December 2012

Chalice of God: A Systematic Theology in Outline.  By Aidan Nichols, O.P.. Liturgical Press. 128 pages. $18.95.

Few theologians today are as accomplished as Fr. Aidan Nichols. A member of the Dominican Order, a lecturer at Cambridge University, and a Catholic scholar highly regarded for his profound insights and orthodoxy, he has an extensive bibliography of over 40 titles to his name, covering such topics as apolo­getics, catechetics, culture, liturgy, profiles of great theologians, as well as numerous other aspects of Catholic theology.

After a long career, Fr. Nichols has harvested the fruits of his life’s work and composed his “manifesto”: Chalice of God: A Systematic Theology in Outline. The metaphor of the “Chalice of God” is one he maintains throughout the book; it is based on his central theme that all being is like a vessel, destined from eternity to receive the outpouring of the divine life in a communion of God with His creation. Though Fr. Nichols makes clear that man is the principal recipient of the divine outpouring and enjoys a relationship with God that is unique among all creatures, his theology extends to the entire cosmos — a scope not too often found in theological works. This book is an outline of systematic theology — understood as an ordered study of dogmas and their interrelation — and so it is divided into concise numbered sections; the whole volume consists of six chapters in a little over 100 pages. Throughout the book, Fr. Nichols weaves his outline together by cross-referencing the different section numbers as he develops his points and as they relate to one another, in keeping with the form of systematics.

While the book consists of sound Catholic theology, drawing from Scripture, Tradition, and the works of venerable theologians from the past 2,000 years, it is unique in many ways. Fr. Nichols recognizes that a theological pluralism will always exist this side of the eschaton. It is not only expected but can be beneficial to the Church to have different theological traditions to draw out the riches of the one faith from various perspectives, but all rooted in unchanging principles that ensure orthodoxy. For his own perspective, Fr. Nichols draws from the theological traditions of both the East and West, and even includes Byzantine and Russian iconography at the beginning of each chapter, along with a brief theological exposition of each icon as it pertains to the chapter. The use of artwork within the text is crucial to his approach, for Fr. Nichols has a deep understanding of the role of beauty and culture in conveying the truths of an incarnate faith. The beauty and importance of sacred liturgy is also key for him, and he sees both the Eastern and Western liturgical traditions as fundamental to the Church’s understanding of her theology. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of his theology is that his masters are St. Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and so his commitments are to both high medieval scholasticism and mid-20th-century ressourcement. His theology is largely an attempt to wed the two traditions, and while many would argue that this is impossible, if any theologian is up to the task, it is Fr. Nichols.

After a preface and an introduction, both of which orient the reader to the nuances of his approach, Fr. Nichols uses the first chapter to outline the basic principles that are to be the foundation of any sound theology, and he also explains how one is to go about doing the science of theology. In the second chapter he develops the philosophical basis for his theology. His metaphysics is essentially Thomistic, and he emphasizes the key terms of cosmos, history, form, and personhood. In the third chapter Fr. Nichols sets forth his position that Scripture is to be read within an ecclesial context, and thus with Christ as its center. He then goes about outlining his Christology, which is greatly enriched by the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers. So patristic is Fr. Nichols’s reading of Scripture that he holds Matthew’s to have been the first Gospel written, which stands in contrast to the popular modern theory that the Gospel of Mark was written first. Throughout the book he gives credit when due to modern theological methods and theories, but he does not hesitate to point out what he believes to be their deficiencies, as well as the deficiencies in popular modern ideas like liberalism and romanticism.

Fr. Nichols uses the fourth chapter to present his theology of sacred Tradition — a central aspect of Catholic theology often overlooked and misunderstood in modern times. He sees the liturgy as foremost in the handing over of the Church’s Tradition and, together with the Holy Spirit, as ordering us toward our final end in God. The fifth chapter is a presentation of Fr. Nich­ols’s theology of grace. He emphasizes that we are all called to be configured to Christ by His own self-offering and our own free choice of a life in Christ — His mysteries becoming our very own, whereby we transform the world. The book ends with a chapter on Trinitarian theology, for our final destiny and the culminating point of our faith are to be found within the inner life of the Holy Trinity.

From the brief synopsis contained here, the heights and depths to which this book attains should be clear. As a synthesis of the life’s work of a seasoned theologian, and given its concise format and use of very technical philosophical and theological language, this book is best suited to those with a prior education in theology. Chalice of God can open the door to an even deeper understanding of Fr. Nichols’s earlier books, and future theological work could easily build on his outline. Given Fr. Nichols’s groundbreaking effort to harmonize Thomism and ressource­ment theology, this book would be of greatest interest to professional theologians and others who are trained in these traditions. Those who are committed to both the Eastern and Western traditions, and would like to see them more integrated, would also find the book to be of great interest. For those not formally educated in theology, this book would no doubt be a challenge, but a paced, studied reading could still prove to be of value. The book is so theologically rich and provides such nourishment for the spiritual life that it has much to offer to any serious-minded reader.

