Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 1997

April 1997

Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom -- Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop

By J.N.D. KeIly

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 290

Price: $47.50

Review Author: Mark E. Ginter

In Greek, “Chrysostom” means “golden mouth,” in the sense of a gifted orator. Kelly draws the reader into the world of this zealous Bishop of Constantinople, who “as a speaker of rare charisma, was able instinctively to touch…hearts and consciences.” Kelly provides ample direct quotes, in translation from the Greek, for us to make contact with the saint’s fervor and intelligence.

Kelly presents a picture of a highly charged era of Christianity. In St. John’s youth in Antioch, politics and power were intimately connected with one’s theology. Kelly’s portrayal of John’s youth reveals the influences that formed his strong conscience. Indeed, his conscience led him into the mountains to pursue an austere ascetical life. St. John’s physical health, however, was so endangered that he returned to serve the Church in the city.

His conscience also led him to a deep concern for the poor and neglected, first in Antioch and later in Constantinople. “John’s pleadings are remarkable for the uncompromising, almost fanatical note which runs through them. He was already, and for the rest of his career was to remain, scornfully impatient of anything less than total commitment to the gospel.” The Chrysostom who emerges is a far more complex and dramatic personality than earlier research had concluded.

Although not a popular presentation, Kelly’s descriptiveness invites us to imagine how this story might appear as a screenplay, for example, like A Man for All Seasons. Though he writes as a historian, Kelly presents a story as exciting as a classic drama. But amazingly, we are reading history, not fiction!

The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution

By Henry Friedlander

Publisher: University of North Carolina Press

Pages: 421

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Mary Meehan

Henry Friedlander, a historian and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, has done an awesome amount of research here to show the links between the Nazis’ euthanasia program and their systematic murder of Jews and Gypsies. He describes how managers of the euthanasia program developed the system of gas chambers disguised as shower rooms. He also tells about their looting of victims’ bodies for gold teeth, the mass cremations, and the camouflage and lies that sustained the whole enterprise. On the theory side, he shows how eugenics, with its belief that humans are profoundly unequal, led to massacres of three groups: first the handicapped, then the Jews and Gypsies.

Friedlander notes that protest against Nazi euthanasia didn’t result in a total end to it, but merely the pretense that it was over. The mass gassing of handicapped victims stopped, but many were still killed individually by starvation, poison tablets, or injection.

He downplays the open protest of Christian leaders, including the Catholic bishop Clemens August von Galen of Munster. He should have given them more credit for their genuine courage. Unfortunately, however, he is right in saying that most who spoke out against euthanasia did not speak up for the Jews and Gypsies.

Friedlander’s book is troubling in its repeated stress on the difference between Nazi euthanasia (killing the handicapped to get rid of “useless eaters” and cleanse the gene poobpand other euthanasia (“mercy” killing of someone who has a painful terminal illness). Today’s euthanasia proponents often suggest that killing both the handicapped and the dying is merciful — and, oh, by the way, saves dollars.

The book is also flawed in claiming that it is dangerous to refer to “Nazi policies and terminology in current debates about abortion and assisted suicide.” But such comparisons are very much in order, when made accurately.

Friedlander might be more willing to consider similarities if he hadn’t accepted the fiction that eugenics — the effort to breed a “better” human race — died in the U.S. while it triumphed in Nazi Germany.

The American Eugenics Society, whose 1930s leaders had many contacts with German eugenicists, still exists under the name of the Society for the Study of Social Biology. For many decades, its members and officers have been leaders in population control (suppressing births among the poor, uneducated, and people of color); the legalization and promotion of abortion; the eugenic use of genetics (prenatal testing and “selective” abortion, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo research); anti-immigration efforts; and euthanasia. They established or supported groups such as the National Society for the Legalization of Euthanasia, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the Population Council to promote their eugenic goals.

These facts, emerging from studies in major libraries and archives, are slowly working their way into the consciousness of academia and the public. They show that some Americans have done, in a subtle and manipulative way, much of what the Nazis did so crudely and brutally.

'In the Beginning...': A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall

By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 100

Price: $13

Review Author: Theodore P. Rebard

With penetrating insight, Cardinal Ratzinger here treats the profoundly important and far-reaching doctrine of Genesis.

