Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

From FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013

Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution
By Mary Eberstadt, Ignatius Press, 178pp, £14.99, available from Gracewing

Few would disagree that the invention of the Pill and its dissemination over the last 50 years or so represents a milestone of human history. By severing the link between fertility and procreation, the Pill was among the drivers of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the resultant shift in popular attitudes to sex. It is from this premise that Mary Eberstadt sets out to explore how the widespread availability of cheap and effective contraception has changed society.

In a series of short essays originally published in First Things and Policy Review, Eberstadt examines the effects these changed attitudes have had on women, men, young people and children. She paints a vivid of picture of women both more privileged and less happy than at any time in history and of men absolved of all responsibility by the sexual revolution but also stunted, trapped in a perpetual adolescence. She observes, unsurprisingly, that the burden of social and sexual revolution has disproportionately fallen on those most vulnerable, particularly children and women.

Later, two especially interesting essays dwell upon contemporary attitudes to food and pornography and what Eberstadt describes as the “transvaluation of values”. Eberstadt posits that there has been a reversal of thought on food and sex and that the two have effectively switched places in the moral consciousness, with food now considered a realm in which absolute moral judgements can and indeed must be made, and sex deemed to be merely a matter of personal choice and individual taste. She draws similar parallels between pornography and tobacco, comparing current, often laissez faire, views on pornography to those before the groundswell of opinion and medical evidence that began to change attitudes to tobacco in the middle of the 20th century.

In the final essay, entitled “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae”, the author shows that the predictions of that encyclical have been more than borne out with time, despite the scorn heaped upon Pope Paul VI and those Catholics, priests and lay faithful, who have held firm to its teachings. This tallies nicely with a thread that runs throughout the volume – that of the “will to disbelieve”, a determination to ignore and deny all empirical evidence (and there is a great deal) that suggests sexual liberation has perhaps not been the beneficent force many would claim.

As always, Eberstadt’s writing is accessible and engaging while surrendering neither force nor depth. The collection is meticulously researched, and the author brings a wide range of sources, both academic and popular, to bear in support of her position. Given Eberstadt’s reputation it is a shame that this book, coming from a Catholic publishing house, is unlikely to be read by many who are not already convinced of the case she lays out. It is nonetheless a worthwhile and extremely readable book and will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand the often complex social effects of our contraceptive culture.

Amanda Brennan

Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity
By Robin M Jensen, Baker Academic, xviii + 238pp, available through Amazon

The subtitle of this very impressive book, “Ritual, Visual and Theological Dimensions”, corrects the false impression that it is mainly concerned with art. It is true that there are many useful illustrations, but the main thrust of the book is the light that is shed on baptismal liturgy and theology by Christian writers of the first four centuries AD.

After a short introduction there are five chapters: 1) Baptism as Cleansing from Sin and Sickness; 2) Incorporation into the Community; 3) Baptism as Sanctifying and Illuminative; 4) Baptism as Dying and Rising; 5) Baptism as the Beginning of the New Creation. Oddly enough, even in the discussion of infant baptism there is no mention of original sin, and this despite the fact that the author is well acquainted with the writings of Augustine.

Adam and Eve are discussed but without mention of the primal sin. Perhaps one should remember that infant baptism was not very common in the early church. Augustine himself was only baptised by Ambrose at Easter 387 aged 32. Ambrose himself was a catechumen when he was elected bishop of Milan around 372.

What is particularly illuminating about this book is the way in which the author has illustrated the sacramental character of baptism by relating it to the Old Testament anticipation of the sacrament: Noah, the Crossing of the Red Sea and the River Jordan as the river in which Christ himself was baptised. Particularly attractive was the use made in this connection of a sermon of Gregory of Nyssa, In Diem Luminum, delivered on the feast of the Epiphany 383. The fact that this is not a particularly well known work of Gregory made Jensen’s use of it very instructive.

By baptism we become citizens of heaven, adopted heirs. Christ, mystically understood, is the great fish (the Greek word for fish is πãÀ™, an acronym which translates as Jesus Son of God, Saviour); and we, like him, are fish in the water of baptism as we accompany our master (see Augustine’s The City of God, Book XVIII, Chapter 23).

One of the most important aspects of this very instructive book is that it underlines the many elements in the sacrament. It makes us members of a new family, a new creation and a new country. In the past baptism was administered to nude bodies, and after that the newly baptised put on white garments to symbolise their bodily and spiritual cleanness. Baptism is also a form of rebirth and therefore of resurrection.

