Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 58–62.
What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained. By Ralph M. McInerny. Sophia Institute Press. 168 pp. $14.95.
Don’t be misled by the rather alarming title: Ralph McInerny’s new book is not another chronicle of the Council’s supposed blunders, nor another recounting of the liturgical abuses and doctrinal distortions that have plagued the post–conciliar Church. Instead, the well–known Notre Dame professor and mystery novelist has produced a remarkably even–handed, sober, and engaging whodunit, explaining that the Council’s teachings (with which, he takes pains to say, nothing whatsoever is wrong) were hijacked by theologians who mis–characterized, deliberately or otherwise, the "spirit of Vatican II." The "Catholic crisis" is a crisis not of arguments but of authority; the conflict in the Church is not between competing theologies but competing masters, with dissenting theologians on the one hand and the Bishop of Rome on the other. McInerny sees Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical on contraception, as the flashpoint of the crisis. With meticulous research, he traces the various rejections of the encyclical and the growing confusion of the laity, torn between rival authorities. Dissenting theologians, he argues, initiated a crisis of conscience among the laity much more serious than that over the issue of contraception. In the years since 1968, dissenters have again and again ruled on the truth and falsity of Church teachings, setting themselves up as authorities against, rather than within, the magisterium. McInerny contends that the role of a theologian is an ecclesial one; many of the Church’s current problems, he concludes, result from a distortion of that role. Indeed, the current crisis can be resolved only in obedience to the Church’s wisdom. This is, in the end, a hopeful book that will give the Catholic faithful, as well as others who may be perplexed about the state of the Catholic Church, the confidence that all is not lost.
— Alicia Mosier
The End of the Modern World. By Romano Guardini. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 202 pp. $24.95.
A revised edition of Guardini’s 1956 classic, with a foreword by Richard John Neuhaus and an introduction by Frederick Wilhelmsen. As Neuhaus and Wilhelmsen warn us, Guardini’s vision of the present and the future is bracing stuff, going beyond optimism and pessimism into the prophetic wilderness where the difficult truth can be proclaimed. The truth, in his view, is that man has lost his place in the universe—and he has lost it because God no longer has a place there. Guardini sees a new age coming, however, in which the fight between Christianity and secularism will be sharpened and in which it will be possible, if we have the nerve for it, to restore man’s dignity and his sense of place. The times will be dangerous, but Christians will find the battle a "clean and open" one in which the virtues—especially obedience, trust, courage, charity, humility, and asceticism—will be their best weapons. Guardini’s book is more than a harsh look at our diseased condition, and quite the opposite of a lament for times past. It is an urgent call to holiness, an inspiring challenge, and an exceptionally important book for a new millennium.
Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle 1950–2000. Edited by Rickie Solinger. University of California Press. 413 pp. $16.95 paper.
While this collection is mostly larded with high–fat, low–fiber essays, several contributions make it very much worth reading. Editor Rickie Solinger, a historian and author, admits in her introduction that despite the myth that prior to Roe v. Wade abortionists were "dirty and dangerous back–alley butchers," pro–choicers have long known that there actually were "astonishingly high rates of technical proficiency." In one essay, Marsha Saxton, a disability rights activist, makes a moving case against prenatal testing. While unwilling to buck the party line, Saxton does offer the against–the–grain admonition that "many who resist selective abortion insist that there is something deeply valuable and profoundly human . . . in meeting and loving a child or adult with a severe disability." From William Saletan, a contributor to Mother Jones magazine and the author of a forthcoming book on the politics of abortion, we learn how after the Supreme Court’s l986 Thornburgh decision, pro–choice strategists began to develop what he calls a "conservative message strategy" that appealed to politicians and voters "more conservative than the feminists and civil libertarians on whom the movement usually relied." The genius of NARAL’s now–famous slogan "Who Decides—You or Them?" was that the "Them" could be spun to mean big government—"nosy, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats," while the "You" was to suggest "families and communities," muting the message of the "liberal, feminist strain of abortion rights." By narrowing their agenda, Saletan argues, pro–choice strategists prevailed in the years immediately after Webster. The rub was that the very same rhetoric of less government and more parental authority could be and was turned against them to pass measures such as parental notification. In fact, this rhetoric unintentionally sanctioned the new measures. Thus, Saletan maintains, the right to abortion survived, while "abortion restrictions have overrun the country." In all, worthwhile opposition research.
— Dave Andrusko
Powerful Prayers. By Larry King, with Rabbi Irwin Katsof. Forward by Dr. Robert H. Schuller. Renaissance Books. 256 pp. $22.95.
