Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 2015

November 2015

Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis: An Anthology of Visions for the Future

By Daniel Schwindt

Publisher: Solidarity Hall Press

Pages: 230

Price: $11.95

Review Author: Christopher Zehnder

The Church today is experiencing a “momentous shift” — a shift that beckons Catholics “to go deeper,” to rediscover the radical potential of the faith they profess, and to bring that potential to full actuality in their own lives and for the world.

That is the burden of a new book of essays titled Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis. Edited by Daniel Schwindt, editor and chief of Solidarity Hall, the book contains essays by 24 writers, divided into four categories: Conscience, Community, City, and Church. These suggest a clear demarcation of themes that is not, however, discernible. Essays in the “Conscience” section touch on matters that have to do with community life, and those in the “Community” section treat subjects that seem to pertain to “City.” The difficulty, of course, is that it’s not easy to separate the personal from the social. What we do as individuals touches and affects those around us, and the city is merely the community organized for the common good. The Church, too, though distinct from the natural human community, nevertheless draws from that community, leavens it, and brings it to its perfection.

The authors are as hard to classify as their essays. Though orthodox in their Christian faith (most are Catholic; two are Orthodox), they do not fall into the tired and facile categories of “left” or “right,” “liberal” or “conservative.” Nor are they all academics or professional scribblers. Rather, they come from different stations in life: business owner, attorney, Catholic Worker, wife and mother of six, consecrated layman working with environmental issues. While their backgrounds are various, all seem to “have met face-to-face the ghastly negative space left by the mythology of the modern world,” in Schwindt’s words.

Yet Radically Catholic is anything but an accounting of how bad this world is. The essays anatomize our age from the perspective of hope. They suggest what believers may do to plumb the depths of their faith and draw from it answers — if only partial ones — to burning questions. It is easy, especially for the middle-aged among us, to fall into despair. Experience suggests that the faith is retreating on all sides, that our only option is to hunker down behind siege walls. The essays, however, encourage the reader to renew the perspective of youth but without youth’s naïveté. They remind us that Christ and His Church have become neither irrelevant to our world nor powerless to effect change for the better. Christ is still able, with the cooperation of His followers, to restore all things in Himself.

The radical living out of the Catholic faith that is orthodoxy is not mere ideology but “a gospel of encounter” wherein the believer enters into the negative space of the modern world and speaks to men where they are. Such an encounter does not obscure truth or doctrine but enfleshes it so that people may, as it were, see it, feel it, taste it, and embrace it. Today’s enfleshment of orthodoxy in a new wave of evangelization needs to address social justice in a comprehensive way. For instance, protagonists of this evangelization cannot content themselves with being simply “pro-life”; they must be “whole life.” Catholics must look at the entire life of society and see the connections that exist between, say, abortion and the sanctity of marriage, and poverty, economic justice, ecology, and immigration. Such an approach does not reduce marriage and abortion to simple parity with these other issues, nor does it dilute them to insignificance. Instead, it uncovers the false ideas about man, and his relation to God and nature that underlie all these challenges. It holds forth the holistic vision of Catholic culture and tradition as their antidote and cure. It’s not enough to change this law concerning abortion or nullify that Supreme Court decision touching on marriage, for such measures only address the symptoms, not their underlying causes. Just as the sanctifying action of Christ through His Church seeks the healing of the whole person, so Christian social engagement must address the fundamental confusion that is the underlying source of the modern world’s errors.

For Schwindt and many of the essayists in Radically Catholic, Pope Francis gives a prime example of the kind of encounter with the world they propose. Hence the title of the book (about which I’m ambivalent because, after a pontificate of fewer than three years, it is premature to speak of an “age of Francis”). There is a danger in putting too much emphasis on the personality or actions of a reigning pontiff, which I think some of the writers do. Though a pope may be a prophet, that is not his central or essential function. The Holy Spirit does not guarantee that a pope will always act prudently or that his every utterance will be a gem of spiritual wisdom. After all, St. Paul found it necessary to chastise St. Peter publicly for sowing confusion, and not all our pontiffs have been paragons of virtue or wisdom. This does not mean that we should approach everything a pope says or does with a spirit of carping criticism or act from a presumption of distrust. It does mean that we must keep in mind the limits of the papal charism and not load it with a meaning it isn’t meant to bear.

Readers will not necessarily agree with all the views expressed in the book, but that is one of its strengths. Within the bounds of the one orthodox and Catholic faith, the Church has always allowed wide latitude for exploration and disagreement, especially in prudential matters. We can learn from ideas that challenge and force us to delve more deeply into our assumptions. This is the stuff of true conversation among friends. Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis initiates just such a conversation.

