The best books Catholic Culture staff read in 2023
It’s time for the Catholic Culture staff’s roundup of our favorite things we read in the past year. This time we have lists by Dr. Jeff Mirus, Phil Lawler, Dr. Jim Papandrea, and Thomas Mirus.
Dr. Jeff Mirus
Looking back over the books I liked but did not find time to review already this year, I find that my favorites are those that turn our expectations upside down by making what at first glance seems to be a predictable topic into a richly rewarding spiritual, intellectual and even at times emotional experience—and are packed with sound guidance as well. Here are four of them, plus my usual tip for a good mystery series:
Building a Civilization of Love: A Catholic Response to Racism by Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers (Ignatius Press 2023; 252 pp. Paper $18.95, ebook $12.32)
A common first reaction to this title is that committed Catholics are considerably less likely to be guilty of racism of any kind than most other identifiable groups, because of their firm commitment to the concept of a universal Church. But when we think of both how often people are guilty of racism and how often anti-racist sentiments turn into ideologies which damage just about everybody, one begins to wonder if what we really need is a strong Catholic look at racism after all. That’s what Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers delivers in a book which combines a close look at racism with a close look at anti-racist distortions which too often provide a cover for other goals, including anti-Christian goals. So here’s a book which covers not only prejudice and racism along with the Church’s historical response to racism, but also the related distortions of Critical Race Theory, Liberation Theology, and the Black Lives Matter movement. In the end, Burke-Sivers offers not only one Catholic response to racism but perhaps the ultimate Catholic response in the form of an Afterword by Michael Heinlein giving the stories of six Black Catholics who are on their way to canonization.
Life-Giving Wounds: A Catholic Guide to Healing for Adult Children of Divorce or Separation by Dr. Daniel and Bethany Meola (Ignatius Press 2023; 322 pp. Paper $18.95, ebook $12.32)
Let me say it once again: Divorce is child abuse. Unfortunately, participation in this abuse can be imposed by one spouse against the will of the other—who may be, at least on the whole, innocent. Moreover, considering how hard it is for someone outside a marriage to make judgments about those within the marriage, it is inadvisable for the rest of us to pick targets and throw stones. Nonetheless, whenever divorce occurs in a marriage with children, the children suffer not only deeply, but typically well into adulthood, and perhaps for all of their lives. That is why it is so valuable to have this new book, which is subtitled “A Catholic guide to healing for adult children of divorce or separation”. Dr. Daniel and and Bethany Maola, both graduates of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, are the founders of Life-Giving Wounds, a Catholic nonprofit apostolate devoted to the healing of adult children of divorce or separation. The book covers the wounds divorce inflicts on its children, wounds of broken identity, wounds to their faith and to their own vision of marriage, wounds of unhealthy family dynamics, wounds of false guilt, wounds of anxiety, anger and sin. This book faces incalculable suffering and helps those who experienced it to transform it into new life in Christ.
To Die Well: A Catholic Neurosurgeon’s Guide to the End of Life by Stephen E. Doran, MD (Ignatius Press 2023; 219 pp. Paper $17.67, ebook $11.67)
Have you completed an Advanced Medical Directive yet, or are you still at the mercy of the political and medical establishment in terms of end-of-life decisions? Do you understand the issues involved in medically-assisted nutrition, the withdrawal of care, palliative care, brain death, perinatal death, euthanasia, and dying alone? Have you reflected on the increasing number of “deaths of despair” in our non-familial and non-religious world? Do you know the value of suffering and what it means to “die well”? Have you adequately considered what it means to die to this world, and what comes after physical death? Do you understand Anointing of the Sick? How do you think funerals and wakes should be handled? And what about cremation? There are many important moral and spiritual issues surrounding death in general and the need to prepare for our own deaths. This book is the best I have seen on all the end-of-life questions, and completely up to date in terms of the Church’s teachings on the moral issues we face in modern, humanistic and technocratic societies which often deal badly with end-of-life care. Companionable and absolutely clear, with real-life examples drawn from the author’s own experience: This should be the one book you read on the subject.
Catholics in Exile: Biblical Wisdom for the Journey Home by Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley (Emmaus Road Publishing 2023; 181pp. Hardback $24.95, ebook $16.95)
If you have ever felt like a fish out of water, this book will explain that feeling. We are all in exile while living in this world, for the simple reason that our true and permanent home is not here and not now, but still to come with God. Here is a simple and refreshing book which starts with our own spiritual discontent and explains our lives as understood by the God Who is Love, Who has acted throughout history, and Who has called us to be at home in His Presence. Indeed, the text might be read as a gloss on the poet Francis Thompson’s famous lines from “The Hound of Heaven”: “All which I took from thee I did but take, / Not for thy harms, / But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms, / All which thy child’s mistake / Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: / Rise, clasp My hand and come!” Hahn and McGinley explore our discontents, our need for an exodus, what it means to travel home together, and how to anticipate our final joy. This is a profoundly human twenty-first century book—yet deeply Biblical and firmly rooted in Jesus Christ. It is a beautiful reflection on what it means to be a Catholic.
