Volume > Issue > Briefly: April 2010

April 2010

Where Did I Come From? Where Am I Going? How Do I Get There? Straight Answers for Young Cath­o­lics

By Charles E. Rice and The­re­sa Farnan

Publisher: St. Augustine's Press

Pages: 226

Price: $13.00

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

Teenagers are a hard group to address on issues of faith and morals. Just the thought of doing it strikes fear into many otherwise fervent Catholics. Ask any director of religious education. It’s relatively easy to find someone to step up and help with First Communion preparation, but to find a well-prepared adult to teach Confirmation is a never-ending hassle.

A good many young adults understand the central place religion has in our lives, but they often lack the confidence to stand apart from those who do not. Sometimes, too, the lack of vocabulary to grapple with big questions holds an otherwise good-hearted and competent young person back.

Enter, now, the right sort of book. It helps the teacher, because it expands his understanding; it helps the student, because he can use it at just the right pace and refer back to it when needed. Unlike a video or a lecture, a book is always there to pick up, again and again, if necessary. When the book also has wide references to strong sources, it’s a real treasure.

In Where Did I Come From? we have everything that constitutes a solid resource for catechesis. First, the authors — a father and daughter, by the way — give a clear account of basic epistemology and metaphysics. Don’t let the words scare you. It’s written at a level that a reasonably intelligent teenager can grasp.

Having discussed how we know what we know about God and ourselves, the authors use these guideposts to wrestle with issues of everyday importance — namely, how we live with others and what makes our actions right or wrong. Do the rules apply to everyone or just to strict Catholics? Where does natural law fit? How about the Ten Commandments? Who has to follow those?

These are always critical questions for the inexperienced who often “feel” that any consensual act is harmless. It is helpful to have a clear explanation of how one basic misunderstanding, such as the nature of our relationship to God, can lead to specific wrongs like contraception, abortion, or homosexual behavior.

So, too, the understanding that, as the authors put it, “Everyone has a pope in the sense that everyone recognizes an authoritative interpreter of the meaning of the moral law. If that interpreter is not the real Pope, it will be a pope of the individual’s own selection: Time magazine, CNN, CBS News, the majority of the Supreme Court, or the individual himself.” When we assert, consciously or not, that we, rather than God, are in charge, anything can become thinkable.

This progression from principles to problems is missing in much of what we offer to older children. As any parent can attest, it is a challenge to bring them to an understanding that, if I love God, I will strive to please Him, not myself. Intuitively they know that God wants them to be happy; what is hard to grasp is that happiness depends on acting in harmony with their true nature. When I make decisions, what counts is not that they make me — or people around me — happy; what counts is that they honor God. If young adults have nothing but their feelings to hang onto, it is no wonder they get off track. The authors’ willingness to tackle hard questions without equivocation or condescension is critical for any teacher trying to help students through today’s secular minefield.

In addition to solid material, the book has appealing features for a young student. Examples are contemporary: Mary Schiavo, embryonic stem-cell research, St. Gianna Molla, Bl. Mother Teresa. A discussion of jus ad bellum, with reference to the current military engagement in Iraq, provides a useful structure for debate. Otherwise, the conversation is often a mere litany of perfidies on each side. In dealing with Catholic thought on the death penalty, the difference between universal principles and prudential judgments remains crystal clear. “Therefore, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper.’ Even if my brother, like Cain — or Scott Peterson — is a murderer.”

It’s that distinction that we all need to understand better, as the recent presidential election indicates. How we think about social-justice issues depends on whether we truly understand that God has fashioned us in His own image and likeness. This is the source of our dignity. Heroes like St. Mateo Correa Magallanes, a priest who defied the Mexican police and preserved the seal of the confessional, can be particularly effective in helping young people understand the proper ordering of society, even one torn by revolution. And for students who wonder where they fit in or how they can help, there is the concrete suggestion of prayer in its many forms, including the rosary and Eucharistic adoration. So, too, the admonition that “the Lord asks us to love as He does, even our enemies, to make ourselves the neighbor of those furthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ himself.”

Charles Rice is Professor Emeritus at Notre Dame Law School and the father of ten children. Dr. Theresa Farnan, his daughter, who has a degree in medieval studies, is an adjunct professor at the University of Steu­benville and the mother of nine. As such, they are powerful resources. They, in turn, rely on solid Catholic teaching, drawing especially from the writings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Forget banners and journals. Give young Catholics, and yourself, some real food for thought.

