November 2006

Last Things First: A Traditionalist Surveys the Wreckage of Vatican II.  By Robert Phillips. Roman Catholic Books. 168 pages. $19.95.

The terms modernity and modernism are rarely used in Catholic circles anymore. Yet to Prof. Robert Phillips, the influence of modernity is the main reason that the Church is in crisis today.

In the most basic sense, the modern worldview is characterized by skepticism or a complete denial of transcendental reality. And because the physical world is the dominant reality, modern man has effectively explored and exploited it to create a world of unparalleled wealth and comfort. It is this new material existence, and its individual manifestation in the consumer ethos, that has caused more damage to the Catholic Church in recent decades than any intellectual heresy. Paradoxically, the materialism of the modern world has also created a critical need for "spirituality," but it is borne out of consumerism rather than a desire to have a genuine relationship with the transcendent. And this vague spirituality now pervades much of Catholicism.

Although the title implicates the Second Vatican Council as a main reason for the current problems in the Church, Phillips's book is not an explicit criticism of that Council. Rather, he sees it as exacerbating the confusion that began decades earlier and is now pervasive. In a succinct yet broad-ranging collection of essays, Phillips addresses the major problems facing the Church, and offers some potential solutions. Much of what he covers is familiar territory for orthodox Catholics -- i.e., the negative impact of feminism, pluralism, and materialism on the Faith. But he also covers new and provocative threats, such as terrorism and its causes. While he fully condemns terrorist acts, he also sees them as a consequence or imitation of recent Western (secular) history, in which genocide, mass bombings, and torture were deemed suitable and expedient means to justify political ends. To Phillips, terrorists employ the same inhumane rationale as the Allies in World War II who bombed Dresden, or the Nazis who manned the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Another topic that will surely divide conservative Catholics is Phillips's discussion on economics. Unlike neoconservative Michael Novak or libertarian Thomas Woods, Phillips actually sticks to Church social teaching on economics, one that clearly views both modern consumer capitalism (and socialism) as incompatible with the Catholic Faith. It is the communitarian economic model, as Phillips terms it, that is the only proper Catholic alternative to these modern economic systems. It also advocates that economic life center around Church and community rather than state and market. He underscores Pope John Paul II's assertion that economic practice must be explicitly tied to man's transcendental life.

These ideas still cause discomfort for many American Catholics who have grown accustomed to defining economics as an alternative between "conservative" capitalism and "liberal" socialism. But the communitarian economic approach has been central to Catholic social teaching since the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the Catholic approach has been almost completely marginalized by modern economic ideologues. Much of this has to do with the power and prestige associated with these various economic schools and their support by government and industry the world over. Yet, blame must also be placed on the Church, especially in the wealthy industrialized world, where supporting and disseminating Catholic economic principles are timidly encouraged.

Phillips also boldly defends Dominus Iesus (2000), which is a forceful denunciation of the false ecumenism that has emerged after Vatican II. This document has been offensive to people of other faiths and an embarrassment to liberal Catholics because it proclaims the central truth of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church in attaining salvation. To Phillips, this document is a sign of hope and one that is long overdue given the decades of "dialogue" that have only served to compromise the Catholic Faith and confuse the faithful.

The book's final section is on the center of Catholic life, the Mass. The Mass is the fullest expression of truth, beauty, and goodness, but also is the fullest representation of the meaning of history -- Christ's crucifixion for man's sins. But the Mass has more than an aesthetic or philosophical significance; it is critical to sustaining faith. Phillips argues that frequent Mass attendance keeps man in a constant relationship with God. Thus, the reform of the liturgy is more than simply a matter of taste; it is a question as to whether God can truly and fully be worshiped and whether the central act of human history, the crucifixion, will remain visible and realized. To Phillips, the Mass is given by God and cannot be reformed in any dramatic way without destroying its meaning.

The book ends with a chapter on the Last Things -- Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. To Phillips, these are the "first things" -- as the book's title states. Sadly, in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, these topics are rarely discussed in homilies or even in Catholic intellectual circles. Perhaps this is because most modern Catholics find them archaic, depressing, or even downright insulting. After all, modern "spirituality" is about hope and love -- not death and damnation. However, the failure to teach these essential truths undermines the Church's earthly mission and also endangers the souls of those Catholics who have not been given the spiritual preparation for death and its consequences. If the Church is ever to recover, the teaching of the Last Things must be first.

Although Phillips is a philosopher, his prose is clear and lucid and accessible to the lay reader. Moreover, he is never preachy nor does he display anger or despair. His mood, like many orthodox Catholics, is one of sadness. But it is a sadness tempered with hope that is borne of true faith. Even his critique of the new Mass does not seek to undermine the Church's teachings and the validity of Vatican II. His position is simply one, shared by many orthodox Catholics, that the reforms went awry and that the reintroduction of the Tridentine Latin Mass would help reenergize the Church. But he is not associated with any schismatic movement. As such, the book is a good primer for all Catholics on current Church problems.