Mystery entertainment: Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion
I typically mention some mystery series or another in this annual round-up, since mysteries are my favorite source of reading entertainment. Presumably my tastes are old-fashioned, as I do not appreciate conflicted heroes and heroines, and I have no taste for either explorations or positive portrayals of sexual infidelity and perversion, which are today all but required. As my wife and I like to say, “What we want is a good clean murder.” So this year I will mention the Albert Campion mysteries written by Margery Allingham between 1929 and 1967, which were continued by her husband Philip Youngman-Carter between 1968 and 1970, and then taken up anew in 2014 by an able successor who is still writing them, Mike Ripley. (Youngman-Carter used to help his wife with plots, but his own efforts to continue the series were markedly inferior. Ripley’s ongoing efforts are closer to Allingham quality.) You may be aware of their detective hero, Albert Campion, from the BBC’s Mystery series called “Campion”, which ran for two seasons in 1989 and 1990 starring Peter Davison. The hero is an apparently fatuous young man with large horn-rimmed glasses who is, in reality, sharp as a tack, well-connected, and deeply trusted by those in the know. The series is well-written, full of humor, and highly entertaining, with 32 books in the total Campion corpus…and counting.
My favorite books of 2023 included some old, some (more or less) new, and quite a few that dealt with historical topics, in a mix of fact and fiction:
The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre, reads like a Cold-War thriller—which it is. A veteran KGB agent becomes disgusted with the Soviet system, volunteers to provide information for the British, and becomes an invaluable source of confidential information for the West. He rises through the ranks to become the top KGB agent in London, where he helps to expose other Russian agents. But eventually he is betrayed (by an American CIA analyst who is himself a double agent), the Kremlin recalls him to Moscow, and he knows the end is near. But his British handlers improvise a complicated mission to smuggle him out of Moscow, and against all odds, in a hair-raising sequence, it works. What makes this book unique is that it’s not a novel; it’s all true!
In Act of Oblivion, Robert Harris—a master story-teller—begins with another true historical incident, and embellishes it with a novelist’s depiction of how it might have played out. In the mid-17th century, two English soldiers, Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe, face arrest and likely execution because of their role in the beheading of King Charles I. They flee to New England, where they are sheltered by Puritan communities that are politically sympathetic, but still fearful of their royalist colonial overlords. Moving from place to place, one step ahead of their pursuers, they eventually drop out of sight. That much of their story is known. Harris provides the details of their flight, imagined but realistic—including the legend that Goffe became the mysterious “Angel of Hadley,” who saved a Massachusetts town from an Indian massacre.
For another unusual perspective on the history of the American colonies, there is The Brethren—not the Grisham novel, but a historical study by Brendan McConville. In North Carolina, some yeoman farmers, thoroughly persuaded by the anti-Catholic rhetoric that fueled revolutionary sentiments, became convinced that their government was conspiring with papists to subvert the Protestant faith. They united in the “Gourd Patch conspiracy,” planning to overthrow the government of North Carolina and perhaps derail the American Revolution. Their plot was discovered and crushed. But their conspiracy shows how thoroughly political and religious motivations were mixed during the American Founding.
Looking at roughly the same historical period from a different perspective, Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather, tells a beautiful story of life in 18th-century Quebec. Life is not easy but it is simple, guided by the Catholic faith. The characters have their weaknesses, but their struggles are not political: a refreshing change from our 21st-century troubles.
Now move back a bit in time, to the French regime that colonized Quebec, and meet the woman—the powerful niece of Cardinal Richelieu—who sponsored the missionary efforts of the Jesuits there, as well as in southeast Asia. La Duchesse, by Bronwen McShea, offers a fascinating and extremely detailed portrait of this remarkable woman, who counseled kings and popes, who was a mentor to St. Vincent de Paul. Pulled away from the religious life that appealed to her, she became a canny and very successful force behind the scenes at the French court. A teenage bride and soon a widow, she was often the subject of scandalous rumors, but never lost her dignity or her influence.