Saints for Sinners: Nine Desolate Souls Made Strong by God

By Archbishop Alban Goodier

Publisher: So­phia Institute Press

Pages: 160

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Hurd Baruch

The title of Saints for Sinners is somewhat misleading. This thin volume, which has attained the status of “spiritual classic,” is not a collection of lives of saints noted as powerful intercessors for sinners, nor of saints whose lives could be held up as models for sinners to emulate. In fact, certain of the lives recounted herein would be repulsive to some modern-day Christians. Witness, for example, the 18th-century mendicant St. Benedict Joseph Labre. He tramped around Europe visiting shrines, sleeping in the open air or in barns, and begging when necessary. According to his confessor, he gave off a foul smell, and was ill-clad and vermin-ridden — albeit he made good confessions. Why would anyone write about his life, even in miniature?

The basis for this collection is shown in its subtitle: These were “nine desolate souls made strong by God.” The Preface sets forth the author’s purpose: to demonstrate that “there is no condition of life to which [God’s] grace does not reach, none so low that he cannot make it worthy of himself.” Or, in the colloquial words of our sound-bite age, God doesn’t make junk.

The compendium showcases the lives of five saints who were not notorious sinners (e.g., St. Labre and St. Francis Xavier) and four who were. Augustine and Margaret of Cortona had been notorious sinners of the flesh, and St. John of God and Camillus de Lellis had led coarse lives as mercenary soldiers. Archbishop Goodier’s warrant for combining the disparate groups is a broad reading of the word “sinners” to include not only those with “the actual consciousness of sin,” but also those with a “kindred consciousness of failure, and ineffectualness and other hard things in the spiritual life that makes us realize our utter nothingness, and compels us sometimes to wonder whether we are not ourselves their cause.”

The nine were alike in evidencing the truth of St. Augustine’s insight that “our heart shall find no rest until it rests in thee.” Having reached “the bottom,” they came to desire nothing in life but serving God. All but two became priests or religious. God did indeed make them strong for that purpose, yet despite their prodigies of service, in some cases involving great self-abnegation and humiliation, they never felt that they were doing enough for God or that they were no longer sinners — much less that they deserved the reputation for holiness which accrued to some of them during their lifetimes. They took to heart our Lord’s injunction: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do'” (Lk. 17:10).

It would be easy to pass up a book about “desolate souls.” Yet there are uses for this one, written by a Jesuit who was the Archbishop of Bombay 70 years ago. Among our family members and acquaintances are there not people who, through sin or failure, are “desolate souls?” (Dare I suggest, perhaps even some of us?) If they were given this book, some of them might be encouraged to seek the right path or to persevere in it, with God’s aid, just as participants in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings gain strength from hearing stories of others’ similar failings and subsequent triumphs.

As for those of us who luckily are not so afflicted, this book implicitly prompts us to withhold judgment of those who are, to pray for them, and to be less reluctant to try to aid them. For the moral of the story is that, while these nine souls were desolate, they were not irretrievably lost. Ultimately they were found, because they put their trust in God and let Him work in and through them. Indeed, they were more than found — they were raised to the sanctity of the altar!

The lives of these nine men and women, crushed and dejected in spirit, giving up their remaining years in service, can be appreciated as exemplifying an integral aspect of the identity of God, one far closer to the human condition than His exalted life on high.

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

By Rodney Stark

Publisher: Har­per­One

Pages: 260

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Terry Scambray

President Barack Obama, speaking in Egypt last June, apologized for an imagined American imperialism on territory that itself was gained by Islamic conquest. The New York Times in 1999 compared the crusades to Hitler’s atrocities. Even Pope John Paul II joined in by apologizing for the sacking of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204. Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of Social Science at Baylor, shows that such statements are serious flapdoodle.

Relying on specialists of the period, Stark argues that the crusades were defensive wars to repel the Islamic conquest of Byzantium and prevent the destruction of the Holy Land. So when in 1195 the Greek Byz­antine emperor in Constantinople requested help, Pope Urban II called for a crusade. However, the table had already been set for a response to Islamic colonialism, ascendant since the seventh century when Moham­med led his Bedouin tribesmen out of Arabia into Syria, Persia, and Egypt, robbing in service of religious conversion. As Mohammed said on his deathbed, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah.'”

