Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 2013

November 2013

The Secret Life of John Paul II

By Lino Zani, with Marilu Simoneschi. Translated by Matthew Sherry

Publisher: Saint Benedict Press

Pages: 200

Price: $21.95

Review Author: Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J.

Despite the amusingly lurid title, this is a remarkably interesting and even spiritually important book. It has everything to do with a secret, but nothing to do with any “secret life” of Bl. John Paul II. The secret in question is the Third Secret of Fatima. That much must be said at the outset, for it is the heart of the book, its main theme.

It is no secret that John Paul loved mountains, and that as Pope he would escape from Rome to go skiing. In his later years, no longer able to ski, he would go to a secluded mountain valley for walks. This is the story of a trip — prepared by his secretary and assistants — John Paul took in June 1984 to an isolated mountain chalet for several days’ skiing, the mystical experience he appears to have had there, and the friendship with his ski guide who first witnessed, and later came to appreciate more deeply, the grace of this experience.

The book is like a collection of pieces of a mosaic, nicely presented, but never quite assembled by the authors. Perhaps that is part of the book’s charm: It is a rustic story told by a rustic person thrust into the modern world. Italian Alpinist Lino Zani comes from a long line of people — akin to European Sherpas — who live high in the Alps, guiding skiers and others in that most challenging, daunting environment. We are introduced to his family — a traditional Italian family — and, as we follow Zani’s story, we find the story of modern Italy as well: His many affairs with beautiful women, his failed marriage, and the failed marriages of those of his generation are in stark contrast to the beautiful parents he lovingly describes. Zani’s life is one lived in the fast lane — skiing and après-ski partying, then mountain-climbing around the world, all the way to an attempted ascent of Mount Everest. The mountaineering accidents, car crashes, and loss of loved ones on such expeditions all portray a rough life. Even so, the story touches a certain mountain mysticism.

Into this world came that man whom Italians insist on saying is “from the East.” To hear Westerners speak, one would think Poles lived in Mongolia instead of on the outskirts of Berlin and Vienna, just south of Sweden. And yet, something of that most spiritual “East” certainly comes across in the book, for John Paul was decidedly not from a world of fast cars and fast women, but evidences a very different relation with the world around him. In short, John Paul was a contemplative, encountering a very un-contemplative Italian ski guide who took a liking to the Holy Father instantly.

The particular area where the Zani family had their mountain fastness had been the site of a vast battle during the First World War. It is hard to imagine how thousands of men from the Austrian and Italian mountains fought to the death on mountain peaks and over crevassed glaciers — the bodies still emerging from the snow many decades later. A huge gun was dragged up to these heights. Though not recorded elsewhere, it seems that John Paul’s father, himself an ethnically Polish officer in the Austrian Army, was well aware of the many Poles fighting up in those snow-covered mountains, and may have fought alongside them.

On his first trip to this peak, called Adamello, John Paul went into something like a trance — those blessed to see him pray in his chapel would recall his intense, groaning concentration — in that place. Something special passed there and, as in other such moments, the Pope turned to his right-hand man, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, and shared some quiet words in Polish.

Zani notes that, in earlier years, John Paul was an accomplished, even impressive, skier with a passion for the high places. Later, of course, Ali Agca attempted to assassinate him, and the Holy Father made an immediate connection with Our Lady of Fatima, on whose feast day he was shot. What is not commonly known is that John Paul’s identification with the Third Secret went beyond simply the shooting of a pope to the Fatima visionary’s account of a battle scene that provided the context for that shooting. Zani identifies the old World War I battlefield high in the Alps with the battlefield in the Fatima vision, and suggests that John Paul’s remarkably contemplative state on his first visit in 1984 pointed to an insight that would come to full clarity by the time of his second visit in 1988 — an awareness of the fullness of the Fatima vision, and the role his attempted assassination played in it.

