Oct 022014

Cardinal Gerhard Müller who is Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a new book coming out on October 10th during the Synod of Bishops as they discuss ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.’ The Hope of the Family: A Dialogue with Cardinal Gerhard Müller. This book is done in the interview format with questions from Spanish journalist Carlos Granados.

I’ve never read any of Cardinal Müller’s writings so I was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed what he had to say. As a rather short book of under a 100 pages, still there is much to reflect on and I copied out a bunch of notes to further reflect on.

Due to all the punditry regarding the upcoming synod you would think it was called “The Divorced Receiving Communion.” You would have no idea of the breadth of the schema to be discussed as specified in Instrumentum Laboris. The actual interview involves a range of issues regarding the family. The hot buttons issue regarding divorced Catholics is addressed in part, and it is obvious the interviewer tried to draw out more on this. This gives just a taste of his reply which is much broader.

Cardinal Müller: Saint Thomas Aquinas said that mercy is precisely the fulfillment of justice, since God thereby justifies and renews his creature man (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 21, a. 3). Therefore, it should never be used as a justification to suspend or invalidate the commandments and the sacraments. To do that would be a crude manipulation of genuine mercy and, therefore, a vain attempt to justify our own indifference toward God and man. — Page 54

If we turn to the Gospel, we observe how Jesus, in his dialogue with the Pharisees concerning divorce, also has recourse to the two terms “divorce” and “mercy” (cf. Mt 19:3–12). Precisely in this passage he accuses the Pharisees of “hardness of heart”, of being unmerciful, since in their tortured interpretation of the Law they have concluded that Moses supposedly granted permission for them to dismiss their wives. Jesus reminds them that God’s mercy is contrary to our human weakness. — Page 55

What struck me the most was what he had to say about the individual in the context of the family and how “our society exalts individual rights.”

The individualistic family is another typically modern category: how many families languish because they are confined to themselves! — Page 38

There is much in that simple statement and category of “individualistic family” that is an accurate diagnosis of the state of the family. Maybe this simple statement hits me because of my own self-absorption.

As for pastoral practices, in my former archdiocese of Regensburg, it is quite common to offer Eucharistic liturgies for families with very young children. This seems to me to be a very good idea. We no longer talk about “a children’s Mass” but, rather, more accurately, about “a family Mass” since the attempt to introduce a child to the faith is useless and even counterproductive if this is done behind the back of his family. — Page 40

Throughout I could see his sense of urgency and his concerns for the family.

As a pastor, I tell myself: This cannot be! Someone will have to present the truth to them! Someone will have to open their eyes and tell them that they have been cruelly deceived by a false anthropology that leads only to disaster! — Page 78

Another unfortunate trend lately has been the “Cardinal vs. Cardinal” narrative. No doubt there has been a very lively debate and at times even name-calling, still there has also been simply discussion and critique without that stain. This book avoids that narrative and while the Cardinal critiques ideas and the manipulation of citations from the Church Fathers, he does not mention specific people.

Sep 172014

The Protestant’s Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism by Devin Rose is a rather interesting read.

Many apologetics books in this area concentrate on a couple of arguments such as the faults of interpretation such as Sola Scriptura. What I found most interesting is that this book uses a variety of arguments taking the consequences of various Protestant theology to their natural conclusion. That often some of these Protestant premises really prove too much in that they are self-defeating.

Devin Rose as a former Protestant worked through these ideas on his way into the Church and so he conveys multiple intellectual exercises regarding “If Protestantism is True”. This is the format used for each specific idea within a topic. To first take seriously an idea as true and to work out where that should lead. This is than offset with a concluding paragraph “Because Catholicism is True” which gives the Sed Contra (on the contrary).

These individual chapters within a topic are fairly short and so there were certainly times where I wanted to see an idea more fleshed-out. Still I enjoyed that I often came across objections I had not thought or heard before.

