July-August 1995

Catholicism and Liberalism.  Edited by R. Bruce Douglass and David Hollenbach. Cambridge University Press. 352 pages. $59.95.

On March 25, 1995, John Paul II signed his name to Evangelium Vitae. Catholics celebrate March 25 as the date on which the Virgin Mary welcomed into her body a child whose birth nine months later elicited paeans of joy from the angels. The Pope signed his encyclical on the Feast of the Annunciation to contrast Mary's joyful embrace of the new life in her womb with the "culture of death" that, he thinks, holds increasing sway in the West. According to the norms of this culture, the unborn are unwelcome, the elderly and infirm are in the way, the world is an arms bazaar, and the numbers of the poor should not be permitted to grow beyond the convenience of the rich. John Paul II's encyclical accentuates a cultural critique which has characterized his pontificate.

The culture of death draws much of its nourishment, John Paul thinks, from hedonism, materialism, and the consumerist economies of the First World. The domestic politics of Western democracies encourage its growth, the Pope argues, by exalting autonomy for all and liberation for some while neglecting the conditions under which people can exercise responsible choice. And though that culture may be native to western Europe and the U.S., First World countries are disseminating it internationally by their export of popular culture, their encouragement of market economies, and their insistence on democratic majoritarianism regardless of the moral consequences. Central to the Pope's argument is the claim that politics and culture do not grow up side by side, like the wheat and the tares. The two, he thinks, spring from the same root. John Paul's critique obviously poses philosophical and practical challenges to American Catholics.

John Courtney Murray suggested a very different role for American Catholics from John Paul's recent encyclical. Surveying American public culture a generation ago, Murray discerned and welcomed a growing convergence between Catholicism and Americanism. Murray's career was at its apogee in the middle of what his friend Henry Luce once dubbed "the American Century." Murray's stance is in such sharp contrast to the prophetic denunciations in Evangelium Vitae that one is prompted to ask if Murray's way of addressing America is a viable option for Catholics.

The book under review is situated within the "Murray tradition." Catholicism, the editors hope, can engage in a dialogue with liberal theory and culture that will prove of mutual benefit. At Vatican II the Church dropped her official insistence on a Catholic state. This and the Church's subsequent campaign for human rights throughout the world give grounds for hope that liberalism and Catholicism have points of convergence. Contributors to the volume do acknowledge problems with the individualism of liberal democratic theory and practice, problems which Catholicism, with its communitarian elements, has the resources to address. Unfortunately, however, the contributors give no serious consideration of the papal challenge. Not one of the contributors examines the proposition that Western culture is deeply sinful, in the way John Paul II has maintained for virtually the whole of his pontificate. This book devoted to the encounter between Catholicism and liberalism, ought to have given the Pope's views on this matter more serious treatment.

- Paul J. Weithman

Julian of Norwich's Showings: From Vision to Book.  Edited by Denise Nowakowski Baker. Princeton University Press. 215 pages. $29.95.

In May 1373 the 33-year-old woman later known as Julian of Norwich had a number of visionary experiences while she lay on what was presumed to be her deathbed. Fortunately, however, she recovered and immediately began to record her visions in the first version of what Denise Nowakowski Baker reminds us is "the earliest extant English text known to have been written by a woman," composed alongside and in the same milieu as the works of the Pearl Poet and Chaucer. Then, some 20 years later, Julian set about supplementing the original text with expanded theological commentary, on the basis of the greater understanding she felt God had granted her during the intervening years.

Baker is interested in showing, not whether such revelations could be truly divine, but rather that "visionary and mystical phenomena…occur within particular cultural frames of reference." As a former graduate student in English, I immediately became suspicious that Baker's analysis would simply be another work of "demystification." Instead, Baker draws from sources such as medieval English painting and theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury in order to illuminate the positive common culture of Julian's spiritual community. Baker places Julian within the devotional tradition of "affective spirituality" in which participants sought a personal, emotional participation in Christ's sufferings and yearned for the "three wounds" of "contrition, compassion, and longing for God." The heart of Baker's work details how Julian progressed from these cultural influences and became a highly learned and independent theologian as an interpreter of her visions, especially in the second edition of the Showings.

As much as I admire Baker's tight analysis, her book leaves me perplexed. Like so many professors of English, Baker seems to see Julian's experience as only a "text" in the process of being "mediated," and avoids passing any judgment on the objective meaning of Julian's visions and what a contemporary Christian response should be. That is not the purpose of an academic text, I know -- but how narrow and airless Baker's purpose seems compared to that of Julian herself!