Zani and the Pope became great friends, and remained so for the remainder of the Holy Father’s life. There is a cultural gap between the Italian and more northern European sensitivities that might be a bit jarring for pious eyes. Zani’s unapologetic presentation — albeit in passing — of his “normal” sexual dalliances, if a bit much, is also part and parcel of his earthy nature. If John Paul were Don Quixote and Msgr. Dziwisz his Sancho Panza, then Zani is Zorba the Italian. Zani knew, loved, and profoundly admired John Paul, who yet remained a stranger to him and his world. Zani had moments of love for nature in his life of conquests; John Paul admired the bravery that led men to the high places, but he saw that this pursuit was only pointing to the far higher reality to which we are called.

No doubt this book could have been more smoothly written, more skillfully crafted. And yet, in its very simplicity and directness, it is a tremendously moving appreciation of the heart and soul of the sainted Pope who loved mountains like no other and who, with mystical gifts, was able to point the way to God for others. Lino Zani is a sort of modern everyman who generously shares his friendship with John Paul and, like a good Sherpa, leads us as well to the high places where, if we are lucky, we can be touched by meanings beyond those obvious to worldly eyes.

Manners in Modern Life: The Poetry of Conduct, the Virtue of Civility

By Mitchell Kalpakgian

Publisher: Neumann Press

Pages: 85

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

“Manners Maketh Man,” goes the old adage, and if it is true, then we are living in a dark age indeed. The sheer vulgarity of speech, dress, and behavior in modern culture is obvious and shocking to those who have any knowledge of other places and times. To address this lamentable situation, Mitchell Kalpakgian has offered Manners in Modern Life, a slim work composed of a series of meditations, based on literary examples, of good and bad manners from bygone eras. Kalpakgian’s work is much like its theme — light, mannered, convivial, and enjoyable, and well worth a read on the part of anyone with an interest in these matters.

Kalpakgian devotes one chapter to deploring the contemporary situation, from slovenliness in dress and foul language to the more serious problems of people no longer knowing the basics of civilized life, such as how to converse with others. Particularly galling to Kalpakgian is modern society’s treatment of women, most shockingly illustrated in our recent eagerness to send them into combat. But bad manners are hardly a modern problem; every era has had to struggle against them. The didactic children’s work The Goops, which gives classic illustrations of atrocious manners and how not to emulate them, is over 100 years old.

Indeed, incivility is as old as civility, and one theme in one of the earliest works of Western literature, Homer’s Odyssey, is a contrast between the hospitality and civility of the Greeks and the savagery and barbarism of non-Greeks, such as the Cyclopses. Yet bad manners are not limited to churlishness or barbarism. Taking oneself too seriously, Kalpakgian notes, can lead to some dire consequences, as Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (in which the Lilliputians prove to be abusive hosts by treating the innocuous Gulliver as a threat rather than a guest) demonstrate in fiction, and, alas, Judas Iscariot and the Pharisees demonstrated in reality.

It will likely come as no surprise that Kalpakgian is a proponent of the long-lost and much-derided ideal of chivalry, with its valor, generosity, and respect for women. He examines chivalry in classic works — Spenser, Chaucer, and Pyle, for example — but it is most interesting to see his treatment of it in Don Quixote. It is tempting for the reader to write off Don Quixote as a mere lunatic, but Kalpakgian reminds us that, however deranged Quixote might be, he is nonetheless always noble in his aims and courtly in his manners, and these qualities often impress his fellow characters, despite themselves. The quest to restore the ideal of chivalry in an age that has long abandoned it is the quintessentially quixotic one; it is worth remembering how often Don Quixote succeeds in doing so.

Good manners, when well-practiced, can be infectious and even a little magical, and result in hospitality and conviviality as well as the smooth functioning of all levels of society, as the fairy courts in Spenser and several of Shakespeare’s works illustrate. But a code of manners is not confined to the warrior or the noble. Kalpakgian takes great pains to point out that good manners were once considered one of the major ends of education, as Newman’s classic Idea of a University so well illustrates. A good education, for Newman, should not produce a tradesman or a scholar but a gentleman endowed with virtue, wisdom, and manners, along with learning.

