February 2004

Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.  By Sol Stern. Encounter Books. 248 pages. $25.95.

The kids from Peoria’s Blaine-Sumner Elementary School were among the terrors of my Catholic childhood. Whenever they saw groups of us from St. John’s Grammar School a block away — I was then age 6 and in Grade 2 — they tried to hit us with rocks and shards of broken glass. At a bus stop shared by both schools, one or two of the nastier Blaine-Sumner boys liked to rush at us “fish-eaters” and snarl accusations about our nun teachers. A favorite claim of theirs was that behind the big white marble altar at our church was a secret room where our priests “made babies” with our nun teachers.

These early experiences of mine with inter-faith dialogue were what caused me to recognize the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, when in the early 1980s he started attacking the Church and the priesthood, as a Blaine-Sumner kid. Those bullies never got it right, and they had this weird thing about sex. The St. John’s nuns always told us that the Blaine-Sumner kids needed to be converted to the Faith. That would make them stop “being hooligans.” While Sr. Archangela wiped our tears and dabbled peroxide on our cuts, we were left to mull that over.

The name of that Peoria public school, Blaine-Sumner, leaped out at me from Stern’s fine book, Breaking Free. The U.S. Catholic school system may never have a better champion than this author, a New York Jew and working journalist, also a committed liberal activist. Stern devotes Chapter 6, titled “Catholic School Lessons,” to describing the mostly negative effects on all American religious schools of the 1875 Blaine Amendment, a fiercely anti-Catholic piece of legislation that would have prohibited any public funding going to religiously affiliated institutions, including schools. The constitutional amendment, which at the time was backed by the Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothing Party, failed by a mere four votes in the Senate. Nevertheless, 29 state legislatures would eventually add “Blaine Amendments” to their state codes.

The zealous Evangelicals who worked for the Blaine Amendment(s) did so in part to protect the Protestant worldview that was then common to public schools. In our own day, as atheists use old state laws and the courts to rid public schools of all Christian beliefs and symbols, some leading Evangelicals have expressed deep regret that “Blaine” ever made it into law. Today, Evangelicals are being attacked, right along with the Catholics, by the tiger they originally cut loose.

Stern relates that he came to be a defender and champion for the nation’s Catholic school system and a backer of voucher programs as a result of his lifelong commitment to civil rights causes, especially the needs of the urban poor. Breaking Free tells a concerned parent’s odyssey in lively, colorful, highly readable prose. Stern discovered the dismal state of the public school establishment as a result of steering his own children through his city’s public schools. Better than any other commentator on the schools, Stern has exposed the extent to which the public school mess, and especially the prevalence of incompetent teachers, has been caused by the stranglehold over instruction and personnel matters exercised by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

And Stern exaggerates nothing. (I write as a longtime public school teacher.) Although Stern, a liberal, does not cast the situation in these terms, liberalism’s rotten fruits have spread decay throughout the whole barrel. He also stops short of crediting — as a secularist has no choice — the Catholic faith with having anything to do with the ability of Catholic schools to “get the job done.” In an interview with Louis Giovino of the Catholic League, Stern summarized his position: “What amazed me was what you could do with very little money if you had the dedication, the sense of mission, if you had the structure…if you had the right to create a real sense of order in the school and hold students accountable for their behavior, and instill some very basic ideas which we have lost in public schools — what is good character for young people growing up, what’s acceptable and not acceptable” (Catalyst, Sept. 2003).

If pressed, Stern would probably insist that ethics needs to be restored to a place of honor in American public schools. But he would no doubt gloss over the fact that ethical conduct (“good character”) is a natural byproduct of some coherent system of morality. Which in turn is a byproduct of religious faith.

David Ramsay, one of our earliest historians, put it succinctly in his History of the American Revolution, “There can be no morality without religion.” I wonder: Will our school-reforming liberals (whose number is growing) ever get around to considering that there can be no sound education without religion? (Let’s not hold our breath.)

