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April 2016

From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The Long, Jagged Trail to a Postmodern Void

By Thomas Storck

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 207

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Andrew Sorokowski

Has Western civilization been on the wrong path, veering further and further from the Christian way since as long ago as the 14th century? Is the secularization thesis — that as the world modernizes, it moves away from religion — true? Is America’s religious vitality only apparent? Is it still possible for Catholics to build a Christian republic? These are questions raised in this collection of 21 of Thomas Storck’s essays. The somewhat unwieldy title introduces three of the author’s principal themes: the concept of Christendom, the heresy of Americanism, and the challenge of postmodernism. As summarized in Joseph Pearce’s foreword, Storck shows that “the history of modernity can only be comprehended if we see it as an anthropocentric rebellion against Christendom and the Christocentrism that informed it.”

Storck examines the fate of Christendom, paying particular attention to America. He is not content, however, only to show us how, when, and why we left the Christian path. Throughout these essays, he also suggests what we should do about it. Attention to Catholic liturgy, cultivation of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and education in schools and through the media are among his recommendations. He reminds readers that the standard of our action should be faithfulness, not success. In our inevitable clash with liberalism, we must first “seek to convert our own hearts and minds,” then endeavor to understand each ideology so as to fortify ourselves against it. In our confrontation with modernity, he suggests, we should work to reshape the age by taking the principles that animated the medieval social order and applying them to our own time.

Does this mean that we must participate in modernity in order to change it? We are left with a choice either to “separate” or “collaborate.” Storck addresses this issue in a review of James R. Lothian’s The Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community, 1910-1950. Active engagement and dialogue with modernity are appropriate, he argues, as long as there is general agreement among Catholics about their purpose. But what does active engagement mean here in the U.S.? Should it include political action? With “neither party espousing a political agenda that corresponds to Catholic teaching,” Storck suggests that the best strategy might be to eschew electoral politics and “simply preach the whole Gospel, both those parts that resonate with the left and those that resonate with the right.” In his chapter on postmodernism, he offers his most eloquent prescription for Catholic action: “We must show that the Faith is the one exciting thing in the universe; the one thing that can appeal to man in soul and body; the thing that does not repress, but offers him his true fulfillment and imports a beauty not just from another age but from outside our world altogether.”

Some readers might find Storck’s analysis of the state of the Church too gloomy. In evaluating the secularization thesis, Storck cites Philip Jenkins, who claims that the center of Christianity is shifting from north to south, from Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where it may yet thrive. Storck does not find Jenkins’s arguments convincing. Nor would he likely be persuaded by sociologists such as José Casanova, who points to the revival of religion worldwide, particularly in the Third World. Since much of this religion is sectarian or Muslim, its proliferation is cold comfort to Catholics.

Those of us educated in the liberal tradition might squirm at Storck’s condemnation of it, particularly his exposition on “Liberalism’s Three Assaults.” We’ve been taught that “liberal individualism” is the glory of Western civilization; that the struggle for individual freedom, human rights, tolerance, and equality has been the grand narrative of European culture since the Middle Ages; and that the shift “from status to contract” was the liberating force that made individual choice possible and gave meaning and authenticity to all our commitments, religious ones included. And yet, one cannot ignore the irrefutable logic of Storck’s argument that economic, political, and personal liberalism are of one piece, and all oppose the Catholic faith.

Readers of a liberal mindset might also question what they might characterize as a “fortress mentality” and a pessimistic, even apocalyptic, view of history. “It is now clear that mankind’s very existence and nature are being threatened,” warns Storck in a chilling essay on “The Apostasy of the Gentiles.” Skeptics would question his implication, typical of many Catholic thinkers, that this is not a natural historical process but the work of the Evil One. “At this point,” Storck asks in his concluding essay, “do we await anything more than the further consolidation of Satan’s rule over the world before we see the remaining signs of Our Lord’s return?” Some might find this alarmist, but how else can one speak of the inevitable end of time?

To this reviewer, the only unconvincing essay is “Seeking Beauty in Art: Some Implications of a Thomistic Statement about Glass Saws.” To base a theory of art on a couple of phrases from St. Thomas Aquinas seems too much of a stretch, and to tie aesthetics to utility does not do justice to art that is intended simply as divine praise. For example, to fault the devout Catholic Anton Bruckner’s magnificent last symphony, which he dedicated to God, on the ground that it serves no practical or ceremonial end, would seem churlish. Moreover, some of Storck’s claims about the history of art and society, or the artist and his audience, seem to idealize the past and ignore the elitist nature of art and its patronage throughout much of history. Nonetheless, one can only agree with his critique of contemporary mass culture, and with his call to properly integrate art and the artist with the social order.

