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Looking at the world with courage to look first at Christ

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 10, 2023 | In Reviews

This is a very significant revision of a book review I posted yesterday under a very different title. In my haste, I misunderstood a critical point. I correct that mistake here as a matter of duty…and pleasure. The URL of the original review, should it appear in search engines or personal links, now redirects readers to this corrected version.

A fascinating new book from Ignatius Press invites both comment and praise: Confession of a Catholic Worker. Larry S. Chapp, a former professor of Catholic theology who came to the fulness of faith in the Catholic Worker movement, offers a unique perspective on the spiritual landscape today, with plenty of good ideas about what it means to be a truly cruciform Catholic. After all, there shouldn’t be any other kind. What makes the book so interesting is his exploration of the possibilities in light of what we often call the left-right dialectic which, arising from secular culture, still afflicts the Church in the forms of Traditionalism and Modernism.

Now wait, you may say: In what sense is it possible to equate Traditionalism and Modernism as legitimate poles of Catholic thought? Traditionalism is ultimately rooted in Catholicism; Modernism is ultimately rooted in secularism. Aren’t these unequal distortions? As it turns out, Chapp thinks so too, though he isn’t quite as straightforward about it. In the early portions of the book, writing mainly as what we might call a popular theologian, he examines what we ought to value and reject in Traditionalism, and he finds opportunity for rejection primarily in the reduction of Traditionalist theology to the mid-twentieth century “manuals”. These tended to reduce theology to a particular strain of Catholic thought, and were characterized by a general refusal to address new problems raised by alternative ways of assessing the world and its possibilities.

That’s fair enough, by the way. One shudders at the number of brilliant and perfectly orthodox theologians who were wrongly disciplined and then shunned in the 1940s and 1950s simply for addressing significant questions in new ways. St. Thomas Aquinas himself would have wanted no part of it. But Chapp recognizes the Catholicism in the Traditionalist strain of thought, and he also lets the Modernist cat out of the bag when, instead of giving it a roughly parallel treatment, he admits that he must abandon his project, because there is nothing worth salvaging.

That frank recognition won significant respect from me. What was originally framed as an “even-handed” approach (intellectually speaking) collapsed into an honest recognition of what has Catholic theological roots…and what has not.

Personal and ecclesial lifestyle questions

Chapp himself put down agrarian roots after his years of teaching theology, and started a Catholic Workers Farm. He agrees with some of the key theoreticians of that movement that a rural life possesses particular advantages for those trying to rediscover and strengthen their sense of God, creation, nature, supernature and Jesus Christ. He doesn’t make any exclusive claims, but many people do find that a turn toward agrarianism induces a whole series of healthy human insights which, because they connect us more fully with nature, also connect us with God Himself. He does not push this too far. He recognizes that urban environments provide greater opportunities for the like-minded to find each other, for Christian service, and for the Good news to spread.

While deeply indebted to the witness of the iconic and saintly Dorothy Day, Chapp has even more often followed the lead of the Catholic Worker movement’s lead theoretician, Peter Maurin. Moreover, he has not failed to incorporate into his theological reflection the insight that a fully and effectively Christian life must always be cruciform. This he regards as a significant test of Christian authenticity—more telling (if less specifically defined) than the precise state of life, vocation or job we may embrace. In the final chapter of the book, the author explores this concept in a variety of ways, not least in discussing the conflicting attitudes Catholics have toward the work of the Second Vatican Council. Here he is clearly broadening the perspective again, stretching beyond his own vocational decisions to the life of the Church as a whole, which must also, after all, be cruciform.

In my first version of this review, I allowed myself to be confused by reading too quickly. I saw references to “the Church teaching” this or that incorrectly over the centuries, and misunderstood these as references to Magisterial teaching (which is how I typically use the term “Church teaching”), rather than also embracing things that Churchmen in various periods commonly taught (the concept of limbo might be a good non-controversial example).

As a result of my haste, I made it one of the themes of my review (including its ill-chosen original title) to offer certain “corrections” which, when the author called my attention to what I had misunderstood, I found to be unwarranted. Fortunately, it is not our theological understanding at any given moment that gets us into heaven. The fact that I would have phrased the discussion somewhat differently is no excuse; that difference should not have misled me, and would not have done so had I examined things more carefully, as the author had every right to expect.

I mention this for the sake of those who have already read the first version of this review.

Genuine ressourcement

In any case, we can no longer be unaware that a good part of the ecclesiastical establishment, not excluding bishops and even the pope, has at times asserted things that were later proven wrong as the Church’s official teaching developed more fully. For that matter, I remind everyone that St. Thomas Aquinas himself took the wrong side in the quarrel over the Immaculate Conception (which had not yet been defined). Chapp is very aware of all this and, as a vital part of his contemporary application, he is also aware that the rising wave of Western secularization has distorted our reception of the Second Vatican Council, without being caused by it.

We ought to be aware that the “Church” (as in a large body of both Churchmen and religious and lay members) not infrequently says things that are not only incorrect or stupid but appalling. Chapp understands that there is a very human difference between popular one-sided interpretations and the ongoing need for even the Church to deepen her understanding of faith and morals over time, constantly looking not only at her current situation but all the way back to the Revelatory sources themselves. And this must include a careful study of the writings of those who had the first opportunity to do extensive theological writing based on the nearness of the Apostolic tradition, namely the Fathers of the Church.

This was the viewpoint of the ressourcement school of thought just prior to the Council, a school of thought embraced by philosophical and theological thinkers as diverse as de Lubac, Congar, Wojtyla and Ratzinger, some of whom were deeply distrusted by the Holy Office in the years immediately preceding Vatican II, for no better reason than that they rocked the neo-scholastic boat. Chapp’s discussion of these matters, and their application to Catholic life today, is both balanced and perceptive.

With apologies for my initial misunderstanding of a key point, let me reaffirm that what makes Chapp’s book so interesting precisely as a popular work, a work decidedly for non-specialists, is the intersection between his theology, his return to the land, and his return to the sources. The book’s chief value is that of a personal witness to Catholic theological reflection in the context of one kind of separation from the world—a separation that each of us must effect, in one way or another, if we wish ever to be free to pray, and so to think.

Larry S. Chapp, Confession of a Catholic Worker: Our Current Moment of Christian Witness. Ignatius Press, 2023. 223pp. Paper $16.16; Ebook $11.67.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 15, 2023 6:07 PM ET USA

    CorneliusG: The word means, in this context, that every Christian must in some way conform his life to the Cross. That does not by itself give us much specific information. But it does tell us that the process of conforming ourselves to Christ involves self-denial and the way of the cross. I'm sure this word, like all others, can be abused. But I think it conveys a significant point in our world today: Genuine Catholicism involves worldly detachment, and therefore suffering.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - May. 15, 2023 5:35 AM ET USA

    First time I've ever seen the word "cruciform", and I'm a cradle Catholic. And you never define it or give practical examples of its meaning, perhaps assuming everybody knows it.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - May. 12, 2023 5:31 PM ET USA

    You're an honest man, Jeff. Thanks for the update/correction.