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Can there be too many good Catholic writers? Four books on Catholicism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Dec 20, 2013

In the most important sense, the question in my title can be taken rhetorically. “Certainly not!” we should reply, for it is eminently desirable that every person on the God’s green earth should be able to write, and write well, about the Catholic Faith. At another level, however, I find the question worth pondering. For I am a Catholic writer who, like so many other Catholic writers, hopes for a significant share of the potential audience.

I can remember when this question could not possibly provoke reflection at this “other level”. In the 1970s when I was a co-founder of Christendom College and in the 1980s when I founded Trinity Communications, those of us involved in such initiatives were desperately trying to establish alternative Catholic outlets for education, ideas and, yes, writing, because the old universities and publishers had crashed and burned in the 1960s (I mean in terms of their Catholic fidelity). There was a near total absence of good Catholic writing. It was hard to find books and articles, even from supposedly Catholic publishers, which did anything but undermine the Faith. Apologetics, in those days, was almost unknown. The only kind of evangelization going on was reverse evangelization.

I can also remember when one of the finest Catholic publishers today got started, back in that same period. Ignatius Press, founded by Joseph Fessio, SJ, sought to develop itself into a significant alternative to the once titanic publishing houses that that had so rapidly foundered on the iceberg of Modernism. Ignatius was almost a voice crying in the wilderness, building itself up only slowly to the leadership position among faithful Catholic publishers it holds today. But times have changed again, and there are now many other good Catholic publishers as well. Suddenly, it is difficult to keep up with all their books, and all their authors. What we have is many books flooding a fairly small market.

The same is true on the world wide web, where Trinity Communications ultimately found its home (for we lost our shirts trying to start a book publishing operation about the same time as Ignatius Press did it so successfully). Like Ignatius in the print (and video) world, we have been quite successful on the Catholic web, clearly among the leaders. When we first switched our apostolate to the Internet in 1993 and moved to the web in 1996, we were pioneers. At a convention of Catholic leaders some years ago, one of the speakers referred to me as “the grandfather of the Catholic Internet”. (My hair wasn’t gray yet, but I took it as a compliment anyway.) But who would doubt that there is a plethora of outstanding Catholics writing online today? Again, it is difficult to keep up with all their blogs—though I should emphasize, in what I hope is a spirit of engaging snootiness, that Phil Lawler and I habitually refuse to refer to our own, er, “commentaries” as blogs.

So I say again that the question in my title is not without a certain interest. It is possible that the Catholic world today has more than enough writers, but not yet enough of a total Catholic community to write for. We Catholics may find ourselves in the position of being quite good now with words, but still very weak when it comes to the muscular task of building a Catholic culture from top to bottom, forming a cohesive, well-balanced, and populous Catholic society.

In fact, you know this is true. Each person reading this essay finds too many worthy organizations to support, too many efforts to save the State or renew the Church or spread the faith that they would hate to see fail. These organizations and individuals may be involved in law, politics, education, apologetics, evangelization, and more—a host of primarily intellectual pursuits, which clarify a great many issues and which make things wonderfully better in theory. But in honest moments, we all recognize that most of them are not yet producing a harvest comparable to their effort and expense.

An Illustration

In this sense only, the surfeit is embarrassing. As just one of many cases in point, let me mention that in the past month or so, Ignatius Press has (kindly) sent me review copies of no fewer than four new books which treat the question of how we are to understand the Church, or how we are to understand what it means to be a Catholic. These books are by very different authors. They address the question from very different angles. And their work will be of interest to subsets of Catholic readers who vary in need, intellectual formation, and background. Still, I ask you: Four books from one publisher alone on the same general topic in perhaps a month or so? Again, at the most important level, it is an unqualified good to have such an abundance of riches in treating such an inexhaustible subject. But at that “other level”, well, I would love to see the sales results. I would love to know if there is yet a substantial community to benefit from this riches—or if we rather have a great many fine Catholic writers who simply need to find their way into print.

Please remember when I use this particular example that I can raise the very same question about the work that we do here at CatholicCulture.org. This is not an attack on Ignatius Press, which is beyond question one of the most important Catholic apostolic success stories of the past generation. Perhaps more important, I want to stress that each one of these new books is truly excellent. But perhaps their very publication occasions reflection on the current Catholic predicament. There are, if you will, plenty of luminaries, but the Church as a whole is not yet far enough along the path of renewal to form a society capable of refracting and redistributing so much light.