From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond makes the reader aware of the struggle to rescue and protect Catholic faith and culture in the face of a torrent of modern unbelief. Storck shows us that in America the much-vaunted veneer of religiosity conceals a gaping void. And while Europe enjoys a residual Catholicism, a remnant of a once-monolithic Christian civilization, Storck is not optimistic that it harbors the seeds of revival in the persistence of Christian symbols and ideas. Such are the discomfiting messages of the historian and the prophet — we ignore them at our peril.

Five Anti-Catholic Myths: Slavery, Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, Holocaust

By Gerard M. Verschuuren

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 190

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

One can scarcely go a day without finding someone criticizing the Church for her historical “misdeeds.” Pope Leo XIII once noted that the Church has no reason to fear historical truth. But given the treatment Catholicism receives in contemporary culture, the average Catholic is led to believe otherwise. Indeed, many Catholics cringe when contemplating their Church’s past. But are these attitudes warranted? Do the facts match the perceptions? Gerard Verschuuren aims to correct some of this misinformation and to serve as a “Catholic myth-buster.” His background as a geneticist, computer programmer, historian of science, and Catholic apologist leaves him especially qualified to treat “faith vs. reason” issues. In Five Anti-Catholic Myths Verschuuren wears his learning lightly — in contrast to his more extensive works on the relationship between Catholicism and modern science — as he caters to non-specialist readers of any stripe.

While examining the five persistent myths named in the book’s title, Verschuuren also manages to cover related questions. For example, the chapter on slavery covers more than just the accusation that the Church, over her long history, did little to eliminate the evil of slavery. Verschuuren points out that slavery, which we now regard as an extraordinary evil, has been a historical commonplace, so much so that there is no serious critique of slavery as an institution in the ancient world. Even Jesus, who was not shy about advancing revolutionary ideas during His earthly ministry, had little to say on the subject. The Church herself was ambivalent about the practice. But by steady insistence that, in God’s eyes, there is no difference between slaves and free people, the Church laid the foundation for a revolution in human society that was a long time in developing.

This leads to a parallel question: Clearly there’s been a change in Church teaching on the matter of slavery, so is it possible that Catholic morals are evolutionary in nature, subject to change over time? Not so fast, says Verschuuren. He categorizes the issue of slavery as a matter of Catholic social teaching, not doctrine. The latter does not change, but the former — an attempt to apply Gospel teaching to norms for social conduct — is subject to change, since society changes all the time.

Verschuuren follows a similar pattern throughout the book. He refutes the charge that the Crusades were an act of unjust European imperialism. Instead, he explains the historical reality that they began as a defensive action against renewed Muslim aggression toward Christians in Palestine and the Byzantine Empire. (The sub-topic of the chapter is an honest assessment of militant trends in Islam.) Even when later Crusades did go wrong, it was despite papal intentions and actions.

On the subject of the Inquisition, Verschuuren demonstrates that there was no such thing. There were a variety of different inquisitorial bodies in different places and times, all of which had higher standards of professionalism and procedure — and made less use of torture — than other European courts of their day. Part of the goal in the use of inquisitions was to protect the heterodox, who were subject to far worse treatment from civil authorities or mob action than they were from Church forces. Verschuuren considers the related question of how any religion deals with the very real problem of heterodoxy, and it is clear that Catholicism has handled it with less violence than Judaism or Protestantism.

The chapter on Galileo covers what actually happened, rather than the standard tale. Galileo’s initial discoveries actually enjoyed extensive Church support, but his later ones couldn’t be empirically verified by the science of his day. When he arrogantly insisted on pressing them, and on employing theology (in which he was untrained) to do so, he ran afoul of Church authorities and was put on trial — not for his science but for his theology. The facts of Galileo’s case make it impossible to conclude that the Church is somehow “anti-science.”

The final chapter deals with the Holocaust and Pope Pius XII’s alleged silence regarding it. Given Pius’s initially vocal opposition to the rise of Nazism, combined with his secret efforts to save as many Roman Jews as possible, this myth is difficult to believe. Rather, it appears to be the product of an ongoing anti-Catholic campaign first begun by the Soviets in the 1950s and continued today by anyone with an axe to grind against the Church.

Approachableness, an initial strength of Five Anti-Catholic Myths, is also its weakness. Since it is short and directed at a popular audience, it can leave the reader wanting more. But a lack of footnotes and a very short bibliography make it difficult for an interested reader to learn more on his own. Verschuuren maintains a lively web presence, and one hopes he might one day add supplementary material for the book online. As it stands, Five-Anti Catholic Myths is well written and well considered, faithful without being pugnacious, and myth-busting without being a whitewash. The final two pages of the conclusion are a model of how to consider the real errors and failings of the Church, but also her much greater strengths and glories, and they could be memorized with profit by faithful Catholics everywhere.

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