Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine July-August 2008s


John Henry Newman Doctor of the Church
Foreword by Cardinal Avery Dulles, edited by Philippe Lefebvre & Colin Mason, Family Publications, 319pp, £12.95.

This is a handsome volume with a healthy content; and it is very timely since, now that the Boston miracle has been accepted in Rome, it is likely that Newman will be beatified very soon, then canonised and declared “Doctor of the Church”.

This is a companion volume to John Henry Newman in his time, which the same team produced in 2007, but this book is more important because it is theologically substantial. It has fifteen essays divided into four main sections: Faith and Reason, The Church, Conscience and Development of Doctrine. In the Introduction to the volume Fr Keith Beaumont provides a useful and lucid summary of each of the contributions. Then in his Prologue he draws us into “Newman as theologian and spiritual guide”. This is an excellent essay. Anyone who is puzzled by the Newman phenomenon and wonders why anyone is drawn to him would do well to read this. To fall under Newman’s spell is more than appreciating his literary skill or his clever ideas. It is to be drawn personally and intimately into therealities of God and His revelation in Christ. My one little quibble with the Prologue is that Newman’s Anglican spirituality has to be interpreted in the light of his becoming a Catholic. There was an anxiety and spiritual striving in his Anglican writings which disappeared in 1845 – “It was like coming into harbour after a rough sea.”

Newman was the promoter of a liberal education and the sworn enemy of liberalism in religion. Fortunately, in the Appendix the editors provide us with the complete text of Newman’s Biglietto speech on being made a cardinal in which he defines liberalism in religionand explains its dangers and viral spread. Anyone who has not read it should start here because most of the essays in the book presume knowledge of it.

In the Faith and Reason section, Arnella Francis Clamor, explains Newman’s “no medium… between Atheism and Catholicity”, and then engages developments in atheism since Newman’s time. Jane Rupert writes on “the tyranny of method in contemporary education”, comparing and contrasting Newman and Rousseau. While it may be a caricature, I could not help but think of a degree course inspired by Rousseau in which you set your own subject, design your own course work and assess the result yourself! Fr Robert Barron then provides an overview of Newman’s treatment of liberalism in religion.

The second section has six essays: on the Church (David Grea), on the Church and the world (Andrew Nash), on the sense of the faithful (Edward Miller), on reception (Richard Penaskovic), on the Magisterium (Austin Cooper) and on Vatican ll (Jean Rencki). The recent attacks on Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor made me think of Newman’s remark, “When the Church and the world make peace, the world has won.” These essays on the Church give clear exposition of his views, but I am hesitant about the application of the sensus fidelium and reception. The authors do not touch the matter, but sometime someone is going to have to bite the bullet and treat the present stand-off between the sensus fidelium and reception of teaching on the one hand and Humanaevitaeo n the other.

In the third section Luc Terlinden provides a lucid and important exposition of Newman’s teaching on conscience. This is followed by Bernard Mahoney on Newman and moral liberalism.

The fourth section treats the development of doctrine. James Pereiro expounds Newman on tradition and development. Edward Enright takes up the same matter and compares and contrasts Newman with Schleiermacher and von Harnack. Charles Talar treats Newman in relation to the Modernist crisis at the beginning of the last century; and Thomas Ryba discusses Newman’s theory of development in theology and sees strong similarities with Imre Lakatos’s description of change and development in the natural sciences.

These are solid essays, well researched and well written. Only two of the authors are based in this country. The others are from North America, Australia and continental Europe – another sign of Newman’s universal appeal. The team which produced the book should first be congratulated on it and then shot because there is no index. Cardinal Avery Dulles, who wrote one of the best books on Newman, has provided a kind Foreword to this volume, noting the need for such essays to put Newman’s work in perspective, but “One cannot sufficiently recommend the reading of Newman’s own writings.”

