Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine July – August 2012

Christianity in Evolution: an Exploration
by Jack Mahoney, Georgetown University Press, 2011, 192pp.

In Christianity in Evolution Jack Mahoney, Jesuit priest and professor of moral and social theology, considers the consequences for Christian theology of "accepting the truth of human biological evolution" (p14). Mahoney quotes Pope John Paul II to demonstrate that the late Pontiff called for such an investigation and even anticipated a possible development of doctrine.

At first glance Mahoney's enterprise seems laudable. As Pope John Paul pointed out, the Church is keen to foster dialogue and openness between science and religion; moreover evolutionism, as a "serious hypothesis", is "worthy of investigation and in depth study" (To Pontifical Academy of Science, PAS, 25 Jun 1982, n.4). The Pope recommended taking scientific insights and evolutionary questions seriously so that theology can understand them and "test their value" (Letter to George Coyne, 1 Jun 1988). However, Mahoney's method is the reverse: he applies the "doctrine" and "truth" of evolution to "aspects of some traditional Christian beliefs" and "where necessary" puts traditional Christian beliefs "aside" in order to "make room for his own more contemporary evolutionary theology" (p14).Not perhaps what Pope John Paul had in mind as development of doctrine.

Unfortunately, Mahoney does not explicitly detail his version of the "truth" of evolution. As Pope John Paul explained, there are several "theories of evolution", some of which are entirely compatible with a Creator and Sustainer God; some of which are reductionist, atheistic and materialistic - particularly in their denial of a personal Creator and the rejection of the immortality of the soul (To PAS, ibid). It is up to the reader to piece together Mahoney's "truth".

Nevertheless, Mahoney is clear about beliefs he considers to be "unnecessary and cumbersome theological baggage" (p160) that we can "just get rid of" (p163), though he situates these beliefs in a rather reductive version of theology. According to the "truth" of evolution, death is simply "a fact of evolutionary life that affects all living things" (p xi). With death "demythologised" there is no original sin, because death is no longer a punishment for disobedience, and no Fall and hence no need for redemption or for a sacrificial and atoning interpretation of Jesus' death. These are merely part of the "etiological myth" to account for death produced by a traditional Christianity influenced by Jewish and Greek cultural concerns, by scholasticism, by the "personal preoccupations" ofAugustine (and Luther), and continued by Anselm, Aquinas and the Council of Trent (p88).

The Mass as a sacrifice can go; the Eucharist can be seen in its "evolutionary role" as "fostering our future life and happiness together in union with the risen Christ" (pp131-139); the Incarnation and Christology can be reconfigured since Christ did not come to redeem or restore human beings. Instead God became man to teach human beings to move out of selfishness and imitate the altruism of God and also to save the human species from the inevitable fate of extinction (p143). Mary was not preserved from original sin because there was none (p146). The distinction between nature and grace ceases to exist (p145). While the sacrament of Penance remains necessary for personal sin, other sacraments need to be rethought. So the washing clean of original sin in Baptism is irrelevant and SacredOrders need not exclude women since the priest no longer acts in the person of Christ as an atoning sacrifice (p147). We do not need a belief in hell (p148); those not associated with Jesus' altruistic death simply cease to exist once they die (p114). Ethics can be modified since the idea of nature changes, so human sexuality can be thought of more in terms of interpersonal relationships (p149). Souls immediately created by God are out, since the idea that human beings are embodied souls is not easy to maintain "in the light of evolutionary thinking" (p114), though Mahoney seems to mistake Christian anthropology with the anthropology of the fourth-century heretic Apollinarius (pp116-117). At least Mahoney says the "central belief" in the existence and nature of God as Trinity of divinePersons is "essentially unaffected" (p144).

Mahoney dwells on divine personhood as "concurrently individual and communitarian" and attributes the "social understanding" of God to John of Damascus (p21, though he omits the earlier work of Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, who introduced the idea of perichoresis, and moreover were clear that the Divine Persons are not individuals: there are not three Gods). Nevertheless, one of the difficulties for evolutionary theories is how to account for altruism. To oblige, Mahoney rather aridly describes the inner life of the Trinity as "divine altruism" (p152) and humanity as "created to image God as supremely and essentially altruistic" (p43). The death of Jesus conducts the human species beyond individual mortality and introduces "it" to the final stage ofeverlasting fulfilment (p65) so that Christ can now be seen as "most fully the agent of human evolution" (p153).