All in all this is a remarkable and valuable book, not only for the illustrations it offers of ancient rites, but also for the accurate accounts it offers of the way in which baptism was addressed by early Christian writers from the New Testament to the fourth century, making great use of Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom in the east and Ambrose and Augustine in the west.

Antholy Meredith SJ

Catholic Social Conscience
by Anthony Meredith, SJ Edited by Keith Chappell and Francis Davis, Gracewing, 267pp, £12.99

Anyone who has ever tried to promote Catholic social teaching (CST) knows the feeling of frustration. The official documents are superb, but interest among Catholics is no better than intermittent, and elsewhere indifference is almost universal. Worse, when Catholics are interested, it often seems that they do not really want to be guided or challenged by CST; they merely search for confirmation of their existing prejudices, whether about the contemporary welfare state or about libertarian economics. Illuminating concepts – human dignity, solidarity, the common good, the preferential option for the poor and subsidiarity – are lost to view.

Any effort to bring CST to life is welcome, and the editors of Catholic Social Conscience, a collection of papers presented at a 2010 conference in Oxford, deserve thanks. The collection tries to bring out what is good and universal in CST. Overall, it succeeds quite well. The collection of essays covers many topics, including the fundamental ideas of CST, the current situation in the formerly communist countries of Central Europe and the state of social teaching in the contemporary English Church.

The contributions from Ukraine, Poland and Hungary are particularly welcome, as most English-speakers are woefully ignorant of Catholic life in these countries.

Jolanta Babiuch explains part of the intellectual tradition from which Pope John Paul II emerged, the pre-War dialogue between Marxists and personalist philosophy. She persuasively argues that the late Pope’s approach to modern society relied on both “Marxism’s critical theory of capitalism as a socio-economic system based on injustices, and Personalism’s espousal of the uniqueness and dignity of every human being”.

If her call for a renewal of the respectful dialogue between believers and well-intentioned secularists were taken seriously, CST could bring the insights of John Paul II into a universally needed “critical analysis of the current capitalist system”.

Lazlo Lukacs presents a harsh critique of both Communism and Capitalism in his native Hungary. He lists seven principles of CST, with brief descriptions of how each of the two ideologies violates them. He offers Benedict XVI’s description of an economy based on solidarity and charity – the “service of love” – as the only good alternative to these two failed approaches.

If any readers are tempted to think that post-Communist nations have a natural affinity for CST, Jonathan Luxmoore’s excellent essay on the lack of social concern in the Polish church is sobering. The homeland of John Paul II seems to have all but ignored the national hero’s commitment to social justice. Luxmoore may be too harsh on the enthusiasm of the liberated Polish church for large buildings and statues, but it is hard to argue with his demand that the bishops “ask searching questions about how exhaustively and insistently it [the Church] has championed the criteria of the common good…”.

The same question may be asked of other societies and national Churches. The UK receives special attention. Stephen Morgan makes a particularly challenging claim: “The combination of technology, a dogmatic secularist view of morality and a conception of the state as all-encompassing has created what is, in fact, tantamount to a totalitarian view of the state.” The T-word is perhaps a bit extreme, but he makes a persuasive case for seeing the British government as fundamentally opposed to the charitable mission of the Catholic Church, a mission which is central to CST.

Francis Davis, one of the editors, summarises several surveys which show the gaps in the English Church, between words and deeds in the hierarchy and between bishops and parishioners. The results suggest that the government will find the Church to be a strong opponent.

Edward Hadas

Eucharistic Adoration
By Charles E. Murphy, Ave Maria Press Notre Dame, IN, USA, 112pp, £8.99, also available via Amazon
Many of us priests have tried a good number of ways to help in the restoration and building up of faith, only to find that frequently things have not worked out as well as we had hoped. Perhaps because of that, not a few of us are now turning more to encouraging Eucharistic Adoration. After all, the Saviour gave us this astonishingly amazing, supportive Bread of Life. We all need to grow in sincerity to have more impact; all who try to follow the Lord need more Eucharistic faith.

That great contemporary exponent of growth in Eucharistic devotion, the late Father Tadeusz Dajczer, rightly underlines that there is no better book on the Eucharist than the Eucharist Itself. By this he means that sheer waiting in the presence of the Bread of Life, with increasing attention, nourishes and educates us enormously. That said, most of us need the help of those who have learnt and grown from Adoration.

