural that variations in the accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are present. So argues Michael White consistently throughout this detailed academic book.

The gospel composers were not historians writing biographies. They were arguing very specific theological points. Factual accounts differ because the theological arguments of each evangelist emphasize different aspects of Christ.

Mark, for instance, directed his entire narrative towards the passion. In contrast, John aimed to unite the synoptic view with a better spiritual understanding of Jesus that didn't deny the Lord's physical humanity.

Without admitting it explicitly, White shows how the Church preceded the writing of the gospels and the establishment of the biblical canon. Between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of St. Paul and then the gospels (with the first, Mark, about 66 AD), oral stories and traditions about Jesus were passed among the various Christian communities.

Some ecclesiastical authority already existed, since these stories were consistent enough to be developed into the written gospels. Some guiding hand must have been involved - obviously the Church through which the Holy Spirit worked.

White is at his most fascinating and scholarly here, as he traces the way in which Jesus' sayings and parables, miracle works, and more general stories were wedded to the passion and resurrection. Each of the 4 gospel writers shaped this oral tradition to suit their own theological vision of Jesus. Each of these gospels focuses on certain attributes of Jesus. When taken collectively, we get a balanced view of the Savior.

Scripting Jesus emphasizes the gospels as stories with theological depth to them. The 4 evangelists were storytellers above all. Mark, then, "was meant to be performed, to be heard as interaction between author / narrator and audience in a communal setting." The audience already knew the stories, so the evangelists had to present them in a way to jar people's attention.

Mark portrays the main characters as not understanding Jesus' true nature. This confusion and ignorance contrasts with the audience, who is given the correct theological information.

White is faithful to orthodox theology, and rejects the false claims of the non-canonical gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas. He argues that such writings, including the Gospel of Judas, contain no new information about Jesus.

White discusses how many of these alternative gospel stories became well-known medieval legends - such as stories about Jesus' infancy, and how he made real birds from clay.

Even though White fails to acknowledge the importance of the Church in guiding the development of the written gospels, he does answer concerns about disparities among the gospels, as well as the development of the canon. The gospels developed out of the Church's desire to proclaim the truth about Jesus of Nazareth, rather than out of a lust for power and control.