Mahoney wishes to present a faith that "enlightens much more than contradicts modern human experience" (p167). His starting point is that there is an "urgent need for the church to get its teaching right" (p165). Certainly he declares some "unease" at "pursuing the implications that accepting biological evolution entails for Christian beliefs and doctrines" (p ix). However, Mahoney does not dwell for long on his disquiet and he stretches the views of Newman and Rahner on continuity and development in the tradition beyond breaking point. In essence his very repetitive book is an attempt to rework Christian theology into the "truth of human biological evolution" (p14).

Pia Matthews

Editorial Comment: For our comment upon Mahoney's above-mentioned points see our last Cutting Edge column,, and see current letters page.

The Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis
by Dr Pravin Thevathasan (Catholic Truth Society, London, 'CTS Explanations', 2011, £1.99)

Few issues are as continually being put before us as the tragic clerical sex abuse crisis that has ravaged the Catholic Church in recent decades. As a consequence there is no need to explain either the importance or relevance of the topic of this CTS booklet. What does need to be commented on, however, is the impressive ability of this booklet to do justice to this topic in just 70 small pages. What is even more remarkable is the ability of Dr Thevathasan to do this in a manner that shows his professional competence as a psychiatrist, while still being accessible to the general reader. The booklet covers all of the key points that one would hope to be addressed in an analysis of this issue, but let me attempt to summarise a few of them.

The booklet starts by acknowledging the failure of Church leaders either to protect potential victims of abuse, or to respond adequately when cases of abuse occurred. The book notes that it offers "no excuses" (p3) and repeatedly quotes from various apologies made by Pope Benedict and other Church leaders (pp3, 65-7). The book is also not sparing in identifying where the responsibility lay: with the bishops (p21). It was the bishops who were responsible for selecting and forming the priests who proceeded to abuse. It was similarly the bishops who were responsible for failing to discipline the priests when their deviant behaviour was brought to their attention. It was the bishops who covered up and reassigned abusers (pp25-9).

More generally, it was the bishops who neglected to use their canonical power to create effective procedures to develop a climate and practice in the Church where such things could be more effectively prevented and identified. But if bishops have been at fault for the abuse crisis, what of the responsibility of Pope Benedict himself? On this point the book indicates that far from there being a need to offer an excuse for his behaviour, Pope Benedict deserves credit for having been directly involved in seeking to remove what he has called this "filth" (p55) from the Church. Three attempts by the media to impugn the then Cardinal Ratzinger with personal responsibility for individual cases are shown to be unsubstantiated (pp55-61).

If no "excuses" are offered by the book, it does nonetheless offer a convincing explanation of the disastrous coincidence of a number of factors that combined to produce this tragedy. First, the book cites Pope Benedict in noting the context of the general moral breakdown in modern society (p4). It then summarises some psychological theories that mistakenly led many to think that paedophilia was not truly a problem (pp5-10, 38). Other bad psychology was used in the seminaries, such that they became "houses of malformation" (p42) where future priests either failed to learn the importance of "self-denial" (p42) to restrain deviant tendencies, or may even have been formed so as to foster such tendencies. Similarly, the seminaries' theological dissent from Church teaching led to an ethicalrelativism that likewise formed priests who saw no need to restrain any perverse impulses. At the same time, the lack of respect for canon law that dominated after the 1960s led bishops to fail properly to discipline deviant priests (p39). Thus, factors both internal and external to the Church combined to produce the crisis.

That said, the book cites numerous reports and statistics to indicate that abuse of minors is not a problem unique either to priests, or to the Catholic Church. Rates of abuse are the same in ministers of other denominations and religions (pp35ff). Further, the rates of abuse by priests are lower than those in men in other fields of life (pp14-5, 35-6). More specifically, the book offers an important argument showing why celibacy is in no way connected to abuse (pp44, 47). Of further interest is the book's comments on the "strong link" (pp44-46, cf. pp27-29) between homosexuality and the abuse of minors, even though it notes that these are not necessarily connected.

On a more positive note the book describes the various procedures that have been implemented in the Church, both to prevent such abuse in the future and to respond adequately to abuse when it does occur. It notes a series of new procedures adopted both locally in the UK (pp62ff) and in the universal Church (pp64ff) and notes that it can be credibly claimed that no other institution is doing more than the Catholic Church in this regard (p68), even if such steps have been late coming. The book also notes that, perhaps because of such procedures, new cases of clerical abuse "have virtually disappeared in recent times" (p28).