- Caroline A. Langston

In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh: An Essay on the Humanity of Christ.  By Thomas G. Weinandy. T & T Clark. 168 pages. $24.95.

This very interesting book presents a fresh analysis of an age-old Christological theme: How is the "humanity of Jesus" like that of ordinary sinners? To the author's credit, this study is not simply a rehash of previous debates. Its chief intent is to demonstrate that a correct grasp of the human nature of the Divine Person of the Son (a technical Christological phrase) is actually necessary if we are to grasp more fully who Jesus is (Christology), what He became for our sake (Incarnation), what He accomplished on our behalf (Soteriology), and the new life now possible for those joined to the resurrected person of Jesus Christ (Pneumatology). To attempt a demonstration of the organic links between these different theological universes is no small task. Regardless of what one makes of the book's details, such a bold objective deserves our admiration.

The focus of the book: Exactly what did Jesus assume when He became one like us -- "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8.3)? At one level the answer is quite straightforward: Jesus became like us in every way but sin. Upon deeper reflection another question arises: "Was Jesus tempted because of something within Him or because of external circumstance, or because of both factors?" The orthodox Christian answer: Because of external factors only -- He had no concupiscence. There was nothing in Jesus' interior life which in any way co-operated with sin or anything contrary to the life of God. But the problem does not end here. The next question is: Did Jesus really suffer temptations or were they "pretend" temptations?

The author -- a Catholic priest, Dean of Students at Greyfriars Hall, and Tutor and Lecturer in History at Oxford University -- draws significant data from New Testament, patristic, medieval, and contemporary Christologies to contend that Christ's human nature was not just a generic human nature but a fallen human nature. It was completely subject to all the vulnerabilities we ourselves face, with all the suffering and difficulties such a sin-stained humanity implies. To wit, if He didn't suffer the normal things all fallen humans suffer, He didn't really suffer; therefore, He must have assumed or taken on a bruised human nature, not some "superhuman" nature which only "appeared to suffer" or "gave the appearance of suffering." This is not a book for the Docetic heart.

The author bases his thesis on the Pauline phrase "in the likeness of sinful flesh." He contends that the Eternal Son of God freely took upon Himself those effects of sin which darken and destroy the normal course of daily living -- hunger, thirst, sickness and sorrow, temptation and harassment by Satan, being hated and despised, fear and loneliness, even death.

A caveat: Nowhere does the author discuss the possibility that the Divine Son of God began to heal Adam's broken humanity at the Incarnation. Without this position one could conceivably have grounds for accepting Adoptionist theories of one kind or another.

Although written in a popular style, this book is not for beginners in Christology. Patristic scholars, Thomists, "christologians," and New Testament exegetes will have many points of disagreement with any author who dares to cover more than 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition. Even so, the book is worth reading and studying if for the simple reason that it heals the heart of any creeping Docetism.

- Stephen F. Miletic

Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville.  By Bruce Frohnen. University Press of Kansas. 251 pages. $25.

Leo Strauss criticized conservative theory because it appeared to defend established traditions rather than seek objective truth. His claim that conservative thought merely defends the status quo, while refusing to develop a positive, identifiable belief system, is a charge Frohnen attempts to refute. Frohnen hopes to show how useful conservative thought can be in reclaiming the values that have lost their appeal in recent decades.

Every society, if it is to survive, must be based upon fundamental and unchanging moral principles. These principles are discerned from God-given natural law which, Frohnen writes, are then incorporated into the laws and customs of a community. The citizen is allowed to develop through the moral influences of family and church so as to be able to seek virtue, which is man's proper goal. Without the restraints on man's baser inclinations which civil society provides, order could not long exist, leaving most men unable to achieve virtue.

This does not mean, however, that all institutions are inherently good. Frohnen insists that genuine conservatism seeks to defend certain institutions precisely because they allow for the practice of virtue; institutions that stifle such practice should be abolished. For example, Burke, the father of modern conservatism, was himself a Whig reformer and railed against abuses.

Conservative philosophy appears elusive to some observers because it does not seem to endorse any particular form of government. This is so, writes Frohnen, because conservatism "is based, not on a particular blueprint of the perfect political order, but on an attachment to a way of life." The state's importance lies not in its particular organization, but in whether it is respectful of "customary institutions, beliefs, and practices."

