Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 2002

May 2002

The Death of the West

By Patrick J. Buchanan

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Pages: 308

Price: $25.95

Review Author: Gerard Einhaus

This book is a distillation of many of the concepts Buchanan has generated for years as a former presidential candidate, columnist, and TV personality. If the world of ideas is an overcrowded room, Buchanan is the one sprawled out on the middle of the couch, refusing to move for anyone else. Like him or not, he is unyielding — or, if you prefer, consistent.

The book’s principal strength is its first chapter, on a topic grossly underreported in the mainstream news media. Buchanan faces it squarely: the U.S., the Western European nations, and other industrialized countries face a significant population drop in the next three decades. He accurately notes that legal abortion and contraception have done what war and natural disasters could not: severely limit the number of babies who will one day support an aging generation of Baby Boomers. He writes that something is seriously wrong when the psychiatrist’s waiting room threatens to outdraw the maternity ward.

It was gratifying to see him quote some of my favorite writers, such as Joseph Collison, NOR’s frequent and eloquent contributor on prolife issues. Unfortunately, Buchanan cannot remove the blanket of anger and despair he wraps around himself. None of us on this side of the cultural and religious wars would dispute that we face many battles in the future. But Buchanan, a Catholic in good standing, fails to remind us of “our blessed hope.” So I would make bold to remind him that speeches, rallies, and other activities can never replace time spent in prayer. Thus I find that this report on the West’s impending death might well be exaggerated.

The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit

By A.J. Conyers

Publisher: Spence

Pages: 266

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Thomas Behr

Like many politically potent terms, “toleration” is often employed self-evidencingly, such that inquiries into its precise meaning are considered unseemly assaults against reasonableness itself. Why, indeed, “can’t we all just get along?”

To question “tolerance” is a real conversation stopper. But anyone who has had to deal with the p.c. movement recognizes the absurdity in “toleration” being invoked as a mantra-cum-dogma to squelch free speech and promote reverse discrimination.

Conyers’s provocative book is interdisciplinary in the finest sense, for the author seeks to draw the historical connections between the intellectual, political, and economic backgrounds of the modern idea of toleration, and also to connect that idea to its long-range consequences.

Conyers describes how toleration in its modern form emerged in the midst of the crisis of the 17th century. The standard reading of this development — that toleration in politics was a reaction to the fanaticism surrounding the so-called wars of religion — is incomplete and misleading. The rest of the story is that the 17th century was also a period of great economic opportunity and rapid state centralization, and toleration played a crucial role in removing religious-based restraints on both economic life and nation-state building. While the theory of causation he uses is not entirely clear, Conyers points out, following Robert Nisbet, how toleration as a public virtue ended up undermining the authority of intermediate associations — i.e., family, church, guild, town, region, etc. — that stood in the way of the new Leviathan (the guarantor of peace and prosperity) and the new autonomous individual. The modern “‘bi-polar vision of society’…bracketing all of life… between the individual and the state” is the alienating result.

Conyers presents thoughtful readings of three key figures in the story of the triumph of toleration: Hobbes, Bayle, and Locke. The discussion of Bayle is particularly interesting. As a Huguenot (French Protestant), Bayle argued for the supremacy of individual conscience as the supreme arbiter of truth, and opened doors that neither Hobbes nor Locke would dare enter. The claims for conscience led to a doctrine of unprecedented toleration and of power for the civil authority. The door was opened to societies being “governed by the impulses of private lives,” which Conyers sees culminating in our current age of self-indulgence “unrefined by reason or aesthetic sense.”

Conyers advocates a return to the authentic version of toleration, grounded in Jewish prophetism and early Christian thought. Out of the tension found in the monotheistic attachment to the oneness of truth and the multiplicity of its manifestations comes a practice of toleration grounded in humility, not indifference.

There is another aspect of authentic toleration in the Judeo-Christian tradition, namely, Aquinas’s arguments for toleration as a practical political principle, as an application of the virtue of prudence in the pursuit of justice. Thus there may be some relatively erroneous ideas, and even some relatively vicious behaviors, that most of us could agree that, all things considered, it would not be wise to try to eliminate through the vehicle of law.

Conyers does well to underline the essential role of intermediary social groups between the individual and the state in forming meaningful lives and as epicenters of debate and genuine dialogue. Catholic social teaching, on solidarity and subsidiarity in particular, brings practical principles to bear in this regard. It is also good to be reminded that authentic toleration, as opposed to indifferentism, is best served by clearly enunciating principles, even at the risk of appearing intolerant.

Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work

By Jennifer Roback Morse

Publisher: Spence

Pages: 273

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

As you may guess from the title, Jennifer Morse does not believe that families in which each of us pursues our own self-interest are families that work. And while her book is not an attack on laissez-faire economics or libertarian political theory, she is clear that even these systems of social organization must depend for their success on people who are able to be trusted, are responsible, and who are at least sometimes selfless. For the development of such a person, a loving and intact family is crucial. In fact, any personal relationship, even one with the most “nuanced” and “fair” contract of equality, will be less stable than one in which love, rightly understood, is the sustaining motive.