- Barbara Nauer



One Hundred Years of Philosophy.  Edited by Brian Shanley, O.P. Catholic University of America Press. 311 pages. $49.95.

A book on 20th-century philosophy can be an important resource. But its usefulness depends on its accuracy and range.

One Hundred Years of Philosophy tries to be such a resource. It offers 14 articles, each of which deals with a distinct area. These include analytical philosophy, philosophy of science, Marxism, Chinese philosophy, phenomenology, and aesthetics. Additional articles, of keen interest to Catholics, explore medieval thought, Catholic social teaching, German Catholic thought, and philosophy of religion.

Although there are gems throughout this collection, there are also disappointments. We find both in Eugene Long’s “Western Philosophy of Religion in the Last Hundred Years,” which I will focus on. One of the gems is Long’s summary of Emerich Coreth’s epistemology, which sharply challenges both Kant’s friends and foes.

Coreth, as Long notes, goes “beyond Kant” to show that the necessary a priori condition for knowledge is not a set of categories in the mind of the subject by which one imposes meaning on a manifold of phenomena. Rather, the necessary condition for knowledge is objectively grounded in being. The human person is a questioning being, and Coreth contends that the condition for the possibility of this questioning is the infinite “Being itself,” that is, God. Thus, God is known implicitly in our acts of knowing finite being, since the contingency of the latter presupposes a Being beyond finiteness. Long’s sketch of Coreth’s position successfully introduces him to the reader.

The down side of Long’s essay is a failure to show the Kantian basis of today’s separation of faith and reason. This separation begins with the notion of God as a totally unknowable “wholly other.” This “wholly otherness” stems from Kant’s projection of God into the realm of the unknowable noumena while reserving the realm of the knowable to empirical science. An understanding of Kant’s relegation of God to the unknowable is critical for understanding 20th-century skepticism pertaining to theistic proofs, language about God, propositional revelation, miracles, union with God in contemplation, the epistemic significance of dogma, and the ability of God to reveal Himself to us.

Kant’s dogma of the unknowability of God and the limitation of knowledge to empirical data has been arguably refuted by Etienne Gilson in Methodical Realism, Jacques Maritain in Degrees of Knowledge, and the Protestant Cornelius Van Til in The Great Debate Today. It is crucial for us to know both the extent of the Kantian problem and its refutation.

Long also discusses what he obviously sees as two important developments in the philosophy of religion: a comparative approach to religion designed to marginalize Christianity, and feminist philosophies of religion. Unfortunately, his analysis of these “developments” is woefully incomplete, because he ignores objections to the claims of their advocates. Thus, Long might give the false impression that these “developments” are somehow justifiable. Indeed, he gives the same kind of “free pass” presentation of modernist and post-modernist philosophy of religion. He claims, for example, that John A.T. Robinson, in his book Honest to God, “challenged the classical understanding of God.” Yet Long fails to note that the finite God theory (of Robinson and others) has been condemned by the First Council of Nicea, the Fourth Lateran Council, and the First Vatican Council, and refuted by St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and by the Protestant Van Til.

All in all, this book is informative in many ways but misleading in others. Too often its contributors fail to consider either the traditional Catholic perspective or the logical criticisms of the modernist and post-modernist perspectives.

- Chris Curry



Redemptive Change: Atonement and the Christian Cure of the Soul.  By R.R. Reno. Trinity Press International. 267 pages. $28.

Everyone desires happiness. With this simple observation, Aristotle opened his discussion of life, and followed it up with two far-reaching questions: Is happiness possible? If so, how exactly should man change so as to obtain beatitude? R.R. Reno updates this classic inquiry into the good life by examining how the modern mind can understand meaningful human change and true fulfillment. The last few centuries have relegated the phenomenon of redemptive change to meaningless fancy, and Reno lays out the problem very accurately, namely, today’s “we-matter-most humanism.”

We first meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his view that we should just stay as we are and thereby discover that simply being ourselves is our highest good. If we feel a bit out of sorts, blame it on society, which caused the disjunction in the first place. Put to rest any talk of sin and longing for redemption; change is unnecessary because I am what I am and that’s that.

