Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 1999

June 1999

The Rosary of Our Lady

By Romano Guardini

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 150

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Michael Berg

This gem of a book is supplemented by a brief biographical sketch of its author, the last paragraph of which reads: “The works of Msgr. Guardini are indispensable for all Christians who want to remain true to the Faith and to grow holy in our age of skepticism and corrosive doubt.” This monograph is a beautiful and practical instruction in the Rosary, and Guardini, a gentle and incomparably experienced spiritual director, offers his reader a magnificent means of responding to God’s call of love by entering that sacred place demarcated by the Holy Rosary of Our Lady.

One of the most moving chapters in the book, entitled “Practical Considerations,” presents us with the great and mysterious truth that God, perfect in Himself and not in need of anything, nonetheless makes each one of us the object of His love, which means that what befalls us affects Him. Our fate is His intimate concern, and His choice to hang on a cross for us testifies to His devotion and affection. This God becomes incarnate in the womb of the Virgin of Nazareth, and this God comes to us in the Holy Eucharist. It is therefore fitting, says Guardini, that we should make our way from time to time to the Rosary, whose “essence is the sheltering security of a quiet, holy world that envelops the person who is praying.” And in this holy world we meet Our Lady, who always directs us to her Son.

The book is divided into two parts, the first concerned with the form and meaning of the Rosary, the second consisting of short interpretations of the 15 mysteries. Guardini ties these interpretations in explicitly with the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, but many of these analyses focus on the fundamental virtue of humility. In Guardini’s words, “Humility is nothing other than the conviction that God is God, and only God — and that man is man, and nothing but man.”

The Rosary is a device without equal whereby we come to adore God in proper humility and peace — and Guardini’s book is an invaluable guide to the Rosary.

The Mass Explained to Children

By Maria Montessori

Publisher: Roman Catholic Books

Pages: 116

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Lisa Zee

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) is best known for her philosophy of education for young children. Few people realize that she wrote books on the religious education of children as well, among them The Child in the Church and the recently re-issued book under review here. Traditionally, catechism had been the focus of religious education, but with the reforms of Pius X (pope from 1903 to 1914) the teaching of the liturgy became more prominent. Originally published in 1932, The Mass Explained to Children is based on the old Mass but its explanations apply to the spirit and meaning — if not to all the details — of the new Mass as well. And from this book today’s children may gain some appreciation of the rich patrimony the old Mass contains.

Montessori’s aim here is liturgical; she seeks to help children understand the meaning of the Mass and its ritual, so they will be able to participate fully in it. The book is not written for children to read on their own. Instead, it is a model for a teacher or parent to use in introducing children to the Mass. Montessori provides a wealth of background to enhance the child’s (and the adult’s) understanding. In particular, she shows how the Church borrows pagan ritual and Christianizes it, and how the New Testament is a fulfillment of the Old Testament.

She presents the meaning of religious sacrifice in terms accessible to a child’s comprehension. “Even in ordinary life,” she explains, “we cut a flower as a gift, making a victim of it by shortening its life.” In the Old Testament the Jews offered animal sacrifices to God, who had revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants. Nevertheless, these offerings were incomplete. But in the New Testament Christ offers Himself as the true and perfect sacrifice and teaches us through His own example that God wants us to offer our very selves for love of Him.

Another area that lends depth to the child’s understanding is Montessori’s explanation of the history and development of the elements of the Mass. The Sign of the Cross, she says, was the gesture, when the early Christians were being persecuted, through which a Christian could be recognized by his brethren. The Sign of the Cross was like a secret password. The offertory of the Mass has an interesting history as well. In the early Church, Christians brought the actual fruit of their labors to the sanctuary as offerings. During the coming and going, alms were requested for the poorer brethren and the names of the benefactors were read aloud.

Montessori explains every detail of the preparation of the gifts, the preparation of the altar, the significance of the priest’s vestments, and so on. Some may think that Montessori concentrates too much on detail. But she does this with good reason. Anyone who works with young children knows that they notice details and want to know about them. It is through these externals that they are led to the heart of the Mass and are taught how to worship.

Above all, Montessori emphasizes to the child the need for humility and reverence before the great mystery of the Eucharist. She presents the priest as he declares his own unworthiness and begs God’s mercy, “Nobis quoque peccatoribus!” (“On ourselves, too, who are sinners”) as an example of what our attitude should be. Yet, the priest asks for a great deal, “some place and fellowship with Thy saints…,” because in the presence of the King one can ask for much. And we, too, who are almost in the position of the first Apostles as we gather around Our Lord, can ask for the greatest graces.

