November 2001

Characters in Search of Their Author (The Gifford Lectures, 1999-2000).  By Ralph McInerny. University of Notre Dame Press. 138 pages. $25.

Thomas Reid (1710-1796), the Scots champion of common sense, held that ever since René Descartes launched his systematic doubt, Dame Philosophy has come on hard times. Nor, thought Reid, need one be a genius to reach this verdict. Consider the bluntness of his analogy. “A traveler of good judgment may mistake his way, and be unawares led into a wrong track….” Yes, indeed. “While the road is fair before him, he may go on without suspicion and be followed by others….” Ah, yes. “But, when it ends in a coal-pit, it requires no great judgment to know that he hath gone wrong, nor perhaps to find out what misled him.”

Ralph McInerny, Professor of Medieval Studies at Notre Dame, mystery writer of renown, and culture-tweaker extraordinaire, applauds Reid’s assessment. He offers, too, his own account of what has misled the moderns. The Gifford Lectures, given yearly in Scotland, afforded him the occasion to do so. The results are vintage McInerny, crackling with wit and insight.

In keeping with the request of their long-deceased patron, Lord Gifford, these prestigious lectures are to be devoted to natural theology. Today the topic itself needs definition. In brief, natural theology is the philosophical enterprise that sets out to show something (at best!) of the nature of God. For the most part, Protestants have taken a dim view of natural philosophy, seeing it as an exercise in hubris. (Kierkegaard, a Lutheran, is but one example.) Catholics, on the other hand, have had a long commitment to its worth. Think of Aquinas and “the five ways” to prove the existence of God.

In both ancient and medieval times, natural theology was a central part of the philosopher’s job description. Even Descartes, at the beginning of the modern era, saw it as such. But Descartes’s denial that we have direct knowledge of the physical world has left us with a grim legacy, and the sorry particulars make for a long story. Cut off from the everyday world of things, the new philosophers become prisoners of their own multiform representations of that world or, worse, substitutions for it.

Yet Scripture, McInerny observes, points to the folly of such a course. In Romans 1:19-22 Paul tells us that skeptics are without excuse. And why? Because “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” What happens, though, when “modern thinkers” become intellectually distanced and divorced from God’s creation? They surely risk a still deeper distancing and divorce from the Creator, and it is precisely this that has befallen them.

But whatever the fate of the savants, ordinary people have not, McInerny argues, divorced themselves from creation. They remain epistemological realists, accepting the reality of the natural world. Its beauty still bespeaks the majesty of the Creator. Consequently, theism remains “the default position” of the human mind, and for ordinary folks it’s atheism that needs explaining. That is not to say, however, that ordinary folks ordinarily think clear and well, much less systematically, about God. History shows otherwise; and it’s in correcting such multiple muddles that sober philosophers, from Aristotle on, have made genuine contributions.

Looking next to building bridges with Protestant thinkers, McInerny carefully distinguishes between the “preambles of the faith” (e.g., that God exists) which are open to some philosophical penetration, and the “mysteries of the faith” (e.g., that God is a Trinity) which philosophy can never penetrate. Here the believer cannot advance without Revelation. Nor can the force of intellect or philosophical argument ever replace the individual’s free assent of the will — acting always in response to God’s freely given grace. In this specific regard, McInerny finds an affinity between faith and Kierkegaard’s famed definition of subjective truth: “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness.”

As for the mainstream modern philosophy, McInerny calls for a radical change of course. Contemporary philosophy can step back from nihilism (which John Paul II identifies in Fides et Ratio) only by affirming a basic realism and a logic that honors reality. Thus McInerny insists: “The first and foundational judgment of human thinking can be expressed in terms of the fact that the things we know, in rerum naturae, are such that they cannot simultaneously exist and not exist.” A modest standard? Of course. Yet nothing today is so outrageous as common sense.

- James G. Hanink



Custody of the Heart: Selected Spiritual Writings of Abbot Martin Veth, O.S.B.  Edited by William P. Hyland. St. Benedict’s Abbey. 185 pages. $1850.

Born in Bavaria on September 25, 1874, Martin Veth came to America 10 years later with his parents, who eventually settled in Atchison, Kansas. He entered the novitiate of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison in 1893 and was professed a monk there the following year. With the exception of four years of theological study at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome from 1897 to 1901, during which he became deeply acquainted with the currents of monastic and liturgical renewal beginning to course strongly through the Benedictine abbeys of Europe, the rest of his life was bound up with St. Benedict’s Abbey. Elected its second Abbot in 1921, he served in that position until his resignation a year before his death on December 12, 1944.