Mgr Michael Sharkey
Holy Cross

Mind, Brain and the Elusive Soul: Human Systems of Cognitive Science and Religion
by Mark Graves, Ashgate, 256pp

The dialogue between neuroscience and theology began under duress. Neuroscientific research in the ‘90s seemed to provide explanations for mental phenomena (like memory, emotion etc.) in a purely neurobiological framework. It seemed to many that progress in neuroscience would do away with the need for ‘mind-talk’ and replace it with ‘brain-talk’. This process of reductionism appeared to threaten the theological idea of the soul (insofar as ‘mind’ is synonymous with or a faculty of ‘soul’). From this difficult beginning, there have developed several distinct positions in the dialogue. Some, mainly on the scientific side of the table, have been labelled physicalist reductionists: they hold that the project of science does indeed involve eliminating any ‘mystical’ notions we have ofmentality – the brain, for them, is the mind. Opposed to these reductionists are dualistso f various varieties, who hold that one may in fact speak of two different entities making up the human person: soul/spirit and flesh. The mind is associated with the former, and the brain is part of the latter. Neuroscience, according to the dualists, merely correlatesmind-activity and brain-activity – it does not reduce one to the other. Finally, there are those who hold to non-reductive physicalism(NRP). This group rejects dualism (for both theological and scientific reasons) but refuses simply to identify mind with brain. Nancey Murphy, a leading proponent of NRP, wrote that its central belief is that “the person is a physical organism whose complex functioning, both insociety and in relation to God gives rise to ‘higher’ human capacities such as morality and spirituality”. The two major questions that NRP must answer are 1) If humans are purely physical, why reject reductionism? and 2) How do these ‘higher’ human capacities (which traditional theology would associate with the soul) arise?

Mark Graves’ book is an admirable attempt to answer these two questions, which he does largely by drawing upon his professional acquaintance with systems theory. He gives examples of complex systems of relationships that are made up of several different levels, in each case attempting to answer the question, “how is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?” (65). This property, known as ‘emergence’, is the focus of much of the book. An example used by Graves is water: on the one hand, one can study water at the molecular level, discovering both its molecular makeup and shape, and the laws that govern individual molecules. On the other hand, one can study water at the macroscopic level, at which level the laws of thermodynamics apply (allowing us to predict the phase of water undergiven conditions, for example). The author notes that one cannot predict the properties of water at a macroscopic level on the basis of knowledge of water molecules. On the higher level, new properties seem to have emerged that are not simply reducible to those of the lower level:

“Emergence grounds everything in the constituents (i.e. lower-level entities), but nevertheless the interaction between constituents results in the gradual appearance of properties or substances that cannot be reduced to the component parts.” (103)

The usefulness of this concept to the non-reductive physicalist is clear: it offers hope that the mind/soul can be described as an emergent property of the brain/body. A physicalist description of the person as a ‘mere’ body, then, is seen to leave out essential information which can only be accounted for with ‘mind-talk’. At the same time, one avoids the dualism that is so unfashionable at present: the mind/soul is not held to be a separate, inserted entity, but a phenomenon that emerges naturally from the brain/body.

There is much of interest in this book – it is one of the few in the field that brings computer science (and particular, systems theory) to bear on theological questions. It offers a comprehensive account of the notion of ‘form’, and the problems posed to it in the scientific age, and could also act as a useful introduction to the idea of emergence (it includes enough complex ‘relationality’ graphs to make the editor of a certain magazine weak at the knees...). Most tantalisingly of all, the author proposes an analogy between the way the soul/self is shaped by the decisions we make, and the way constraints in a system shape that system.

However, it fails on several fronts. Firstly, and most importantly, it fails to engage with the rich tradition of Christian theology in any thoroughgoing way. While the author is clearly conversant with recent trends in ‘Science and Religion’, he betrays little acquaintance with medieval or patristic theology. In a book which offers a radical rethink on the nature of the soul, this is a fatal flaw. Secondly, the style of the writing is somewhat inconsistent: some chapters are overflowing with examples, others are far more abstract.

Finally, the book lacks ‘form’ itself: too often, the author merely acts as a conduit for the opinions of other scholars without drawing his observations together into a coherent conclusion. A major problem with the field of ‘Science and Religion’ is that the literature consists largely of the repetition of already-stated ideas by a few major figures, and it seems to this writer that it would benefit from thinkers with a certain distance from (and therefore freedom from) the present coterie of writers. Graves’ book promises originality, but it is too much of a resumé of recent discourse to count as a genuine contribution.