Ratzinger’s book both illuminates the meaning of God’s act of creation and contrasts this meaning with the doctrine of the votaries of contemporary absurdism. What’s especially valuable is that Ratzinger grasps the issues at the level of first principles.

He sees sacred order, and therefore the meaning and value of creation, in its ordering principle, God, while the root of absurdism he sees in the alternative, the meaningless interplay of chance and necessity.

In his consideration of Genesis, Ratzinger understands that order is built into creation from its beginning. The Ten Commandments offer an example of transcendent importance: They “are, as it were, an echo of creation; they are…signs pointing to the spirit, the language, and the meaning of creation; they are a translation of the meaning of the universe.” Contrariwise, Ratzinger sees that any effort to understand the universe as the result of chance and necessity is absurd and therefore without hope, true order, or morality.

To begin only with matter, chance, and necessity is perforce to end with no more, for nothing comes from nothing. On this showing, then, there are no qualities, natures, purposes, and no difference between good and evil. But to begin with creative Eternal Reason is to proceed with order, meaning, and to find real qualitative natures and purposes. On this showing the universe is intelligible, meaningful, and charged with the difference between good and evil. To begin with Genesis is eventually to reach St. Thomas Aquinas; to begin (implicitly) with Democritus of Abdera is eventually to reach Sartre.

To speak bluntly, our choices are secular chaos or sacred order, chance or the dance. Ratzinger gives us a powerful apologia for order and meaning. These developed homilies, first delivered at the Liebfrauenkirche in Munich, are both diagnoses of today’s symptomalogy of chaos and prescriptions for therapy.

It is a paltry conclusion to say that I’ve not read a more profound or magisterial book in years.

The Pluralist Game

By Francis Canavan

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Pages: 164

Price: $22.95

Review Author: Brad Stetson

In these 13 insightful essays, Fr. Canavan presciently comments on the rights-based liberal individualism that defines contemporary America. According to Canavan, the tides of secularization, atomistic liberalism, and ethical relativism have undermined the historic moral consensus — essentially founded in natural law — that bound American society, and the rise of cultural pluralism has abetted this transformation. The result has been the marginalization of a catalog of heretofore constants in American democracy: school prayer, the religious voice in the public square, the objective humanity of the unborn, the normativity of marriage and heterosexuality, and the recognition that the common good takes priority over an individual’s private desires. Liberal pluralism has unraveled the cultural cords of our nationhood to a taut threadbare link.

Canavan is at his most engaging when highlighting how liberal pluralism has been conquering traditional norms. The state uses its official “value neutrality” to impose upon the social order a moral subjectivism and a debased, atomized view of the human person. It is largely directed in this endeavor by litigious lobbies (usually of the Left — e.g., the ACLU, NARAL, NOW, ACT-UP, People for the American Way), whose trump is “our pluralistic society.” The normativity of normlessness is thought to be the required consequence of “tolerance” amidst diversity. But, as Canavan demonstrates, the result is anything but tolerant, as a tyranny of the minority stigmatizes those communities of belief with a strong transcendent moral tradition as, for example, “anti-choice” or “homophobic.” This “pluralist game” has become a shell game, says Canavan, “in which the very effort of the state to be neutral toward all beliefs puts the power of the state into the service of some beliefs as against others…. The beliefs of the most secularized, materialistic and hedonistic elements of the population [become] normative.”

In the face of impending anomie, the Church, says Canavan, must not fall prey to the temptation of becoming a glorified lobbying entity. She must be the Church, salt and light, forthrightly presenting her distinctive vision of humanity and the good life. By affirming her otherness and opposition to the Zeitgeist, the Church best affects her social milieu.

But this is not to say that the American Kulturkampf should be surrendered to skeptics and relativists. Public lack of confidence in human rationality — traced by Canavan to historicism in philosophy, positivism in law, and the hedonistic bent of the liberal mind itself — is a serious problem for a nation that historically relied on reason as a “cement that held…society together,” and Canavan calls for believers to use reason to show what virtue is, and how virtue can be acquired. He soberly seeks to enlist those concerned with the disintegration of American public life in what he recognizes as the formidable work of restoring a minimal framework of commonly accepted moral principles.

