January 2005

Unveiling.  By Suzanne M. Wolfe. Paraclete Press. 192 pages. $19.95.

Unveiling is an intriguing novel, an elaborate metaphor with the restoration of a damaged medieval painting standing for restoration through love of a damaged psyche.

A recently divorced art restorationist faces a crisis of conscience involving corporate business and the Church’s claim to an altarpiece in Rome. At the same time, she is challenged by the love of an Italian man with values quite different from her own.

Unveiling includes descriptions of the artistic restoration process, and of color and form, that will delight art-loving readers — though it might be a bit too detailed for those less knowledgeable. An interesting angle is trying to get into the emotional numbness of the heroine, a young woman mired in today’s Culture of Death.

Unveiling has a religious message, yet it is far more subtle than the full-blown experience of the faith that we find in a novelist such as Michael O’Brien.

- Ronda Chervin



Catholic Replies 2.  By James J. Drummey. C.R. Publications (toll-free: 877-730-8877). 476 pages. $21.95.

I delight in question-and-answer formats. Gardening, household hints, Dr. Laura, you name it; the back and forth appeals to my love for the quick, easy, and memorable. It should come as no surprise, then, that James Drummey’s Catholic Replies column in The Wanderer has always been one of my favorites.

Now he has compiled a second list of 800 of those questions, and even though I read him regularly, I found the book interesting and informative. Of course, not all inquiries can be answered in brief paragraphs. In those cases, the author provides references for further study. As a rule he does not use footnotes, instead citing his sources in the text. All are orthodox.

My only reservation would be in the balance of the topics. The Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the devastating impact that results from disregarding them is, of course, of central importance. Yet, it strikes me that we sometimes have a fixation on the validity of other people’s marriages and the legality of minor liturgical transgressions. In the latter case, the discussion on genuflection is almost as long as the comment on capital punishment. There are virtually no queries on the nature of charity, social justice, or just-war principles. Does this lopsidedness reflect the difficulties in grappling with these issues in brief capsules or is this an accurate reflection of where readers’ interests lie? It is hard to say, but if you want an easy-to-use reference book explicating authentic Catholic teaching on multiple issues, this it the (second!) book for you.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink



The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era.  By Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Columbia University Press. 228 pages. $29.50.

Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton said: “The underlying battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist fanatics; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic” (The American Prospect, July 2004).

There is no doubt many Catholics today would readily adopt the modernist position of Reich over the Church’s view of the world. But it needn’t always be that way.

The Church Confronts Modernity is an intellectual history of the reaction of a distinct and burgeoning American Catholicism to the eruption of modernist philosophy in the U.S. during the Progressive Era, roughly 1890-1920.

“Modernity” is a generally neutral term for the application of the scientific method to a wide range of disciplines. But “modernism” is rigorous rationalism combined with the ascendant empirical sciences (oddly including Darwinism), and a rejection of any authority-based philosophy or theology. Its American manifestation, pragmatism, applied these principles to ethics and the ordering of societies.

Orthodox Catholicism, prompted by Leo XIII and Pius X, saw modernism as embracing radical individualism, self-indulgence, and even nihilism. According to Pius X it was “the synthesis of all heresies.” As described by Woods, Catholic publications and intellectuals of the Progressive Era in the U.S. robustly engaged modernity’s propositions and battled modernism on many fronts.

At base yawned a “philosophical chasm” between a recently renewed Catholic philosophy (see Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris) and modernism with its rejection of natural law, an enduring human nature, and theology (especially in its orthodox form). The pragmatism of Peirce, Dewey, and James, arising during the Progressive Era, was a homegrown American philosophy exhibiting the traits, errors, and secularizing tendencies of modernism. Woods argues that as it unfolded it became increasingly antagonistic toward Christianity in general and presented a distinct challenge to Catholicism.

The new science of sociology, founded on modernist ideas, proposed that social ethics derives from “evolutionary imperatives” and an observation of what seemed to work. It rejected any “a priori guidepost for the ordering of human society” such as natural law, revelation, tradition, or authority. Instead, society should be founded only on “scientific” principles, social customs, and utility.

Education in a modernist society would be ordered toward creating good citizens for democracy. Children should be taught toleration and a disdain for dogma and absolutes. Children are to be inculcated with the values that society broadly agrees upon, but must avoid all sectarian particularism, about which they may decide for themselves later.

The improvement of economic conditions for industrial workers was one area of essential agreement between the Progressive Era and Catholicism, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Catholics, reflecting on Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which taught that workingmen’s associations should seek “moral and religious perfection,” objected to a labor movement that emphasized only material gain.

Woods sees pragmatism’s exhortations to virtue without revealed religion as an attempt to “found American nationality on a nonsectarian ethic.” In essence, social and cultural reformers sought the creation of a distinctly American civil religion by a syncretism of what was agreeable to all major religions and sects.

The Church Confronts Modernity presents sufficient evidence that orthodoxy was firmly established among Catholic intellectuals and that, sixty years before Vatican II, they were fully engaged in a vigorous and distinctly American debate with the modern world. This is the major revelation of the work.

Woods debunks the myth that this confrontation with modernity was myopic, obtuse, or facile. Moreover, the rigors of engagement were vital to preserving Catholic identity, unity, and self-confidence. From the Progressive Era to Vatican II, this confrontation bolstered the cohesion of a distinctly Catholic perspective and culture in Protestant and secularizing America.

But Woods does not explore the extent to which the regular faithful participated in the encounter with modernity or even understood the issues at stake, leaving us to wonder how intellectual history affects “real” history.

