June 1988

The New Encounter Between Christians and Jews.  By John M. Oesterreicher. Philosophical Li­brary. 470 pages. $24.95.

The history of relations be­tween the Catholic Church and the Jews is filled with much hos­tility, bigotry, and violence. Msgr. John Oesterreicher, a Cath­olic Jew who heads the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, has been one of the leaders in promoting harmony between Christians and non-Christian Jews. His latest book is a selection of his writings on the subject. Oesterreicher has some insightful things to say about the Bible and about rab­binical teaching, but the main emphasis is a discussion of the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate (Declaration of the Rela­tion of the Church to Non-Chris­tian Religions), specifically, the part that deals with the Jewish people. The history of the docu­ment given in this book will be of interest to historians, especial­ly given the part the author him­self played in the development of the declaration. Oesterreicher de­fends Nostra Aetate on two fronts: against those who attack it for going too far in an ecumen­ical direction and against those who think it did not go far enough.

Despite the numerous com­mendable and enlightening aspects of this book, I must take issue with some unfortunate ten­dencies. Oesterreicher argues with those who think that “with Christ’s Death and Resurrection, a new Covenant superseded the old”; he maintains that there is “ultimately one, all-embracing Covenant” and that the special covenants, including that sealed by the blood of the Messiah, “are manifestations of His [God’s] lasting embrace of the whole earth and, thus interrelat­ed.” Interrelated the covenants surely are, but that is not the same as their being one. The spe­cific interrelationship of the covenant of Jesus with that made to Abraham and renewed in the time of Moses is that the latter is preparatory and the former is final, the fulfillment. It is worthy of note that Oesterreicher does not address himself to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper con­cerning “the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20) which clearly point to a covenant tran­scending the Abrahamic-Mosaic. Nevertheless, Oesterreicher writes that, “Despite their differ­ences, the two Covenants do not contradict each other, rather they are two stages in God’s deal­ings with humankind. Doubtless the New, in several respects, transcends the Old.” One hopes that this quote rather than the earlier ones more nearly express­es the author’s convictions.

A problem exists as well in the matter of the conversion of the people of Israel. Oesterreich­er writes, “The Christian hope…is that when the end of ages comes, the righteous of the world will turn to Christ.” A careful reading of the relevant biblical passages reveals that it is by no means evident that the conversion of the Jews will hap­pen only at the end of time. Still, the quotation, while a bit vague, can be interpreted as upholding the belief in the eventual conver­sion of the Jewish people to Jesus. Oesterreicher is clearer elsewhere in the book: “The Church lives, faithful to the Apos­tles’ teaching, in unceasing hope of a reconciliation, a restoration of separated Israel to the unity of the one people of God.” (Ac­tually there is more than a “hope” here; a certainty is clear­ly enunciated by St. Paul in Romans.) Though he writes that the Church “will continue to welcome wholeheartedly to her ranks Jews who have been led to believe in Jesus as the Christ,” he asks “whether Judaism and Christianity are not two ways of righteousness that have comple­mentary functions.” He then quotes from his earlier book, Brothers in Hope: “Is it neces­sary, indeed possible that in the present eon — for the Christian the ‘age of the in-between,’ be­tween the first and second com­ings of Christ — we do away with the opposing visions of Christians and Jews?”

But what is the “vision” of the Jews to which Oesterreicher refers? Is it rabbinical (Ortho­dox) Judaism? No matter how much wisdom can be found in the teachings of the rabbis, no matter to what extent they are based upon the revelation of God to the patriarchs and prophets, they have been formulated in conscious rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Can a follower of that same Jesus possibly look up­on rabbinical Judaism as a com­plementary way of righteousness to the way taught by the Messiah himself? Moreover, ever since the civic emancipation of the Jews by the French Revolution, rab­binical Judaism’s hold on the people has been growing weaker. The bulk of the Jewish people no longer consider themselves bound to its prescriptions. Can Oesterreicher possibly mean Con­servative or Reform Judaism? But they are even less vibrant than Orthodox Judaism. And surely he cannot mean modern political Zionism, which is not a religious vision at all.

