The Catholic Milieu
By Thomas Storck
Publisher: Christendom College Press
Thomas Storck’s lucubrations are the stuff from which liberals fabricate their nightmares: extirpation of pornography, censorship of pernicious ideas, regulation of the arts to serve the good of society, establishment of a Catholic culture. But he can shatter the blissful sleep of conservatives as well: limitation of profit-making, imposition of a ceiling on personal wealth, worker ownership of factories. Liberals and conservatives alike will shriek at his conclusion: “The individual is neither autonomous nor supreme, and he has no right to absolute freedom either in money-making or in cultural pursuits. Society has a right to order both areas toward the common good.”
Storck grounds his asseveration not in socialism, but in a medieval vision of Catholic culture: all is directed toward the good of society and toward the ultimate end of man, eternal life. The result is a form of Catholic utopianism, for speculation about the creation of a truly Catholic culture appears fruitless in today’s world, especially in the United States. Moreover, in a way Storck’s traditionalism, with its belief in the need for a Catholic culture to aid man’s quest for eternal life, reveals an inadequate trust in God’s grace. God does not need a “Catholic milieu” to ensure the success of His plan of salvation. But if Storck falters on this point, it is of small moment, for his book provides an incisive reminder of the insipidity of American culture.
The Jesuit Mind: The Mentality of an Elite in Early Modern France
By A. Lynn Martin
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Jesuits have a knack for making enemies. Whether in our own time or in the 16th century of the order’s founding, the Society of Jesus has excited controversy and provoked rancorous opposition. From the outset, Protestants loathed and feared Jesuits, viewing them as an extraordinarily fanatical pack of heresy hounds. Even among Catholics the society did not inspire unmitigated affection. For one thing, Jesuits quickly gained a reputation for meddling in politics, especially as shadowy figures who lurked behind thrones, surreptitiously manipulating the actions of kings and nations.
Although Lynn Martin did not undertake his research in order to dispel this sour image, his book in part accomplishes that end. Drawing upon some 5,000 letters that Jesuits in France exchanged with their superiors in Rome from 1550 to 1580, Martin concludes that neither monkeying with statecraft nor tormenting Protestants overly concerned the first Jesuits in France. Although some members of the order dabbled in politics and all of them cursed Protestantism as a “plague” (to use their favorite term of opprobrium), the Jesuits’ emphasis lay elsewhere. Through preaching, catechizing, and especially the establishment of schools, they sought to revitalize the Catholic faith in France. Of this mission and much more Lynn Martin writes in this book, at once illuminating and free of special pleading either for or against the society founded by St. Ignatius.
The Catholic Novel: An Annotated Bibliography
By Albert J. Menendez
If all the Catholic novels Albert Menendez has read were stacked on top of one another, the pile would reach halfway to heaven. Given the dubious literary merit of much of this writing, Menendez’s labor is one of deep love — or perhaps of penance for some horrendous sin. Anyway, if one seeks a near-definitive compilation of Catholic novels, this book is it. Not only does Menendez list 1,703 novels, but he includes nearly 500 books and articles that analyze Catholic authors and their works. As a goad to violent disagreement, Menendez concludes his volume with a roster of the “100 Best Catholic Novels.” The annotations are concise, informative, and peppery. Of one book he remarks: “an insult to author, publisher and reader”; of another: “sentimental trash but a bestseller.”
Because this bibliography ranges widely in time (early 19th century to the present) and place (Japan, Canada, England, continental Europe, the U.S., and Latin America), it furnishes an opportunity to discern trends and spot patterns. With some exceptions. Catholic fiction before the early 20th century leaned heavily upon tears, piety, moralism, and polemics. More recent Catholic novels (those published since Vatican II) aspire to a warts-and-all realism, but these authors tend to purvey their own brand of sentimentalism in their portrayal of priests who find fulfillment in sex, and nuns who liberate themselves from onerous restraints. In between the old sentimentalism and the new, one finds the Golden Age of Catholic fiction. From the 1920 through the 1950s such writers as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, and a handful of others explored the nature of Catholicism — both its strengths and weaknesses — and traced fallen man’s faltering steps toward reconciliation with God.
Although Menendez contends in his Introduction that Catholic fiction thrives today, the writers he adduces as evidence — e.g., Andrew Greeley, Mary Gordon, Brian Moore, and David Lodge — do not belong in the same category with Greene and company. As worthy successors to the towering figures of the past, only Shusaku Endo, Walker Percy, and J.F. Powers have a legitimate claim. Vatican II launched a revitalization of many aspects of Catholicism, but it has yet to spark an illustrious literary revival.
