Volume > Issue > Briefly: March 2018

March 2018

American Law from a Catholic Perspective: Through a Clearer Lens

By Ronald J. Rychlak

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Pages: 326

Price: $40

Review Author: James Kalb

What should Catholics say about American law? It’s a complicated business. We favor law and government in the abstract, and we support them concretely when possible. But our standards of evaluation are different from the historically Protestant and philosophically liberal understandings behind the American legal system. So, on some points, we can be quite critical.

Even so, practical conflicts have usually been manageable. Throughout most of its history, a commonsense, natural-law outlook has informed American law, and the result has been a system with which Catholics could easily live. The American principle of liberty might not be everything its fans have claimed, but on the whole it allows the Church to be the Church, and Catholics to be Catholics.

Until the second half of the 20th century, Catholics’ biggest complaint was government failure to give parochial schools the same support it gave secular or effectively Protestant public schools. Those days are gone. Classic principles of religious liberty, limited government, and civic freedom have given way to a demand for equal freedom, not limited by reference to any higher good, to become the ordering principle for all social life. Residual attachment to natural-law and Christian tradition has, therefore, been replaced by growing insistence that such things are irrational prejudices that must, for the sake of freedom and justice, be eradicated from law and from social attitudes and practices generally.

The result is that contemporary American law, as a matter of fundamental principle, rejects the natural law in favor of individual will, deprives unborn children of all significant legal protection, forces service providers to celebrate wrongful acts, and suppresses the right to marry by defining the institution out of existence. One can rationally ask whether such a legal system has, in the words of the Catechism, become one “whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons” (no. 1901).

Such radical concerns are not those of American Law from a Catholic Perspective. The book is a survey intended primarily for professionals. As such, it mostly presents a straightforward summary of current authorities regarding law and Catholic belief, and it tries to make them as coherent, reasonable, and consistent with each other as legitimately possible. The format — 22 essays, the decided majority on particular fields of law and almost all by Catholic law professors — ensures that result. After all, how could one be a law professor, devoted to training practitioners and hoping to persuade legislators and judges through one’s writings, without accepting the system’s basic soundness?

So, by and large, the essay-writers present establishment views, the sort of thing people who typically represent lawyers and Catholics professionally — judges, bar committees, bishops’ conferences, theological commissions — are likely to say to each other. The essays are not going to step back from standard formulations and treat current human-rights law as an expression of the outlook and interests of globalizing technocratic elites, or the use of human-rights language by the Church as an attempt to put Catholic wine in wineskins that won’t hold it. Nor are they going to affront established pieties in a way that can easily be avoided. When talking about equality, for example, there’s no proposal for the Catholic vision of sexual complementarity in opposition to current insistence on the interchangeability of men and women. (On that point, it seems relevant that some of the contributors use she instead of he as a generic pronoun to refer to a person of either sex.)

Even so, the approach taken by editor Ronald J. Rychlak is useful in many ways. Law professors and practitioners are working within the system, and they need to understand it in a way that makes sense of what they are doing. And what they are doing does, in general, make sense. America and the West may have gone profoundly astray, and the Church may be in crisis, but law and Catholic thought continue to function normally, in most respects. The sickest man would die instantly if he were not mostly healthy, and the same is true of social systems. That is one reason the Church usually tells us to obey even unjust governments, except regarding specific injustices.

Given its purpose and consequent limitations, American Law from a Catholic Perspective is quite a good book. The authors are uniformly competent, and in some cases, quite distinguished. The book provides helpful commentary from a variety of Catholic perspectives on a broad range of topics, from legal history, philosophy, ethics, and education to specific areas of law and practice. Catholic lawyers should read it for a better sense of how their professional lives relate to more basic concerns, judges and legislators for a perspective on their work that — whatever else is true of it — is thoughtful, well developed, insightful, mostly independent of specifically religious doctrines, and, even from a secular perspective, far too little known in American legal circles.

Rychlak’s collection should also arouse interest among Catholics who are not legal professionals. The position of Catholics in America is increasingly awkward, so the law is important for us. An intelligent response to the current situation requires a clear understanding of how the legal system works and what is possible within it, and that includes an understanding of how it looks from the standpoint of Catholics working in it. We are all in this together, insiders as well as outsiders, and we need to learn from one another.