Without wishing to belittle Oesterreicher’s worthy efforts, one is constrained to argue that he does not seem to realize that the glory and destiny of the Jew­ish people is bound up necessar­ily with the Messiah, even before His return. The calling of Israel is to be a light to the nations. At the time of the earthly life of Jesus and immediately thereaf­ter, many Jews, under the leader­ship of the Apostles, went out and preached the Gospel to the nations. The very fact of the cor­porate integration of the people of Israel into the Messianic as­sembly which is the Catholic Church will itself, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, bring back gentile Christians who have grown lukewarm. To understand human history one has to ob­serve it and analyze it from the focal point of the incarnation of Jesus. This is true in a very spe­cial way of the history of God’s people, Israel. Based on this book, it does not seem that Oesterreicher does this in a clear, consistent, thoroughgoing way.

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Making Sense Out of Suffering.  By Peter Kreeft. Servant. 184 pages. $5.95.

“Only God can win your heart. But I can help win your mind maybe.” Thus Peter Kreeft sums up his role as author and re­veals the twofold obstacle — voli­tional and intellectual — to mak­ing sense out of suffering. Kreeft uses Socratic dialogue to probe the age-old problems of pain and suffering, evil, death, and sin. Like Socrates, he hopes to con­vince by provoking one’s thoughts rather than by merely supplying pat answers. Kreeft asks questions which demand pondering. Even if one doesn’t accept all his answers, it doesn’t really matter. The purpose of the dialogue is to make one reach be­yond cheap, shallow, and com­fortable solutions.

Kreeft notes that “pro­found things are simple and sim­ple things are profound.” His simplicity has the startling grab of a man who sees from God’s perspective, not ours. So he can describe “modernity’s typical at­titude” as “blindly sliding into the abyss and erecting billboards at the edge to look at,” or won­der why “solitude, the thing which ancient sages longed for as the greatest gift, is the very thing we give to our most desperate criminals as the greatest punish­ment we can imagine.”

Nor is this book an exam­ple of relativistic, any-answer-will-do questioning, which leads to the nihilistic despair that no answer matters (or is possible). Rather, this is profound and humble questioning which, even as it shows that we don’t know all the answers, leads us ever clos­er to the Truth at the heart of reality. Kreeft discusses (and re­jects) 10 easy answers and then examines clues from the philos­ophers, artists, and prophets; he then leads us to see that Truth, and God’s answer to suffering, is in fact a Someone, an “Answer­er”: “Jesus, the tears of God.” If suffering has hurt us so deeply that we cannot be reconciled to this Someone, Kreeft advises: “Cry and wait…for God to come and wipe your tears and melt your hardness. I can’t do that. You can’t even do it. But God can.”

This is a small, but perfectly cut, gem. Recently a colleague of mine described Peter Kreeft as “the new C.S. Lewis.” I thought that was a bit much. Now, hav­ing read his book, I’ve ordered copies for all the non-Christian members of my family.

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The Guillotine and the Cross.  By Warren H. Carroll. Trinity Com­munications. 203 pages. $5.95.

To write history one must stand on principle. The determi­nation of what is important and why must rest on an undergirding principle. But which one? Marxists stand on the principle of history as a deterministic god. Sociological historians (American brand) stand on quicksand: num­bers and graphs and “method.” Warren Carroll stands on the rock of Christ.

Carroll views the French Revolution as an unmitigated dis­aster. His book covers the years of the Terror, from September 1792 to July 1794, “when a spir­it was abroad which contempo­rary conservatives truly described as satanic.” Judge for yourself. Follow his graphic portrayal of events from the September Mas­sacres of 1792 to the Catholic rising in the Vendee to the mar­tyrdom of the Carmelite nuns and the execution of Robespierre in 1794.