Monsignor Charles Murphy is no mean contributor in aiding us to build up Eucharistic Adoration. That is his aim. His book is a dynamic and provocative stimulation in the vital field of increasing faith, especially during this Year of Faith. Currently director of the permanent diaconate for the diocese of Portland, Maine, in the US, he is a graduate of the Gregorian and Harvard Universities and a consultant in catechetics and global warming. He has also worked in the editorial team under Cardinal Ratzinger on the final draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Yet mindful of Thomas à Kempis’s words that it is better to be a devoted servant of God than somebody who can discourse wisely, I was delighted to learn the revealing information that the former parish priest of four US parishes has as heroes inspiring men and women of God: Simone Weil, Edith Stein (St Teresa of the Cross), Dorothy Day, Blessed John XXIII, Blessed John Paul II, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and St Margaret Mary Alacoque. From each of these, there are inspiring words to help us.

The meditations are based on what have become known as the Seven Last Words of the Saviour: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”; “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”; “Today you will be with me in paradise”; “Father into your hands I commend my spirit”; “Woman, this is your son. Son, this is your mother”; “I thirst”; and “It is finished”.

Each meditation is accompanied by points for dialogue and conversation with our Eucharistic Lord plus energising prayers. Before several pages of notes and handy references at the end of the book, there are some well-known Passion and Eucharistic hymns. The book is well supported in a foreword by Cardinal Levada and warmly recommended. Our thoughts and meditations are richly blessed by such writings, which help us to build a stronger union with God, through which we can find new energy, strength and peace and a cure for
faith fatigue.

Fr Bryan Storey

The Freedom of Love
By Rafael de Santiago, Gracewing, 139pp, £9.99

This book aims to provide the reader with a clear understanding of what true love is, and to show how it is related to freedom. The author explores the notions of feelings, virtue, shame, loyalty and forgiveness, as well as the gift of self and the meaning of the body. The writing itself appears simple at first, before becoming more philosophical in the later chapters.

In an exploration of the meaning of love, De Santiago states that true love is to willingly seek the good of another. He acknowledges that feelings are subjective and that when we experience strong feelings, our perceptions of reality can be distorted. He states that true love means we must have control over our feelings, and that eros can only be raised to a gift of self if a man respects the dignity of woman.

Virtue is considered as the stable disposition to do good. A training in virtue is necessary for personal development. Fortitude helps us to endure personal difficulties. Temperance allows us to bring our appetites into order.
The author then considers what it means to give oneself completely. The key to giving of oneself is not the limitation of our freedom, but the positive element of uniting our will with the will of a beloved. With the language of the body, this giving is determined by the way we talk, laugh, dress, walk and behave. When the language of the body does not fit reality, we are lying. The nuptial meaning of the body is the capacity of the body to show, in a physical way, the completeness of the inner self. The ability to realise the needs of those around us is very important; without it we are unable to forget our own needs so as to give of ourselves. Not being able to see the needs of those closest to us leaves us only with acquaintances and not true friends. The habit of thinking of otherscan only be developed through daily practice.

De Santiago considers the meaning of shame as a reaction that protects us from lust, so that our respect for the human person is enhanced and we can value the nuptial meaning of the body.
Modesty acknowledges that we are able to make a complete gift of self and that we are all worthy of dignity. The author sees loyalty when every aspect of one’s life is raised to the level of the complete gift of one’s self while freedom is described as the capacity to choose what is right.

The appendix looks specifically at the beauty of fertility and Natural Family Planning. This model refers to the practice of achieving or avoiding pregnancies according to an informed awareness of the woman’s fertility. The author highlights the effectiveness of NFP, in particular the sympto-thermal method. He also discusses how NFP can relate to sexual compatibility and improve intimacy between couples at all levels of communication.
Rafael de Santiago’s book provides a quick summary of many of the key themes of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. However, it does not reflect deeply on the meaning and purpose of love but rather provides generalisations and catchphrases, and I would not really recommend the book apart from perhaps as a quick and simple introduction to those interested in the Church’s teaching on love and sexuality. The content suffers from an arid and inaccessible style of writing, which could be supplemented by pastoral experience and examples to bring the book to life.

Robert Colquhoun


Faith Magazine

September - October 2013