So overall I found this to be a worthwhile read. This is not a book I would just hand to a Protestant friend since the format and the wording could be rather off-putting to someone not already questioning some of the premises. Rather it would be more useful for Catholics wanting to look at some of the arguments used since there is such a wide variety contained within this book. My only caveat is that there were a very limited number of times where I did not see how the answered objection necessarily flowed from the premise. Possibly I just didn’t fully understand the argument.

Jul 142014

Elizabeth Ficocelli is a talented writer and one of her recent books is no exception. Therese, Faustina and Bernadette: Three Saints Who Challenged My Faith, Gave Me Hope, and Taught Me How to Love

These are three saints I knew a good amount about and so biography-wise I did not expect to learn much from this book. If this was all this book was about then it would have just been an nice introduction to these three saints. Where this book shines is where the author describes how she has incorporated these saints in her daily life. She describes how these saints became important to her during various stages in life as both examples and intercessors.

The book starts off with Elizabeth Ficocelli telling a bit of her conversion story and her entry into the professional world with an advertising firm. The initial excitement and the difficulties and then the series of events leading her to a deeper conversion. Throughout the book the waypoints on the path to holiness is illustrated with the struggles and how specifically these three saints helped her out.

I found the book to be obviously aimed at the women’s market, yet I enjoyed it thoroughly. The examples she gives in the book are nothing abstract, but something we can all find in the struggles in our life regarding how to fully live the faith. Very worthwhile.

Jun 042014

I almost always enjoy reading conversions stories as a full length book. While you usually find certain commonalities there are also aspects that flow from the uniqueness of individuals. Grace shines off the facets that can make such stories familiar and new.

In this case I am referring to Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It by Jennifer Fulwiler.

The broad outline of here conversion story first took a public face when she decided when still an atheist to start a blog. She had questions about religion and wanted to see if there were actually any answers regarding this. To interact with others via the comment section and emails.

I had thought I had known her conversion story and most of the details of it. I remembered reading her posts she she wrote at The Reluctant Atheist and subsequently Et tu, Jen? prior to her entrance into the Catholic Church. She currently blogs at Conversion Diary.

So going in I found that while there was familiar territory in her story there was also much more to the story. From the start of the book I was totally engaged in how she relates her story. She really brings you into her life and some of the events surrounding her atheism and how it expressed itself as a child. How she came to grips with the fact that her non-belief in God was at odds with most of the other children she knew.

What so hooked me in her telling of her story was just how much you are invited in to both her struggles and her joys and consequently into her family. There is a very difficult struggle in going from an established atheistic view to admitting that just possibly there is something to consider on the other side of the divide. That even when there is a reconsideration of atheism and a movement towards faith that there is a fear you are losing your reason and going after something squishy. The problems where when intellectually you are increasingly satisfied there is still the divide between intellectual belief and acting on that belief.

The only thing I found lacking was that really I wanted more details regarding some aspects of her conversion. Although I totally understood why she didn’t go into them. It is a difficult balance to write about conversion while not going into every details regarding family relationships and demands of privacy. When Jennifer Fulwiler participated in a three-part reality show called Minor Revisions I was very intrigued with her relationship with her father who remains an atheists. The book goes partially into her very positive relationship with her father and his encouragement in her seeking the truth wherever it leads. Still she is also very frank about the conversations that came up between her and her husband and the struggles they had. Especially as she was coming to faith and he was starting to take his faith seriously. One of the reasons I so enjoy conversion stories is seeing real people live out the demands of the faith amidst everyday life.

The conversational tone of her writing along with the humor throughout takes on serious subjects while allowing you to think and laugh as you proceed through the book. I certainly found that my reading sessions of this book were prolonged where I was always thinking, “I will just read another page or two before I put it down for the night.” Even if conversion stories are not usually your taste, you will probably find that this one just might be. If you are looking for a book to give an atheist that is a more difficult question. The experience of atheist converts is often disregarded by atheists. Plus each person is different and are on various parts of a journey. So I would suggest reading it yourself and seeing if it would be helpful for a specific individual.