- Stephen J. Kovacs



The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard.  By Andreas Widmer. Emmaus Road Publishing. 152 pages. $12.95.

A business-management guru was once asked to rank the best-run corporations in the world. He purportedly surprised everyone by placing the Catholic Church in his top five. How does one squares this story with the famous comment of Pope Paul VI, who, when asked how many people work in the Vatican, replied, “about half”? Perhaps the solution is found in the person of Bl. John Paul II. Much has been written about his role as a philosopher, theologian, and pastor, and with the passage of time his role as an extraordinary world leader is beginning to be appreciated. What has not always been considered, however, is John Paul’s role as a manager of people, and to fill that lacuna comes Andreas Widmer’s The Pope and the CEO, an interesting and unusual study with an even more interesting and unusual pedigree.

While The Pope and the CEO is a business work, it is written from a unique perspective: that of an ex-Swiss Guardsman. Widmer served in the papal guards in the late 1980s before leaving the guard to marry, study in America, and enter the information-technology field during the boom years of the 1990s. All of this gives The Pope and the CEO a most unusual triple perspective: It is, at times, a memoir of life in the Swiss Guards (and interesting on this point alone), a very personal memoir of John Paul II by a young man who knew him and worked for him directly, and a series of leadership lessons drawn from successes and failures in the world of business, with reference to the life and management style of John Paul II — a sort of glorified WWJP2D, if you will.

Naturally, the work as a whole is imbued with a Catholic sensibility. Widmer was Catholic when he joined the Swiss Guards (as is specified by recruitment requirements) but — not surprisingly — grew more observant due to his close proximity to the Pope. Yet, like the wheat among the weeds, his good intentions did not always prevail during his sometimes-turbulent hi-tech career in the heady years of the dotcom boom and bust. He enjoyed wealth and success during stints at the then-nascent FTP Software and Dragon Systems, and then lost his fortune when Dragon Systems was sold to a holding company that proved to be fraudulent. Subsequent work for consulting and capital groups left him able to regroup personally and financially, but also left him wanting to do more with his Catholic faith in the world of business. He currently directs a philanthropic foundation dedicated to enterprise-based solutions to poverty.

So, what lessons does Widmer present to his readers? Each chapter considers a specific theme or quality that Widmer saw in John Paul II and is illustrated not just by the ideas and writings of the Pope but by Widmer’s personal reminiscences of him. Also included are examples from Widmer’s own life as to how well these things worked when he put them into practice — or how things didn’t work when he failed to do so. Each chapter concludes with suggested exercises and questions for reflection, making The Pope and the CEO suitable for use in an instructional setting. Much of the advice Widmer gives — ensure your organization has a well-articulated vision and a leadership that supports it, cultivate team-building, etc. — is standard stuff and should come as no surprise to any reader even remotely familiar with the field of business. What is unusual about this work is that Widmer is very strongly rooted in John Paul II’s philosophy of personalism, and bases all his business insights on it. As such, Widmer rejects the popular approach to business that stresses profits (or value maximization) as the main metric for success; rather, service to and respect for the person marks the successful enterprise.

Furthermore, Widmer, echoing John Paul II, reminds his readers that there is more to human existence than the material world. He strongly rejects the “work for work’s sake” approach to life; businessmen need to take time for the human things, like family, community, and prayer. Wid­mer takes great pains to stress the effect that individual qualities have on the field of business, but in a way that is more than just a bland “good ethics make for good business” set of nostrums. For example, very few business textbooks would reference the traditional Catholic monastic teaching that pride is the worst of sins and humility one of the greatest virtues, but Widmer does. He gains currency when he is honest enough to admit that “pride has been at the source of so many of the struggles I’ve faced, including the downfall of several companies.” But at the core of each lesson Widmer conveys is the vivid example of John Paul himself, whose example of a life lived right made him not just an effective pastor and teacher but an effective manager as well — the kind of boss anyone would love to work for, and whose “corporation” prospered under his leadership. Widmer’s direct experience and praise of John Paul II stands against criticism of the late pontiff’s management style.

It’s tough to criticize a work like The Pope and the CEO, which has attracted praise from a number of prominent people, not least of whom is George Weigel, who wrote the book’s foreword. I fear that the sort of people who would most benefit from the work are the ones who will be likeliest to reject it out of hand because of its obvious and sincere religiosity. But as a vision not just of how things are but how they could be — more human and more humane — Widmer’s book is inspirational, all the more so because it is not based on generalities and ivory-tower theorizing but on the lived example of an extraordinary leader.

- Christopher Beiting





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