May 2000

A Refutation of Moral Relativism.  By Peter Kreeft. Ignatius. 180 pages. $12.95.

Kreeft presents an imaginary account of a feminist-relativist’s conversation with a moral absolutist. Kreeft, via the moral absolutist, covers all the major arguments for moral relativism and refutes them, arguing that relativism is both incoherent and impractical. He shows us just why there must be a real right and wrong. Even the firmest relativist cannot escape logical self-contradiction, and is left to defend a position in ruins.

In order to show that moral absolutism isn’t a Catholic — or Christian — quirk, Kreeft shrewdly uses a Muslim fundamentalist as his champion of absolutes. And natural law, not Revelation, carries the burden of the argument.

What we have here is not dry disputation but a dramatic confrontation between two mutually exclusive positions. In a mere 180 pages, Kreeft unmasks and refutes moral relativism — and exposes its impact on the West. A masterpiece, in the tradition of C.S. Lewis!

- Mario Derksen



On Pilgrimage.  By Dorothy Day. Eerdmans. 256 pages. $16.95.

John Cardinal O’Connor has called the controversial, multifaceted, and saintly Dorothy Day a “living basilica,” and perhaps this metaphor provides the deepest insight into her person and vocation. Happily, Eerdmans has brought Day’s On Pilgrimage back into print. If you are only going to read one book by Dorothy Day, read this one. It is likely the best introduction available to her ideas and character.

One of the book’s assets is a comprehensive 63-page introduction to Day and the Catholic Worker movement by Mark and Louise Zwick. The Zwicks appropriately emphasize Day’s robust orthodoxy, as indicated in the following quote from Day: “Now the creed to which I subscribe is like a battle cry, engraved on my heart — the Credo of the Holy Roman Catholic Church…. I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all she teaches. I have accepted Her authority with my whole heart.” Day was no cafeteria Catholic. She supported the Church’s teaching on pre-marital sex, divorce, contraception, abortion, etc. In addition, these pages are filled with quotes and meditations on the profundity of marital love: “The marriage union always seemed to me to be an earthly shadow of the Blessed Trinity.” Perhaps marriage’s highest honor is its status as God’s chosen metaphor for his relationship with the Church.

The main body of the book consists of a series of approximately 40 short, journal-like essays written by Day during 1948 which attest to her incarnational view of life. Day’s spirituality was neither “other-worldly” nor “this worldly”; rather, she was always aware of the intersection of the human and the divine brought about by the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Day’s sacramental outlook — her refusal to see merely a bum while looking at a bum — is at the heart of what might well be the overarching, unifying principle of her thought: incarnational personalism. As Cardinal O’Connor has noted, Day was constantly saying by word and deed to each of us, “Are you not aware that every single person is a temple of God, sacred, made in the image and likeness of God?” Our union in Christ is contingent on our loving as God loves, a love that enables us to “see people as they really are, as God sees them.”

Our love of God is so dependent on our love of neighbor that at one point Christ reveals that to be a criterion by which we shall be judged on the Last Day: “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me,” in which case you “will go off to eternal punishment…” (Mt. 25:45-46). All the masters of the spiritual life teach us to live in the shadow of the Judgment. Indeed, we must have the Judgment in mind when we act in regard to sexuality, work, conflict, war, and such.

Day constantly insisted that every person is called to be a saint. Of course, seeking sanctity is demanding. It requires nonco-operation with evil, even at the price of voluntary poverty. It requires helping the less fortunate at personal sacrifice. It requires the fulfillment of the Corporal Works of Mercy, collectively known as the work of “hospitality,” and the Spiritual Works of Mercy, known in part as the “clarification of thought.” Further, as the laity are responsible for the sanctification of the social order, they have a duty to see to it that economic and political structures are placed at the service of the human person and that social justice be measured from the perspective of the poor.

Day prays in this book that God might “bless the book and you who read it.” That her prayer was answered will be apparent to anyone who reads this book.

- Nicholas C. Lund-Molfese



The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man.  By J. Budziszewski. Spence. 162 pages. $22.95.