One aspect that I found difficult in writing this review is that I identified with so many points of her experience. As someone who had also from childhood identified as an atheist along with some similar aspects in family life. The difficulty is that I wanted to avoid writing about myself in reviewing this book. So I will let this last-paragraph intrusion of my ego be the extent of it.

Apr 092014

This partial review is part of a blog tour for the recently released paperback edition of Fr. Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. This blog tour is focused on reviewing one chapter from this book.

So I will be looking at Chapter 10 – World Without End: The Last Things which is quite appropriate for Lent.

This book grew out of Fr. Robert Barron’s major project to produce a media series that explained the faith using the scenery of 50 locations throughout 16 countries. Having seen the Catholicism series I felt it was very successful at what it aimed to do.

The chapter I am exploring on the Last Things is very indicative of Fr. Barron’s teaching method. Using literary examples, places, and events to set a theme that opens you up to the philosophical and theological points he makes. It is no surprise that Dante’s Divine Comedy was used as more than just a backdrop to illustrate an introduction into the topics of hell and purgatory. A discussion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet also is made use of in exploring this topic. Mostly I enjoyed they way he used the literary narrative to help define terms and to help the reader move beyond just a cultural view of hell, purgatory, and Heaven.

This book is not intended to provide an exhaustive apologetics in this area or to fully look at Catholic distinctive such as purgatory. A 291 page book on the topic of Catholicism is not meant to replace the Catechism, but to take the reader on a tour of the faith. Distilling the Catholicism series down to a book is not a simple task. The black-and-white images in the book just don’t have the majesty of the video locations and so I found them to be only vaguely useful in providing an accent to the topic discussed.

I am a big fan of Fr. Barron’s teaching method and have been a long time fan of his Word on Fire site from the beginning. Unfortunately when it comes to the topic of the last things this chapter left me cold. Generally I found most of it worthwhile, but some aspects I found either missing or presenting more of a personal point-of-view over what the Church teaches.

For example when you lead off a topic mentioning Protestant objections to Purgatory and subsequently reference what 2 Maccabees 12 says I found to be a bit odd. I did not expect a thorough scriptural apologetics defense of purgatory, but there is no reason to bring up Protestant objections unless you are going to try to answer them in even a general way.

Mainly what annoyed me on this topic of the last things was the discussion of hell and the idea that there might not be anybody in hell. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously wrote on this topic and Fr. Barron’s seems to take the same view of Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope?. This idea was repeatedly interjected. Mostly what annoyed me is that nowhere was it mentioned that this is a very minority opinion and that it has no backing from the Church’s magisterium. If you have a personal theological opinion than it should be labeled as such, especially in the case of a general book on the faith. Regarding my own personal opinion I think Balthasar’s idea is severely flawed and for an excellent look on what the Church teaches and why Balthasar is mistaken I would highly recommend Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization. Still I am less concerned with the population of hell other than making sure I don’t increase that population by one.

When you have a chapter on the last things I would also have expected some discussion regarding judgment especially as part of the traditional reference to the four last things: Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. There is certainly some consideration regarding sin in this chapter, but it seemed to me that the non-discussion regarding judgment was connected to his view on the population of hell. I could easily be reading too much into this.

Writing this review rather pains me since if my review had covered pretty much any other chapter in this book it would have been much more positive and without so many caveats. Especially since there was much that I enjoyed in this chapter in particular regarding the angels and the fallen angels. His exploration of a look at the devil via Dante’s Inferno is spot on.

Feb 252014

Fr. Dwight Logenecker’s new book The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty is somewhat of a sequel to his previous book Adventures in Orthodoxy. Being that the previous books is one of my favorites I was very happy to see this book.

Fr. Longenecker was kind enough to send me an advance copy of this book last year and I found it quite excellent. Recently I was sent a PDF copy of the final book to review and I had no hesitation regarding a re-read.

Towards the beginning of the book he relates the episode of as a child hearing the story regarding Jesus overturning the moneychanger’s tables.