Conor McDonough
Ampleforth College

What do Catholics Believe?
by Leonie Caldecott, Granta Books, 110pp, £6.95p

This is a persuasive, gently written, thoughtful paperback aimed at the non-Christian reader and is part of a series. Others in the series include ‘What do Druids Believe?’ ‘What do Greens Believe?’ and ‘What do Astrologers Believe?’ as well as more conventional offerings from Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim writers.

Leonie Caldecott writes in a style and with assumptions that make her offerings interesting and acceptable to people who have been brought up to believe in a market-place idea of religion, that it’s ‘all about choice’ and that we need to evaluate belief-systems in the light of our own knowledge and skills, or what we imagine to be our own knowledge and skills. She succeeds because she does not take anything for granted by way of goodwill or sympathy in her audience – she assumes, in a very realistic way, that there will be assumptions made about a Church which most people will know only through the prism of today’s TV cameras and commentaries.

I use the expression ‘gently written’ because that is what emerges from the book – here are no forceful debating-points, brilliantly scored, written with glee, and supported by footnotes. Rather, there is a systematic tackling of Church doctrine and history, with a good glossary (everything from “altar” and “Assumption” through “Liberation theology” to “Ressourcement” “Transubstantiation” and “theology of the body”), useful recommendations for further reading, and an excellent index. The tone throughout is not argumentative or even particularly emphatic. It is courteous and explanatory, rather as if the author is talking to a good friend whom she has known for years and is aware carries certain anti-Catholic prejudices and considerable ignorance but also goodwill and genuineinterest in the subject of the Church.

Certain topics are tackled early on, including the hideous subject of priests’ sexual abuse of minors, and this gives the reader a sense of being present at a conversation which is real and open, not a rant or a monologue.

Specific doctrines are tackled well – the section on the Mass is excellent, with a quote from Justin in the second century chiming in well with the author’s words on the reality of Christ’s presence and the practice of Eucharistic adoration. I like the section on saints. It starts in an almost New Age-ish sort of way: “The saints are the ecosystem of the Church, all interconnected in their marvellous diversity…” and goes on to explain the process of canonisation and the way in which Catholics understand Heaven and earth to be deeply interconnected “…Catholics believe that good people who have died are never completely cut off from the rest of us. Being in God, they are still aware of us and our needs. They are in Christ and in him we can touch each other…Saints are not VIPs on a redcarpet: they are a working body of souls with special responsibilities for those who come after them. They are the most mysterious and glorious way that God shares his very being with his own creatures.”

If I were a University chaplain, or a priest giving talks to schools about the Faith, I would use this book and pass it on to enquirers. It is an honest introduction to the huge reality of God and his Church, and speaks in a way that is likely appeal to today’s generation. Its cover, showing a chalice with a rosary lying alongside, speaks of Catholicism and invites the reader to open the book and learn more. I hope many do.

Joanna Bogle
New Malden,

In the Footsteps of Joseph Ratzinger
by Alessandra Borghese, Family Publications/Catholic Herald, 111pp, £7.95p

I wanted this book the moment I saw its cover – a reprint of that picture of Pope Benedict XVI as a small boy, school satchel on his back, wide eyes with merriment in them, a sweet smile, an old-fashioned home-knitted jersey, a life’s adventure before him.

The author’s name vaguely rang bells from gossip columns. And it’s the most famous surname in Italy, carved in stone across the front of St Peter’s, built in the reign of a Pope from the Borghese family.

But be warned – the book is charming and enjoyable, but will also disappoint. The author tells us enthusiastically about a journey made with a friend, Gloria Thurn und Taxis, around the places in Bavaria associated with Pope Benedict XVI: his birthplace, the scenes of his boyhood in Tittmoning and Altoetting, and the cities of Munich and Regensburg. But she never really let us get as near to them as we would like, because somehow she is there in front of us, getting in the way! We get a great many of her thoughts – sometimes helpful, sometimes banal – and it is difficult not to feel patronised.