When Chaia King suggested to her dad, talk show host Larry, that he write a book about the prayer lives of important people, at first he balked—he had never prayed himself. But then he became curious. Determined to explore this alien custom and goaded by his mentor and co–author Rabbi Irwin Katsof, King did what he does best: interview celebrities. Powerful Prayers has King talking about prayer with people ranging from Jimmy Carter and Shimon Peres to the Dalai Lama, Chuck Colson, New Age guru Marianne Williamson, Senators John McCain and Tom Daschle, quarterback Steve Young, self–help pitchman Anthony Robbins, singers David Crosby and Kenny Rogers, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, and ER’s Noah Wyle, among many others. The responses he gets are what you might expect—clergymen, politicians, and athletes tend to favor traditional kinds of prayer, while New Agers and Hollywood types opt for more exotic rituals. Some of the latter border on the bizarre, such as Oscar–winner Rod Steiger’s habit of praying while floating naked in his pool, a practice that symbolizes for him a return "to the original womb, the ocean." Spirituality, vaguely defined and with only the barest traces of traditional religion, is the height of fashion these days, and if this book is any indication Hollywood remains extremely fashionable. Still—and this really is more important—to one degree or another Mr. King’s famous friends are opening up their hearts and minds to the Divine Mystery. Indeed the only interviewees who said they never pray were Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the ice cream activists Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, an ironic, but somehow fitting, trio. As a result, this slight and, to be frank, rather vapid book manages to give a nice kick in the pants to those of us believers who don’t spend as much time in prayer as we should. And what of its author? His interviews, not to mention his conversations with the blessedly persistent Rabbi Katsof, seem to have had an effect. In the book’s final pages the heretofore stubbornly agnostic Larry King offers up his own first . . . tentative . . . prayer. If he keeps it up, all that chatting may have been worth it.
— Cris Rapp
The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist. By Craig M. Gay. Eerdmans. 349 pp. $22.
That moderns go about their lives without much reference to God is not news. This analysis of modern politics, economics, and culture builds upon the analyses of Charles Taylor and Max Weber to argue that modernism is inherently secular and leads moderns into disastrous self–absorption and relativism. A personalist anthropology, modeled on the relations among the three persons of the Trinity, is the antidote to our secularist tendencies to solipsism. Gay, an associate professor at Regent College in Vancouver, paints a bleak picture of life at the end of the millennium. Surely all the institutions of the free market need not be jettisoned before we can worship God freely, and it is unlikely that all critics of modernity are "anti–Protestant" for wanting to revive the virtue theories associated with Aristotle and Aquinas. Gay might take more note of Michael Novak and John Paul II, inter alia, who have given some thought to how Christians relate to the institutions of the modern political economy. But as Richard John Neuhaus says in his plug for the book, "Gay joins erudition to lucidity in exploring the soullessness of a modernity blind to the ultimately personal character of all that is."
America’s Imperial Burden: Is the Past Prologue? By Ernest W. Lefever. Westview. 194 pp. $24.
A veteran proponent of "moral realism" in the Niebuhrian vein offers sober and sobering reflections on the fact that the world’s only remaining superpower has no guiding philosophy for the exercise of its world influence. Lefever, who was the founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is rightly worried by the current paucity of public debate about foreign policy, and makes a valuable contribution to remedying that unhappy circumstance.
Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. By Lawrence Lipking. Harvard University Press. 372 pp. $35.
This is a beautiful book that no devotee of Dr. Johnson will want to miss. Of course, there’s no competing with Jackson Bate’s magnificent biography, and Lipking of Northwestern University doesn’t try. His tack, as the subtitle indicates, is to trace the development of Johnson as a hack writer on his way to becoming an author, a title of great distinction in Johnson’s mind and in his dictionary. Along the way, Lipking deftly and devastatingly takes on current critical fashions that have declared "the death of the author." Of most particular interest is Lipking’s pressing of the question, Why did Johnson write? The answer, for all Johnson’s witty remarks about writing for money, is that Johnson wrote to serve, and, most particularly, to serve the moral formation of the young. Samuel Johnson is complex in reasoning and graceful in execution; it is a major achievement.
Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia. By Peter M. J. Stravinskas. Our Sunday Visitor. 1,040 pp. $39.95.
A revised and updated edition of a book that many have welcomed as a handy desktop reference. An encyclopedia by one author is bound to reflect a certain perspective, and in this case that perspective is to stick to the basics and adhere firmly to traditional practice and magisterial teaching.
Affirmations and Admonitions. Edited by Gabriel Fackre and Michael Root. Eerdmans. 124 pp. $16 paper.