Religion is fundamental. Frohnen believes the variation of natural law interpretation in each culture to be minor and identifies its universal character down through the ages to justify it as an essential moral guide. Natural law has its limits, however. The act of choosing truth over falsehood is not merely rational, but moral. Frohnen reminds us that Moses did not carry down from the mountain a set of rationally self-evident principles but rather divinely ordained commandments.

After outlining these and other philosophical principles of Burke and Tocqueville, Frohnen surveys the thought of certain 20th-century conservative thinkers to determine who embodies most fully the principles of Burke and Tocqueville. He focuses mainly on Michael Oakeshott, Irving Kristol, and Russell Kirk. Frohnen faults Oakeshott for failing to endorse natural law or consider any transcendent norms as the basis for the moral life he recommends. As a result, Oakeshott is unable to explain why such behavior is good. Frohnen praises Kristol for his critique of the current cultural crisis, yet is disappointed with his basic position. "The transcendent nature of the human spirit, the role of natural law in determining proper action and the requirements for a good life, are dismissed almost entirely in favor of ‘practical' material issues," writes Frohnen. To him, Kristol appears to advocate the satisfaction of our worst vices, envy and greed. Kirk fares better because his views best exemplify the thinking of Burke and Tocqueville. Given that transcendent standards have succumbed to the practices of prideful men, Kirk seeks to reacquaint us, in his words, with "the permanent norms of natural law" so that we may "regain our ability to distinguish between truth and untruth, virtue and vice."

With both Left and Right seeking to marginalize religion and morality, Frohnen's timely contribution can help redirect our civic debate toward more fundamental questions.

- John M. Vella

Warning: Nonsense is Destroying America.  By Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. Thomas Nelson. 248 pages. $16.99.

Juvenal the Satirist lived during evil times when the traditional values of Roman society were eroding rapidly. He wrote with great force and bitterness, exposing the corruption of the age. His vehemence, however, was overdone, as if he needed a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Besides, the modern reader feels that Juvenal almost relished the lurid description of the vices he so abhorred. Yet Juvenal was right, and the vices, trivialities, and lifestyles of the rich and famous were wrong. They have passed into obscurity as stereotypes of evil, and he has lived on as an admired moralist.

And so Vincent Ruggiero has taken on the corruption of the present. Like Juvenal, Ruggiero is right, but overdoes his description of vice and error. At times it seems he enjoys his descriptions of evil and his exaggerated rhetoric.

He is quite correct that narcissistic permissiveness promoted by the media has changed American values. The lack of moral standards and the essential silliness of popular culture have infected the educational process to make it trivial to the point of danger. New icons like Madonna, the antithesis of the Madonna icon of Christianity, have become the subject of what passes for scholarship in Popular Culture courses. Such courses, lacking in academic standards, have been major contributors to the devaluation of higher education and the inability of so many young people to think critically or make moral judgments.

Ruggiero attacks moral relativism, which exalts feelings over thought and truth; nor is Political Correctness spared, which is so sensitive about people's feelings and orientation that it criticizes nothing except organized religion and traditional morality. The choicest targets of his jeremiads are the media, especially television and MTV, which he accuses of making this generation mindless, vapid, and empty. Children's television helps make children self-indulgent consumer trainees. Violence routinely seen on television and in the movies conditions adolescents to be indifferent to violence and to act it out, and often affects adults in the same way. Because of this, Ruggiero holds a special animus for the National Rifle Association, which he accuses of shackling the passage of strong gun control laws, and he points out quite correctly that "the right to life is a higher value than the right to bear arms."

Warning can be an irritating mixture. The author is largely correct, but he tries to cram too many ideas into too little and too unorganized a space. His righteous anger has made him somewhat careless of accuracy and his impassioned rhetoric often gets in the way of points already well made.

- Aaron W. Godfrey

Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées.  By Peter Kreeft. Ignatius. 352 pages. $14.95.

Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life.  By Thomas V. Morris. Eerdmans. 214 pages. $12.99.

"I didn't think this is what philosophy was going to be like," a student remarked after my lecture on symbolic logic. "What did you expect?" I asked. "I guess," he said, "I thought we would be arguing about the meaning of life."

Returning to my office, I read from Pascal's Pensées: "it is amusing to think that there are people…who have renounced all the laws of God and nature only to invent laws for themselves, which they scrupulously obey, as, for example,…logicians." Pascal's comment, like my student's, spoke to me.

Much of modern philosophy has suffered from a failure of nerve. Grand philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life are often dismissed.

These two books take these questions seriously. They examine such Pascalian themes as the paradox of the greatness and wretchedness of humanity, the hiddenness of God, and the rationality of wagering on the Christian life.