How then do we go about restoring a cult of manners in this tarnished era? For Kalpakgian, Don Quixote provides one way: By simply attempting the impossible (and seemingly insane), one surprisingly sometimes achieves it. A resurrection of long-lost practices is another way, and Kalpakgian devotes a chapter to the now-lost art of Sunday social visiting — a chore for some even when it was practiced (Jo, in Little Women) but a duty that becomes a pleasure for others (Amy, in the same work). One of the more interesting exemplars is the “patron saint of manners,” St. Francis de Sales. As bishop of Geneva during the height of the Reformation, St. Francis was not in an enviable position. But his persistent sweetness, good humor, and good manners helped to make him appealing to many people who would not otherwise have received him, and he was responsible for many conversions to the Catholic faith as a result. His admonitions — to be well-mannered, dress simply but nicely, and never neglect to converse with someone — are just as important today as they were then.

A focus on St. Francis de Sales is where Kalpakgian is most reasonable and realistic in this little work. “Manners” sometimes are perceived to be, or actually are, practices that are arbitrary or even hypocritical; our tarnished modern age is not completely wrong in this perception. The fact is that an obsession over manners and cults of behavior is the sort of thing that aristocracies engage in to justify their continued existence and social position long after they have ceased to serve any practical function. Furthermore, the 19th century’s frequent obsession with a cult of manners was in part an attempt to maintain social order in an era of diminishing religious faith. Those mannered Victorians in effect assumed that they could trade their Christianity for a code of “gentlemanly” behavior, and found out the hard way that this is impossible. Kalpakgian is wiser than they were. No mere nostalgic, he quietly and subtly — but no less clearly — realizes that manners, like many other things, have their roots in religion, and a revival of the one depends on the revival of the other.

Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Church Can Shape Our Common Life

By Ryan N.S. Topping

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 265

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Daniel Blackman

In writing about our postmodern Western world, the philosophical roots of which can be traced back to the nominalism and voluntarism of the late scholastic period, Orthodox theologian David Hart has argued that “the only cult that can truly thrive in the aftermath of Christianity is a sordid service of the self, of the impulses of the will, of the nothingness that is all that the withdrawal of Christianity leaves behind. The only futures open to post-Christian culture are conscious nihilism.” Ryan Topping’s Rebuilding Catholic Culture is built around the truth that culture springs from cult, and that we desperately need to return to an enchanted cult of beautiful worship, a sacramental view of the world, moral goodness and virtue, and a society of families.

Topping’s first task is to set out the parameters of his book, corresponding to the order and content of the Catechism, and also to offer the reader a definition of what he means by culture (the Latin root cultura and the Germanic Kultur and Bildung). “Catholic culture,” he writes, “refers to that excellence in thought and manner of life which properly accrues to a people, namely, the Church.” Very well, but a brief explanation of which definition of “Church” he is using — e.g., Church as people of God, or mystical body of Christ, or Church militant — would help avoid misunderstandings.

Topping gives considerable space to philosophical genealogies, tracing how one bad idea leads to another, and brings us to where we are today — the postmodern world. Topping argues that religion in a secular, pluralistic culture is banished as either private therapy or as critique; its existence at the margins serves only to highlight the progressiveness and tolerance of postmodern society. In this context, the Church has the obligation to make the reign of Christ the King present in every aspect of human life, not by endless accommodation to contemporary thought, but through renewal and recovery of the sources from which Catholicism has traditionally drawn.

