March 1999

Our Moral Life in Christ.  By Aurelio Fernandez and James Socias. Scepter Press and Midwest Theological Forum. 358 pages. $19.95.

The Seeker’s Catechism.  By Michael Francis Pennock. Ave Maria Press. 132 pages. $4.95.

Path Through Catholicism.  By Mark Link, S.J. Tabor Press. 218 pages. $14.50.

One could easily bump into one or more of these three catechetical books in a Catholic parish. They all claim to present the Church’s witness to Jesus Christ. The first two draw heavily on the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. The last one, Path Through Catholicism, appeared before the Catechism was published.

Our Moral Life in Christ (imprimatur, Raymond Goedert, Bishop-Vicar General, Archdiocese of Chicago) is concerned with the Church’s witness to Jesus in her moral teaching — upon which it concentrates entirely. In this it gives us an excellent example of the direction in which all moral theology today needs to go — though there are some points in the book which need clarification and careful revision.

The second and third books are overall instructions of the R.C.I.A. type (that is, they are oriented to parish programs that receive adult converts). In many ways they are well done but, as we shall note below, they seriously misrepresent the Church’s position on dissent from her clearly finalized moral teaching.

Our Moral Life in Christ, in contrast, faces up to the moral decadence around us. It bears witness to the moral healing that is possible only through the Church’s witness to Jesus. The authors wisely note the excessively intellectualized approach of much moral theology prior to the Second Vatican Council — a moral theology not rooted sufficiently in the Scriptures. True also, however, is what the authors quote from Paul VI: “Past exaggerations have been replaced with other exaggerations.”

All three books claim to seek this more Christ-centered, Scripture-centered approach commended by the Second Vatican Council for moral theology. Only Our Moral Life in Christ, however, truly succeeds. It alone intelligently and insistently points out the sources of our current moral decadence, which are:

Relativism (every person and society is basically different, and moral good or bad is “related” entirely to this difference); materialistic naturalism (human beings are, by reason of a totally “material nature,” only instinct-driven animals); radical pluralism (all opinions, among the “plurality” of those current in society, are acceptable); consequentialism (any act is morally acceptable if it causes even one “decisively” worthwhile “consequence”); proportionalism (do it if “proportionally” it does more good than evil); fundamental option (no seriously evil act, regardless of how coldly and deliberately a person does it, can of itself be a “fundamental opting out” of that person’s relationship to God); legal positivism (a law “posited” by civil “legal authorities” is the only thing that makes an act morally good or evil — for example, since abortion is legal, it could not be immoral); and democratism (not civil law by itself, but only the “democratic majority” establishes what is moral or immoral).

Rejecting these intellectual fashions, Our Moral Life in Christ asserts that centering one’s life on Jesus makes for a more demanding moral life — not the less demanding one much in vogue today even among some theologians working under Catholic auspices.

Path Through Catholicism (imprimatur, Charles V. Graham, Bishop of Dallas) presents, in contrast, a serious obstacle to the Church’s moral witness. It is all the more disappointing in that most of the book presents various discrete teachings of the Church, including her moral teaching, accurately and well. In Chapter 20 we are told (correctly) that when it comes to doctrinal, credal beliefs — such as the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus — one cannot be authentically a Catholic and deny these. About these the Church has absolute, irrevocable certainty through the Holy Spirit.

But the same chapter immediately goes on to say that on any and all moral issues, the Church has no such certainty. Her teaching on contraception, not surprisingly, is cited explicitly as an example of the Church’s mere “opinion” — which Catholics are free to reject. The author cites a famously vague statement of the Canadian bishops from 1968 allowing for not following the teaching of Humanae Vitae. He never mentions that five years later they completely repudiated that position. But even had the author told that story in full, his error would not be the less. For he makes it clear that a “righteous” opting out of the Church’s teaching is available to Catholics on all moral issues.

This chapter is a land mine in the reader’s path through Catholicism. It utterly destroys the book’s pastoral usefulness. Fortunately, the author and publisher recognize the problems, and a new edition is being prepared. We can only wait and see.

The Seeker’s Catechism (imprimatur, Anthony Pilla, Bishop of Cleveland), a compact handbook on the Faith, claims to be based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Though in many ways well done, it also unfortunately makes room for an “authentically Catholic” opting out of the Church’s witness on moral issues. I believe that it would be seriously irresponsible for anyone consciously to promote use of this book.

- Edward J. Bayer



The Trial of Faith of St. Therese of Lisieux.  By Frederick L. Miller. Alba House. 207 pages. $12.95.

Can anyone honestly say that his confidence in a spiritual role model would not be tested if he should learn that in that saintly person’s emotions some essential article of faith had been eclipsed?

St. Therese of Lisieux, “the Little Flower,” confided to her blood sister, Mother Agnes of Jesus, that she was tempted to doubt the existence of Heaven. The theological virtue of faith, as we know, lies in the will, as does every virtue, and it was not in her will that Therese doubted. But in that emotional field where most of our conscious life is spent, Heaven was absent. She found that, as a reality that could motivate or refresh her, it meant nothing. She shared the feeling of the honest atheist for whom God, Heaven, and life everlasting are illusions, less real than a dream. Heaven had been a thing that had captivated her mind from early childhood; but as a grown woman she found that its emotional consolation had vanished for her. The loss was bitter.