In his Epilogue, Woods laments modernism’s adverse impact on the Church. With Vatican II, Rome’s encouragement to confront the errors of modernism dried up, while the Church reversed herself by addressing the modern world with “congratulations and praise.” Scores of Catholic institutions that had engaged modernity with Catholicism’s unique scriptural and philosophical approach were altered or simply disappeared.

After Vatican II, modernist methods roared to prominence in the American Church. The Council effectively eliminated Catholicism’s exceptionalism and role as a counter-cultural bulwark, recasting that exceptionalism as intolerant and triumphalistic. However, one would like further exploration of whether modernism burrowed itself into the thinking of the Council Fathers or only into the thinking of its implementers. It is also striking how often pragmatist concepts are echoed in today’s debates over matters of faith and morals, not just among intellectuals but also among clergy and laity.

Regrettably, the victory of Catholic thought over modernism in the Church during the Progressive Era was only fleeting, and the Church’s will to engage modernism and its real-world consequences has since dissipated.

The Church Confronts Modernity provides some useful background on how we arrived at our current dilapidated state in the Church. That is, when the Church came to terms with the modern world, the terms were unconditional surrender. Or, as Karl Keating put it, when the progressive side of the American Church gained ascendancy, it “withstood secular modernity by collapsing before it.”

- Jim Taylor



Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy.  By Jerry L. Walls. Oxford University Press. 224 pages. $35.

In the days when theology was the Queen of the Sciences, she lived in harmony with philosophy, and practitioners of both disciplines could generally be relied upon to uphold Christian orthodoxy. Then philosophers of the “enlightened” persuasion got the upper hand, and theology was driven into an academic ghetto. Reviled when not ignored entirely, she nevertheless long maintained her orthodoxy. But a ghetto can be a lonely place; more to the point, it can be a difficult place for a lady to survive with her virtue intact. The flesh being weak, theology eventually succumbed to temptation, shedding her orthodox finery in a desperate bid to win the attention and respect of the philosophers. Like any woman who sells herself, however, she soon found that she was just as reviled and ignored as she ever was, and now lacked even the comfort of a clear conscience.

The former Queen has long been in a bad way, and one is hard pressed nowadays to find theologians of stature writing orthodox theology — or even true theology at all, as opposed to anthropocentric and liberal schemes for social uplift accented with a sentimental religiosity. Ironically, it is now among the philosophers, and particularly those of an analytic bent, where one is most likely to find traditional theological conceptions discussed and defended with intellectual rigor. The work of Jerry Walls is a good example of this recent trend. In Hell: The Logic of Damnation he proved himself an able advocate of what stands today as probably the most unpopular of Christian doctrines. His most recent book tackles the cheerier but no less important subject of Heaven. As in his earlier book, the writing is clear and relatively non-technical, accessible to the non-specialist.

Walls is not a Catholic, but it is to his credit that he is willing to take Catholic teaching seriously. In particular, he defends the doctrine of Purgatory as an essential concomitant of the doctrine of Heaven. The core of the idea of Heaven is the beatific vision — the saved believer’s dwelling everlastingly in the presence of God. But no one can be worthy of dwelling in God’s presence, or even be sufficiently desirous of doing so, who has not attained sanctification — i.e., the full moral purification for which the believer strives in this life. Sanctification is obviously not completely achieved in this life for most believers: Even the most devout Christian is typically far short of the goal at death. The only remedy can be a period intermediate between death and the beatific vision during which the believer’s preparation for the latter is completed; and this is precisely what Purgatory is traditionally understood to be. Walls’s argument perhaps too greatly underemphasizes that Purgatory is a matter of temporal punishment for sin; but Purgatory as a place of moral perfection has traditionally also been an important part of the doctrine, and Walls is right to see in this an important link to the doctrine of Heaven.

But there are other aspects of Walls’s position that suffer from a failure to appreciate insights from the Catholic philosophical tradition. To defend the reality of Heaven requires defending belief in a good God who desires that we attain Heaven. But Walls seems to assume that there is difficulty getting from the claim that God exists to the claim that He is truly good — rather than indifferent or even positively evil. How do we know that our “moral feelings” (as Walls calls them) were not put into us by an all-powerful but malicious deity, who wants, not to reward us for our good deeds, but rather to frustrate us by failing to do so? Walls’s response is hardly compelling: He concedes the logical possibility of an evil God, but — insisting à la William James that pragmatic considerations can rightly be considered — dismisses it as eccentric and of less practical utility than belief in an omnibenevolent deity. Part of the problem with this is that it is question-begging: For how do we know that our tendency to find certain beliefs of greater “practical” value was not itself implanted in us by an evil deity? The deeper problem, however, is that Walls is mistaken to concede the logical possibility of an evil God in the first place.

Augustine and the great medieval philosophers — Aquinas most notably — took evil to be, not a positive reality on a par with good, but rather a privation, the absence of good. The Good itself is but Being under another description, and a lack of goodness is accordingly a lack of full Being. But to prove the existence of God is just to prove the existence of Being Itself, for God is pure Being. It follows that to prove the existence of God is to prove that God is good, and perfectly so. It is simply incoherent, then, to suppose that God could even possibly be evil.

It is unfortunate that Walls does not even consider such classical concepts. He has, however, at least made a good start at recovering the wisdom of the past for use in articulating timeless Christian doctrine. Should the theologians do half as well, their discipline might stand a chance of regaining its rightful throne.

- Edward Feser





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