Next the Moors, as they were then called, swallowed up North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. They later sacked Rome in 843 and again in 846, forcing the Pope to pay tribute. By the 12th century, Islam was menacing the Orthodox Greeks. Yet Christianity had correspondingly gained a second wind: The Greeks had defeated Islam at Constantinople in 672, and in 732 Charles Martel’s Franks defeated the Moors at Tours.

Nonetheless, the promise of salvation was the incentive for crusading. The medieval knight was a paladin in need of absolution for his sins of violence and debauchery. Urban II knew that crusading would “take an army of belligerent knights who were motivated but not transformed by the promise of salvation: thus the invention of penitential warfare.”

Indeed, if the desire for riches drove the crusaders, as materialist historians argue, the crusaders could have more conveniently invaded Moorish Spain when Pope Alexander proposed a crusade as early as 1063. Spain offered both proximity and fertile lands to be won. Yet “Spain was not the Holy Land. Christ had not walked the streets of Toledo nor had he been crucified in Seville.”

To be sure, the early victories of the Mohammedans were a result of their disciplined forces and elite military leaders, as well as the mobility of their camels in desert warfare. But what worked there failed elsewhere. In explaining Western success, Stark destroys the myth that medieval Christendom was, well, “medieval,” a canard that he more thoroughly dismantles in his book For the Glory of God.

According to Stark, such claims are “malicious and astonishingly ignorant”: After Rome fell, the Catholic Church promoted immense innovation. Martel’s men, for example, had high-backed saddles with stirrups, neither of which the Moors had. The Europeans by the sixth century had developed more efficient plows. Westerners also initiated crop rotation. Thus, Europeans had a more robust diet.

Furthermore, Europe by the ninth century had horse collars and horse shoes. European Christians also invented brakes for their wagons and swiveling front axles, which were great improvements in efficiency.

In contrast, though the Moors had fine stock, they never developed it for agriculture or transportation. Even more amazing is the fact that they lagged in wagon technology and road-building, thus permitting the wheel to disappear from use for centuries! Stark also points out that what are often referred to as “Islamic cultural advances” were actually the “contributions” of conquered populations, the dhimmi. As Stark writes, “To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture they learned it from their subject peoples.”

For example, Avicenna, the most influential of all Arab philosophers, was a Persian. Even Arabic numerals were entirely of Hindu origin. What may have misled historians was that contributors to “Arabic science” were given Arabic names and were published in Arabic, the official language.

Stark reminds us that this denigration of the West is traceable to “the ‘Enlightenment,’ the utterly misnamed era during which European intellectuals invented the ‘Dark Ages’ to glorify themselves and vilify the Catholic Church.” This Jacobin history promoted by individuals like David Hume and Voltaire portrayed the Middle Ages as degenerate and the crusades as cruel and irrational.

Such nonsense is echoed today by public figures like Bill Clinton and PBS intellectuals like Karen Arm­strong, both of whom see the crusades as a foreshadowing of Western imperialism.

The poster episode for such a myth is the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by crusaders during the abortive Fourth Crusade. Even in 1951, in the shadow of the Holocaust, Cambridge historian Steven Runciman wrote, “There never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”

But the 2,000 deaths during the sacking within a population of 150,000 hardly deserve such a despicable superlative. What about the sacking of Constantinople by the Greeks themselves during their periodic “Byzantine” coups?

Additionally, the crusaders had cause to be upset with the Byzantine emperor whose throne they had secured for him. When he returned to power, the emperor not only refused to pay the crusaders for their services, he mounted an attack to get rid of them. Only then did the crusaders, besieged and starving on the outskirts of Constantinople, counter-attack.

Such routine betrayals by the Byz­antines often prevented the crusaders from achieving their goal of regaining the Holy Land. But the most significant reason that the crusades failed was that maintaining the “Crusader Kingdoms” in the Middle East was extremely difficult for the distant Europeans. They eventually lost interest in a costly, distant war that came to be seen as a “quagmire.”

Stark’s clear, factual narrative offers larger-than-life characters like Richard the Lionhearted and Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as Dandolo, the blind doge of Venice who led his men as they scaled the walls of Constantinople.

Historians have been saying for some time much of what Stark says here. In fact, Stark freely admits that he has written with an eye on the work of specialists whose findings often take a generation or so to reach a larger public. Though Stark may appear to be a Catholic apologist, he was raised Lutheran and now considers himself an agnostic — an agnostic with a desire to become a religious believer. Stark’s works are an encouraging corrective to the anti-Western history routinely taught in our schools.

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