Some of the writing is clumsy and ponderous: “Gloria explained that I was witnessing a typical Bavarian scene and pointed out an interesting fact…” Some is just a bit too pious. And we get rather a lot of descriptions of how well treated they were on their pilgrimage, which is jolly nice to know, but also just a little irritating: no waiting in queues to visit places of importance, or munching home-made sandwiches in makeshift picnics for this pair, and we are told of every Mayoral greeting, tasty meal, and private tour of lovely places. “The mayor, whom we had met only a few weeks previously, invited us to sit in the seats that had been reserved for him…”

The illustrations show no scenes from the Pope’s childhood, but simply views of the churches and towns visited, and the only pictures of the Holy Father are those with – yes, here they are again – our author and her friend well to the fore.

But for all that, I enjoyed this book. It is redeemed by an obviously huge respect and admiration for the Pope, a genuine faith, and an enthusiasm for both of these things that give the whole project an almost schoolgirl quality which makes it rather endearing. And there are some nuggets of information that I enjoyed discovering: the font in which Joseph Ratzinger was baptised now has a fresh rose placed beside it daily, the village school that he attended celebrated its 120th anniversary the year he became Pope, the farmhouse where he lived as a boy dates back to 1726 and the road leading to it is now Papst Benedikt XVI Weg.

The comments about liturgy and related issues – a frustration with intrusive front-facing altars in the naves of baroque churches and so on – express in coded language the author’s passionate preferences in this area, and will strike a chord with some Catholics. For this reason the book is likely to have something of a cult readership – but why not? In a bleak world, a bit of solidarity with like-minded folk doesn’t do much harm.

In the Footstepshelps to bring alive the strong Bavarian Catholic culture – mountain shrines, local traditional foods, beautiful music, glorious baroque churches – that shaped the mind and lifted the heart of the man who is now our Pope. And it did strengthen my respect and affection for him, and help me to understand what a glorious thing it is to belong to the Church. It also made me want to visit Bavaria.

Joanna Bogle
New Malden,

St Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims
by Frank M. Rega, Tan Books and Publishers (available from Southwell Books), 152pp, £6.95

In the wake of the furore over Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture at Regensburg and the more recent uproar over the remarks made by Rowan Williams on Sharia Law, this book by Frank Rega on the approach made by St Francis of Assisi towards the Muslims is both timely and relevant. He previously authored a fascinating book on Padre Pio, and is a long time student of all things Franciscan.

Islam presented a challenge to Christianity in the thirteenth century, and it is an even more pressing challenge in the twenty-first century, one destined, it would seem, to grow ever more serious, and thus one which will increasingly demand a response from both the Church and the West. The question is: how do we respond to Islam? Some people seem to want to do very little, for fear of antagonising Muslim extremists, while others talk of a ‘war on terror’ as a way of eliminating these same extremists. However, it is certain that neither appeasement nor violence is going to solve the problem of how the West can really deal with Islam, and so it is sensible to look at the approach taken by St Francis, to see what we can learn from him.

Frank Rega has done this in this appealing book, which is split into three main parts. The most important of these is the middle section dealing directly with St Francis’s encounter with Islam and Sultan al-Malik al Kamil, the ruler of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, during the Fifth Crusade in the early thirteenth century. The other two parts deal with his earlier life and then his experiences as a stigmatist, respectively, leading up to his death in 1226. The main interest is clearly in the meeting with the Sultan, but the other sections give us an engaging outline of the main events of the Saint’s life, based in many cases on first hand sources, one of which is full of detail and colour.

To understand what St Francis was trying to do in meeting with, and possibly converting, the Sultan, we have to appreciate that he was fully prepared to sacrifice his life in the attempt – to endure martyrdom – if necessary. But he also had a more general aim of establishing a Franciscan presence in the area, and the fact that the Franciscans are still the custodians of the Holy Places is an eloquent testimony to lasting power of his influence.

