Volume > Issue > Briefly: May 2009

May 2009

Catholic Manual of Civility

By Marian Therese Horvat

Publisher: Tradition in Action

Pages: 160

Price: $16

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

Looking to kick-start some lively dialog with teenagers? The Catholic Manual of Civility is sure to spur spirited conversations. Based on documents used in Brazilian Catholic high schools for young men more than 60 years ago, this updated edition is not simply a book of etiquette; it is devoted to the formation of the whole person in thought, word, and deed. Religious virtues, work habits, social graces, and personal hygiene undergo rigorous scrutiny.

The text suffers a bit from an ailment common to translations: stiffness through an overuse of direct sentences and clipped phrasing, even within supportive anecdotes — e.g., “St. Francis de Sales always maintained the most correct postures.” Advice on deportment continues: When standing, the “feet should be together, at a slightly open angle, and the knees almost together.” When walking, one should never look behind. Rising when elders or superiors enter a room gets a boost, as boorishness continues its march across the globe. A poignant suggestion for restoring the old custom of blessings, especially by fathers upon their children, is guaranteed to generate discussion.

The Manual complains that the “American cult to spontaneity and optimism has done a lot of damage to…composure.” There is to be no guffawing, and grimaces are to be avoided. (“A serene face represents a noble soul.”) Young men are reminded of St. John Bosco, who was never seen “bursting out in strident, raucous laughter.” Counsel against hugs (now so common as to be meaningless) is welcome. A young man should offer handshakes only to “persons he knows, to persons being presented by a friend, or to someone to whom he wants to give a spontaneous proof of confidence.” Handshakes must take place with the feet together.

Chapters on orderliness resound with battle cries against messy desks and offices, asserting that a lack of order “predicts the way of life…more surely than could any palm reader or fortune teller.” Woe unto those associating with a messy man, a man who “harms all those with whom he works.” An injunction against long hair warns that the style denotes “disorder or ridiculous vanity.” Discussions of headgear are appreciated, although the infestation of caps and hats on masculine heads in schools, offices, restaurants, and theaters appears chronic.

Considerable verbiage is devoted to the eyes. Readers learn that Attila the Hun’s “small, restless, fiery eyes, athirst for pillage and blood” mirrored his soul, while St. Leo the Great’s gaze was “serene and grave.” The narrative continues in this vein, resting on old platitudes and proverbs, and may cause some young people to dismiss the book as a curious cultural artifact.

The inclusion of obsolete Victorian customs, useful as historical comment in other literary genres, mystifies in this “updated” volume. The practice of calling cards left with servants for families sequestered behind doormen offers quaint reading, but has little value today. Danger lies in the stampede of this and other arcana (apples must be cut from top to bottom and not from side to side) that will humor some readers and alienate others. What could have been a hearty antidote for contemporary social ills loses traction with whiffs of asceticism and an overcorrection of harmless customs.

Much sound advice is compromised by sweeping autocracy. The “revolutionary custom” of wearing “sports or beach shoes at home, at school, and in other public places” is condemned, and “to walk barefoot is unacceptable.” Period. Well-bred folks would never be caught “drinking beverages straight from the bottle or can.” Young men are cautioned not to visit their grandmothers in shorts or T-shirts. Never?

Inexplicably, the Manual is marred by ethnic slurs against Scots-Irish residents of the Ozark and Appalachian highlands. The term “hillbilly” is used repeatedly to personalize an individual lacking in civility. Readers are counseled to “correct the defects of regional accents, especially hillbilly drawls….” Who does not have a regional accent, and to what higher region should it be corrected? Readers learn that hillbillies violate hand-washing rules. The epithets grow tiresome with discussions of hillbilly table manners: “The hillbilly keeps hold of his fork; the educated man uses it only to bring the food to his mouth, and then lets it rest on the plate.” Furthermore, “a sure sign of a hillbilly” is a toothpick in one’s mouth. It’s perplexing that this pejorative was permitted in a text on civility.

Despite the ethnic prejudice and abundant anachronistic admonitions, the Manual cries out for the return of civilized behavior, rests comfortably as a relic of its time, and reminds readers of what once was, for good or ill. Whether it will undergo further rehabilitation as a tool of reform is an open question.

O tempora! O mores!