For those of us who seek our own salvation and that of our children, Maria Montessori’s book is truly a treasure. It will stir both children and adults to know and love the Mass, our greatest channel of grace.

Growth of the Liberal Soul

By David Walsh

Publisher: University of Missouri Press

Pages: 320

Price: $39.95

Review Author: Anthony J. Zaller

In every man there is a desire to be free. This desire can be lost or forgotten when rulers do not allow for freedom or when people simply find it easier to give up some of their freedom to avoid responsibility. Yet freedom is indispensable to liberal democracy. There is, nonetheless, a danger with unstructured freedom. A moral void can develop, especially when there is no shared religion or ethic among the practitioners of this freedom.

David Walsh gives an exemplary review of “modern” political philosophy, engaging Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill. In so doing he finds that democracy has no fundamental maxims of its own. Thus, the attempt to explain why democracy is superior to other forms of government becomes, at the very least, arduous. “Politics in a liberal order without recourse to moral argument must be civil war,” Walsh observes, adding that such politics “becomes a pure struggle for power because the possibility of rational agreement through appeal to a common sense of right has disappeared.”

Yet moral argument has been possible, and Walsh looks to the U.S. Constitution for the bases of liberal democratic government. His search leads to basic questions. What might we be like in a state of nature? Why do we form a government? Are there objective moral truths? If so, what is their source? An ardent supporter of democracy, Walsh nonetheless finds that his search for the ground for a democratic polity can only go so far empirically. At that point we become pilgrims: Our quest becomes a spiritual one. Walsh does not believe we must embrace a specific religion, but does think that the maturation of individuals in a democratic society calls for principles with a religious dimension.

Abortion offers a test case. Walsh laments liberal democracy’s poverty of discourse in the debate over abortion. Prochoicers focus on rights, but the question arises: Whose rights take precedence, and why? Prolifers often focus on values, religious or ethical. But why is their language so often inaccessible to secularists? For his part, Walsh contends that the Constitution, rightly understood, can recognize the overriding value of human life — and that the Constitution is accessible to all of us.

In the end, however, Walsh is unable to state that we need religion for our society to function well. Unfortunately, he instead compromises between a secularist and a religious view, and leaves us with a hazy theory.

The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell

By Regis Martin

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 167

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Patty O'Connell

After an introductory section entitled “On the Last Things,” this book offers four chapters, one addressing each of The Four. The subjects are grave, but the writing is lively and the essays full of varied pleasures, for the author has compiled thought-provoking queries, theological scholarship, and illuminating quotations from works as diverse as the stories of Flannery O’Connor and Isak Dinesen, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde.

The “Death” chapter includes mention of two seemingly grim novels, Muriel Sparks’s Memento Mori and P.D. James’s Skull Beneath the Skin, in which the characters try to flee death even while they are obsessed with its inevitability. In the “Judgment” chapter, Martin shows how Flannery O’Connor’s grotesques and misfits reveal themselves as unlikely vehicles of grace to those around them.

Who wants to think about Hell? As Martin points out in the “Hell” chapter, we don’t really have a choice. And even those of us who do contemplate Hell are often so preoccupied by images of fulsome pain that we forget that at Hell’s core are emptiness and loss. Here Martin uses Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant,” and asks, “What if there were a loneliness so complete and final that nothing in the world could remedy the sorrow of it?” That’s the essence of Hell.

The book ends on an up note: Heaven. The two dimensions to Heaven’s joy, Martin says, involve “the immediate vision and love of God (verticabpand the knowledge and love of all others in God (horizontab~” Martin bemoans the sugar coating and crass materialism that now foul visions of Heaven for most of us, invoking instead Dante and Mozart.

This volume and the many fine works referred to in it could move even the least contemplative or most necrophobic among us finally to ponder the Last Things.

Pilgrim Law

By Robert E. Rodes Jr

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 199

Price: $18

Review Author: Brad Stetson

In this eclectic and creative study, Robert Rodes Jr. of the University of Notre Dame Law School seeks to erect a jurisprudence based on what he understands to be the best insights of liberation theology.

Rodes’s work is tightly constructed and passionately argued, surveying a wide range of contemporary religious, political, and legal theory. Throughout, his view is fair, avoiding the polemical dudgeon now so common among legal scholars, particularly those of the fashionable Critical Legal Studies movement, whose moral relativism and contempt for the transcendent grounding of law Rodes forcefully critiques.