Each substitute for love exacts its cost: for the neglected child, for the spouse, for the extended family, and for oneself. But so, too, does love exact its costs, and they are often great ones. Is, then, the decision to love a reasonable decision?

While Morse’s tone is pensive, her conclusion is anything but tentative; ultimately she concludes that, yes, love is surely worth the cost. A civilization in which we dare to love becomes a civilization worth living in; it is one in which self-expression is modulated and subservient to the needs of others, especially those to whom we are connected and obligated as family. Government intervention, while sometimes necessary, always plays a secondary role — and should be rare. It always falls short of the best for which we might hope: that we do what is required of us even if it is very, very difficult.

After surveying the wreckage of the past thirty years, Morse is hardly the only student of the family to arrive at this conclusion. However, as the mother of an adopted child who suffers the residual effects of a deprived infancy, she brings insights that are unique, often from a distinctly religious perspective. And as an economist, her arguments persuasively dissect some of the more common — and dubious — assumptions of the current cultural scene.

Highly recommended!

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith

By John L. Allen Jr

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 340

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Chrysostom Frank

John Allen’s recent biography of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is a liberal Catholic reading of one of the most influential men in the Church today. While arguing that Ratzinger is a polarizing figure who has fallen short of greatness — if greatness is tested by the yardstick of being all things to all Catholics — Allen nonetheless shows genuine respect for the man he is attempting to portray.

As I see it, the purpose of the book is three-fold: (1) to describe the tremendous influence Cardinal Ratzinger has had on the post-Conciliar Church, (2) to demonstrate that the Cardinal’s theological understanding has shifted since the Second Vatican Council, and (3) to set out what the author regards as the Ratzinger agenda.

With regard to the first purpose, Allen clearly traces the impact Ratzinger has had on the Church in crucial areas of conflict, areas such as feminism, liberation theology, religious pluralism, ecclesiology, and authority. Nonetheless, the author is so obviously interpreting the Church, theology, and the Cardinal out of his liberal bias here that it hits one in the face at almost every turn. For example, to characterize Ratzinger’s theological work as “defensive” rather than “creative” simply fails to understand the nature of both theological and pastoral responsibility in an age of theological chaos and uncertainty. Arius was certainly “creative” in his age, but he was also a heretic.

With regard to the second purpose, that of tracing shifts in Ratzinger’s theological thought, Allen shows Ratzinger’s evolution from a cautious reformer at the time of the Council to a sharp conservative directing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Many of the examples used by Allen certainly point to an evolution in Ratzinger’s thought — hardly surprising in the life of a theologian — but they fail to form a clear case for any kind of radical break between the younger theologian and the older curial prefect. (Allen does, however, also argue that there is a consistent thread in Ratzinger from the Council to the present — his Augustinian pessimism about the relationship between Church and culture, contra a more optimistic Thomistic outlook.)

With regard to the third purpose, Allen’s conclusions about the Ratzinger agenda, the author has arrived at a more balanced and more theologically insightful position than the general tenor of the book would lead one to expect. In some ways, the last chapter is the best. Allen also offers four valuable points about the significance of the Cardinal’s work: (1) Ratzinger has called us to an authentic submission to truth and the need to recover faith in a standard beyond ourselves, a truth that exists beyond the reach of our own subjectivity. (2) He has rightly defended the sensus fidelium as that which protects the Church against the tyranny of the present. (3) He has appropriately argued for a genuine sense of Catholic koinonia (communion) over against those who want to shape the Church in their own image. (4) He has sounded an important warning about the dangers of being mesmerized by culture and about the need for the Church to be countercultural. If Ratzinger has done what Allen says he has done, then what more could one ask of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

The Red Horse

By Eugenio Corti

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 1,015 pages.

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Inez Fitzgerald Storck

The Red Horse, a novel translated from Italian, gives a dramatic account of Italian involvement in World War II, depicting the general lack of enthusiasm for the war, the advance into Russia, and the horrific retreat in which most perished. Corti participated in these events, and he succeeds in bringing to life these little-known aspects of the war, as well as the Italian campaigns in Africa, Albania, and at home. In his narrative, Corti includes as much truth as fiction.

The main figures, well-formed Catholics from a village near Milan, depend on the Faith to get them through difficult moments. Those who are vanquished die with great courage and trust in the Lord. With even greater valor perhaps, a soldier resists a beautiful Russian girl who attempts to seduce him in the middle of the night. Other examples of successful struggles against unchastity abound. The Faith truly permeates the book.

The novel takes its name from its riveting Book One, “The Red Horse,” which refers to the horse of death in the Book of Revelation, so apocalyptic is the carnage of the war. Book Two, “The Pale Horse,” which symbolizes hunger in Revelation, describes the difficult endgame of the war in Italy, and the suffering of the postwar years. As the narrative moves away from the war, the book loses much of its interest. The devoted concern of an industrialist for his employees, tender stories of chaste love consummated in marriage, and the shifting political scene serve as substitute focal points.