Now on to contemporary affairs: Stella Morabito spent years working as a CIA analyst, studying Soviet propaganda. That experience helped her to recognize how powerful people manipulate public opinion. In The Weaponization of Loneliness she applies that skill to how would-be tyrants work to distance people from their neighbors, isolating them and playing on their fears. This form of propaganda is very much in evidence today, she shows, in the “cancel culture,” in the calls for new restrictions on free speech and free association, and in the campaign to use the threats of climate change or Covid infection to incite fears that can shut down a society and usher in an authoritarian age.
Finally, jump to some indeterminate point in the future, portrayed in a novel that was written in 1961: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. Written at a time when the world was first grappling with the realization that nuclear war could destroy an entire civilization, this post-apocalyptic novel imagines how men of faith might cope with an age of barbarism. I found it fascinating when I first read it, years ago, and a fresh reading in 2023 was no less rewarding.
Dr. Jim Papandrea
The Diary of St. Faustina. She is the saint who gave us the Divine Mercy devotion, and I’ve been reading her diary as part of my devotions. She had visions of Jesus and heard messages from Jesus and Mary, not so much secret revelations or anything like that, but messages of encouragement and reminders of God’s love for us. It’s not necessarily the kind of book you read straight through all at once, but I like reading a little bit each day.
History’s Queen, by Mike Aquilina. Whenever Mike takes on a subject, you can be sure he’s going to give you new insights, and deliver the ones you already knew about in beautiful ways. This is just one of his books on Mary. I was blessed to be asked to write the foreword to his other one, Keeping Mary Close. Both are excellent.
The Biblical Roots of Marian Consecration, by Shane Kapler. This is not only about Marian consecration, it’s really a pretty comprehensive book about Mary, her place in the Church, and Marian doctrine.
The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book, by Scott Hahn & Benjamin Wiker. This is the condensed version of the two more detailed studies, Politicizing the Bible (Hahn & Wiker) and Modern Biblical Criticism (Hahn & Morrow). I’ve read most of the two big ones, but the shorter one is a great summary, very accessible to the lay person, showing how the Scriptures have been used for political ends, and as propaganda. The Church of God in Jesus Christ: A Catholic Ecclesiology, by Roch Kereszty. This is a scholarly book about our understanding of the Church. It weaves together ecclesiology and christology.
Father Elijah and Elijah in Jerusalem, by Michael D. O’Brien. The author describes this story and its sequel as “an apocalypse” and it does have a bit of speculation on events leading up to the return of Christ, but it’s not an attempt to predict anything, it’s really just a very well written story about faithfulness in the midst of a secular world with all its temptations.
Keys of the Kingdom, by A.J. Cronin. This is a novel about a missionary priest in China. Great story, well written, one of those stories that reminds you what’s important in life.
I also re-read The Confessions by St. Augustine, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.
I’ve included books, short-form writing (poems and essays), and music.
I’ll start with my top two favorite reads of the year:
Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor. 2023 was the 30th anniversary of this great moral encyclical, which directly refutes some moral theories currently popular in high ecclesiastical circles. I was introduced to it because it was featured in a three-part reading on Catholic Culture Audiobooks. What struck me even more than its timeliness is the way in which St. John Paul II first situates morality in the Gospel account of Christ’s invitation to the rich young man. This makes for a vision of moral theology far more compelling and beautiful than one based only on abstract arguments. It confronts those who would excuse sin with the gaze of Christ.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. I re-read this masterpiece for the first time since high school and still find it tremendously moving.
And my other favorites (note that in some instances I have linked to discussions of these books on my interview show, the Catholic Culture Podcast):
Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, My Beloved Predecessor: John Paul II. Many of the items collected in this volume can be read on the Vatican website, but only available here is the first essay, Ratzinger’s insightful reflection on the 14 encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. In an excerpt I posted on Twitter, Ratzinger recounts the deterioration of moral theology prior to Veritatis splendor.
Karol Wojtyla, Person and Act and Related Essays. Wojtyla’s philosophical magnum opus is the most difficult book I have ever read, but it provides the basis for understanding the author’s later work on more concrete topics. The new translation, published by CUA Press as the first volume of their Critical Edition of the works of Wojtyla/JPII, restores the important scholastic terminology excised from the original English translation, making Wojtyla’s Thomistic pedigree far clearer. See my podcast discussion of the book.
The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, trans./ed. Michael W. Holmes. This is the nicest edition of the Apostolic Fathers, both aesthetically and in that it includes the Greek (and in some cases Latin) texts along with English translations. The translator is Protestant, but the scholarly introductions don’t seem very sectarian. It’s one of the more affordable editions too—but if you’d rather listen than read, Catholic Culture Audiobooks has a near-complete playlist of a different set of translations from Catholic University of America Press…
St. Jerome, Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning, trans./ed. David G. Bonagura, Jr. A moving look at the best side of St. Jerome—see my interview with the translator.
Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., St. Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work. Fr. Torrell’s is regarded as the best academic biography of St. Thomas. The translation (originally by Robert Royal) was updated for the new edition by Matthew Minerd, whom I interviewed about St. Thomas’s formation, his Dominican vocation, and his professional life as a master of theology.
John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit. How many of us can really say we understand the difference between, say, the gift of understanding and the gift of knowledge? This is the sort of thing I was seeking when I picked up this classic work by one of the greatest disciples of St. Thomas Aquinas. See my discussion of the book with a present-day Dominican, Fr. Cajetan Cuddy.
Kimberly Begg, Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage. This is an excellent starting point to inspire parents to teach their children the lives of the saints—and even more importantly, to be the saints in their children’s lives. (See Begg’s interview on the Catholic Culture Podcast.)
John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty. Fr. Saward is one of the best-regarded theologians of the English world, and book received a blurb from none other than Cardinal Ratzinger. The work is a meditation on the San Marco altarpiece by Fra Angelico, and also inspired by Ratzinger’s famous quote about the Church’s best apology being the saints she has produced and the beautiful art she has inspired. The section on the beauty of Mary is especially precious and I intend to revisit it for meditation.
Joshua Gibbs, Love What Lasts: How to Save Your Soul from Mediocrity. Gibbs is a provocative and delightful writer. If you think forming a taste for mediocre art and entertainment is harmless as long as said entertainment is “clean”, you should probably subject yourself to Gibbs’s tender ministrations. (See interview.)
Livy, The Early History of Rome and The War with Hannibal. Penguin editions. Of all the classical historians, I find Livy the most enjoyable to read.
Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography. Ordway has come out with yet another groundbreaking piece of Tolkien scholarship. The most hardcore Tolkien fan will learn something new and the most casual fan will still be fascinated. (See interview.)
Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Selected and Annotated Poems, ed. Holly Ordway. A helpful introduction to the gorgeous but sometimes obscure verse of Hopkins. (See interview.)
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets. I didn’t actually read this, but watched the movie of Ralph Fiennes’s excellent dramatized performance of the poem.
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales. My first complete run-through of the Tales, using Blackstone’s very entertaining multi-cast audiobook (in modernized English). As Chaucer’s retraction written at the end of his life indicates, the tales are uneven; some edify, some innocently entertain, some “tend towards sin”.
Marly Youmans, Seren of the Wildwood. I’m glad there are a few people out there reviving the lost art of narrative verse. Youmans gives us a book-length fairy tale combining iambic pentameter with the “bob and wheel” familiar to readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (See interview.)
Daniel McInerny, The Good Death of Kate Montclair. For a novel about a woman considering euthanasia, this is remarkably lighthearted, and also a feat of compassion and understanding. (See interview.)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. People say this book is intimidating and boring, whereas I found it surprisingly funny. It remains a fresh and avant-garde literary achievement, but Melville’s frequent mockery of religion keeps me from rating it too highly.
Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth.
Willa Cather, My Ántonia.
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.
Aristotle, On the Soul.
Short form: poems and essays
Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”.
Martin Mosebach, “Baptism of Blood”.
John Byron Kuhner, “The Men behind the Met”.
Richard E. Gallagher’s two essays on “The Odd Case of Adrienne von Speyr”. Pt. 1, “Private Revelations: Authentic, Paranormal & Preternatural”. Pt. 2, “The Variety & Theological Implications of Private Revelations”.
Katy Carl, “The Sources of Sublimity”.
In 2023 I decided to give opera a go. I can’t say I ended up catching the bug exactly, but I had some good times aided by the proximity of the Metropolitan Opera here in New York. By far my favorite was Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, a work of astonishing spiritual insight based on a real community of nuns martyred by the French Revolution. I did a podcast episode about this opera and also enjoyed exploring Poulenc’s other music, such as his Sonata for Oboe and Piano and his Mass in G Major. Also at the Met, I enjoyed Wagner’s Lohengrin and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love).
On the pop/rock side, I revisited the band They Might Be Giants. When I was little, my sisters gave me a tape full of their songs, which delighted me. Rediscovering them as an adult I was pleased to find that they are indeed very clever both musically and lyrically. And I recently caught on to another great 90s talent, Jason Falkner (I don’t recommend all of his songs for lyrical reasons, but here are three highlights).
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