A thumbnail guide to new Catholic books: Choose what appeals!
I am going to turn a necessity into a virtue. Books have been piling up on my desk all summer. Even after giving about half of them away without a third glance, I am left with more than a dozen which are clearly worthwhile, but which I simply have not had the time to read and review individually. The virtue of this necessity is that you now have this thumbnail guide to use according to your own needs and interests.
Science, philosophy and faith
I have already reviewed each of the first three volumes of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s ambitious and comprehensive “quartet” (or tetralogy) on human happiness. The first of the four volumes covers the nature of true happiness, the second treats evidence of our transcendent nature from reason and experience, and the third examines our transcendent destiny in Revelation. The fourth volume is now out: The Light Shines on in the Darkness: Transforming Suffering through Faith (Ignatius Press, 542 pages).
Spitzer’s goal throughout has been to provide a universal analysis of what it means to be a human person, how we know our transcendence, how all this points directly Christ, and how Faith unlocks the key to suffering, so that we can find true joy even amid the daily sorrows and complexities of our lives. Since Fr. Spitzer has a rich background in science, philosophy and theology, he is able to draw on insights and arguments from all three disciplines to make his case. If you have followed this series—or even if you simply want to understand the problem of suffering—you should read The Light Shines on in the Darkness.
Working on a similar problem, but far more briefly, Michael Augros examines all the aspects of our being which, while experienced through corporality, extend far beyond it. Entitled, The Immortal in You (Ignatius, 323 pages), Augros’ book is subtitled “How human nature is more than science can say”. The author holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teaches at Thomas Aquinas College, where countless seminars on the great books have surely contributed to this remarkable book. Fifteen chapters combine to demonstrate, as Brandon Vogt said so succinctly in his cover blurb, that “the soul, the mind, and human purpose are real even if the sciences can’t detect them”.
Taking a slightly different tack, the geneticist Gerard M. Verschuuren seeks to address a pressing contemporary need—a new synthesis of faith and reason which can speak more effectively to our secular culture. The task is similar to what St. Thomas Aquinas achieved in the thirteenth century when he was able to perceive and integrate the rich correspondence between Aristotelian thought and Catholic theology. Entitled Aquinas and Modern Science (Angelico, 240 pages), this serious text examines the relationships between the thought of Aquinas and contemporary metaphysics, the principles of nature, epistemology, science generally, cosmology, physics, genetics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and the social sciences.
I have already mentioned David Mattson’s remarkable book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay (Ignatius, 300 pages) in connection with one particular issue: The Catch-22 of Christian witness by those who are same-sex attracted. But I had not yet read the book, and it now appears that I will not get to it, despite its foreword by the remarkable Robert Cardinal Sarah. Mattson’s subtitle explains the autobiographical thrust of the book, “How I reclaimed my sexual reality and found peace.” His point is that he could not make progress until he recognized that his fundamental identity was that of a beloved son of God, not a bundle of desires.
This engaging personal account must give way to one more heavyweight book, a Catholic defense of capital punishment: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (Ignatius, 420 pages) by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette. The former is a professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College and the latter a professor of Government and Ethics at Claremont McKenna College who has extensive practical experience in the field of criminal justice. Together, the authors address the confusion that has surrounded the death penalty in Catholic thought since John Paul II sought to clarify it in the early 1990s. The well-researched study is divided into four sections, covering Natural Law, Church teaching, earthly justice and heavenly salvation, and the campaign of the American bishops to end the death penalty.
Benedict and Francis
One of the more recent controversies under Pope Francis has been the termination of Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, especially in light of Müller’s insistence that Amoris Laetitia must be read in a manner consistent with prior magisterial statements and Catholic Tradition. Four essays and speeches by Cardinal Müller in 2015, reflecting on the pontificates of both Benedict and Francis, were originally published in German and have now appeared in English: Benedict and Francis: Their Ministry as Successors to Peter (EWTN, 120 pages). These cover the Primacy of Peter under Benedict, the meaning of laicity, poverty as a way of evangelization under Francis, and theological criteria for ecclesial and curial reform.