The Soul's Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason

By Robert Spitzer

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 356

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Philip Lehpamer

Also reviewed:

God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus. By Robert Spitzer. Ignatius. 418 pages. $19.95.

The Light Shines on in the Darkness: Transforming Suffering through Faith. By Robert Spitzer. Ignatius. 544 pages. $19.95. 


When Robert Spitzer, S.J., was president of Gonzaga University from 1998 to 2009, he observed students troubled by questions about science and faith, skeptical of the divinity of Jesus, and puzzled about the relationship between happiness and suffering, virtue and freedom. A quartet of books is part of his response to those questions. The books are each self-contained, though interconnected, and the later books cover earlier material when required. Book one, Finding True Happiness, was previously reviewed in these pages (Oct. 2016); this review treats the latest three volumes.

Fr. Spitzer defines four levels of happiness. The first two are satisfaction of physical or material desires (e.g., nice house, good meabpand happiness from an ego-comparative advantage (e.g., increases in status, popularity). Certain fundamental problems at these levels lead individuals to unhappy and empty lives if they don’t move to levels three and four. Level-three happiness comes from making a positive difference to someone or something beyond oneself, such as contributing to a family, society, culture, or the Kingdom of God. Level-four happiness comes from satisfaction of man’s transcendent desire to be in relationship with God through prayer, community, or worship. Experience shows that level-four transcendent happiness brings level-three contributive happiness to its fulfillment, which, in its turn, brought the first two levels of happiness to their fulfillment.

In book two, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, Fr. Spitzer examines evidence for a supreme transcendent deity and the transcendent nature of man. By the book’s end, the reader has hard facts from 11 sources of evidence, using five methodologies that will blunt the materialism usually taught as science in our institutions of higher learning. Spitzer’s strong case for the existence of an ultimate transcendent being, as well as our trans-physical nature, leads to questions about God and His self-revelation in human history.

Book three, God So Loved the World, examines the rational evidence that God is unconditional love and that Jesus is the “unconditionally loving God with us.” (The word unconditional sometimes causes unnecessary problems. It means that God’s love is always available, but a person has free will and might not respond to that love. That’s a condition on us, not on God’s love.) Fr. Spitzer spends an entire chapter discussing the Resurrection of Jesus and its historicity. In another chapter, he covers the historicity of Jesus’ miracles and the role of the Holy Spirit in the apostolic Church. Jesus’ identity and mission are well established, making this a great book for those who believe in God but have doubts about the divinity of Jesus. A 50-page appendix on the Shroud of Turin explains the mistake made in sampling from the shroud during its 1988 carbon dating, as well as the latest evidence that dates the shroud to Jesus’ time. A shorter appendix is devoted to making sense of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

In book four, The Light Shines on in the Darkness, Fr. Spitzer tackles the question of human suffering. If God is unconditional love, then why does He allow suffering and evil in the world? Spitzer gives personal testimony of how slowly going blind affected him. He came to realize that “if suffering is to make perfect sense, it would have to be situated within the context of perfect love, eternal life, and a perfectly loving Supreme Being to provide the grace and mercy to help us use suffering to ultimately achieve perfect freedom to love.” He recognizes that this is precisely what Jesus promised.

Fr. Spitzer gives nine Christian foundations for “suffering well”: (1) conviction about eternal life and the Resurrection; (2) who God is and is not, according to Jesus; (3) God’s presence in our suffering; (4) spontaneous prayers in times of suffering; (5) mitigating fear and choosing consolation; (6) the unity of suffering and love in self-sacrifice; (7) awareness of the opportunities of suffering; (8) offering up our suffering as self-sacrifice in imitation of Jesus; and (9) following the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Spitzer covers why God allows suffering, but he admits that he needs another volume to cover why God allows evil. So, the quartet will soon have a sequel entitled Called out of Darkness: Contending with Evil through Virtue and Prayer. Even without a promised fifth volume, this collection — along with Holy Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church — may be the best source of evangelization material available for an educated audience.

Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II’s Anthropology

By Thomas Petri, O.P.

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 368

Price: $65

Review Author: David C. Paternostro, S.J.

According to Aristotle, when we find ourselves at an impasse at one level of debate, we ought to go deeper in order to make some progress in understanding. In Aquinas and the Theology of the Body, this is precisely what Thomas Petri, O.P., proposes to do. It is hardly controversial to say that there are sharp disagreements over sexual ethics, both inside and outside the Church. Pope St. John Paul II’s series of talks on the “theology of the body” clarified and gave new life to the Church’s teachings, but there is still much work to be done in accepting and integrating them into Church life. Fr. Petri seeks to dig beneath the points of disagreement and instead focus on their foundations. He examines the metaphysics and anthropology that underlie so much of John Paul’s exploration of the meaning of the body, as well as the theology of love and the virtue of charity that informed the sainted Pope’s reflections on spousal love and friendship.

Fr. Petri’s work begins with an impressive and concise historical overview of moral theology from St. Thomas to Vatican II, and he observes that in moral theology in general, the theoretical frameworks upon which particular moral principles were constructed have been neglected. This was especially true in the manualist tradition, where, in theology curricula, “those areas of theology that were deemed too speculative were dropped” in favor of those topics that would aid in the hearing of confessions. The result was that in moral-theology manuals, the “primary concern was exterior human action in relation to obligations imposed by law.” This had a twofold effect on sexual ethics: first, an overreliance on simple biology in determining moral questions; second (and somewhat related), moral questions were no longer about what would promote human flourishing but whether there was an outward obedience to the established rules.

In such a setting, it is hardly surprising that the sexual revolution of the 1960s would see Catholics — from the rank-and-file to theologians and confessors — pushing back against Church teachings on sexuality. Without any relationship to grace, beatitude, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the moral law can seem like nothing more than an arbitrary set of rules rather than a guide for growth in holiness. Many of these rules, surrounding moral debates on married life and, above all, on Humanae Vitae, were disdained and discarded on grounds of their arbitrariness and irrelevance to modern life.

With this context, we are able to appreciate more fully what John Paul was trying to accomplish. In showing us the development of his moral thought, Fr. Petri seeks to illustrate John Paul’s “larger ambition to reconnect theology with the subjective experience of the human person while exploring the relationship between the categories of human nature and the human person.” John Paul’s embrace of personalism and phenomenology, which strive to consider the interior dimensions and subjective experiences of the person, was very much a challenge to the manualist approach of focusing only on the exterior. He sought to blend Aquinas’s ontology for examining objective reality with the phenomenology of Max Scheler and others for examining subjective reality in order to provide a truly comprehensive vision of reality. Our personal experience of our causal power in the world (and hence the depth of our wills), our ability to truly know reality and the meaning of the physical world as it presents itself to us, and how we manifest ourselves to others in a communion of love, all came to bear as John Paul presented his vision of human love and sexuality in his “theology of the body.”

Fr. Petri notes that John Paul clearly relied on Thomist presuppositions in presenting his thought without actually articulating them. (For this reason, Petri focuses on Aquinas in the second part of his work rather than in the first.) We see how Thomas was an explicit influence on the early development of John Paul’s moral thought. Next, we are ready to explore the implicit influence. Petri ably presents a chapter on Aquinas’s anthropology, which anchors his and John Paul’s projects, as well as a chapter on Aquinas’s philosophy and theology of love. Either would serve as a fine stand-alone introduction to their subjects. The final chapter, on Aquinas’s treatment of marriage, is particularly fascinating. It shows how, over time, Aquinas drew more and more on the concept of marriage as friendship to explain it and defend some of its attributes — monogamy and indissolubility, for example.

The debates regarding human nature, marriage, and sexual ethics continue, with far-reaching implications. Before debating marriage or sexuality, however, we must first situate the debate within a larger vision of human nature, and situate that within a larger vision of creation. Fr. Petri’s excellent work on John Paul II and Thomas Aquinas reminds us that we neglect the more speculative questions of philosophy and theology at our own peril.

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