It is an interesting predicament, and a predicament far better than that of a generation ago, but it is still a predicament. So let us help these books find even the smallish audiences they are most likely to serve well. Here they are:

By What Authority? by Mark Shea: I could give Shea a pass under the heading of my “other level” because, after all, this is a new and expanded edition of a book he first wrote in 1995, not long after he converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. It is far harder to wonder whether the market was glutted in 1995. Mark’s subtitle is “An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition”, and the book is a very useful text for those who wonder how to crack through the sola Scriptura prejudice of Protestantism. Moreover, Mark Shea is an excellent writer. His prose is untrammeled by the bland word-choice and stodgy sentence structures of academia. His account is enormously perceptive, clear-headed, and to the point. If you are or need to be on the Evangelical wing in discussions of the Church, By What Authority? is your book. It also boasts a foreword by another notable convert of the same general period, Scott Hahn.

Into All Truth by Milton Walsh: The author holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian University, but he scales himself back from full-blown academic theology here to do something valuable for far more people. He wishes to explain “What Catholics Believe and Why” (his subtitle). The book is well-structured, with chapters on the Resurrection, the Redemption, the Incarnation, and the Trinity in Part One; and chapters on the Church, the Pope and the Bishops, Sacred Scripture, Grace, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the Communion of the Saints, Mary Virgin and Mother, Mary’s Origin and Destiny, and Life Everlasting, in Part Two. Each chapter provides a simple statement of what Catholics profess about a particular doctrine, followed by a summary of how the Catholic understanding of it has developed over the centuries, and ending with some application of the doctrine to our lives. This approach is altogether admirable for those, whether Catholic or not, who wish to learn about the Catholic faith in an orderly manner, without getting lost in a thicket of Catechism lessons covering every possible point under the sun. Here we have the creedal core, and what it means.

Reasonable Pleasures by James V. Schall, S.J.: Fr. Schall, who was for many years a Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University, was also for many years one of the soundest voices on that faculty. Widely appreciated as both a scholar and an engaging essayist, Schall sets himself the task here of exploring the delight all men and women find in the quest for meaning through the use and honing of their minds (hence the title has a double meaning). He relies on such seminal thinkers as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, Alfred North Whitehead, and G. K. Chesterton—as well as many others—to probe the various ways in which the whole person comes to that correspondence with reality that we call truth. This is heady stuff, then, but not at all technical, and it leads us, in the words of Schall’s subtitle, to “The Strange Coherence of Catholicism”. This is the perfect book for those who love to range across a broad range of human ideas and experiences to more thoroughly grasp both the process of coming to Faith, and its finality.

Figuring out the Church by Aidan Nichols, O.P.: Fr. Nichols is one of the foremost theologians writing today (see my article from 2012, Aidan Nichols: Chalice of God). Here he performs a specialized study of the Church in terms of “Her Marks, and Her Masters” (the subtitle). In Part I, the author treats the four marks: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. In Part II, he explores the contributions of the four modern theologians whom he believes have done the most to increase our understanding of the essence of the Church: Henri de Lubac, Jean Tillard, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Charles Journet. Fr. Nichols understands that the marks of the Church can be considered ontologically (as features), epistemologically (as signs, notes or marks in the conventional apologetical sense), pedagogically (as categories for discussion of everything about her), and eschatologically (as dimensions which will come to fullness only in the time to come). And now you will understand why I say this is serious theology, highly recommended and immensely fruitful for those suitably equipped.

Thus I conclude my case in point. Too many good Catholic writers? Ultimately, this is impossible. Too many for any one of us to handle? Surely that question has a different answer. And I suspect that if the Catholic community is to be able to support them all (as they so richly deserve), then that community has to reform its high schools, colleges and universities and to develop and prosper in a myriad of less intellectual ways as well. The Faith we love must grow from head, to heart, to hands—fully lived on every level, and in every way.

We have so many now who are willing to teach, but what they see on all sides is mission territory. It is a curious situation. We must go forward with Our Lord’s words very much in mind, “for here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’” To another generation, He will say: “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” But “he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together” (Jn 4:35-38). Now of course, in a deeper sense, all of us reap that for which only Christ labored; I do not mean to deny this underlying meaning of the text. But at that “other level”, it also describes the peculiar situation in which Catholic renewal finds itself today.

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