God, Knowledge, and Mystery

By Peter van Inwagen

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 284

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Brendan Sweetman

This book brings together nine of van Inwagen’s previously published essays on philosophical theology. Topics covered include evolution, religious pluralism, the problem of evil, and two essays that attempt to show that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation do not involve any logical contradiction. Apart from these last mentioned essays, and one on the Ontological argument, all are fairly accessible to the general reader.

Van Inwagen believes that philosophers — because of their concern to provide rational arguments and to defend their position against alternatives — have an advantage over modern theologians. Many such theologians (e.g., Bultmann) have been more concerned with making assertions than with offering arguments, and of course many of these assertions are influenced by contemporary academic fads. But van Inwagen reminds us that we are under no obligation to accept any assertion unless it is supported by good arguments.

The essays are brimming with insights, and leave no doubt that van Inwagen is a formidable champion of a fairly orthodox theology. He is not intimidated by contemporary academic orthodoxies (i.e., by “the beliefs of late-twentieth-century middle-class Anglo-American professors,” as he puts it), nor is he much impressed with the rhetoric of evolutionary naturalism which claims that all of reality is physical and that the cosmos is all there is or ever will be.

In a timely essay, “Genesis and Evolution,” van Inwagen charts a middle course between creationism and evolutionary naturalism. He raises some serious difficulties for evolutionary naturalism (or “Saganism” as he calls it, after Carl Sagan, “one of its most illustrious and talkative ornaments”). One of these concerns the question of the origin of the universe, a question Saganists usually prefer to avoid in the hope it will go away. The Cosmological argument, which holds that God is very probably the first cause of the universe, and the argument from Design, which holds that the universe shows clear evidence of intelligent design, are more plausible than (or at least as plausible as) any of the speculations offered by the Saganists.

But van Inwagen extends his critique further. He argues that the evidence to support macroevolution (i.e., evolution across different species, say, from a fish to a bird, or from an ape to a man) is very sketchy at best. Indeed, if we assess evolution just like any other theory, it is doubtful in a way that many other scientific theories are not. One of the strongest reasons, he argues, for being skeptical about the hypothesis that natural selection (the view that evolution favors life forms best able to cope with their environments) is the only mechanism driving macroevolution is the absence of intermediate forms in the fossil record. The theory of evolution requires that there be a vast number of transitional forms, but van Inwagen sees very few plausible candidates.

Similar problems afflict the claim that the evolution of those cognitive capacities that make humanity so strikingly different from all other species is a product of natural selection alone. To argue, say, that the capacity to play the cello is biologically rooted in part in the skills of our primitive ancestors to chip flints and discriminate between insect noises is, as van Inwagen points out, a nice piece of speculation. In a telling insight, van Inwagen suggests that the commitment of the Saganists to their belief in the purely biological nature of the uniqueness of human beings is similar to the commitment of the religious believer, who holds that evolution cannot be the whole story.

There is plenty more of interest, including a thought-provoking essay on why the ordinary religious believer need not attend seriously to “critical” studies of the New Testament, such as form criticism and redaction criticism.

Some of the essays raise as many questions as they answer, but all the essays are stimulating, original, and well-reasoned.

Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States

By James W. Trent Jr

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 356

Price: $30

Review Author: Brett Webb-Mitchell

Trent has constructed a fascinating window by which the reader can view how society’s changing perception of “abnormal” human beings has consequences for their care and education.

America’s perception of mental retardation has been marked by four major shifts. In the postrevolutionary period, people with mental retardation were considered “idiots” and were seen as a burden on families and communities. The first shift came in the 1840s, when this burden was redirected to the state, a change initiated with the educational pedagogy of the Frenchman Edward Seguin, who showed that “idiots” are educable (then a revolutionary view). He believed they could be educated to be citizens and fully participating members of society, “attaining a respectable mediocrity.” Soon, special schools were established to educate “idiots.”

In the second period, when “idiots” were considered “feebleminded,” care and education took place not in special schools, but in asylums, which continued the educational methodology of Seguin.

The third period began at the century’s end, when society was swept up into the euphoria of “success,” with the “feebleminded” as annoying reminders that the world was far from successful. Harvard University president Charles Eliot Norton advocated the painless destruction of insane and deficient minds. With testing and eugenics, the “feebleminded” would no longer be a burden. Sterilization was a highly effective way to control the “threat.”