Darwin's Plantation: Evolution's Racist Roots

By Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware

Publisher: Master Books

Pages: 205

Price: $13.95

Review Author: Arthur C. Sippo

For reasons that are not entirely clear, there has been a strong anti-evolutionary movement among believing Christians over the past four decades. Opposition to evolution has traditionally been a position held by Protestants who believe in a simplistically literal interpretation of the Bible that excludes allegorical or figurative readings of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. But this thinking has crossed denominational lines and has even garnered support among Catholics, despite the fact that the popes have said time and again that certain forms of evolutionary theory are compatible with the Catholic faith. For Catholics it is possible either to accept or reject evolution as a scientific theory without endangering their faith. It is also permissible for Catholics to accept a simple, literal reading of Genesis.

But religious anti-evolutionism has gone way beyond what is permitted. There is a cottage industry — primarily among Protestant extremists — to portray evolutionary theory as “unscientific” and as morally debased. That is the premise of Dar­win’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots, a disingenuous book by Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware. Their primary allegation is that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the direct cause of racism in the modern world. For example, they lay the blame for Nazi-perpetrated genocide at Dar­win’s feet. To support this they provide multiple disconnected quotations in which Darwinian language is used to justify bigotry. In fact, they blame Charles Darwin for virtually every racist or genocidal act that has occurred since his Origin of Species was published in 1859. To their credit, they mention briefly the biblical arguments about the “Curse of Ham,” but fail to mention that it had been used by Jews and Christians from Roman times onward to justify the oppression of black people. Instead, they imply that this interpretation was “programmed by the world” — that is, by Darwin’s theories!

We need to set a few things straight. First of all, the chattel slavery on “plantations” existed long before Darwin was even born. It was practiced widely in Africa by black Africans who enslaved other black Africans from neighboring tribes. Fear and distrust of outsiders is a fundamental part of human nature. Tribal peoples on all continents generally describe themselves as “human beings” while using pejorative terms for outsiders. In many cases these tribal peoples considered the outsiders — even those of the same ethnic roots as themselves — to be no better than animals. The more these outsiders looked, dressed, acted, believed, and thought differently than they did, the more uncomfortable these people were around them and the easier it was to dismiss the outsiders as non-human. This nascent prejudice became the basis for chattel slavery. Arabs and Europeans encountered this notion of slavery among native peoples in Africa and were seduced by it. Similar forms of slavery among Native Americans also seduced the Europeans who settled on our continent. This all occurred when Europeans were nominally Christian and long before a secular theory of evolution was seriously proposed. The sad legacy of the “Curse of Ham” theory from antiquity had desensitized Europeans to the humanity of black Africans.

Darwin did not publicize his views on “natural selection” until 1858. By then, plantation-based chattel slavery was a long-standing institution all over the world, and the systematic brutalization and dehumanization of African slaves in America had been refined to a science. Plantation slavery in the U.S. would legally come to an end within seven years, but the social attitudes that had developed over the centuries that made chattel slavery possible lived on. After Darwin published his theories, many people misused his work to reinforce their pre-existing prejudices. Dar­win’s Plantation does give many quotations demonstrating this.

But the most rampant racism over the past two centuries has existed in several places where Darwin’s name is reviled and where his theories have no influence: the southern U.S. and South Africa. Many of those who oppressed blacks were biblical literalists who accepted a “six day” creation story and rejected any notion of evolution whatsoever. Ironically, some of the strongest anti-racist movements in the U.S. and South Africa were actually supported by communists, and anyone who stood up for black civil rights was often dismissed as a communist dupe.

The book’s premise that Darwin was responsible for racism is not merely erroneous, it is slanderous. Ham and Ware should be ashamed of themselves. Theories in science and medicine can be and have been abused, but that does not invalidate the truth in those theories. It is never permissible to replace an uncomfortable truth with a comfortable lie. Modern evolutionary biology reaffirms that all modern men have a common ancestry and that anyone from any ethnic group is equally human. The facts of modern evolutionary biology are what disproved the “Curse of Ham.”

Darwin’s Plantation contains the usual “scientific creationist” misuse of high-school biology to raise trite objections to the evolution of species. Ham and Ware’s junk science is so out of date that it would take a book to refute it all. I will make just a few points here.

Despite the authors’ allegations, genetic mutations are not uniformly deleterious. The vast majority of them have no major impact on survival one way or another. But when an environmental stress occurs, the genetic variation from neutral genetic drift creates a smorgasbord from which natural selection may choose those small advantages that fuel micro- and macro-evolution. In fact, those mutations have allowed researchers to draw a historical map of human migration across the globe. Spencer Wells, in his book The Journey of Man, traced the ancestry of modern man to a migration out of Africa into the Middle East some 30,000 years ago.