By the time we get to Book Three, “The Tree of Life” (another apocalyptic image), Corti focuses on Michele, a writer and teacher. Earlier, the main character was Ambrogio, the son of a textile manufacturer (as was Corti); this shift in focus flaws the novel to some extent, as Ambrogio’s presence continues into Book Three. This final segment frequently gives reflections on the regrettable state of the Italian Church and secular society in the 1960s and early 70s. Sad examples, very probably based on fact, include the account of a group of priests burning their rosaries. At one point Corti describes the efforts of Michele to get a play produced. He takes us through the machinations of the elite in Italian theater to derail the playwright’s anti-Communist play. (This scene probably has autobiographical overtones, as Corti is himself a playwright.) While at times tedious, all this is undoubtedly of great interest to Italians, who may not have suspected how corrupt the literary world was in the 1960s. Understandably, the novel was a bestseller in Italy.

Corti obviously intended to create a vivid remembrance of the war and its sequelae, and that, rather than aesthetics, drives the work. And a powerful remembrance it is, undoubtedly cathartic for Italians who lived through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. But one wonders whether such a monument to human endurance through the most excruciating suffering would have gained in grandeur had it been written as a memoir. Corti is so identified with his characters that he himself seems to become a personage in his book. As Guy de Maupassant wrote, “Our vision, our knowledge of the world acquired with the help of our senses, our ideas about life, we can only parcel them out among our characters, whose intimate and unknown being we attempt to unveil.” Corti’s thought and personality must be stamped with a holy simplicity, as the most important figures in his work are direct, unpretentious, not given to complicated analyses, yet not willing to lead superficial lives.

The book should not be missed by anyone interested in the modern history of Italy or in the Italian soul, which illuminates the work. Not surprisingly, readers of the Italian Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire recently voted Corti the most loved living Catholic author. They understood the depth of his faith and the richness of his life as witnessed in his work.

Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church — A 2,000-Year History

By H.W. Crocker III

Publisher: Forum (an Imprint of Prima Publishing)

Pages: 500

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Gerard Einhaus

This one-volume history of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church exactly matches its title — it crackles with excitement and tells the Church’s story accurately (and in an orthodox manner). Moreover, its author views the glory of the Catholic Church through fresh eyes. Crocker is another in the seemingly endless parade of intelligent Americans who have entered Catholicism as adults. Identified on the book’s inside jacket as a “Catholic convert from Anglicanism,” with a professional background as a novelist, journalist, and speechwriter, he honors us and his newly-found faith with this book.

Consider the following as a summary of the book: “When…Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, ‘Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning…cannot be made but only received,’ he was enunciating a truth as old as the Catholic faith. That belief in objective authority…has made the historic faith of the Catholic Church and kept it alive and triumphant through persecutions, schisms, wars, and rumors of war — outlasting every empire…born of man.”

Crocker quickly ushers the reader into the bloody days of the early Church. The first few chapters deal extensively with the almost continuous persecution the early believers suffered under successive Roman emperors. Constantine allowed the fledgling religion to become somewhat respectable. Never completely embracing it himself, he was honored on his deathbed by its bishops. Crocker concedes that without his defense, “the Church faced the prospect of endless persecution. Without Constantine’s taking a hand in Church affairs, providing common sense, the threat of force, munificent sums, and marvelous basilicas,” Catholicism would have been fractured by the abundance of heresies already afflicting it.

Heresies are topics that Crocker dives into with great relish, zipping though one after another. My own favorite is his profile of the Albigensians, popular in 13th-century France, who bore an uncanny resemblance to today’s more zealous Secular Humanists: “The Albigensians were a sort of Pro-Death League, opposed to marriage, children, and pregnancy (a calamity for which abortion was recommended); and if one could not follow a Pauline path of celibacy, the next best thing was fornication that did not perpetuate the species. Because matter was sinful — only the spirit was pure — death was to be hurried along. Suicide was accepted. The preferred Albigensian method was self-starvation supervised by helpful Albigensian hospice workers to make sure the loved one didn’t slip out for some bread and wine.”

Crocker again pulls out his stiletto in his profile of John Calvin: “To the Protestant, history — the historical experience of the Church — has no real meaning, because the Bible is the sole source of authority, though in the more liberal denominations today, secular opinion has that role. To the Catholic, this makes Protestantism seem disembodied, utopian, unrealistic, not to mention dull-minded, intellectually limited, and designed for people who have room on their bookshelves for only a single volume. From a Catholic perspective, Calvinism is blank walls, one book — or actually two, the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion — and no fun, a religion in which Jesus turns water into castor oil rather than wine….”

As for the 20th century, he tells about the martyrdom believers were subjected to by totalitarian regimes. He emphasizes the role of Pope Pius XII in saving thousands of Jews from certain slaughter by the Nazis. His report on Humanae Vitae, the past century’s most important and controversial encyclical, is one of the book’s highlights. He summarizes its teachings, identifies its opponents, and grieves over how it has been misinterpreted, opposed, or ignored by many Catholics worldwide.

That this book can be found in secular bookstores, competing with many crackpot ideas, absurd heresies, and raw sewage, is heartening. Triumph deserves to triumph in sales, for it is a history of Catholicism that pulls no punches and never loses its wonder at the glory and splendor of the Faith.

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