In the 1950s, the fourth shift occurred. Society perceived people with mental retardation as children. The writings of Pearl S. Buck about her daughter with mental retardation, the stories told by Dale and Roy Rogers about their disabled child, and other parents’ stories coalesced into the National Association of Retarded Children (now the Association for Retarded Citizens). This group, along with other parent organizations, and the push toward “normalization,” helped create the programs for children with disabilities in today’s public schools. The 1980s and 1990s introduced the period of self-advocacy, with such groups as People First: People with mental retardation became their own advocates.

Trent brings together various, often obscure, pieces of a puzzle, revealing how those whom he terms the “mentally accelerated” keep constructing labels and treatments that in the long run change nothing about how we work, live, and learn with those we now call “people with developmental disabilities.” From Trent’s brief references to the churches, we learn that they never challenged the presuppositions about people with mental retardation. Rather, the churches have by and large reinforced the programs, labels, and trends that society deems “appropriate” in caring for and controlling “the mentally retarded.” The churches have bought into society’s “screen of ideology” that hides the person who, by the way, is mentally retarded.

English Prayers and Treatise on the Holy Eucharist

By Sir Thomas More

Publisher: Templegate

Pages: 96

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

How does a saint pray? This attractive volume has special value to anyone seeking such guidance, for it gathers together a series of prayers composed by St. Thomas More. In that these are the last prayers of a man imprisoned in the Tower of London and threatened with imminent death, they have a universal value: More’s prayers can be beneficially adopted by individuals experiencing profound adversity in their own lives.

The prayers in the volume are wisely ordered to reflect a pattern of spiritual growth. One encounters first “A Godly Meditation” in which More prays for the grace “little and little utterly to cast off the world,/ And rid my mind of all the business thereof.” Then follows a prayer of contrition: More asks for illumination to know his sins and “to be purely confessed of them”; these too he casts off. “Take from me,” he prays, “all vain-glorious minds…all wrathful affections, all appetite of revenging.”

More asks in the next section for the ability to feel the experiences of Jesus deep in his heart and to gain strength therefrom to imitate Him; and, he adds, “the things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me thy grace to labour for.” His “Treatise on the Passion” represents such a labor. Here, More seems to comprehend that, condemned by enemies of the Church who desire his death, he too walks the road to Calvary.

The last prayers in the volume enable us to see a person who has achieved the freedom he had prayed for in the earlier sections. It is reward enough to find revealed here the saint’s reverence for the Eucharist, but careful reading brings a further reward, the discovery of More’s particular method of praying with Scripture. Again and again one finds him borrowing words from figures in the Gospels who had encountered Jesus directly, and making them his own.

More comes closest to providing an explicit definition of his method in the passages in which his stated purpose is to declare the joy we ought to feel when we receive the Eucharist. To convey to us a sense of the kind of rejoicing we should feel in receiving our Lord, More develops an extended simile: We are being visited by our Lord as Elizabeth was visited by Mary. Just as Elizabeth had “the sure inward knowledge that our Lady was conceived with our Lord,” so we have the sure inward knowledge that our Lord is present in the Host. As Elizabeth “was sore amarvelled” of Mary’s visitation and “thought herself far unworthy thereto,” so we at the altar rail must say, “with great reverent dread and admiration, ‘Whereof is this, that my Lord should come unto me?'” And as Elizabeth, “conceived thoroughly such a glad blessed comfort, that her holy child St. John the Baptist leapt in her womb for joy,” so also should the soul in our body “leapeth for joy.” Both Elizabeth and we ourselves have the consciousness that though hidden from our sight, yet Jesus has come to us — that “holy blessed glorious flesh and blood of Almighty God himself, with his celestial soul therein and with the majesty of his eternal Godhead.” The humble but joyous response of Elizabeth to the presence of our Lord gives us words that can be appropriately applied to our own meeting with Him.