Therese was completely candid about this only with her sister, and she mentioned her trial to very few, aware that it might become a source of scandal. It is well to remember that, though we have made Therese a role model, she did not seek to be one on her own account. She strove to be an example of the splendor of Christ in any soul who allows Him to enter and to work there. (Do we not ask for the same, when we pray, “Hallowed be thy name”?) But if Therese, the seeker after God, were to confess that her spiritual journey had brought her to the feeling that God and Heaven are illusions, many others might never undertake the journey. And that would indeed be scandal.

This conflict in Therese, along with other spiritual trials she endured, provided the basis for Etienne Robo’s conclusion, in his Two Portraits of St. Therese of Lisieux (Newman Press, 1957), that she was insane. His book merited a rebuttal by T.V. Moore, a pioneer priest in psychiatry, in his Heroic Sanctity and Insanity (Grune & Stratton, 1959). All questions of sanity aside, many respected theologians have concluded that at best Therese had not reached the summit of mystical union with God. It is this conclusion that Frederick Miller endeavors to refute.

One of the results of Miller’s work might well be just the opposite of scandal: Many a soul who has spent years dedicated to Christ and has arrived at doubts about the quest might be consoled to learn that such a form of depression was shared by a saint deservedly declared a Doctor of the Church, and that such suffering need not reflect failure. It may be, in fact, one way of arriving at closer union with Christ. Was not the summit of Christ’s redemptive Passion the very same feeling? It was this aspect of Christ’s Passion that gave Therese her devotion to the Holy Face, the face of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah on Veronica’s veil.

Not loss of feeling, but loss of the will to believe, is sin, and Therese felt it was the besetting sin of her times. She felt called to offer herself in union with Christ for its expiation; she felt that her mission was to strengthen the gift of faith in others. She emerges in Miller’s treatment as a giant of supernatural intelligence.

Attention only to the pain of Therese’s passion might frighten the reader away from answering the universal call to holiness. The author makes it clear that the suffering of this trial is not the whole story of Therese’s spiritual life, or anybody else’s. On the level of intellect and will, she was perfectly at peace, experiencing the joy of responding to her vocation. She understood that following Christ meant taking up the cross herself, not merely watching Jesus take it up. And even on that cross, Christ experienced the beatific vision, or so Therese believed.

- Dom Julian Stead



Liturgical Question Box: Answers to Common Questions About Modern Liturgy.  By Peter J. Elliott. Ignatius. 267 pages. $12.95.

Although liturgical innovations — and the ensuing confusion — continue to linger, recent years have seen a promising trend in favor of reverent and ordered Catholic worship. In part this can be attributed to the rise of a younger generation of clergy (and the laity who support them) who, unlike their predecessors, are not weighed down with the burden of certain psychological problems related to the selective perception of what the Second Vatican Council was about. However, clouds still darken the bright horizon. In the three decades since Vatican II and the creation of the new Missal and Liturgy of the Hours, many ancient traditions of sacred music, art, and architecture have been all but destroyed — to say nothing of the impoverishment of the liturgy itself.

It was with these concerns in mind that a few years ago Msgr. Peter J. Elliott published his Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite. The volume has become, to a generation of clerics eager to restore a sense of the sacred, what the manifold editions of Fr. Adrian Fortescue’s The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described were for an earlier generation. The limitation of Elliott’s manual, however, lies in that it is — like Fortescue’s classic — a description of “what should be done” and, thus, presupposes an understanding of the theology, tradition, and history behind those ritual actions.

Such a presupposition is hardly warranted today. Thus the publication of Elliott’s Liturgical Question Box is to be warmly welcomed. Based on queries addressed to his popular column in Christ to the World, a review published by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Elliott’s book includes both pastoral questions raised by clergy and concerns of the laity. The question-and-answer format allows him to explain in some detail the themes of his earlier manual.

Basing his answers firmly in liturgical law and tradition, Elliott responds with clarity and at times humor not only to broad issues but also to details of liturgical practice, including: Should hands be held during the Lord’s Prayer? (No.) When can incense be used at Mass? (Anytime, but preferably on Sundays and other solemnities at Masses with some music.) Is “liturgical dancing” allowed at Mass? (In the West where dancing in such a context is not a part of the culture, No; elsewhere, possibly, Yes, according to the judgment of the local Church, if such is a part of the cultural patrimony.) Are black vestments permitted for funeral liturgies? (Yes.)

Liturgical Question Box is not only technically accurate but also grounded in experience and pastoral common sense, ensuring its value not just to priests but also to laity looking for a prudent guide. It is, in fact, the enthusiastic response of the laity to such initiatives as the Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy and other tradition-oriented liturgical movements that give hope for the “reform of the reform.” The authentic renewal of our worship, which Elliott and others (including Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) have called for, depends in large part on the laity demanding from their pastors an authentic respect for their right — enshrined in canon 214 of the Code of Canon Law — to “worship God according to the proper provisions of their rite.”

In the midst of the liturgical upheavals following the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae, Hans Urs von Balthasar warned that if any liturgical assembly “should have anything else in mind than adoration and self-oblation — for example, self-development or any other project in which they place themselves thematically in context next to the Lord who is to be worshiped — then they naively deceive themselves.” It is in awareness of this reality that Elliott’s work invites us to an ordered worship “for the praise and glory of His name” and thus truly “for our good and the good of all His Church.”

- John-Peter Pham





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