Rodes’s primary thesis in Pilgrim Law is that a new legal category is needed to capture two historically demonstrated realities. The first of these is the folly seen all too often in contemporary American legislation and litigation: namely, that activist, sociological jurisprudence is often thwarted in its purposes by the Law of Unintended Consequences. The good that social and legal engineers intend often fails to materialize — and sometimes their schemes make matters worse.

The second lesson of history is that the “Eden of natural law” is frequently dispelled by the hands of fallen men as they try to realize transcendent values politically and construct practical public policies. For Rodes natural law is a valuable moral monitor, offering intuitively clear principles of human decency and a forceful condemnation of a government or elite class’s abuse of privilege, but it is less adept at providing practical standards for the ethical use of those privileges.

Enter Rodes’s alternative: “Pilgrim Law.” Stitching together liberation theology’s call to social and political responsibility (particularly for the poor), Marxism’s insistence on class conflict and on the self-serving inclination of all ideology (except its own ideology, of course), and Christianity’s vision of a common eschatological human purpose, Rodes tailors a jurisprudence that aspires to enhance the accountability of elites to the commonweal and to make full use of the law as an instrument — not merely an instrument of procedural justice but an agency of normative ends, both social and personal.

This is an ambitious and earnest work that takes seriously the legal vocation and the personal application of Christian virtue. But one wonders if Rodes has overplayed his hand. The enormous, complex machinery of practical politics has rolled crushingly over carefully crafted, recondite social theories before, and it is unclear how Rodes’s program — which impinges on the vast social institutions of law and government — could ever find general expression.

More troubling still is his ready appropriation of the rudimentary analytical categories of Marxism and liberation theology. Rodes acknowledges from the outset that he has “had to reshape them a good deal” for his project, which leads one to wonder if, given that necessity, they were the philosophically proper materials to use in the first place. He says little about the misery and destruction Marxism has wrought in our time, nor does he direct much criticism at liberation theology, a radical ideology far less emancipating than promised.

Despite these limitations, Pilgrim Law is a worthwhile study that has much to say to today’s secular princes of politics and policy — for they studiously avoid the transcendent questions it so provocatively engages.

Christianity and American Freemasonry

By William Whalen

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 215

Price: $14.95

Review Author: David Meconi

Whalen’s book was first published in 1958, but it still (in this updated reprint) serves as an excellent survey of the origins and doctrines of Freemasonry. Freemasons have claimed for their order a lengthy history that stretches without interruption back through the Middle Ages all the way to the building of Solomon’s Temple and even back to the Tower of Babel. As the Masonic charge-after-initiation solemnly says, “Ancient no doubt it is, having subsisted from time immemorial. In every age monarchs have been promoters of the art, have not thought it derogatory to their dignity to exchange the sceptre for the trowel, have participated in our mysteries and joined in our assemblies.”

Whalen disagrees. His investigation shortens Masonic history considerably and punctures Masonic self-inflation. Masons claim their genesis in ancient Hebrew culture — as well as in Egyptian, Pythagorean, and Dionysian cultic mysteries — and even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church allows that their origins date “probably to the 12th cent.” Whalen, a professor of journalism at Purdue University, finds that Masonry as it exists today did not begin until 1717. Freemasonry began as the “Grand Lodge of England,” the convergence of four Masonic lodges coming together for nothing more than increased conviviality. In just a matter of one decade, however, this Lodge burgeoned into an elaborate Society with its own Book of Constitutions and an intricate degree system and code of conduct.

Rituals employing an altar to display the tools of masonry as well as the Volume of the Sacred Law were used to bring the initiate to greater clarity about the workings of the universe. The traditions of these actions and symbols were quickly fabricated so as to place their historical roots in the figure of Hiram Abiff, Solomon’s grand architect mentioned in 2 Chronicles 2. Extravagant myths and legends were concocted around this figure and served to bolster the legitimacy of the new group’s supposedly immemorial customs. Early Masonic literature was quick to associate itself with ancient and medieval guilds of craftsmen, but Freemasonry, Whalen says, has no historical connection either to ancient civilizations or to the guilds of roving stonemasons looking for work in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The religious beliefs of Freemasonry consist mainly of deism and naturalism. Masonic deism posits the existence of the Grand Architect of the Universe (G.A.O.T.U.) who formed the universe according to the principles of Geometry (the “G” in the Masonic symbobpbut no longer intervenes in human affairs. Naturalism affirms the self-sufficiency of the natural order and refuses to admit a supernatural order of grace; Christ’s Incarnation and miracles, and the divine institution of a Church on earth are therefore rejected. For these reasons, as well as for its secrecy and oath-taking — which Pope Leo XIII compared to Manichean Gnosticism — Freemasonry has been consistently and continuously opposed by the Church.