St. Thomas More makes much of the difference between receiving Jesus sacramentally (as a sign) and virtually (“with the full virtue and effect thereof”). To receive Him virtually is to receive Him as one would receive a great King coming into the house of the soul. Once again More shows how biblical figures supply appropriate responses. Before receiving our Lord in the Eucharist, we may say with the centurion, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come into my house.” After receiving Him, we may “say with his two disciples that were going to the castle of Emmaus: ‘Tarry with us, Good Lord.'” We must attend to Him and say, with the prophet, “I will hear what our Lord will speak within me.” And, finally, we should respond to His visit as Zaccheus did, “making recompense to all men that he had wronged, and that in a large manner, for every penny a groat.” By speaking to our Lord thus, More assures us, we can “be sure that he will not go from us.”

The Chain Gang: One Newspaper vs. The Gannett Empire

By Richard McCord

Publisher: University of Missouri Press

Pages: 290

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Larry Montali

McCord makes a compelling case for why everyone — even Catholics who are often peeved at the media’s shoddy treatment of the Church — should get worked up about one newspaper’s nefarious attempts to run another out of business. This is a well-told and disturbing account of the ruthless practices of Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain.

McCord, a newspaperman who worked for New York’s Newsday before going on to found the independent Santa Fe Reporter in New Mexico, chronicles the nasty — and often illegal — tactics used by Gannett to snuff out the competition. He uses the chain’s war on two newspapers, the Salem, Oregon Community Press and his own Santa Fe Reporter, to set the stage for the book’s primary showdown between Gannett and the News-Chronicle of Green Bay, Wisconsin (the One Newspaper of the title).

McCord’s background as a journalist and small-scale independent publisher makes him the perfect scribe for this tale. What could easily have been a passionless account of Gannett’s shady practices is turned into a plucky retelling of the David and Goliath story. McCord develops a full cast of characters, and weaves the necessary legal details into the narrative without slowing it down.

McCord got a first-hand look at Gannett’s stealth tactics in a wearying though ultimately successful campaign to save his own Santa Fe Reporter, a weekly that had worked hard to carve out a small share of the reader and advertising market in Gannett-owned New Mexican daily country. McCord became concerned when a new general manager — fresh from orchestrating the local Gannett daily’s annihilation of Salem’s Community Press — joined the New Mexican.

The mere demise of the Community Press wasn’t the cause of McCord’s alarm. But one detail of the Oregon case spurred him to do more than dig in his heels for his own battle: The once-prosperous Community Press had signaled foul play with an anti-trust suit filed against Gannett. McCord immediately flew to Oregon to investigate.

The human touch the author uses to lighten a heavy topic is exemplified in the account of his accidental but fortuitous access to classified files about the suit. For three nervous days in the reception area of a judge’s chambers, he takes copious notes, fights hand cramps, and frets over being found out. When bad timing lands him at the end of the third day on the same elevator as the judge, his paranoia turns him into a self-described “blithering idiot.” He makes small talk about the first thing that comes to mind — the judge’s sailor-style dress — for fear that any opening in the conversation will lead to a friendly inquiry about his work in her chamber. Off he goes: “‘It’s kind of like a navy uniform, isn’t it?… I mean, not really like a uniform, but like a uniform that’s been redesigned for a woman. Actually, it’s very graceful and feminine, not military -looking at all.’ I realized I was babbling…but I could think of no other way to pass the seconds.”

What McCord discovered in the case file was less comical. Internal Gannett memos describe an “Operation Demolition” carried out by operatives dubbed “the Dobermans.” Among the strategies revealed in Gannett’s war chest: free space to advertisers in exchange for denying business to the competition; bribes to advertisers, labeled benignly as “rebates”; threats to advertisers of being frozen out of the Gannett daily unless they stopped using the alternative newspaper; and Gannett account managers spreading groundless rumors about their competition’s poor financial health.

Knowing what he was up against gave McCord the stones he needed to fight the Goliath of Gannett. His battle to save the Green Bay paper is memorable not only for the insights he offers into the dangerous long-term effects of “unlawful killing” of the competition — e.g., skyrocketing rates for advertisers and a lone editorial voice for the community — but for his musings on the struggle to rouse demoralized workers to fight for their own survival, and on a publisher who seemed lackadaisical about saving his own newspaper.

Despite the insights offered and battles won, McCord’s story closes on a wistful note. The newspaper world’s Goliath, it turns out, was injured but not slain; with friends in high places, Gannett still lumbers across the land.

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