July-August 2003

The Arians of the Fourth Century.  By John Henry Cardinal Newman. University of Notre Dame Press. 510 pages. $28.95.

Every Sunday Catholics recite (or are supposed to recite) the Nicene Creed, that says in part, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.” In his book Newman gives us the setting from which these words arose and the history that followed. The setting was the Council of Nicaea, which met in 325 to put down the heresy of Arianism. This heresy denied that Christ was equal to the Father; thus He was not God. The Council affirmed in no uncertain terms that the Son was begotten of or proceeded from the Father while being equal to Him. The Son came down from Heaven and became man. In brief, Christ is God and man.

One might have thought that this proclamation of the Council settled the issue. But history tells us otherwise. After the Council, the heresy spread with such great rapidity throughout the Church that, as St. Jerome reports, the world woke up one day and groaned to discover that it had become Arian. Newman reports: “The episcopate…did not…play a good part in the troubles consequent upon the Council; and the laity did.” (In fairness, I should note that in other periods of history, it was the bishops who stood fast while the laity deserted.)

But how could this heresy have been so successful? Newman factors in the political interests of the Emperor Constantine and his successors after the Church became public, the ambitions of bishops now dependent upon imperial favor, the deviousness of the heretics in organizing themselves and deceiving the faithful with words designed to confuse, and the predictable pride of man which resists the truth. All of these factors are played out against the background of the ordinary faithful who clung to true doctrine and of some heroic bishops who were exiled from their Sees as many as five times by the Powers-That-Be. Included is the account of Pope Liberius, who held firm at first, weakened for a moment while being under the influence of the Emperor, and then recovered himself.

If Catholics today sometimes feel that they have a monopoly on troubles in the Church, they might take comfort from a reading of this period in Church history. Today we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, perhaps not realizing that it is a battle standard the Church has raised and maintained for over 1600 years. After reading Newman, the recitation of the Creed becomes a special act of hope and faith that the truth will prevail.

Newman wrote this work as an Anglican in 1833, 12 years before he converted to Catholicism. He revised the work in 1871, making some small revisions in the light if his new faith; so the reader can be sure that Newman speaks as a Catholic. A central feature of his work is a kind of contemplation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity conducted by means of a historical account of the terms used in the Creed itself. He starts with the scriptural texts, noting that they are not sufficient in themselves to protect the revealed doctrine of the Trinity. He then notes the various ways the Ante-Nicaean Fathers expressed the doctrine in an effort, not only to preserve it from heretics, but to understand their faith as much as possible.

Reading this book can be heavy going. But so profound is Newman’s reverence for doctrine that the reader might be persuaded to pause and take the words into his heart as well as his head.

In the course of his book, Newman presents many notions that might be new to us. There is the Disciplina Arcani or Secret Teaching. In the centuries before Constantine gave freedom to the Church in promulgating the Edict of Milan in 312, Christians were a despised lot who took care not to reveal their most sacred mysteries to the world at large. They did not throw open the sacred Scriptures to all and sundry, because such a practice might open Christians to the derision of a contemptuous public and to confusion among believers. It is unreasonable to put the Scriptures in the hands of just anyone and then expect him to draw from it, for example, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. So the Church herself instructed her neophytes over a period of years, having distilled the Scriptures into various forms such as the Apostles’ Creed. This reserve seems to have come to an end when the Church was able to hold councils. But the principle still remained that the Church is the prime teacher of religion and not a book standing on its own inviting private and conflicting interpretations.

Newman’s book is a good one to have, not just to read once, but to keep around when one wishes to renew one’s taste for the theology of a master.

- Richard Geraghty



Sea of Glory.  By Ken Wales and David Poling. Broadman and Holman. 358 pages. $24.99.

Wales and Poling provide a riveting account based upon the true story of the U.S.S. Dorchester during World War II, and the heroism displayed by her four chaplains of differing religious affiliations — Fr. John Washington (Catholic), the Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed), Pastor George Fox (Methodist), and Rabbi Alex Goode — who gave their lives in the service of others.