Iota: A Novel

By T.M. Doran

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 165

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

Three old men, a Czech, a Pole, and a Russian, meet near the Berlin Wall during its deconstruction, and one of them announces that he is there to kill the other two. Iota‘s chilling opening scene is set in 1990, but most of the drama takes place during 1945 within a ghastly Soviet detention facility for political prisoners. The Russians control Czechoslovakia, Poland, and vast areas of Germany. Author T.M. Doran provides historical contexts within masterful scene-setting, and portrays the sheer barbarism made manifest as one wicked regime replaces another across Eastern Europe.

On All Saints’ Day 1945 in Prague, Jan Skala and others find themselves caged by the Russians in a noxious, freezing, former abattoir. Bright lights and blaring music torment the lice-ridden prisoners day and night. Rats roam around the cold cages where prisoners subsist on watery soup and occasional crusts of bread. The captives all declare their innocence of wartime accommodation with the Nazis. During Czechoslovakia’s Nazi occupation, Skala had continued to work for his father’s newspaper, a publication controlled by the Gestapo. Readers realize he is compromised at the outset, and dialog-driven action proceeds through a probe into Skala’s attempted reconciliation of his beliefs and his actions. Skala, fluent in many languages, swears to his captors that he is neither Nazi nor German; he had welcomed the Russians. Yet “had he not, after a fashion, been cooperating with the Russians, just as he had cooperated with the Nazis before them? The Russian intrusion was supposed to be different. They were the liberators of the Slavs.” Surely Skala’s father and his uncle, a cardinal in Rome, are seeking his release.

Doran, a master of contrasts, builds both captives and captors as studies in virtue and vice. The Russian officer in charge of the prison accuses Skala of having supported the Germans. Indeed, Skala’s father had warned his son that they and their newspaper were being watched by the Nazis, and he had uttered a dark rationalization: “I have made myself useful, as have you. We are unconventional patriots.” Skala had decided to stay in place, knowing that staying would require convincing “the Nazis of his sympathy, or at least of his willingness to cooperate. He could serve his country better by remaining.”

This wartime accommodation allowed the Nazis to use him to write lies for their so-called free press. Skala had helped cover up massacres and “editorialize against the Jews and the Church.” In present circumstances, he is heartily sorry for his pro-Nazi articles. He asserts that he did only what was necessary to stay alive, but now an officer believes Skala is an expert on Nazi detention sites and demands information. It is believed that a Trotskyite gave Soviet prison-camp information to Skala that might have been passed to his uncle, the cardinal. Skala denies it, all while pondering a plausible defense.

Skala’s cagemate, Drewniak, had been in the Krakow resistance, and prisoner Lutz, an Austrian physicist, is in prison for refusing to aid the Russians with nuclear fission. Lutz shares a cage with a Ukrainian priest, Fr. Petrenko, and discussions among prisoners concern philosophy, faith, truth, “accommodation” to situations, and happiness. Fr. Petrenko presents a talking point per Aristotle, stating that happiness is an activity, not merely a state of being.

Skala is cleaned up for a visit with a British lawyer and army officer; it behooves him to behave as the visit is being monitored. Skala reports good treatment, acknowledging that the Soviets suspect him of sedition, and claims he has active legal representation (which is false). After returning to the filthy clothes and cage, Skala becomes very ill; an arm wound becomes infected with a worm, and vermin-infested sores cover his limbs. Hunger, humiliation, and sheer horror cripple all of the prisoners. One of them is executed. A member of the Italian Communist Party who is writing about Soviet justice interviews Skala and asks about his father’s possible complicity in the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. The Italian labels Skala’s cardinal uncle a “vile reactionary.”

Sadistic score-settling marches on as a German officer’s children, a girl and boy, eight and nine years old, are brought into the prison. The situation causes one prisoner to declare, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Discussions ensue concerning the origins and nature of evil, and readers grasp the oft-hidden evil perpetrated by equivocators like Skala. When a Russian officer asks Fr. Petrenko to consecrate bread in exchange for his freedom, the priest refuses. Spellbinding, symbolic events proceed apace — events that parallel sacrificial rites and their roles in salvation.

As readers are brought back to the three men meeting in 1990, a heretofore unknown, horrific outcome of those evil days in 1945 is revealed. What was the point of so much pain? Is there justice or forgiveness in the end? The author raises questions of suffering, death, mercy, and redemption throughout a book rich with the intricate intrigues of a spy novel and the authority of a moral treatise.

The Personalism of John Henry Newman

By John F. Crosby

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 264

Price: $59.95

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

Scholarly interest in the thought of Cardinal Newman has increased significantly over the past few decades. Avery Cardinal Dulles’s excellent introduction to Newman (2003), and Fr. Ian Ker’s comprehensive biography (1988), have given us a sense of the whole of Newman’s life and thought. John F. Crosby’s The Personalism of John Henry Newman further contributes by taking one element of Newman’s thought, the personalist element, and showing how it is present across Newman’s works. In so doing, Crosby highlights an important feature of Newman’s mind that might otherwise get lost in the big picture.