Thus, St Francis and a small group of his followers found themselves with the Crusading army before the city of Damietta on the Nile Delta, in Egypt, in July 1219. If Damietta could be taken, it would lead to the fall of Cairo and thus of all Egypt. However, the siege of Damietta was proving unsuccessful. The Crusaders impetuously decided to attack the Sultan’s main force further up the Nile, despite the fact that it had been prophetically revealed to St Francis that they would be defeated – and he had informed them of this. The result was a terrible disaster for the Crusading army, but it gave Francis the opportunity he had been looking for, that of contacting the Muslims directly to speak to them of Christ, and hopefully convert them, thus ending the hostilities.

Some people are uneasy about the idea of trying to convert others to the Faith, and particularly the idea of trying to convert Muslims. But in all this, St Francis was doing nothing more than Ascension commandment of Christ, that his followers should go out into the whole world and make disciples of all nations.

A truce was arranged between the exhausted opposing forces, and so St Francis and a companion, Brother Illuminato – who was probably able to act as translator – were able to cross the lines separating the armies, and enter the Sultan’s camp. Miraculously – since it was reported that all captured Christians would be beheaded – and despite some ill treatment, the two eventually found themselves in the tent of the Sultan.

With astonishing boldness, Francis immediately announced the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Sultan, while emphasising that his own concern was for the eternal salvation of the Muslim leader, who was apparently deeply moved by the Holy Man’s courage, enthusiasm, and steadfastness. He desired to hear more, and the important point to note is that St Francis did not directly attack the tenets of Islam, but rather focused on expounding the Christian Gospel. The Sultan called his religious advisors, the Imams, to debate with the Christians, but, in accordance with Islamic Law, they refused instead insisting that Francis and Illuminato be killed.

The Sultan, however, refused to do this, and so the Franciscans were able to stay as his guests, and he apparently listened to what Francis had to say with a great deal of attention, frequently calling him so that they could converse. It’s hard not to be reminded of the parallel with John the Baptist before Herod, or St Paul before Felix. In all this, the Sultan was undoubtedly influenced by the great personal holiness and magnetism of St Francis, and also by the fact that there were some similarities between Franciscan spirituality and that of the Sufis, Muslim mystics with whom the Sultan was well acquainted.
Francis offered to prove the truth of Christianity by submitting to trial by fire, along with the Imams, to see who would emerge unharmed by the flames, but the Sultan politely refused, realising that his religious advisors would probably not be keen on the idea. The Saint then offered to enter the flames alone, on condition that the Sultan and his court should become Christians if he emerged unscathed, but again the Muslim leader refused, fearful that his followers would revolt if he renounced Islam.

After further disputations, and a failed attempt to give Francis money and presents, the perplexed Sultan was even more inclined to admire the Poverello, as a “man different from all others.” But his followers were growing restive, and the Franciscans finally decided to return to their camp, accompanied by a contingent of Saracen cavalry. However, it does seem that Francis had a very positive influence on the conduct of the Sultan, in that he behaved with considerable moderation in his future dealings with the Christians, and there is even a pious legend to the effect that he was converted on his deathbed to Christianity.

So what can we learn from St Francis as regards how we, as Christians, can relate to the Muslims of today? The answer to this crucial question, as Frank Rega points out, is found in Chapter XVI of the Franciscan Rule of 1221, a chapter which focuses on two possible ways that Friars could conduct themselves in Muslim lands. Firstly, they were to lead an exemplary Christian life, so as to proclaim the Gospel effectively, but without words. Secondly, though, the majority of the chapter is devoted to the idea that they are to proclaim the Word of God openly, with a view to conversion and baptism. Crucially, Francis insisted on prudence, and that the Islamic religion should never be denounced or criticised, aware that martyrdom was a distinct possibility for any Friar who wascourageous enough to preach the Gospel in Muslim lands – as was the case for many Franciscan missionaries in the years to come.

The message for us seems to be that if we are to truly be able to influence Muslims then we should hope to emulate the holiness of St Francis, to preach the Gospel to them boldly but humbly, to be truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that our words and actions are not merely empty sounds and gestures.

St Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims is a great encouragement in this important task.

Donal Anthony Foley
Castle Donington

Faith Magazine

July - August 2008