This book consists of selections from the weekly conferences Abbot Veth gave to the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Saint Scholastica in Atchison, whom he had served as Chaplain for nearly two decades. The editor’s Introduction provides a fine brief biography of Abbot Veth and an account of the distinctive emphases in his teaching, as well as the sources from which he drew them. Two Benedictines, a monk and a nun, add their recollections of the Abbot in a brief chapter. The remaining nine chapters draw from the Abbot’s conferences — five chapters take the reader through the Church’s Liturgical Year and four deal with particular subjects (Mary the Mother of God, The Communion of Saints, Liturgical Prayer, The Benedictine Vocation).

The central focus of these conferences is on living the Christian, and more specifically the Benedictine, life. This sober, liturgical, dutiful, and yet joyful spiritual tradition the author has rightly summed up in the title “Custody of the Heart.” For an understanding of what this means we may have recourse to the Abbot’s own words: “Love is not feeling or emotion. Love of God means union of hearts. Your will united to God’s, unreserved self-surrender, holy abandonment to God in all that concerns us, to share in the passion of Christ…. Custody of the heart…is an activity on our part. It means to keep fit and clean in the sight of God, to aim to remove what God cannot approve…. This is that we may be a suitable habitation for the Holy Ghost. Saint Benedict repeats the idea to impress it on us, ‘keeping God before our eyes,’ ‘shunning all forgetfulness,’ ‘guard yourself well every moment.’” For all who wish to immerse themselves in this tradition, this book will be very useful, although it might not be the best introduction to it for those who are unacquainted with it. These latter might find it more profitable to begin with the Rule of Saint Benedict and the writings of the soon-to-be canonized Blessed Columba Marmion. They should, by contrast, avoid much of the “pop-Benedictinism” that has been produced over the past two decades.

In reading and digesting these excerpts from Abbot Veth’s teaching, I was struck by how likely it is that this exponent of a liturgically centered vision of the Christian life would have found most of what passes today in the Latin Catholic Church for “liturgical renewal” or (worse) “reformed liturgy” as profoundly mistaken and antipathetic to his teaching — which he, of course, would not have regarded as “his” teaching, but that of the whole Catholic tradition. The endless bustle or “activism” of contemporary Latin Catholic liturgy, in which it would appear that all “constituencies” in the “assembly” must have “walk-on roles,” rests on an ignorant or willful misapprehension of the meaning of the phrase participio actuosa (not participio activa) from Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. As Cardinal Ratzinger and others have ceaselessly indicated for the past two decades and more, this phrase actually imports more an engaged attentiveness to the liturgy and its — not our — action, rather than involvement in carrying out actions or functions during it, and is worlds apart from Abbot Veth’s stress on dwelling on and interiorizing the particular Proper Prayers of the Mass on Sundays or Feasts. Two quotations illustrate this well: Speaking of the importance of worship, Abbot Veth says, “We must worship God as a community, an organized society, as a body of the faithful, and a mystical body, the Church, the people of God…. But let it be well understood that the exercise of religion, the worship of God, liturgical worship, must in the first place be interior worship, come from the heart…, otherwise our liturgy degenerates into a show, becomes a sham and a counterfeit.” Then, more positively, speaking specifically of Christmas, “Take your Missal and read the introduction or fine print ordinarily found in your Missals; then go immediately to the Gospel which contains the theme or the setting of the feast. Next, read the Epistle slowly, then the Oration with its petition, which you will make your own, finally the Introit, the Gradual and the other parts of the proper of the Mass. This will give you the Church’s Christmas Spirit.” This last is in no sense a spiritual discipline for an elite, whether educated or leisured or both. All literate and committed Catholics could do it on a regular basis, and with more profit than involvement in liturgical “activism” — especially if they were honored by a translation that adequately presents the meaning of the Church’s time-honored prayers, rather than, as is all too often the case with the current ICEL translation (destined for the garbage-heap of history, if the recent Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam is to be implemented in its integrity), a “dumbed-down” version that often omits at least as much of the substance as it presents, and often waters down what it does present.

- William J. Tighe





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