Crosby begins by providing a basic sense of who Newman was and what personalism is, always careful never to leave his readers behind. Crosby sees Newman as “a forerunner of the great twentieth-century Christian personalists,” such as Jacques Maritain, St. Edith Stein, and Pope St. John Paul II. Moreover, this element of Newman’s thought, “that side of his mind that centers around subjectivity, experience, [and] the heart,” gives balance to the side that Crosby first knew, the side with “a severe objectivity, a radical theocentrism.” These two sides of Newman’s mind allow for great creativity and insight in his thought. In describing Newman’s personalism, Crosby points out that “each of us exists as subject, not just as object, or in other words, as someone not just as something.” Rather than just being a cog in the machine of the universe, each person has an inner life that is both significant and unique. From this unique inner life comes the inviolable dignity that personalists such as Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II defended so vigorously.

Crosby examines Newman’s strong “theocentric spirit.” God is not just some element of the world, or even the greatest element, but is the One whose Being totally transcends creation. Consequently, we are not to treat God as an “it,” as some object that can help us attain salvation as a wrench can help us fix a pipe. Rather, we are to adore God in Himself. Crosby notes, for instance, that in Newman’s Trinity Sunday sermons, he sometimes “takes delight” in the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity concerns “first of all, God as He exists in Himself.” In the theocentric religion of Newman, we take the attitude toward God that we are called to take toward all persons: a love that does not say “I love who you are to me” but simply “I love who you are.”

This love is not some airy abstraction or pious formulation but a concrete reality. It is here that Crosby integrates one of Newman’s more notable insights — his distinction between real and notional assent — into his personalism. The power of real assent lies in the fact that it is the result of an experience of a thing concretely present to the whole person, while notional assent is something understood to be true in the intellect alone. My love for another person is bound up in a concrete encounter with that individual. A man does not love the idea of his wife, he loves his wife. In many of Newman’s writings, and especially his sermons, he labors “to make people realize the truths that they were so fruitlessly professing,” so that they are no longer theories in the mind but lived realities. He speaks of the whole person, with all the passions and affective elements that are part of it. Recall Newman’s motto: “Heart speaks to heart.”

This emphasis on the concrete and whole individual bears itself out in how Newman views religious conversion. As a Catholic in Protestant England, Newman was no stranger to misunderstandings about his religion, something more and more believers in the West are sharing with him as time goes on. Newman’s solution is not necessarily for people to write better books (though he clearly saw the value in that) but to be “concerned with affecting local opinion about themselves.” In living the Christian life well, in a loving manner toward all, one person can do more to impact opinions about Christianity than a library of solid theology textbooks. Ultimately, “religious truth is transmitted by personal influence.” This holds whether we are talking about the influence of a living person or the impact of reading the life of a saint.

Newman’s personalism touched his entire approach to human reason. In his Grammar of Assent, for instance, Newman advocates informal reasoning involving the illative (inferentiabpsense as a balance for formal reasoning and logical principles. This approach to knowledge allows space for the inner life of the knowing subject to be recognized in the pursuit of truth. Although “there is something anonymous about formal inference,” with informal inference I actively carry it out “in my own way.” Logic and formal reasoning have the power to bring minds together and “unite us with others in the one objective truth,” while informal reasoning bears the unmistakable stamp of the reasoner. We need both to keep our thinking about the world from being too mechanical on the one hand or too subjective on the other.

Newman sees a vastness to the world but is determined to keep the individual person from being swept up and lost in it. An awareness of what Newman terms the “infinite abyss of existence” in each person saves us from this fate. The encounter with God in the depths of the soul awakens this awareness. God speaks to us not with hypothetical principles but with viscerally known imperatives. Crosby reminds us that “in conscience we apprehend God not just abstractly but imaginatively,” and “not just from a distance but with full personal engagement.” With this we are brought full circle. We started by looking at Newman’s emphasis on encountering God and loving God as a concrete Person, not an instrument. In the depths of the human soul we see how this encounter plays out.

Crosby’s excellent book is based on a series of lectures he gave at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2011, and you can hear his easy and conversational tone in every sentence. He regularly provides quotes and passages from Newman to illustrate his point. As a result, even someone who hasn’t read Newman can have a solid first exposure to his writing. If Newman’s personalism were not pointed out, his readers might be left with the same first impression that Crosby had: of Newman as primarily concerned with “severe objectivity,” as one who “regarded theological liberalism as his archenemy.” Once the personalist element has been highlighted, it shines forth clearly and provides a fuller portrait of John Henry Newman.

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