- Tobias J. Lanz



Christ, the Life of the Soul.  By Blessed Columba Marmion. Zaccheus Press. 532 pages. $24.95.

This book is a new translation of a spiritual classic first published in 1919, and its moving language is a tribute to both the author and the translator. We have it on the authority of Dom Mark Tierney, OSB, vice-postulator for the cause of canonization of Blessed Marmion, that the book is faithful to the original French while still readable as graceful, modern English.

Blessed Columba was born in Ireland and became a parish priest in Dublin where he found that he had a gift for communicating with people. Later, he entered monastic life and became Abbot of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium. His eight books were compiled from notes taken at the many conferences and retreats that he led.

It is easy to see why this book has been a favorite of Catholics, from popes to laymen, for almost a century. It has a very accessible style, more common in a bygone era -- one that proceeds in an orderly and thorough way -- in which the subheads of each chapter are a few short phrases that tell the reader what to expect from each section. Built on Christ-centered theology, this work brings in a wealth of scriptural representations for each point, and leads the reader in a study that is conducive to prayer, reflection, and the cultivation of virtue. This must be one of the most Christ-centered books of any age, with the love that the author has for Christ shining forth on every page. This is a very long book, which is to be savored a few pages at a time, builds up the theology of divinity itself and the divine plan by which we are adopted as children of God.

The first part of the book has chapters on Christ as the "Life of Our Souls." He alone is our model of all perfection; the author of our redemption; and the cause of all grace. Thus, we cannot know the life of God, nor be holy on our own merits.

The second part of the book is about the Christian life, with faith in Christ as its foundation and the Sacraments and prayer as the means to holiness, blessedness, and union with God. Baptism initiates us into this sanctified life, a lesson worth more consideration today, as the Sacrament becomes for many in the world a rote cultural and familial ritual.

In his discussion of Penance, there is a chapter, "Who Can Understand Sin?" This is a good way to put it. Marmion calls mortal sin "basically a scorning of the rights and perfections of God; a cause of the sufferings of Christ." It destroys grace, the wellspring of supernatural life. And it exposes the soul to eternal separation from God. Lesser sins as well lead away from God and into a habit of responding with deliberate "nos" to His will. Who can understand sin? Marmion asks us to imagine a soul that sincerely seeks God and loves Him but through weakness consents to a grave sin. The divine union is broken, but this condition is temporary for the soul that humbles itself, gets up again, and, repenting of its sin, finds a more generous love and fidelity than ever before. Marmion urges us to be like Christ: "let us force Satan to withdraw, by saying to him as soon as he presents himself: ‘There is only one Lord I wish to adore and serve. On the day of my Baptism I chose Christ; He is the one I wish to listen to.'"

Chapters on the Mass and Holy Communion speak of the Sacrament that the Lord gave us just before His passion and death, which Marmion calls an "immolation" in keeping with ancient ideas of sacrifice. This is what the Father willed, in His incomprehensible wisdom, Marmion reflects; and the Son, for His part, says of His life in the Gospel of John: "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself… that the world may know that I love the Father." The fruits of the Mass are inexhaustible, Mar­mion writes, because they are the very fruits of the Sacrifice of the Cross.

He goes through the parts of the Mass, pointing out the words and actions of the priest. Readers are informed about many ancient ceremonies within the Mass, for example, the one that occurs at the Offertory when the priest pours a drop of water into the chalice which already contains the wine, symbolizing the union of the divinity and humanity of Christ.

For the faithful, receiving Holy Communion is the most fruitful participation in the Mass. "For Christ, finding us united to Him, immolates us with Him, renders us pleasing to His Father, makes us, through His grace, more and more like Himself," writes Marmion.

The Appendix describes the current status of the process for the canonization of Marmion. His complete correspondence is to be published, as well as a lengthy study of his writings in light of Catholic spirituality. And, it is hoped, another miracle will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, this book will familiarize a new generation with Blessed Columba Marmion, a disciple of divine adoption.

- Rosemary Lunardini



Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society.  By Dorothy L. Sayers. Eerdmans. 69 pages. $9.95.

Outside the office door of a colleague at my large, traditional (non-Catholic) Southern university is a bumper sticker: "Men are from earth. Women are from earth. End of story." Dorothy Sayers, had she been familiar with John Gray's 1992 cultural icon, might have put it precisely the same way.