The Literary Guide to the Bible
By Robert Alter and Frank Kermode
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Some Christians reach for their gun when they hear the words “the Bible as literature.” They fear that profane hands will befoul the sacred book, reducing it to nothing more than a literary masterpiece on the order of Homer or Virgil. Such an attitude festers in an atmosphere of disquietude; it evinces a nagging dread that the world teems with scholarly denigrators who wish to destroy the Bible’s authority. No need to worry: the Bible is as rock-solid as ever, despite centuries of scholarly raids.
Christians need not fret over The Literary Guide to the Bible: this magisterial volume, the work of some two dozen contributors, conveys to believer and unbeliever alike the radiant glory of the Bible. The editors leave no doubt of their intent: “We no longer live in the age when literate persons had a daily intimacy with the Bible on the basis of shared belief; individuals must now attune themselves to the book, which is today rarely assimilated in early youth. To help them do so is our main object.”
As always in dealing with scholarly investigations, the orthodox Christian must peruse this volume with critical attentiveness; scholarly denigrators do roam the world. But he can put away his gun.
The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge
By Ralph McInerny
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Christians beware! Throw out reason and you may end up with agnosticism, or so one can infer from Bernard Lightman’s graceful and penetrating study of the Victorian intellectual scene. The key figure in the drama is not a snarling infidel, but an Anglican theologian named Henry Mansell. Taking a page from Kant, Mansell contended that reason is powerless to probe the realm of the divine. Mansell meant to defend the faith by putting it beyond the reach of rationalism, but those who borrowed from him — the founding fathers of agnosticism, including Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford, Spencer, and Stephen — fashioned the premise into a means of subverting Christian orthodoxy. Lightman’s book offers another glimpse into a type of Protestant aversion to reason that is as old as Martin Luther. With friends like Henry Mansell, Christianity need worry little about its agnostic enemies.
Art and Prudence: Studies in The Thought of Jacques Maritain
By Daniel Bell
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
“The gift of faith,” notes Ralph McInerny, “is the best thing that ever happened to the human mind….” He supports this claim with these fine essays on Jacques Maritain.
What impresses one in Maritain’s work is its scope and originality. An exemplar of creative Thomism, Maritain began his intellectual life in the natural sciences. Stirred by Bergson, he became a Catholic and found a philosophical vocation that included the friendship of artists, political struggle, and international diplomacy. With so much to draw from, McInerny wisely emphasizes Maritain’s ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics.
In ethics, consider a single virtue: prudence. Can it be more than wooden caution? Maritain anchors it in practical reasoning about what one ought to do. Thus prudence suggests action. To act prudently is to act from desires disciplined to what is here and now a good. So who counsels best? Not the ideologue, but the good (prudent) person.
And what counsel does Maritain himself offer the state? He argues for human rights — in the language of a personalist and communitarian. As persons, we look to an eternal life with God. No state can hope for such a future. Yet a person is a social being; persons flourish in community. And a community is not just a collection of isolated individuals. Instead a community seeks the common good, which includes the good of each person.
But how is art to find its link with ethics and politics?
There is an external link. Just as Maritain engaged the social order as a political actor, so too he became part of the French cultural scene.
Yet there is a deeper and internal link. Just as ethics and politics stem from practical wisdom — and the wisdom of the one whose desires are well ordered — what is true in art is so with the truth of practical wisdom. Art is a kind of doing, and the “true artist” or “born poet” has a natural desire and affinity for beauty that we ignore only by proclaiming our blindness.
Of course, blindness to the good or the beautiful is what philosophy seeks to cure. Jacques Maritain would have us see.
The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties
By Richard L. Troutman
Publisher: Harvard University Press
In the Afterword to this new edition of The End of Ideology, a book originally published in 1962, Daniel Bell quips: “There are some books that are better known for their titles than their contents. Mine is one of them.” This must be true, for how else explain the bizarre misinterpretations the book has been subjected to over the years. Radicals in the 1960s denounced it with a frenzy that one usually finds among fundamentalists assailing the Anti-Christ. At first glance, the book hardly appears to be the stuff of controversy. Mainly it draws together Bell’s essays, reviews, and conference papers from the 1950s. Whatever the topic — crime, the future of capitalism, the radical right, labor unions, the nature of work — Bell makes it sparkle with his keen insight and sharp discernment. The real rub, of course, came from his contention that Marxism and utopianism in general had staggered into a dead end by the 1950s. The re-publication of Bell’s book will probably inspire a fresh wave of savage denunciation. Maybe this time more of his critics will get beyond the title.