EWTN has also published Benedict Up Close (241 pages), the inside story of the eight dramatic years of Benedict’s pontificate, researched and written by Roman journalist Paul Badde. Based partly on personal discussions with the Pope, Badde covers Benedict’s decision to remove “Patriarch of the West” from his list of titles, the Pope’s betrayal by his valet, the origin of the scallop on his coat of arms, his devotion to the Face of Jesus, the misunderstood point of the Regensburg Address, the Pope’s visit to Turkey, his establishment of the Latin “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, his Biblical exegesis, why he chose “Benedict” as his name, why he chose to resign on the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, and more.
Concerning the relationship between Catholics and Protestants, two Catholic authors have emphasized different sides of the same equation in new and very readable books. Fr. John MacLaughlin makes the case against religious indifferentism in Let There Be No Divisions among You (Sophia, 177 pages). Subtitled “Why all Christians should be Catholic”, MacLaughlin covers the moral impossibility of indifferentism, as known from both reason and Revelation, and presents the marks of the One True Church, especially unity and universality. One of the dangers of ecumenism, of course, is that it can breed indifferentism, and this must always be avoided.
Meanwhile Peter Kreeft examines the positive developments that can and should result from doctrinally serious ecumenism in a new book entitled Catholics and Protestants: What can we learn from each other? (Ignatius, 204 pages). This presents a different sort of spiritual challenge as the author uses thirty-four brief chapters to shed light on the nature of Catholicism and Protestantism, on how we should think about each other, and on characteristic virtues and insights which we should make our own. Kreeft deeply respects the Protestant emphasis on “Jesus alone”, but only if it includes the whole Jesus, particularly the Church He established to continue His mission and perpetuate His active Presence in history.
I was happy to see Ignatius Press publish new editions of two of Hilaire Belloc’s most valued historical works, The Great Heresies (196 pages), first published in 1938, and Characters of the Reformation (257 pages), first published in 1936. The former, introduced anew by Karl Keating, covers Arianism, Islam, Albigensianism, Protestantism, and what Belloc called “The Modern Phase”—showing the core and relevance of each of these great errors as they challenge us again and again over time.
The latter, ably presented in this latest edition by Marcus Grodi, includes significant sketches of no fewer than twenty-three influential Europeans who, for better or worse, played profound roles in the Protestant Reformation, from Henry VIII to Louis XIV, and from St. Thomas More to Blaise Pascal. Belloc possessed one of the most subtle minds of the last century, offering timeless insights in a clear and forceful style which remains a great pleasure to read.
But enough of serious problems! My desk is also graced by two fine books of Catholic uplift. First, I should call attention to a new collection of conversion stories edited by Brandon McGinley, From Atheism to Catholicism (EWTN, 134 pages). It is always a consolation to read the personal accounts of non-believers who have eventually embraced the Faith. In this case we hear from John Barger, Holly Ordway, Mark Drogin, Fr. John Bartunek, Charles Spivak, Ronda Chervin, Joseph Pearce, Kevin Vost, and Scott McDermott. Each offers a unique story—and so a unique way to Christ.
And then there is G. K. Chesterton: This brilliant, and brilliantly entertaining, writer was called “the master without a masterpiece” for the uniformly superb quality of his columns, essay, biographies, books on society and religion, poetry, short stories and novels. His novels, such as The Man Who Was Thursday and The Ball and the Cross are typically bizarre, rollicking, and even surreal—but always in ways that highlight the deeper vision of man that his protagonists strive to embrace and defend. In this case, we have a brand new edition of Chesterton’s 1914 novel The Flying Inn (Ignatius, 295 pages). It tells the story of a small group of rebels who have one goal: To thwart the British government’s attempt to impose prohibition on England!
Chesterton, who was so fond of paradoxes, would doubtless argue that the proper order of reading, based on this guide, is not from the first book to the last, but from the last to the first.
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