The righteous religious people told me that Jesus turned over the tables because he disapproved of the merchants selling things in church. …

This, however, never convinced me. I knew the truth. Jesus turned over the tables in the temple because he enjoyed it. He trashed the place. He was angry. He sent the pigeons flying. The sheep and goats went bleating as he gave the thieves a beating. He scattered the proud in their conceit and dashed their little heads against the pavement. The story thrilled me. No longer would I believe only in the gentle Jesus who took little kiddies on his lap and blessed them. …

It is no coincidence that Fr. Longenecker goes on to overturn a bunch of tables himself in this book. Just like his Chestertonian blog name “[Standing on my head][]” reflects viewing things from a different perspective, the landscape of overturned tables also helps you see things for the first time.

Specifically what “The Romance of Religion” successfully does is to view the faith through the eyes of a romantic hero. The type of romantic hero who is seen as a bit of fool from the outside. To take the great stories of just this type of romantic fool and to glimpse the truth that such stories stand upon. We look to articles, newscasts, and other media to fill us with facts while really it is often in the story where we will find the truth of the world. That this adventure in the romance of religion uses Don Quixote, Cyrano de Bergerac, and even Reepicheep to make these points adds to the enjoyment.

For those familiar with Fr. Longenecker you would expect a certain playfulness with words and phrases that both ring out and ring true. The playfulness of his writing with the inherent puns first make you laugh and then make you think. I also enjoyed his looking at the roots of certain words so that you more fully understood them. The title “The Romance of Religion” might seem like an odd choice at first, but he shows how the etymology of “Romance” fits perfectly. If you can’t see your faith as an adventure and a quest then you need a bit of “head standing” to see correctly.

This is a rather sneaky book in that it is the apologetics of the fairy tale. The big questions as seen through the big stories. Really it is surprising how well this technique works in answering some common objections as seen in apologetics.

I found my second reading of this book to be quite worthwhile in that there is just so much to be drawn from both his playfulness with words, but the ideas behind them that reveal the deeper reality.

My previous review of Adventures in Orthodoxy

Mandatory Chesterton quote:

“…If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”

– The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Jan 222014

In the aftermath of the slew of books by the so-called new atheists there has been a wealth of material in book-form in reply. Of the several books I have read they have all provided good material in answering atheism.

The main weakness of the majority of the books I have read regarding atheism in apologetics is that I also found that these books were not ones that I would really suggest an atheist to read. While reading them I reflected that if I was still an atheist that I would have found the tone to be too condescending or confrontational. My only previous exception to this I found was New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy by Fr. Robert J. Spitzer S.J. Although this book was not a general apologetics work and almost entirely confined itself to where the philosophical and the scientific arguments intersected.

When I first heard that Trent Horn from Catholic Answers was putting out a book on atheism I had high hopes that maybe here would be a book that I could recommend to atheists who were interested in hearing arguments against atheism. I have greatly enjoyed Trent Horn’s answers on Catholic Answers especially when they spend a whole show dialoging with atheists. I am very happy to report that Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity is exactly the book I have been waiting for.

I liked almost just about everything about this book and the serious effort it makes to take atheist objections seriously. You can certainly see the St. Thomas Aquinas approach here where objections are put forth accurately before the “on the contrary” reply to the objection. There are always going to be tensions between writing an apologetics book for a popular audience while addressing technical philosophical and scientific questions. Trent Horn has navigated these tensions rather well and solved part of this problem by moving some more technical discussions to appendixes without leaving out meat in the main chapters. I also really enjoyed some of the arguments employed and some of the nuances that he used that I had not encountered before.

So as the subtitle of this book focused on using logic and charity I think the really hit this out of the park. This is a great book for anybody that wants to brush up on or explore the arguments/ways of knowing that God exists.

This is also a book that can be easily recommended to atheists and not have them just dismiss it in frustration. At one time I was naive enough to believe that a solid book of this type would of its own be a great conversion tool. I have since learned that grace, disposition, and timing is even a more necessary requirement before logic. Yet this book at least will help towards fertilizing that rocky soil.