How can Christians reconcile the doctrine of Original Sin with the natural law view that in every human being there is an innate awareness of the moral order in God’s creation? Budziszewski quotes Romans 2:15, where St. Paul, referring to the gentiles, says, “What the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” While natural law is inherent in human nature, Paul is also acutely aware of its limits. In Romans 7:21 he says, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” On the basis of this tension, Protestant Reformers took a dim view of natural law: If man’s heart is so corrupt that even awareness of the law does not impel him toward the good, then his mind must be corrupt as well. Any innate moral knowledge is therefore impossible, for the intellect by which we might know the law is as “fallen” as the will. Calvin, starting with the Fall in Genesis, followed a perversely logical trail out of Eden through total depravity, unconditional election, double predestination, and arrived at a limited Atonement.

Natural law is a serviceable conception of morality that helps counter Calvinistic mistakes as well as those resulting from the reigning cult of diversity. Budziszewski proceeds to sort out many arguments that students are hearing from their teachers these days from grade one. He exposes ideas that are not only wrong, but incoherent, with a familiarity only available to someone who admits to having once held them. His discussion of tolerance is an apt antidote to the mindless version now being proffered in every public venue.

How can government promote a common morality when there is so little virtue to be found? Budziszewski points to seven strategies found in Western thought: deterrence, filtration, compensation, balance, channeling, inculcation, and subsidiarity. Deterrence inhibits vice by threats of legal punishment. Filtration recruits lawmakers from among the most virtuous. Compensation seeks to balance society so that people with advantages correct one another, and those with flaws neutralize one another. Balance sets interest groups against one another in order to give virtue a fighting chance. Channeling redirects nonvirtuous motives to produce behavior akin to that which would otherwise come from virtue. Inculcation teaches virtue directly through law, censure, or reinforcement. Subsidiarity, Budziszewski’s clear favorite, is that form of social order in which “government honors virtue and protects its teachers without trying to take their place.” Government, then, would do much more good through tax credits that support parental choice in education than by indoctrinating students via “values clarification.” It would do more good by encouraging private charity over welfare programs that take money from the industrious and create dependency among the poor.

But what is the “Revenge of Conscience” in the title of the book? Budziszewski points out that vices are often spoiled virtues. For example, greed can be seen as industriousness or ambition run amok. When ambition becomes predatory, the force of conscience is engaged against it. Thus the distortion of virtue gives rise to the revenge of conscience.

- Mike Dodaro



In the Spirit of Happiness.  By The Monks of New Skete. Little, Brown and Co. 336 pages. $22.95.

Can you tell a book by its cover? This book’s cover reminded me of those post-Vatican II religion textbooks I encountered in high school: clean border, pictures of tree branches swaying in the wind, definite 1970s retro feel. And then there’s the word “Happiness” in the title.

I’ve constructed a personal Doctrine Detector, designed to ring at minimal exposure to spiritual writing that is fuzzy or goes off the rails. A few minor alarms were triggered early on in this book by a community of Eastern Orthodox monks: ambiguous theology here, blatant appeal to the self-help market there. Then I encountered this statement, which probably could not be topped by Fr. Flapdoodle at St. Bozo’s parish: “Don’t fall into the trap of using the Scriptures to self-righteously condemn everything from homosexuality and abortion to people of non-Christian faiths.” At that point, my Doctrine Detector rang so loudly it bounced around on the table.

The book and I were on bad terms after that sentence. The monks apparently want to appeal to a certain kind of American — high-income, hip, and seeking convenient answers. Hence the monks are almost pathologically reluctant to use that three-letter word for aberrant behavior — the one that starts with “s” and ends with “n.” Methinks the early monastic Fathers they quote throughout would be extremely displeased.

Near the end, the authors explore the concept of metanoia. But they do so without really coming to terms with true spiritual transformation, which is not to be confused with the warm feelings of the Sunday afternoon of a retreat which vanish by Monday morning. Then there’s the off-color language used — a few of the “Seven Words You Once Couldn’t Say on TV” are trotted out. Very strange for a “spiritual” book.

The monks want their guests to achieve greater personal happiness. But the book rarely conveys the effort needed to achieve it. One can apparently drive off the monks’ grounds unchanged below the surface. The monks spend page after page describing who and what they are, but to quote James Brown, they’re “talkin’ loud and sayin’ nothin’.”

As for the witty statements of Father Lawrence, the monastery’s abbot, he just comes across as a kind of Santa Claus with an M.A. in psychology. In the end, the monks don’t make either themselves or their superior look very wise — or even very happy! Meanwhile, my Doctrine Detector needs new batteries.

- Gerard Einhaus





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