The Guillotine and the Cross is the third in a trilogy. 1917 and Our Lady of Guada­lupe juxtapose miraculous and temporal history in an exciting and extraordinarily insightful manner. The Guillotine and the Cross does the same, only with­out the apparent intervention of Our Lady. In 1531 Mary visited the kingdom of Mexico; in 1917 she appeared to the shepherd children at Fatima. But in 1794 there was no miraculous inter­vention to set things on their proper path. There was only the (presumed) Christian rehabilita­tion of Danton and the martyr­dom of the nuns. That martyr­dom in effect put a stop to the Terror.

The best thing about Car­roll’s histories is his inclusion of original documents and letters and speeches of the principal par­ties, allowing the reader an unmediated look at the minds of the people and a vivid sense of the times. But in this book is Carroll reaching too far to find a supernatural explanation of events? Does he read too much into the rising in the Vendee, the Catholic loyalty of the rural masses, and the sudden turna­round of Danton from instigating the Terror to attempting to stop it?

Perhaps. But Carroll is a true Catholic who sees the in­terjection of the supernatural in­to the natural everywhere. Can we do better, who see nothing but the world in front of our faces?

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The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History.  By Mi­chel Mollat. Yale University Press. 336 pages. $29.95.

The years 500-1500 are unique because for much of this period Western Europe was united religiously. Seeing how Christians confronted the issue of poverty at a time when soci­ety was predominantly Christian should be of benefit to contem­porary Christians seeking to de­velop the morally correct re­sponse to poverty.

Michel Mollat’s volume re­veals the varieties of medieval poverty and the various respons­es this condition elicited. Because Mollat’s work is a survey of re­cent studies in the social history of poverty, nearly every line represents highly compressed gener­alizations of complex and some­times elusive phenomena. As a social historian, he deals with doctrinal or intellectual history only insofar as developments in doctrine might have influenced social relations. Bearing these cautionary remarks in mind, one can learn much from Mollat.

The collapsing political or­der of the Roman Empire and the migrations of Germanic tribes engendered severe social disloca­tions. In the Merovingian period, many of the poor were “crushed” rather than merely “oppressed.” The Church attended to poor re­lief in this period largely through the distribution of alms. The bishop became the “father of the poor”; princes were obliged in justice to tend to the weak; and monasteries showed hospitality.

Society gained greater sta­bility in the 11th century. In these more settled times, some viewed the poor suspiciously, as social outcasts. The Church con­tinued to stress charity, but fre­quently saw the poor in instrumental terms: they existed for the spiritual benefit of the wealthy. Francis and Dominic sought to transform approaches to the poor. Focusing on the hu­miliated Christ, they forcefully stressed the radical equality of all human beings and the claim of the poor to dignity.

The late 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the obscuring of the message of Francis and Dom­inic. Changing economic condi­tions resulted in a growing body of “working poor.” Rebellions of the poor became commonplace, and humanist authors occasional­ly ridiculed their plight. Even so, figures like Antonino of Florence endeavored to awaken the wealthy to their obligation to­ward the poor.

The record Mollat recites is a mixed one. Even Christendom did not always recognize Christ in the face of the poor. While the message of Francis and Dominic resonates to our own age, this message is still often obscured. Our task is to be alert to the dig­nity and equality of the poor.

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The Mystery of Continuity: Time and History, Memory and Eternity in the Thought of Saint Augustine.  By Jaroslav Pelikan. University Press of Virginia. 177 pages. $14.95.

Jaroslav Pelikan, the great Lutheran scholar, has taken some previously recognized Augustinian themes — time, history, mem­ory, eternity — and tied them to­gether under another, more uni­versal theme, continuity. “Conversion and continuity stand in an analogous relation in the thought of Augustine,” Pelikan states. The primary example of continu­ity in Augustine’s thought is that of the orthodox faith of the Catholic Church; by the apparent discontinuity of his conversion Augustine became part of this faith.

