April 2003

Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order.  By Joseph Varacalli. Lexington Books (800-462-6420). 133 pages. No price given..

The thesis of this book can be put simply: “Catholic America has essentially failed, in any significant way, to shape the American Republic.”

Varacalli is insistent that the natural law tradition, as embodied in Catholic social teaching, is exactly what Americans need to overcome the individualism inherent in our nation’s life since its founding. Indeed, I cannot praise Varacalli enough for his recognition that the U.S., from its beginnings, has had a defective notion of liberty and a tendency toward an individualism unconcerned with the common good. In this Varacalli differs from so many who are wont to contrast the supposed “Christian America” of an earlier time with the woes of the present. Varacalli points out that this individualism was kept in check to some extent both by Protestantism and by republicanism (the idealization of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome and of some of the Founding Fathers). But what is happening now is simply the working out of ideas present since at least 1776. He quotes the statement from David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America that divorce “is so prevalent in this nation precisely because its roots run so deep in American history…. The vision of the good divorce — a vision of personal freedom — captures much of the essence of the American character. Our nation’s founding document is a divorce document…. In no other nation is the idea of ‘starting over’ invested with such optimism and hope.”

Another area where Varacalli deserves praise is his awareness that capitalism is “but another variation of Enlightenment thinking,” and that neo-conservatives are therefore simply “right-wing Americanists.”

But why has the Church not influenced American society as might have been expected? In the beginning, of course, the largely immigrant Catholic community was too busy simply surviving. From the 1920s to the early 1950s, Catholics were starting to develop a self-confidence based on the superiority of Catholic thought to that of the modern world. Indeed, some have seen the period immediately after World War II as a golden age of the Church in the U.S., and in some respects it was. But Varacalli sees that even in the 1950s things were beginning to come undone, and of course after the Second Vatican Council both the institutional Church and the life of the Catholic community have been in grave crisis. From then on the Church has hardly been able to guide her own faithful, let alone have much influence on those outside.

But what is the purpose of affecting the larger American society and culture? Is it the conversion of our fellow countrymen to the one true Faith, or is it simply to have our rightful place in the sun and our due measure of influence? It is not always clear with which of these Varacalli is most concerned. But we Catholics must never lose sight of what must always be our ultimate goal: the conversion of our country, both individuals and the culture.

- Thomas Storck



A Mind's Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography.  By Stanley L. Jaki, O.S.B. Eerdmans. 311 pages. $25.

Fr. Jaki is the exponent par excellence of the thesis that science, properly speaking, would have been impossible to conceive of in any cultural context other than that of Christendom. His long and distinguished career, marked by being awarded the Lecomte du Nouy Prize in 1970 and the Templeton Prize in 1987, has been greatly devoted to establishing this arresting thesis, with physics constituting his main, but by no means exclusive, focus. Through very careful historical explorations and cogent analyses, Jaki has in his many writings and lectures made an extremely convincing case for his bold claim. The book under review is his own account, as a philosopher of science no less than a physicist and a historian, of his scholarly professional life, which is to say, the development of his philosophical position, so very much at odds with the prevailing scientific worldview.

Jaki contends that science and metaphysics, the former dealing exclusively with the measurable, the latter dealing fundamentally with the immeasurable — or non-measurable — are partners in the proper comprehension of the universe whose very existence science cannot even begin to prove since it cannot stand outside and look in. Accordingly, science, or natural philosophy, is of necessity dependent on the philosophia perennis, which constitutes the philosophical legacy of the Catholic Church. Put slightly differently, even the most philosophically positivist scientist necessarily takes for granted an assortment of facts that are the province of those parts of philosophy which he would reject — but the latter will have their due.

Jaki tells his life’s story in terms of intellectual insights, explorations, and occupations that correspond to the subject matter of his most important books. It is a fascinating account, from the inside, of the evolution of his thesis and its corollaries. But it is at least equally revealing to learn of the controversies that arose in connection with a number of Jaki’s publications, at times escalating into the kind of vicious battles for which academic circles are famous. Jaki’s accounts are peppery, at times contentious (but not improperly so). He does not hesitate to lambaste those whom he feels deserve it, or those cultural movements that disgust him, particularly the institutionalized anti-Catholicism of today’s academic world, writ large in our unfortunate popular culture. If one’s sensibilities harmonize with his (as this reviewer’s do, presque partout), it is wonderfully energizing to read his spirited condemnations. But be forewarned: Jaki pulls no punches.

The book is an important contribution to the battle against the onslaught of secularism. It is an extremely eloquent (and often tightly reasoned) polemic. The author is both a warrior and a very happy man because, after all, he fights on the side of the angels.

- Michael Berg



God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald.  By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Ignatius. 460 pages. $18.95.

One would think a lengthy book titled God and the World would contain the absolute, final word on every doctrinal issue of our time. Yet this book does anything but. The book’s subtitle, Believing and Living in Our Time, is more indicative of its theme. Far from being an opaque theological tome, it is a grand conversational survey about God’s relationship with His creation, the Church’s place in the modern world, and issues within the Catholic Faith today.

Readers familiar with other of Cardinal Ratzinger’s works know they can be dense and convoluted in language. This one is not. It reads like a friendly, informal conversation (and the text is crisp enough that it seems the participants had a chance to revise and extend their remarks before publication).

God and the World is organized into four major sections: (1) Faith, Hope, and Love, (2) God, (3) Jesus Christ, and (4) the Church. Topical subsections arrange the conversations around related subjects.

The reader will be hard-pressed to find a topic not touched upon in these conversations. Seewald asks what we would ask if we were there (and often what we haven’t even thought of). Interviewer and interviewee exchange down-to-earth questions and answers on perennial and current topics about the Faith. Here are a few of the Cardinal’s answers:

- On the Church’s relation to the revelation: “The Catholic Church knows in faith all that God has said to us in the history of revelation. Our understanding of it, of course — even the understanding of it that the Church enjoys — remains greatly inferior to the magnitude of what God has spoken. On that account there is a development of faith.”

- On Scripture scholars: “When simple people listen [to the Scriptures]…they often understand the real message better than those whose extensive learning has become blind and deaf to the heart of the matter.”

- On temptations the Church must resist: “It is important for the Church to work alongside others to improve society, but the real healing of mankind cannot begin from external social structures, but only from within…. She must not be diverted in that direction, to be merely a social organization.”

Be forewarned: Readers looking for 460 pages worth of slam-dunk zingers from der Panzerkardinal with which to demolish their opponents will likely be disappointed. Appearing against type, Cardinal Ratzinger reveals at times the small child who still has that sense of wonder about a God and a world that are ultimately mysterious.

Topically organized but without an index, the book cannot be easily used as a reference work. Perhaps better would be to just jump in anywhere and extract salient bits according to interest.

Designed to be easy, interesting reading, God and the World is rarely trite, almost never obscure. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to be conversant, from a decidedly orthodox vantage point, about the mind of the Church.

- James Taylor





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