In short, this brief book does exactly what you would hope for in a book on this topic. It summarises the Church's apologies for the sins and failures of its members, explains their context in such a way that makes sense of them, and also gives solid reasons to think that important lessons have been learnt from this tragedy, lessons that mean that we can reasonably expect that such a tragedy will not be repeated in our time.

Fr Dylan James

The Rule of St Benedict for Family Life Today
by Don Massimo Lapponi OSB, translated by Liam Kelly, St Paul Publishing, 2010,103pp, £9.99.

As the title of the book suggests, the author wishes to present the Christian family in the modern world with a structure of daily living based upon the Rule of St Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism (c480-550). The ideas presented might strike one as radical if not impossible, but on page 35 he well makes the case for trying, given the dramatic ways in which family life can be changed through failure. It is really on this premise, of the need for radical life change in the face of real threats, that the author makes the case for a family life which is Christian, wholesome and holy.

Having made observations about the fabric of our society, of the lack of a supportive culture and the threats which these pose to family life, we are presented on page 42 with a recipe for building family life based on the Rule, concerning external and internal dispositions of mind and heart. These dispositions are then elaborated and there follow very practical ways of creating the necessary structure, environment and timetable to arrive at a Benedictine way of life.

The first half of the book presents a series of Benedictine "Documents". These might seem to assume a familiarity with the great spiritual classics; however, there is no need to be disconcerted by this, as the later text navigates one through various of their suggestions and the Rule upon which they are based. Perhaps one of the most enlightening things is that the author gives a clear and succinct understanding of the Benedictine phrase ora et labora (prayer and work) and the context by which both can be lived out and flow one in to the other.
Given the secular climate of our age, the aspirations of this little book seem like the highest and steepest mountain to climb, yet for a young person setting out on life and seeking to understand more fully their own vocation, this is definitely a book to be read, to be treasured and to be used as a reference. A little gem which opens horizons to the wealth of spirituality we find in the Church Universal. For the not so young, for those who already have an established way of life, the book is still likely to reveal some very useful ways in which patterns of family life and behaviour might be addressed, with a view to all members of the family attaining to sanctity of life and eternity with God.

Fr Ian Vane

Thomas Cromwell: the Rise and Fall of Henry VIM's Most Notorious Minister
by Robert Hutchinson, published by Phoenix, 2009, 368pp, £9.99.

Stalin had Beria, Hitler had Heinrich Himmler and Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell. He was the original Prince of Darkness. Thanks to the anniversary of Bluff King Hal's birth in 2009, we have had a forest of books about the Tudors, and of Cromwell in particular. He appears in C J Sansom's excellent series, but as background to the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. And in Wolfbane Hilary Mantel tries to redress the negative publicity enjoyed by the minister and gilds the lily somewhat.

Robert Hutchinson presents a meticulous study of Cromwell, having delved into the public records and quarried all the biographies. He also provides a detailed index. As a book, it does not show much sympathy for those who end up on the gallows, whether Catholic priests or Anabaptists He retails Foxe's gossip about three priests on their way to Tyburn arguing which one of them was truly facing a martyr's death. In fact one of the three was the Archdeacon of Brecon and another was chaplain to Queen Catherine of Aragon; they were all beatified by Leo XIII.

Hutchinson also reveals how Cromwell pandered to Henry's imperial desires -the Pope was branded by the king "a usurpator of all princes" - arguing that the protection of the "body politic" justified extreme measures, including the innocent-sounding Statute of Proclamations which, in cases of necessity, did away with the need to consult Parliament at all. The author notes that "any measure that amends primary legislation by ministerial order without parliamentary measures is (nowadays) referred to as 'Henry VIII powers'."

Cromwell was an example of overreaching greed. He paid the modern equivalent of £750,000 for a piece of jewellery. John Stow, a typographer, writing 60 years later -with the memory of how the minister had cheated his ancestors out of some of their property - would say rather charitably: "The sudden rising of some men causes them to forget themselves."

Cromwell would maintain that he forged a modern kingdom; but it was at the expense of individual freedoms. The Church, throughout its long history, has managed to provide a powerful reminder to those in power that their authority comes from above. Henry, assisted by Cromwell, laid the basis for an English regard for authority which governments have not been slow to exploit. It reminds us that we must not blindly assume that everything is in our interest because authority tells us so; especially when it goes against the law of God.

Fr James Tolhurst

Faith Magazine

July - August 2012