In our time, values (understood as willed meaning) have replaced the objective concepts of good, evil, and dignity. When values replace virtues, everything becomes personal taste, political conviction, zeitgeist. David Hart advises remaining “aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are — even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant — usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices.” For Catholics, Scripture, doctrine, morality, and law require a common language with a common, and true, meaning. Topping’s chapters on the moral law and virtues cover this ground, using Dante’s Divine Comedy as a framework for explaining the Church’s understanding of the moral life.

The chapter on the Creed does not offer what one would expect: an explanation of the history, function, and structure of the Creed that Catholics profess every Sunday at Holy Mass. Rather, this chapter looks at section 22 of Gaudium et Spes (GS), the fallout from Humanae Vitae, widespread dissent from bishops and theologians, and the idea that since Vatican II we’ve been living in an era of two competing humanisms — one Christian, the other secular. GS here receives attention despite the fact that theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger have not been shy in criticizing it precisely in the area of anthropology. Ratzinger, in his theological commentary on Vatican II, says GS has “an unreal view of man.” When GS speaks of human freedom, it falls into “downright pelagian terminolgy.”

The two chapters that cover worship, liturgy (traditional and new rites, and the chiaroscuro of recent liturgical history and practice), sacraments, and Catholic art and architecture form the core of Topping’s project. They make clear that the worship of God is the pinnacle of what people can do on earth, and “as we pray, so we believe.” Topping reiterates much of what has been said on the topic by the likes of Aidan Nichols, Uwe Michael Lang, Alcuin Reid, Joseph Ratzinger, Klaus Gamber, Laszlo Dobszay, and others.

Moving from cult to cradle, we read that the family is the fundamental unit of society, a school of prayer, a wellspring of life, the ecclesia domestica. “In the renewal of Catholic culture, the battle begins at home on bended knee.” The family, particularly the large family, like the convent and the monastery, becomes a school of virtue and sacrifice. Who are its enemies? Cohabitation, divorce, contraception, abortion, the denial of sexual difference and complementarity.

The section on prayer reads more like an essay on the meaning of the consecrated life of the monk, sister, or friar. Topping writes that “thy kingdom come” is an expression of the virtue of hope for Heaven, as opposed to the faith-stripped optimism of secular utopia. Who better exemplifies the desire for Heaven than the consecrated nun or friar? Their lives witness to the future, reveal the glory of Heaven, and thereby renew our imagination on earth. For these reasons could the Benedictine, Trappist, and Cistercian monks rebuild and shape European culture after the fall of Rome, or the Franciscans and Dominicans erect the great European universities, and the Jesuits American ones, and so forth.

At the book’s end, Topping slips in a brief discussion of Vatican II and religious freedom, and the relation between Church and state, which would have been better located elsewhere in the book or just left out, as these issues are just too big. Otherwise, Topping does a good job of holding truth and beauty together in his arguments and in his use of poetry, art, and aspirations.

Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths

By Romanus Cessario, O.P., Craig Steven Titus, and Paul C. Vitz

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 336

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Brian Besong

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a methodological shift began to occur in psychological theory. Conclusions that could be established on the basis of experimental methods were favored, and conclusions that were more difficult to verify empirically were largely eschewed. As a consequence, the psychological model of the mind that had largely prevailed prior to this empirical turn — namely, so-called faculty psychology — became increasingly dismissed as antiquated, as did theories that bore a resemblance to the faculty-focused view. Among the psychological views thereafter considered defunct was that of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose position in psychology, as much as in ethics, was driven by a metaphysical account of the human person, including an account of human powers and the perfection of those powers in virtue.

Following the work of Jerry Fodor in the 1980s, psychological researchers have once again taken seriously the idea that the human mind possesses powers, dubbed modules, akin to those once postulated by faculty psychologists. This return to some of the once-dismissed psychological conclusions, however, has not been marked by a correlative openness to the previous, more a priori, methodology from which these conclusions arose. Nor has there been much of an increased openness to earlier conclusions associated with a faculty-based view, such as conclusions about particular virtues and their role in a life well lived. Thus, clinical psychologists trained outside of a narrow band of institutions are largely unaware of, and thus provide therapy largely uninformed by, the rich psychological heritage bequeathed by the Thomistic tradition.

