Volume > Issue > Briefly: January-February 1996

January-February 1996

The Right Way to Live: Plato's Republic for Catholic Students

By Richard Geraghty

Publisher: ChiaroOscuro Press (800-437-2368)

Pages: 124

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Mark Frisby

If philosophers had to choose one philosophical work that would be saved through a nuclear cataclysm, surely most would choose Plato’s Republic; it is unsurpassed as an introduction to philosophy. It is, however, a long work, and a reader can easily lose track of its main points. Geraghty’s book highlights Plato’s central argument that “virtue is not a luxury for the individual and society. It is an absolute necessity.” Geraghty’s engaging and very personal style guides his reader step by step through the Republic, enabling the reader to savor that basic truth, all the while relating it to Catholic faith, the natural law tradition, and contemporary society.

The book’s task is to help us appreciate the reasonableness of the sense of moral duty, which we could scarcely maintain without supernatural faith. Though natural reason renders aid to supernatural faith, the basic relation between the two is clarified in Geraghty’s engaging Afterword: “the supernatural is needed, not just to get human beings into heaven, but to save the natural here on this earth.”

Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem

By David Blankenhorn

Publisher: Basic

Pages: 328

Price: $23

Review Author: Carroll C. Kearley

Since we Americans don’t want any child to feel bad because of the kind of family from which he or she comes, and since so many kids grow up in families without fathers, we are inclined to say that fathers don’t matter that much. Any family structure will serve, as long as the nurturers are loving. Most single mothers love their kids deeply. So the kids should turn out all right.

Blankenhorn counters that this rosy view of families without fathers is fallacious. He sees a huge discrepancy between the currently fashionable views on family structure and what is really the case with most fatherless families.

In 1992 in the U.S., 66 percent of children under the age of six living in single-mother families lived in poverty. In married-couple homes only 13 percent of such children lived in poverty. The single-mother family as an institution is overwhelmingly prey to poverty.

Even though boyfriends provide only about two percent of all nonparental care, it is boyfriends who commit about half of all reported cases of child abuse. Moreover, about six percent of all pregnant women are battered by their husbands or partners, but boyfriends as batterers exceed husbands by a ratio of four to one, even though there are many more husbands than boyfriends. We can conclude that for women to live with boyfriends exposes them and their children to substantially elevated risks of abuse.

Fatherless boys constitute a disproportionately high percentage of criminals. It is terrible luck for boys to grow up without fathers. They are also apt to pass that same luck on to more boys when they beget children with unmarried young women. Girls without real fathers are in great danger of becoming unwed mothers of fatherless boys, because from their ranks come the young women most willing to bed with young men who have no intention of accepting the responsibilities of fatherhood.

A recently completed 10-year study by the Carnegie Council supports another of Blankenhorn’s contentions. The study says that when children between 10 and 14 are left unsupervised after school, there is a significant risk that they will engage in substance abuse and sexual activity. The danger for our children comes from the very nature of the modern family, which deprives adolescents of adequate parental supervision.

Blankenhorn contends that real fatherhood supports real motherhood. Biological fatherhood does not develop into responsible fatherhood unless society insists on it. Men are not ideally suited to responsible fatherhood. They achieve it only with the help of cultural pressure. Responsible fatherhood occurs only when a society says that its men ought to reside with their children. That, of course, implies marriage.

The institution of fatherhood set within the institution of marriage offers boys the greatest possibility of being able to control their inclinations to sexual promiscuity and violence. It offers girls the likelihood of living under the benign guidance of men they can trust. Real fathers are an indispensable good for boys, as well as girls and mothers.

Families at the Crossroads

By Rodney Clapp

Publisher: InterVarsity

Pages: 208

Price: $10.95

Review Author: David Hartman

Employing Scripture as his authority, Clapp says that marital fidelity is modeled on divine/human covenant rather than contract, and that we welcome children into our midst as strangers made in the image of Christ.

Clapp is particularly good in describing a certain kind of unmarried person: “Modern ‘autonomous’ and ‘liberated’ individuals are little more than lonely amnesiacs…. They are blind to what, in the end, can be the most confining and certainly destructive slavery of all — slavery to the…confused and lost self…. The New Testament knows what modern wisdom forgets: my ultimate enemy lives inside my skin, draws breath with my selfsame lungs.”