The Dorchester’s secret assignment, code-named Operation Thunderbolt, was to construct and operate a major airfield installation named Blue West One near Cape Farewell on the southern tip of Greenland. The mission ended tragically when a German U-boat sank the Army troop transport on February 3, 1943, killing 672 of the original 902 soldiers and civilians aboard.

Even though most of the book focuses on the four chaplains and their efforts to lift the spirits of the frightened young soldiers aboard the Dorchester, this story is ultimately about the redemption of Sergeant Wesley Adams. He had become a bitter, angry young man due to the loss of his wife, Maddie, who died while giving birth to their baby daughter, who also passed away. A central theme of the book is the effort by Fr. Washington and the other chaplains to break through Adam’s angry façade and to teach him to love life again and to make his peace with God.

In the end, it takes the courageous sacrifice of Chaplain Washington to finally cause Adams to change his life for the better. The ship’s captain had ordered all the men to wear their lifejackets while they were sleeping. Unfortunately, most of the soldiers did not follow this order and forgot about their lifejackets during the turmoil that ensued after the attack. The four chaplains assisted in handing out as many of the reserve lifejackets as possible, but the jackets ran out quickly and many soldiers were left without one, including Adams.

At this point, the four chaplains, in an amazing act of compassion and courage, decide to take off their own lifejackets and give them to four of the soldiers. Washington gives his to Adams after insisting the young sergeant make his life count for something. Understandably shocked by the chaplain’s gesture, Adams refuses to take the jacket at first, but finally accepts it. After boarding one of the Dorchester’s lifeboats, Adams watches the ship sink with many soldiers still aboard, as well as the four chaplains — who pray and sing hymns. Adams can only watch as the ocean’s waves slowly engulf the four men as they continue in song. Adams’s last haunting vision of the chaplains is of their linked hands held above the water until those, too, are finally consumed.

Sergeant Adams goes on to have a successful military career as an electrician and, more importantly, he leads a spiritual life that is based on hope rather than bitterness, fulfilling Washington’s dying command. More than a mere war story, Sea of Glory is a testament to the power of sacrificial, Christ-like love to change lives.

- Steven Silva



The Endless Knot.  By William L. Biersach. Tumblar House (831-915-8074). 390 pages. $19.95.

I loved and hated it! Let’s start with the positive. Like a Catholic version of Mad magazine, the left page after the title page of this thriller about the serial murder of liberal Catholic bishops reads: “Nihil Obstat: Huh? Imprimatur: Are you kidding!?!?”

The Endless Knot could be enjoyed by grim, embattled orthodox Catholics. The hero, Fr. John Baptist, a cop-turned-priest, ad hoc detective for the Archbishop, is a tough, bright, and truly holy hero. But his side-kick, Martin Feeney, a kind of conservative Catholic version of Sancho Panza, is a weak although astute and hilarious comedian. His observations, filled with innuendos only “right-wing” folks will get, keep the reader laughing on almost every page.

What else is good in The Endless Knot? As counterpoint to the humor, there are wonderful quotations from Catholic saints and sages.

So what could be wrong? In spite of the author’s caveat about the characters and location being fictional, no one who has lived in L.A. could mistake most of the dramatis personae. As a former Angeleno myself, part of the fun was seeing how Biersach managed to throw in clues with names and descriptions. But one wonders about the spiritual state of the writer relishing the details of the fairly sadistic murders of fairly identifiable “enemy” bishops. As an orthodox Catholic who has been battling dissenting Catholics for many decades, I try to curb the relating of gleeful anecdotes about such bishops. The book seems to be a cover for impotent rage seeking symbolic victory.

Would I recommend The Endless Knot? Yes, to those so filled with the “milk of human kindness” that castigation of evil and the confused leads not to gloating but to prayer and penance. No, to those so filled with hatred of their enemies in the Church that even monthly confession cannot turn bile into milk.

I happen to have a friend of the first type. I gave him the book to read. What did he think about the morality of killing off identifiable liberal bishops with such joy, even in fictional form? His opinion was that the book was good fun and would only be offensive to the enemy.

- Ronda Chervin





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