Dec 032013

In Michael O’Brien’s new book Voyage to Alpha Centauri he enters the genre of Science Fiction. This book is both in some ways totally different from his previous books and very similar. All the themes he explores are present in this story. Elements present in his “Children of the Last Day” series are especially present such as an intrusive government and the loss of religious freedom. The collision of these factors providing tension along with personal conversion. Yet some of this is handled more tangentially than his previous books.

Neil Ruiz de Hoyos as a young man meets with an accident that both marks him and opens up a new vista for him. His later career as a physicist bring him two Nobel prizes. His work leads partially to the construction of a ship that goes on an expedition to Alpha Centauri where he is a passenger. We see the voyage through his journal entries where he writes about the voyage, his life and childhood, and the discoveries they encounter on a planet in the system of Alpha Centauri. An epistolary novel works quite well when it comes to covering the large amount of time involved in such a voyage where journal entries can just highlight what is going on in the main.

As a man Neil is both private and reaching out for friendships. A man raised in a Catholic family, but now with no faith which has been supplanted by a scientific skepticism. Yet somebody who is also skeptical regarding a form of government enforced political correctness and just following along with societal trends. Despite what he encounters and learns from his small core of friends there are some things he would rather explain away than to truly understand. This all provides the backdrop for the momentous events that occur on the trip out and ultimately what they learn on the planet they explore.

I am already a Michael O’Brien and my first love when it comes to books is Science Fiction. So I am totally delighted to have these two together. Just considering the SF aspects of the novel there is a lot to enjoy and adding the deeper theological and societal dimensions you have so much more than presented in so much rather shallow SF. The plot that develops is rather stunning and ties together nicely the blend of SF and theology. I especially liked how many levels the novel had and that the prevalent themes on the journey out became quite different on arrival. Some of the subtler Biblical themes also added to the enjoyment in that he didn’t have to hit you over the head with them. Highly recommended.

Oct 212013

I have read several biographies on Pope Francis and they all did a fairly good job covering his life up to his accepting the chair of Peter. While covering the basic facts rather well and giving some measure of the man, I really did not come away feeling I knew him at all really.

This new book put out by Ignatius Press is more than just another biography. Pope Francis – Our Brother, Our Friend: Personal Recollections about the Man Who Became Pope by Alejandro Bermudez is something a bit different. The book is a series of interviews of people who knew him as a priest, bishop or both. While some basic questions were asked of each person this lead down several pathways in intriguing ways.

The first half of the book were interviews of Jesuits and I found these interviews the most interesting. These interviews for me gave me more of the measure of the man. Especially since all the Jesuits interviewed were not exactly Jorge Bergoglio fanboys. There were plenty of back-handed compliments considering Bergoglio theological orthodox in that he was not considered “adventurous” enough. You could certainly read behind the scenes that some of these Jesuits considered this a defect in what they thought was an otherwise goodman. Still there a a common thread of great respect for the man even from his theological adversaries. He seemed to have won them over not by pretending that these theological differences did not matter, but that he could deeply care for and be concerned with a person he had fundamental disagreements with. This fact was evidenced throughout the various interviews interviews.

Some of the questions asked were what you would expect since they were the hot button ones concerning his life as a priest and then bishop. For example the time he spent as a Jesuit superior at a rather young age during a very difficult time in Argentina along with his actions regarding the dirty war there. All the interviewees were asked about their own reaction when the announcement was made that he was elected. The answers to this question didn’t really add much to the book and it is no surprise that they were surprised.

Other interviews came from layman and some of the journalists involved with books released about him or his book project with Rabbi Skorka (who was also interviewed).

We have heard a good deal about his simplicity and austere lifestyle. His great concern for the individual in talking and listening to them. There are some great stories in this book in how he takes action totally uniting what he preached with what he did. Another great thread is how much he is a man of prayer and also a very capable spiritual director. One of the questions I had wondered about the Pope is his leadership abilities? How he came to make decisions and how he implemented and followed up? There are plenty of good and holy people that have poor leadership skills – Pope Celestine V come to mind regarding this. The answer to this really came through regarding his leadership abilities. That this is a man who seeks advice, but is not afraid to make a decision. Someone who expects things do be done correctly and as he specified. Willing to let people know when things were not being done right, yet showing mercy to those who messed up.