When Clapp sticks to such analyses and to subjects in which he is obviously knowledgeable — Scriptures and basic Protestant theology — he does fine. But he missteps when he wades into economics: “If asked what most threatens families today, Christian family advocates present a list commonly including pornography, drugs, public schools and secular humanism….” But, says Clapp, “the deeper problem is that capitalism has succeeded.” Clapp says that the “market has overrun its boundaries,” adding that Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics “tell us marriage is not so much about love as about supply and demand for spouses, that a man commits suicide when ‘the total discounted lifetime utility remaining to him reaches zero,’ and that we should take care of the shortage of infants for adoption by quoting baby prices like soybean futures.” An irredeemable fallacy of Marxist dogma was its assertion that the fundamental fact of life is economic. Capitalists (like those in the Chicago schoobpseem to propound the same fallacy. But Clapp is in danger of doing the same thing. Yes, ravening consumerism fuels the three deadly sins of gluttony, envy, and covetousness, but the basic bane of families isn’t capitalism; it’s sin itself — and “sin” is a word oddly wanting in an evangelical work like this.

Clapp also makes this curious assertion: “What evangelicals consider the ‘traditional family’ is in fact the bourgeois or middle-class family, which arose to dominance in the nineteenth century….” Actually, there was a very biblical “traditional family” which preceded 19th-century bourgeois families by approximately 18 centuries, about which Chesterton wrote so well.

Clapp’s book is well-written and for the most part biblically sound. But if the reader can only afford one book right now about the Christian perspective on families, I recommend Brave New Family (Ignatius Press), a splendid anthology of Chesterton’s writings on the subject, edited by Alvaro Da Silva.

John Courtney Murray and the Dilemma of Religious Toleration

By Keith J. Pavlischek

Publisher: Thomas Jefferson University Press

Pages: 290

Price: $22.50

Review Author: Gerard V. Bradley

For nearly a decade Catholic academics have contended over the corpus of John Courtney Murray. Was he (would he now be?) a noninterventionist in the economy? Would he have signed onto the bishops’ pastoral on nuclear deterrence? Would he, in light of his libertarianish criticisms of the Connecticut contraception law struck down by the Supreme Court in Griswold, be personally opposed to but politically tolerant of abortion?

Questions such as these are helping propel a renaissance in Murray studies. Much of this work (notably, the collection of essays edited by Robert Hunt and Ken Grasso, reviewed in the May 1993 NOR) deepens our understanding of Murray’s writings, especially his effort to distinguish how the Catholic tradition may (and how it must not) adapt itself to the American experience. Yet, some of the Murray studies are fanciful, little more than contrivances to secure a posthumous imprimatur from an influential thinker.

Keith Pavlischek’s valuable book advances the Murray discussion right where Murray’s writings most repay careful reading: religious liberty. Pavlischek, an evangelical Protestant, analyzes Murray’s published and unpublished writings on religious liberty, and examines his role in the drafting and revision of Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae. Pavlischek notes that Murray was not entirely pleased with DH. But Pavlischek’s is the best discussion of just how the moral-theological defense of religious freedom advanced by the French prevailed over Murray’s view that a doctrine of limited, constitutional government be the “juridical” centerpiece of the argument.

Pavlischek is nevertheless persuaded that Murray is worth a careful look. Why? “Murray’s attempt to deal with the problem is easily the best in terms of lucidity of analysis, historical sensitivity, and theological depth.” What is the “problem”? The problem arises, as Pavlischek sees it, from the implausibility of “classic foundationalism” — incontrovertible, infallible, self-evident first principles — which inherited arguments for toleration relied upon. How can anti-foundationalists with religious convictions (like Pavlischek) argue for an “inalienable right” to religious liberty? He envisions two — and only two — basic approaches. Besides the “implausible” foundationalist approach, there is only a modus vivendi argument. It is unsatisfactory ground for an “inalienable right” because it rests on pragmatic and contingent foundations.

Pavlischek opines that Murray recognized the futility of foundationalist defenses, but unsuccessfully sought to escape the modus vivendi alternative. The heart of the book is the author’s attempt to show how Murray’s failed attempt very likely means that there is no path at all between the horns of the dilemma, that the dilemma of religious toleration is insoluble.

Pavlischek makes a powerful case, and his Dilemma is likely to become the authoritative treatment of Murray’s thought on religious liberty. A final judgment on the question Pavlischek raises must, however, await a full-scale encounter with Dignitatis Humanae itself and with the philosophical writings of Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Robert George, and others who have developed DH’s insights into a rigorous foundationalist argument for religious liberty.

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