The first four chapters were delivered in 1984 as the Richard Lectures at the University of Vir­ginia. Here Pelikan traces his theme of continuity in Augus­tine’s three great books: the Con­fessions (continuity of the self), the City of God (continuity of history), and the treatise on the Trinity (metaphysical continuity of the divine being).

To these chapters he adds the Hale Lectures delivered at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1986. Here he dis­cusses two continuities: (1) the continuity of nature and grace, which finds its classical expres­sion in the Thomistic dictum, “Grace does not abolish nature, but completes it”; and (2) the continuity of the Church, both historical and spatial, being the Church of the Apostles and the communio sanctorum, which is, despite Donatist claims to the contrary, “until the end of his­tory…a mixed body of good and evil.”

The book concludes with a chapter sketching the continuity of Western civilization with Au­gustine’s thought. It is, Pelikan suggests, probably more correct to say that Western thought is a series of footnotes to Augustine rather than, as Whitehead sug­gested, to Plato.

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Covenant House: Lifeline to the Street.  By Bruce Ritter. Doubleday. 244 pages. $16.95.

This is not a book to read for pleasure. It is difficult to com­prehend the evil that befalls teen­agers who have strayed from what Burke called the “little pla­toon” of protection and com­fort, the family.

In this collection of 15 years’ worth of monthly newslet­ters from Covenant House, Fr. Ritter describes the young people who flee to him from the streets of New York City. They are not cute or attractive, these kids whom Mother Teresa termed “America’s untouchables” — chil­dren who have been abandoned to private demons and to a pub­lic hell of drugs, violence, and sexual abuse. Normal teenage choices between buying pizza or taking in a movie are replaced by the need to decide whether to steal or to sell one’s body in or­der to eat. Everyone who comes to Covenant House receives love and encouragement to escape the life one leads and hates. Some re­spond; too many others do not.

Thousands of these teen­agers flow each year into the moral cesspool of Times Square, where countless unspeakable acts routinely occur without regard to the laws of God. Ritter pre­sents an unblinking look at mod­ern evil, an unrelenting enemy that never sleeps, that devours America’s youth with cruel fe­rocity, and that does so while righteously appealing to Consti­tutional protection. American democracy, with its twin spiritu­al disorders of materialism and license, is decaying from the cen­ter. The hell of Times Square, so far from the world of middle America, exists because middle America, blinded by smoke­screens of “civil rights” and “First Amendment freedoms,” al­lows that hell to exist.

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Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church.  By Denis Dirscherl. Lo­yola University Press. 177 pages. $12.95.

Fr. Dirscherl’s disquisition proves mainly that even a writer of Dostoevsky’s incomparable genius can lapse into muddle-headedness. Dostoevsky hated everything about the Catholic Church, but he concocted an especially stinging vitriol for the papacy and the Jesuits. In his eyes, Western Europe was rotten and loathsome, and major re­sponsibility for its sins — athe­ism, nihilism, and socialism, among others — lay at the door­step of St. Peter’s. Perhaps the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev best apprehended the Russian master’s problem: “it must be admitted that Dostoevsky’s knowledge of it [the Catholic Church] was neither deep nor exact.”

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Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives.  By Priscilla J. Brewer. Uni­versity Press of New England. 273 pages. $24.95.

“Celibacy, communalism, separation from the World, con­fession of sins, unquestioned obedience to anointed leaders”: Sound familiar? Well, in this case, this does not describe the monastic life, but rather the “Shaker gospel order” as eluci­dated by Priscilla Brewer in her illuminating study of the sect from its founding in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee to its entry — stripped of numbers and spiritual vitality — into the 20th century.

Modern America best re­members Shakers for the exqui­site furniture they crafted — the tables, chairs, and bureaus much prized by moneyed collectors for whom Shaker frugality and self-denial would be anathema. The Shakers exemplified communal austerity in a 19th-century America drunk on rugged indi­vidualism and the amassing of riches. That they failed to make a dent in the American ethos is no surprise. Perhaps, though, the blame lies with themselves, for in their evangelical zeal for the “gospel order,” they truncated Christianity, immured themselves behind a constricting sectarian­ism, and grounded their self-de­nying regimen in a loathing of the fleshly creation. Their dour ethic made individualism and ma­terialism attractive by compari­son.