The present volume, edited by Cessario, Titus, and Vitz, aims to bridge the gap between contemporary clinical psychologists and Thomistic philosophers and theologians. More particularly, the volume’s primary aim seems to be outlining the Thomistic picture of the human person (especially focusing on human virtues) for the sake of the clinical psychologist interested in applying elements of this system to practice. Most of the essays are short — the average length being around 20 pages — and, though academically rigorous, seem primarily oriented to introduction and practical application. The way in which the authors draw from Aquinas’s psychological theory and Catholic tradition without argument suggests that their audience will be those who are already committed at some level to the Catholic/Thomistic framework. Although the volume also aims to provide greater psychological “flesh” to what might otherwise be considered an empirically skeletal framework offered by St. Thomas, this does not seem to be a central concern. For example, chapters rarely include data of psychological research supplementing theory, more often including case studies as illustrations of how the views of St. Thomas might be practically employed.

The 13 essays were penned after the contributors’ participation in a four-year research project at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a Catholic graduate program in psychology. Five of the essays are written by senior scholars, including philosopher Kenneth Schmitz and theologian Benedict Ashley, O.P., with the more detailed parts of the Thomistic picture provided by junior scholars. Theologian Christopher J. Thompson begins by advancing a Thomistic account of human flourishing designed to appeal to the clinical psychologist. Philosopher Matthew Cuddeback provides a sketch of the personal unity, and the corresponding responsibility for one’s self, that is afforded by a Thomistic metaphysics of the human person. Philosopher John A. Cuddeback offers a synopsis of the ethical component of human virtues, drawing on both St. Thomas and Bl. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor in order to explain reason’s right ordering of natural human inclinations. Craig Steven Titus, whose background involves research in philosophy, theology, and psychology, provides an account of that cardinal virtue whereby one reasons rightly about action: prudence. Philosopher Tobias Hoffman gives an overview of Aquinas’s account of the will and free action. In the longest essay of the book, theologian Paul Gondreau discusses the interrelations of reason and the emotions, explaining how the emotions participate in, and can be tempered by, reason’s apprehension of the good. Filling out some of the particulars of Gondreau’s general exposition, philosopher Daniel McInerny and theologian J. David Franks offer accounts of the cardinal virtues of fortitude and temperance, respectively, or, put differently, the properly ordered irascible and concupiscible appetites. (Justice is the only cardinal virtue to which not much substantive discussion is devoted.)

The editors have brought together an impressive array of contributors — a who’s who of relevant contemporary Catholic intellectuals, plus the Anglican Roger Scruton — and, given the increasingly common collaboration between secular philosophers and psychologists, the publication of this volume is well timed. Hoffman’s analysis in particular is impressively clear and concise, and he masterfully handles the difficult burden of being both accessible and erudite. Likewise, Gondreau manages to explain difficult theoretical terrain with strong emphasis on the practical concerns of the psychologist.

On a critical note, the volume could have been improved by paying more judicious attention to its intended readership. It seems to want to please everyone: philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, with this latter group receiving special attention. This is a difficult task and one unevenly discharged by the contributors. For instance, Matthew Cuddeback’s essay, among others, includes sections that will be largely opaque to those untrained in certain styles of philosophical argumentation. It would perhaps have been better for the collection to focus entirely on the psychologist audience, avoiding technical terminology and laying out lines of argumentation more simply. Also welcome would be a defense of the Thomistic model, geared toward the prevailing empirical methodology, or even engaging the skepticism toward “virtue” prominently advanced by contemporary secular philosophers of moral psychology, such as John Doris. All the same, this volume is much needed and is recommended for those psychologists interested in an introduction to Thomistic anthropology who are willing to wade through some occasionally dense philosophy.

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