Pascal, says Kreeft, was the first "post-medieval Christian apologist." Pascal addressed his apologetic to a "dechristianized and desacramentalized world." Although a contemporary of Descartes, Pascal did not hitch his philosophical wagon to the star of the Enlightenment. He was too wise to try to do philosophy or live life by the scientific method.

Kreeft characterizes his book as "Pascalian discipleship…close to what the rabbinical tradition calls Midrash." In his well-known style -- popular yet profound -- Kreeft invites us into his college classroom, giving us line by line "festoonings…of the essential pensées." The pensées were scattered notes for a book. Kreeft's outline fashions them into a coherent whole -- beginning with Pascal's incisive diagnosis of the human condition and culminating in the decisive choice presented by the Cross.

Morris's book is addressed to "mature, intelligent people who have lived long enough to realize how little they know about what really matters in life." Morris is particularly good at ferreting out and critically examining arguments. For example, he constructs a telling argument to show that questions about the meaning of life naturally and inevitably lead to questions about the existence of God.

In the process of constructing an argument against the popular view that life only has the meaning we endow it with, Morris wittily gives us this dialogue:

Boris (Woody Allen): Sonia, what if there is no God?

Sonia (Diane Keaton): Boris Dimitrovich, are you joking?

Boris: What if we're just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?

Sonia: But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?

Boris: Well, let's not get hysterical; I could be wrong. I'd hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they'd found something.

When I taught a course on the philosophy of religion recently, I found that the anthology I had chosen contained no selection by Pascal and only a scholarly commentary on Pascal's Wager. The author of this commentary aired many clever quibbles with the logic of Pascal's Wager, but had not, I thought, penetrated to its heart. So I decided to pass out relevant selections from Pascal's Pensées together with commentary by Kreeft and Morris. My students responded with delight at being given the dignity to discuss philosophic issues that were close to their hearts. The last day of class (after the students had already been assigned their grades), the students stayed for two hours eagerly discussing such grand philosophic issues as faith, salvation, and God. Before I became a professional philosopher, that is what I thought philosophy would be like.

- Gary Mar

Raising up a Faithful Priest.  By Richard D. Nelson. Westminster/John Knox Press. 192 pages. $19.99.

Priesthood, more than diamonds, is "forever" (Ps. 110:4). This learned study on the origins of priesthood, a subject that refuses to be archaic or academic, is most welcome. The book amounts to something of a defense of priesthood, even if this is only the priesthood of the Old Testament. But if priesthood is forever, the book inevitably implies larger horizons. Not least of these is sacrifice, and the future of a consumer society where it is in such disrepute.

A main function of the Yahwist priesthood was inculcating and preserving a sense of the holy, and in this process priests were, as Nelson puts it, the "boundary-setters" in marking off the sacred from the profane. "Sacred space" established "an island of structure" in a world of "malevolent chaos." Priests did such things as offer sacrifices which, among other things, were a vehicle of forgiveness and harmony. The function of priesthood was largely conservative in character.

Ostensibly progressive moderns have denigrated priesthood. Protestants, Nelson observes, favor prophets over priests, but Nelson, a professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, contends that sacrificial rites were not alien imports polluting genuine Israelite religion, but a canon of God. Prophecy "sometimes provided uncertain guidance" and "failed to survive in the long run." The author will touch a few Protestant nerve ends when he writes: "Qualms that the priests represented obstacles to an individual Israelite's ‘direct relationship' to Yahweh have more to do with Reformation controversies than the realities of the Hebrew Bible." Protestant distaste for priesthood is really a reaction to the ultra-sacerdotal and clericalist 16th century. The Reformers responded with the priesthood of all believers which, apart from certain sectarian currents, was scarcely ever realized. Except, lamentably, let me add, in the princes.

While I congratulate the author upon his defense of priesthood, it does not go far enough. Our differences are partially confessional (I am Catholic). The author's defense of priesthood does not really extend to the New Testament. A critical text is the letter to the Hebrews and its "once for all" of the priestly sacrifice of Jesus, which, says Nelson, obviates "any further need for either mediating priesthood or atoning ritual." But that "once for all" is not an act in "succession" but one in "simultaneity." That is, that "once for all" has not ended, and the priest is its contemporary, if not, if I may, its concelebrant.

The paradox of sacrifice is that the priest is ultimately the victim. Of this, mandatory celibacy may be a token -- and an affront to our permissive society.

- Christopher Nugent

Back to July-August 1995 Issue