In his encyclical against Freemasonry, Humanum Genus (1884), Pope Leo XIII condemns the naturalism upon which it is built. He begins by strongly challenging the “power for evil” of “this fatal plague.” Pope Leo defines naturalism as the belief that “human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide…allowing for no dogma of religion or truth which cannot be understood by the human intelligence nor any teacher who ought to be believed by reason of his authority.” He concludes that this cannot be simultaneously held with Christianity.

In this updated volume Whalen includes a declaration issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II (Feb. 17, 1981), reaffirming the Church’s unwavering rejection of Freemasonry: “Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach Holy Communion.” Whalen also brings to light two little-noticed contemporary reports: Both the German Bishops (1980) and the U.S. Bishops (1985) concluded that Freemasonry is incompatible with Christianity.

Sexual Wisdom: A Guide for Parents, Young Adults, Educators, and Physicians

By Richard Wetzel, M.D

Publisher: Proctor Publications (P.O. Box 2498, Ann Arbor MI 48106)

Pages: 332

Price: $1295 (plus $2 shipping).

Review Author: Inez Fitzgerald Storck

This is a unique book, obviously written by a Catholic who wholeheartedly accepts the teaching of the Church on sexual morality, yet directed to an audience that may not. It is not religious and does not attempt to preach to readers the virtue of chastity. Instead, it counsels “wisdom,” arguing persuasively for chaste behavior on medical and psychological grounds. Thus the author can address those who, to one degree or another, espouse the sexual revolution, and can demonstrate that their claimed sexual freedoms are injurious to their own (and others’) physical and psychological health.

He invites the reader to reflect on the unhealthy motivations for involvement in sex outside of marriage and the dysfunctional and unpleasant consequences of such behavior. The notion that the wish for sex is a “need” — not merely a desire — is disproved, and sexual well-being (i.e., chastity) is presented as an attractive means to health and self-actualization.

Wetzel musters an impressive array of data on sexually transmitted diseases and the range of their consequences, including infertility, cancer, and death. Using statistical estimates from the federal government and medical literature, he seeks to explode the fantasy that there can be “safe sex” outside monogamy. This section alone should be enough to scare anyone into chastity.

He also finds that artificial contraception is an instance of sexual unwisdom. Wetzel displays data on contraception that reveal surprisingly high “failure” (i.e., pregnancy) rates for all methods, particularly in younger age groups. In addition, the use of contraceptives undermines the marital bond. By contrast, he finds that periodic abstinence based on fertility awareness (e.g., Natural Family Planning) is grounded in commitment, discipline, and trust, and supports the marriage relationship.

Wetzel offers a classification of the levels of sexual functioning: at the top, perfect sex; at the bottom, violent or life-threatening practices. Perhaps it is due to our society’s obsession with sex that the concept of perfect sex could even arise. Wetzel describes perfect sex as admitting of no frustrations, but I would say that ideal sexual behavior should be defined as a mutual, total self-giving of spouses (which will, of course, not always lead to complete fulfillment on every level for both husband and wife). The teaching of John Paul II on the anthropology of the body gives the best theological framework for love that is both sacrificial and fulfilling. But then I am talking about virtuous or holy behavior, and Wetzel’s goal is admittedly more limited — he offers here the kind of “wisdom” that he hopes will lead to sexually healthy men and women.

The salient feature of Wetzel’s schema of sexual behavior is that it characterizes sexual interactions according to whether they are supportive of the relationship between husband and wife. In Wetzel’s wisdom, sex among the unmarried is intrinsically dysfunctional. Selfish attitudes and even immodest dress are included in his schema as negative factors. The selfish misuse of sex is inherently impoverishing and frustrating. When one treats others as objects in a quest for self-gratification, one ultimately treats oneself as an object too. Provocative dress is an example not of freedom but of self-objectification.

Throughout his discussion of contemporary sexual and social mores — and their profound implications for the individual and society — Wetzel shows only compassion for those who seek sexual fulfillment outside marriage, including homosexuals and those addicted to sex. His brief treatment of homosexual behavior demonstrates that it is untenable on several levels.

This book gives, overall, a productive discussion of sexual health and well-being, with numerous profound insights. Wetzel does make a few errors in judgment (suggesting that a wife’s preference to go a few months without sex would not necessarily create frustration in the marriage; assuming that all people have the potential to be sexually stimulated by children). But these do not detract from his clear and detailed argument that sexual desires must be properly channeled to bring fulfillment.

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