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The Oxford Dictionary of Popes.  By J.N.D. Kelly. Oxford Univer­sity Press. 347 pages. $24.95.

This volume, one of the lat­est additions to Oxford’s shelf of distinguished reference works, belongs in the library of every Catholic who is even remotely in­terested in the history of the Church. Unfortunately, too many Catholics display a blithe ignorance of such matters. A typ­ical American Catholic’s survey of papal history goes something like this: he begins with St. Peter; skips to Innocent III (with perhaps a passing glance at Leo the Great); averts his eyes as he slips past the Renaissance pon­tiffs; nods at Leo X; doubles back to toss in a stray Boniface, Gregory, and Clement or two; and, with immense relief, arrives at Pius XII — from there on out he can name them all. (Well, maybe all: what was the name of the one just before John Paul II?)

“With cool but not unsym­pathetic detachment,” J.N.D. Kelly chronologically profiles the popes (and antipopes as well) from St. Peter to the present. This “papal Who’s Who” is, quite simply, invaluable.

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Caspar Schwenckfeld, Reluctant Radical: His Life to 1540.  By R. Emmet McLaughlin. Yale Univer­sity Press. 250 pages. $24.95.

Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work.  By Ulrich Gabler. For­tress. 196 pages. $24.95.

Catholics seem incapable of dealing sensibly with the Refor­mation. For over four centuries they viewed it as, at worst, a plot hatched in hell to destroy Chris­tianity, at best as the work of contumacious rebels who capital­ized upon the avarice and gulli­bility of their followers. Then came Vatican II with its long-overdue admonition that Protes­tants were more than heretics and minions of the Prince of Darkness. In typical fashion, many American Catholics traves­tied the Council’s wise advice: not only would they treat Prot­estants as brothers in Christ, but they would, in effect, become Protestants. Martin Luther and John Calvin must be chortling.

This is a lamentable state of affairs, for the Catholic — re­maining a Catholic — can derive much from a careful and balanc­ed examination of the Reforma­tion. Take, for example, the in­sights contained in recent books on Caspar Schwenckfeld and Huldrych Zwingli. That these two Reformers were devout, honorable Christians cannot be denied. Nor can it be gainsaid — as McLaughlin and Gabler show (without belaboring the point) — that the Catholic Church was rife with corruption and guilty of a woeful debasement of the faith. Both Zwingli and Schwenckfeld lashed out at real abuses, and did so because of their profound commitment to the Gospel. Schwenckfeld’s radicalism even compelled him to embrace that most scandalous of 16th-century beliefs: religious toleration, an idea too farfetched for both Catholics and most Protestants to countenance at the time.

If one finds much to admire in these two Reformers, one also discovers an underside, a darker strain in the reform movement. The Reformation entailed much more than the quest to restore pristine Christianity. Political power and economic greed moti­vated rulers to side with the Re­formers; monastery lands and po­litical suzerainty made forsaking Rome attractive. The rage for de­struction — precursor of modern nihilism — played a part as well; in Zwingli’s Zurich, for example, “Reformers” amused themselves by pillaging the city’s churches. The gravest problem arose from the question of authority: after the Pope, what? Schwenckfeld turned inward, seeking lost authority in the purified heart of the individual believer. This con­signed him to obscurity and ir­relevance, to be remembered — if at all — as only the founder of yet another tiny sect, the Schwenckfelders. Zwingli replac­ed Rome with the town council of Zurich, fating his followers to an Erastianism that corrupts the faith more assuredly than does the selling of indulgences.

The Reformation was a mixed blessing, a fact that both protestantizing and ultraconservative Catholics would do well to remember.

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