Finally, the claim that all fossil species co-existed with man “in the beginning” is pure nonsense. We have complex ecologies documented for land-based life over the past 300 million years. These ecologies have themselves evolved over time, and it is clear that different species have come and gone, to be replaced by other species that did not co-exist with them. For example, there has never been any sediment in which human fossils have coexisted with dinosaurs. Modern-type humans arose around 135,000 years ago in Africa and their remains are not found earlier in the fossil record. Dinosaurs lived from 225 million years ago until 65 million years ago, when they all suddenly went extinct. New species and “kinds” have evolved from other species and then gone extinct over the eons to be replaced by other species. There is no one geological layer that contains fossils from all eras.

In short, Darwin’s Plantation is a seriously flawed and dishonest book. Its major premise that Darwinism is the cause of modern racism is false. Furthermore, the authors ignore the real science of human genetics and propose ridiculous explanations for human diversity that have no scientific basis. Catholics who are interested in the Church’s teaching on origins and evolution would be much better off reading “In the Beginning…”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall by Joseph Cardinal Ratzin­ger and Boniface Ramsey (Eerd­mans); Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith by Chris­toph Cardinal Schön­born (Ig­natius Press); or Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI, also by Cardinal Schönborn (Ignatius Press).

Understanding Our Being: An Introduction to Speculative Philosophy in the Perennial Tradition

By John W. Carlson

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 319

Price: $29.95

Review Author: John C. Cahalan

Why would NOR readers want to hear about a college philosophy textbook? Well, it should be heartwarming to learn that there are indeed Catholic philosophers who take Fides et Ratio‘s program for Christian philosophy seriously. Understanding Our Being consciously implements Pope John Paul II’s — and Vatican II’s — call for the teaching of philosophy to be “based on the philosophical heritage which is enduringly valid.” John Carlson, a professor at Creighton University, un­apologetically agrees with John Paul II that Christianity can enrich one’s philosophizing without compromising philosophy’s rational and non-confessional nature.

Like John Paul II, Carlson recognizes that no one philosophy, not even Thomism, contains the whole of philosophic truth. The book follows Fides et Ratio‘s plan by taking cognizance of insights from contemporary currents such as analytic philosophy, phenomenology, and existentialism. Still, Carlson espouses Thomism as the “perennial philosophy,” although he refrains from saying how hard it is to find an integral, enduringly valid heritage, as opposed to diverse important insights, in other philosophies. And where else but Thomism did Karol Wojtyla get the foundations he relied on to integrate the insights he gained from phenomenology?

Fides et Ratio also says that common sense contains an implicit philosophy that “should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools” and a “core of philosophical insight” that includes “the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality.” But outside of the perennial philosophy, where are those principles treated adequately in a systematic fashion and made the basis for analyzing the Pope’s other examples of core insights: “The concept of person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know truth and goodness”? The Pope also called for a renewal of the sapiential character of philosophy. But a Thomist, Jacques Maritain, was almost alone among modern Catholic philosophers in emphasizing philosophy’s nature as a wisdom.

This is 21st-century pedagogy. Carlson writes from a clear understanding of today’s students and the present environment in higher education. He remedies the shortcomings of past Catholic philosophical teaching: very didactic, relying heavily on quotations from medieval philosophy texts, allowing little participation by students in the learning process, etc. Each of the book’s five parts ends with questions for students to think about individually and debate in class or among themselves. Carlson recognizes the diversity of backgrounds in today’s Catholic students by relating his material to topics in non-Western philosophies and religions — even Native American thought. And how many Thomistic textbooks have a whole chapter on persons as social beings?

The book fits modern curricula, which allocate fewer core courses to philosophy, by covering the basics of the philosophy of nature, man, being, and God in one volume. Carlson admits that covering so much in one book requires some sacrifice of detail and depth. Don’t let that mislead you. He presents the basics clearly and interestingly (and provides a helpful glossary). Then he gives the student references for deeper study in modern representatives of the perennial philosophy, references judiciously selected to show that Thomism is a living philosophy. He cites Yves Simon, for example, more than 15 times. No one is better than Simon at showing that modern Thomists can think rigorously on their own, and not just comment on someone else’s past philosophical work.

Carlson defends Fides et Ratio‘s thesis that we can “come to a knowledge which can reach objective truth.” He criticizes historicism and relativism. All beliefs about ultimate matters do not merely reflect contingent cultural perspectives, nor are ideas about ultimate matters that develop later in history automatically better. He balances that criticism by recognizing that reason can be overemphasized. But he rejects moder­nity’s closure of reason, devoting a chapter to how reason can make us open to faith while protecting us from fundamentalism.

This book admirably fills a need in Catholic higher education.

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