Seven essays offering an overview of where Lutheranism now is and where it is going in ecumenical relations with Reformed, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic churches.
A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. Second Edition. By Alasdair MacIntyre. University of Notre Dame Press. 280 pp. $18.
The second edition of this classic will be more widely read than the first, one expects, if only because in the intervening three decades the author has become perhaps the most important moral philosopher in the English–speaking world. One finds MacIntyre wrestling in 1966 with many of the themes that made his 1981 book After Virtue such a watershed: moral philosophy cannot be done abstractly or ahistorically; ethical concepts rely upon a surrounding culture to give them meaning; twentieth–century philosophy suffers from ignoring the nature of moral discourse; Aristotle has much more than a little to offer. In the introduction to the second edition, MacIntyre expresses surprise that thirty years later he still agrees with so much of the book. He concedes to his critics that his discussions of Christianity, the British Enlightenment, Kant, and the Oxford consequentialist R. M. Hare all needed refinement and further study, some of which he has already done and some of which will wait for "when I finally do write that as yet nonexistent book that I think of as A Very Long History of Ethics."
The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. Edited by Robert Wuthnow. Congressional Quarterly. Two volumes, 1,000 pp. $298.75.
Ambitious projects should not be criticized for falling somewhat short of their worthy ambitions. The subject indicated by the title is so vast that it would require many more than two volumes to treat it comprehensively. With so many contributors and with principles of selection that are not always evident, it is not surprising that the entries are of uneven quality. Nonetheless, this is a very useful reference and deserving of a place in any library serious about the intersection of religion and public life.
A Case Against Accident and Self–Organization. By Dean L. Overman. Foreword by Wolfhart Pannenberg. Rowman & Littlefield. 244 pp. $28.
Philip E. Johnson is a very smart lawyer who writes about evolutionary biology. Another very smart lawyer, Dean L. Overman, has written a book that covers biology and also mathematics, particle astrophysics, probability theory, and philosophical logic. Both justify their poaching on academic territory because as lawyers, they are trained to sniff out when evidence will not hold up under scrutiny, and the scientific evidence does not indicate that life is merely an accident. Overman’s "brief" finds implausible the claims that life evolved from nonlife by chance and that the conditions for life in the universe are without cause. Expert scientific witnesses from Harvard, Princeton, and Cambridge find his arguments convincing. The verdict? Scientists who address these subjects tend to beg the question, generating implausible scenarios as a result. As clear and straightforward an argument as one can find.
The Politics of Aristotle. Translated, with introduction, analysis, and notes by Peter L. Phillips Simpson. University of North Carolina Press. 274 pp. $39.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.
A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle. By Peter L. Phillips Simpson. University of North Carolina Press. 476 pp. $49.95.
This affordable translation and accessible commentary walk the reader through the arguments of Aristotle’s work on how men live together in society. Professor Simpson emphasizes the philosophical arguments of the text, rather than the philological or rhetorical readings of other commentators, leading him to insert for philosophical context the last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics at the beginning of the translation, and to include a helpful analytical outline of the main arguments. His Commentary, based on this outline, engages modern scholarship with verve and charity, qualities rare even in Aristotle scholarship.
What God Has Joined Together: The Annulment Crisis in American Catholicism. By Robert H. Vasoli. Oxford University Press. 252 pp. $25.
The annulment of marriages has been grossly misunderstood by those outside the Church for centuries. Recently, though, American Catholics have become confused as well—at least in part due to the explosion in the granting of annulments that makes a declaration of nullity seem little different from a divorce. Here Vasoli, recently retired from Notre Dame’s sociology department, looks at the changes in the practice and theory of American marriage tribunals to explain what a declaration of nullity is and why 75 percent of all annulments in the world occur in the United States. As he tells it, canon law theologians "discovered" in Gaudium et Spes (#48) the mention of "the community [i.e. wholeness] of life," which they read as establishing under canon law a right "to a caring, interpersonal relationship." This vague new right, when combined with the shallow psychologizing of the postconciliar era, led to an explosion of marriages an-nulled essentially on the reasoning that since even canon lawyers are confused over what it means to get married, few nonexperts can be expected to appreciate what they are getting into. The tribunals thus presume something as common as marriage to be virtually unknowable to virtually everybody. Add to this change in outlook the procedural abuses Vasoli documents, and one can understand why there is what many are calling an annulment crisis. Though Vasoli sometimes lets his emotions lead him into rhetorical excesses, there is much to be learned from his research and analysis. His bleak conclusions leave him with only one suggestion for reform—overhaul everything.