This short but enjoyable book contains two papers Sayers wrote on the "woman question" (previously published in a 1947 collection she dubbed Unpopular Opinions), as well as an informative and thoughtful Introduction by Mary McDermott Shideler. According to Shideler, the pivotal concept in Sayers's understanding of human personhood (womanhood and manhood equally) is work. It is work, that particular occupation for which each of us is best suited, through which "we become our true selves and know ourselves and others truly." The empirical, statistical fact that women are more likely to be suited to certain kinds of work is just as plausibly the product of culture as of biology. The empirical, historical fact that work in the home (once a daunting physical and managerial enterprise) has been shrunken to triviality by industrialization is central to Sayers's second essay, "The Human-Not-Quite-Human." What we do, and not how we are shaped, answers the question, "Are Women Human?"

The first essay, so entitled, was presented to an unnamed "women's society" in 1938; one might imagine the ladies of the society were at least initially disappointed. Evidently, Miss Sayers had been asked to elucidate the "woman's point of view." There is no such thing, she says. Some women do have special knowledge about certain questions, in which case their individual points of view are valuable to understanding those certain questions. And in such cases, the points of view are especially resistant to generalization: "The more able [the women] are, the more violently their opinions will be likely to differ."

Sayers's second (and much shorter) essay is more emphatic in tone, and wields a sharper edge, a sarcastic transposition of popular attitudes toward women into male terms. As might be expected, a resounding reduction is its effect. Jesus' treatment of women proves an unmistakable affirmative to the question, "Are Women Human?" Nevertheless, Sayers notes, prevailing wisdom will insist upon differing.

- Kalynne Pudner



Aquinas's Summa: Background, Structure & Reception.  By Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. . The Catholic University of America Press. 156 pages. $17.95.

When dealing with the absolutely first-rate, a writer's chief duty is to lead readers beyond any commentary to the book itself. But suppose the absolutely first-rate is St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, perhaps the masterwork of Catholic theology and philosophy? Reading the Summa, for most of us, is an on-and-off enterprise of our more mature years -- and yet another reason to tell the young that the best is to come.

While we dip in and dip out of this enterprise, the reporter's stock questions are apt to surface in our minds, and more than once. Who? What? Where? When? And why? Who was Master Thomas, and what work did he set for himself? Where was he when he wrote it? And why, despite its enormous importance, was even this towering genius unable to finish it before his death, at the tender age of 49? Jean-Pierre Torrell accessibly and instructively answers all of these questions, and more.

The "more" that he offers is a century-by-century account of the reception of Aquinas's Summa. Who read it and profited, who misread it and did not; who ignored it, and who elevated it to a canonical status. Torrell answers all of these questions, beginning with Etienne Tempier's warnings, issued as the Bishop of Paris, on March 7, 1277 (three years to the day after Aquinas's death), about heterodox theses associated with Thomas. Unfortunately, Torrell's antipathy to the analytic Thomism of such thinkers as John Haldane limits his concluding comments about the Summa in the English-speaking intellectual world of today.

Ah, well, the good father is both Dominican and French. We can appreciate the former while "adjusting" for the latter.

- James Hanink



Beyond Vatican II: The Church at a New Crossroads.  By Claude Barthe. Roman Catholic Books. 158 pages. $19.95.

Traditionalists -- and I am one -- remind me of family. Everyone shares the same heritage and a love of the Tridentine Latin Mass, yet squabbles are frequent. Some are petty and easily dismissed; others leave blood on the floor. In dealing with Rome, negotiations or compromise are, to use a favorite word, "anathema."

It is a situation that the author, formerly a priest of the Society of St. Pius X, wants to see resolved. He brings a perspective that is objective and thorough, and he recognizes that the disputes extend far beyond liturgical preferences. There are principled objections to several documents of Vatican II, including Unitas Redintegratio and Nostra Aetate. A faux democracy of the laity also impedes resolution of the ticklish problems brought on by conflicting views of Vatican II.

Barthe urges all sides to move beyond past betrayals and disagreements to form a united front. Through this unity, traditionalist goals could be achieved, beginning with a recognition of the Tridentine Latin Mass as a right for all rather than the privilege of a few. He contends, with good company, that a proper liturgy will lead to a recognition of true doctrine.

Barthe sees Pope Benedict XVI as playing a key role in any solution. Recognized as a conservative voice, the former Cardinal Ratzinger now holds the single most important office in the Church. Many traditionalists, albeit not all, view his writings on the liturgy and the right understanding of Vatican II as a sign of hope. Now they look for a sharp turn in direction for a Church crippled by a lack of discipline and infatuated with novelty. Barthe contends that this Pope is in a unique position to serve as the bridge builder, the pontifex, that brings traditionalists back to full harmony with Rome. A Church that has withstood the onslaughts of Communism, Modernism, and Islam can overcome today's shameful impasse.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink





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