I found this passage by Father Angel Rossi, S.J. to be indicative about what others said about him:

So if I would have to single out only one thing that always remains with me—even though I do not know if I practice it, I am nevertheless grateful for it—it is his sense of mercy. Very few times have I seen mercy at the depths to which he lives it, and it does not consist in allowing anything whatever to happen, but, rather, in taking charge of the hearts of others and suffering and enjoying life with others. And he brought this to the other person with a very refined charity, a charity of gestures.

While it doesn’t really matter if I approve of the Pope or not, I am rather looking forward to seeing his leadership style of both collaboration and decisive decision making as it plays out in the years to come. In his short time as Pope I don’t think we have really seen this played out yet. Although for example his appointment of eight Cardinal advisors is part of his leadership pattern.

One other interesting insight in the book is the events around a particular Te Deum Mass. These Te Deum Masses are common in Latin America on their national independence day. At the time President of Argentina Cristina Fernández and her husband (the ex-president) took as an insult the homily given by Cardinal Bergoglio. It seems likely his homily on poverty and service was aimed at everybody and they out of arrogance thought it was all about them. This event and his later speaking out forcefully against so-called same-sex marriage got him charged as interfering in politics. Some of this is related by Lilian Negre a pro-life and pro-family senator who often consulted with the Cardinal.

Overall I found this to be an intriguing book and one that helped me flesh out the man beyond the normal biographical details.

Oct 142013

The history of Elizabethan England and the persecution of Catholics is quite interesting. When I think of it I think of the recusants along with the priest holes. A time of severe trial for Catholics along with so many martyrdoms. There are some classic novels covering some aspects of this time period such as Edmund Campion by Evenlyn Waugh and Come Rack! Come Rope! by Mon. Robert Hugh Benson. So I was quite interested when I saw the mention of a book called Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt. When I saw that Joseph Pearce highly recommended it and wrote a introduction to it I was certain I wanted to read it. Add the fact that it is published by Sophia Institute Press and had an ebook edition at a very reasonable price I bumped it up in books I wanted to read.

What I found was that not only was this book an equal to the two classics I mentioned, but in some ways it excelled them. I was so caught up in the story that it was easy to forget that it was historical fiction. What I especially liked was the focus on Catholic families and their struggles. Other books concentrate on specific historical figures and specifically the martyrdom of priests. There is some of that aspect in this book, but also the white martyrdom of the recusants. The complexities of the political situation along with how individuals reacted to it is displayed in such a way that you can better understand the history. Still it is the characters and the writing that so bring this book alive and when you add the rich spiritual dimension you have a great book.

Catholics can find this piece of history interesting as they try to imagine how they would react if Catholicism became outlawed. Especially considering the current attack on religious freedom here in the United States and elsewhere. Yet the reality displayed within the book makes me wonder what my own choices would be. Would I take the path of the recusants or be a hidden Catholic? Looking at the simular situation in China with the Patriotic Catholic churches and the underground churches it is also easy to imagine ourselves as attending the underground church.

One of the other compelling points in the book is the change in the country that began to see Catholics as actual traitors to the country. Obviously the title of the book gives this away. In some ways it hard to understand how this historically Catholic country could so transform itself that Catholicism became a traitorous act. Yet really the tying of a kind of patriotic nationalism and faith is nothing new. Such shifts can occur quite rapidly as the Protestant “reformation” proved. That what political party someone belongs to can say more about what aspects of the faith they accept than the fact that they are Catholic. The tension between what belongs to Caesar and God seems to constantly favor Caesar.

What I loved about this book, despite how bittersweet it was, is what it taught me while totally enjoying the fictional story. A book that I simply did not just leave behind as I started another book. A book that I am still thinking about.