The Heavens Are Weeping: The Diaries of George Richard Browder, 1852-1886
By Hilaire Belloc
If you want to understand America you must understand evangelical Protestantism, and if you aim to fathom that strain of religiosity, then you have to take the measure of Methodism, a denomination with an influence so pronounced that historians refer to the 19th century as “The Methodist Century.” The diaries of George Richard Browder, a preacher in south-central Kentucky, reveal the inner workings of the Methodist phenomenon.
Its strengths were immense. Appealing to the vast middling ranks of Americans, it established an ethos that pervaded society. It shaped a worldview that told its votaries who they were and where they stood with God and their fellow men. It robbed death of its sting of despair, guaranteed eternal life, and provided on this earth — through revivals, camp meetings, and fervent Sunday services — an emotional warmth that exalted the happy and consoled the sorrowing. To Browder, the interruption of a sermon by “shouts of joy & hallelujahs” confirmed the Spirit’s blessings upon Methodism.
Some of the more egregious weaknesses of evangelical Protestantism crop up as well in Browder’s diaries. Evangelicals, he lamented, lack sufficient education. “Their religion is largely in excitement — they have very low ideas of duty in gaining knowledge & supporting the church.” Browder bemoaned this situation, but another shortcoming he perceived as a strength: a crippling moralism that transmogrified the faith into an onerous burden of “Thou Shalt Nots.” Browder spent much time chiding his congregants for their moral lapses: horseracing, gambling, card-playing, dancing, drinking (which he associated with blacks, Catholics, and reprobates), and general frivolity — in other words, having fun.
The Great Heresies
By Pierre Coste
Publisher: Trinity Communications
Hilaire Belloc’s reputation has not weathered the years very well. One of the foremost Catholic apologists of the early 20th century, he was equally damned and applauded, but never ignored. Today, even among most Catholics, he is an obscure figure out of the dim past. His prickliness, pugnacity, and growling defense of the faith comport poorly with post-Vatican II irenicism, and his famous dictum, “Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe,” sounds like provincialism at its worst.
But to disdain Belloc is to impoverish oneself, for his best work still sparkles with vibrancy and immediacy. Servile State, The Path to Rome, and The Four Men, for example, ring across the decades with as much cogency as ever. The Great Heresies, first published in 1938 and now reissued, belongs in this company. With a keen eye Belloc scrutinizes Arianism, Islam, Albigensianism, the Reformation, and what he terms the “Modern Phase.” His analysis reveals the central dynamic of each movement, but more important, it attests the power of Orthodox Catholic faith to withstand every assault.
The Life and Works of St. Vincent de Paul
By E. Digby Baltzell
Publisher: New City Press
Pages: Three volumes; 1,671
Over 1,600 pages devoted to one life? Does anyone merit such exhaustive scrutiny? Is this an example of the biographer’s art run amok? It would not be unreasonable to find the length of this study of St. Vincent de Paul excessive. Still, when third-rate American novelists like Sinclair Lewis get enshrined in fat volumes of a thousand pages, then perhaps a saint deserves even more. Certainly St. Vincent has remarkable credentials: son of French peasants, he made his name synonymous in the 17th century with works of mercy. The sick, the destitute, the old, the orphaned, and a multitude of other sufferers have always found a friend in St. Vincent and those who have shouldered his burden. Pierre Coste’s prize-winning biography (granted in 1933 the French Academy’s highest award for historical works) inspires and awes: inspires one to emulate the saint, and reduces one to awe in the face of such breathtaking self-sacrifice.
The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America
Publisher: Yale University Press
In this now classic work of historical and sociological analysis (first published in 1963 and now reissued), E. Digby Baltzell champions an aristocracy of talent and decries the WASP Establishment’s transmogrification into an ossified caste open only to the rich and well-born.
Writing in the throes of a severe case of New Frontier Fever, Baltzell evinces an embarrassingly uncritical enthusiasm for the marvels of aristocratic leadership as exemplified by Woodrow Wilson, the two Roosevelts, and John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, Baltzell is so charmed by the paternalistic liberalism of these presidents that he is blind to the arrogance they injected into American foreign policy.
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