Standing across from Rousseau is David Hume, who advocates change — but a change that is nothing extraordinary. For Hume, personal conversion risks alienating those around us. Basically, therefore, we should just follow the crowd and condition ourselves not to ponder too long those questions of utmost importance — God, immortality, and perfect beatitude.

Both schools represent the “we-matter-most humanism”; neither makes room for grace.

Reno next shows how Immanuel Kant brings Rousseau and Hume together. Proposing a purely personal Pelagianism, Kant too espouses the selfish characteristics of a “we-matter-most humanism.”

Accordingly, Reno concludes by demonstrating how only Christianity offers a salvation in which man is “both consequential and continuous” but is no way sufficient or an end unto himself. It is Christ, not I, who matters most; however, Christ is always “for us,” and thus a Savior who offers us a conversion in which we “are fulfilled rather than sacrificed, integrated rather than disjoined.” Jesus offers us not only the purgation of our sins but the promise of His eternal bliss.

This is not an easy book, but reading Reno always brings a hefty reward. A professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Reno’s latest book shows how the brilliance of Christianity answers modern concerns about change and continuity and, as such, not only silences its critics on this point but continues to offer the world the only true source of happiness.

- David Vincent Meconi



The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur.  By Elisabeth Leseur. Sophia Institute Press. 336 pages. $19.95.

I don’t suppose I’m the only woman who would like her husband to view her as a saint. This, of course, will never happen. Indeed, on many days whatever tolerance he is able to muster is gratefully received. Elisabeth Leseur, however, was a different sort. Her canonization has not occurred (yet), but many who knew her, not least her spouse, believed in her sanctity.

Born to the Catholic Faith but married to a non-believer who frequently ridiculed her Christianity and devotional practices, Elisabeth spent a short time away from the Sacraments. She eventually returned to the Church, and led an exemplary life.

The disparity between her faith and her role as the wife of a successful and cosmopolitan Frenchman in fin-de-siècle Paris caused great dissonance for her. Yet, she strove mightily never to allow it to produce tension between her and her husband. She knew that grace saves, and all of her sacrifices were offered for her beloved husband. Elisabeth died at 47, after a long and debilitating illness, without the consolation of his conversion. But her diary, discovered after her death, stunned and shamed her grieving husband, Felix, and led him to abandon his atheism; in due time he became not only a Catholic but also a Dominican priest.

Whether or not she is eventually canonized, Elisabeth Leseur was a woman whose faith and essential goodness led others to Christ.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink



How Firm a Foundation.  By Marcus Grodi. Coming Home Resources (740-450-2678). 544 pages. $14.95.

You’d think that if you’ve read Scott and Kimberly Hahn and Surprised by Truth (and sequels) edited by Patrick Madrid, you’d have a pretty good idea how dramatic Protestant conversions to the Catholic Church can be. At least that’s what I thought, until I read Marcus Grodi’s fictional version. It’s a humdinger. The hero is a minister, as was Grodi, only slightly altered for fictional purposes. The tale involves his wife and teenage boys, a fundamentalist fanatic, and the Holy Spirit.

Somehow all the intellectual conflicts we have read about in the nonfiction accounts come doubly alive in novel form. Perhaps this is because the depiction of the noble sincerity of the fictional character cannot be easily portrayed when writing in the first person, where modesty intervenes.

Grodi gets us to love and admire his complex hero, as well as his wife, whose love, already tested by the long hours away from home demanded of any good minister, becomes still shakier as she realizes her husband is leaning toward Rome.

Grodi weaves a convincing and suspenseful plot in such a way that just when the theology becomes a trifle heavy, the reader is jerked into a wide-awake “page-turning mode,” worrying about a violent turn.

But stop! I’ll give nothing away. Get this book for yourself — and for gifts.

- Ronda Chervin





Back to February 2004 Issue


©