Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests
By The Linacre Institute, AuthorHouse (2006), Paperback, 276 pages, £9.95

After Asceticism offers an analysis, response, and recommendations in the wake of the scandals of clergy sexual misconduct that have beset the Catholic Church in America. The study from the Linacre Institute (not to be confused with the Linacre Centre in England) is honest and hard-hitting but offers a positive way forward
From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Catholic psychologist, Dom Thomas Verner Moore published research showing the positive psychological effect for the clergy of ascetical discipline. His articles demonstrated the very low levels of psychopathology among the clergy looking at the data on psychiatric hospitalisations. Moore showed that the development of the moral and spiritual virtues depended on simple ascetical practices including prayer and penance.

Sadly, his work was largely ignored when greatly increased attention was paid to psychology from the late 1960s onwards. Instead, Catholic psychologists focussed on the abuse of asceticism which they saw as contributing to the pathological repression of the sexual appetite. In reaching conclusions that were applied in practice in seminary formation and in the ongoing formation of clergy, the assumptions of secular psychology, were accepted as necessary guides to priestly spirituality. For example, in the early 1970s, Eugene Kennedy, using Erikson’s psychosocial model of personality development, claimed that two-thirds of priests in the US were emotionally immature because of the absence of women and a stunted capacity for personal relationships. After Asceticism does not explorethe obvious effect of such a claim in encouraging clergy to erode the boundaries which had previously been seen as protecting their chastity, and, in the interests of a supposed psychological benefit, allowing familiarities of a kind that were hitherto regarded as occasions of sin. The authors do point to one of the most extraordinary features of Kennedy’s published work was that it either ignored or failed to discover the sexual misconduct of the clergy that was greatly on the increase at the time.

The principal thesis of the study is that habits of prayer, ascetical practices, including the mortification of the flesh, frequent confession, and the control of sexual fantasies are all essential to chastity and to the overall pastoral effectiveness of the priest. The spiritual classics all promote this model of the ascetical life, and to many people, it might seem obvious that it is necessary for the preservation of priestly chastity. However, After Asceticism points to common deficiencies and aberrations in the religious purpose and intellectual formation of priests dating back to at least the 1950s.

Many of the traditional ascetical practices disappeared from the formation of priests in favour of promoting psychological “wholeness”, achieving “psychosexual and affective maturity”, meeting the “need for intimacy”, “befriending your sexuality” and a number of other ambiguous ideals that could co-exist with what were previously considered mortal sins. The only sin now was “repression.” In a striking comparison with classical ideals, the book quotes the Hippocratic oath in which physicians pledged purity and holiness, and promised not to seduce men or women. As the authors observe, there was no quarter for the “wounded healer.”

Through popular preaching, the therapeutic mentality contributed to shorter queues for confession, and longer queues for Holy Communion. In popular Catholicism, there was no longer any consideration of the possibility of damnation for a “mortal sin”, let alone a sexual sin. A priest whom Kennedy considers to be “fully developed” in psychological terms says that masturbation is not sinful, that he doesn’t accept the “theory of mortal and venial sin”, and that there is not much guilt or sinfulness associated with sexual misbehaviour.

As is now painfully public knowledge, some of the clergy, met their “need for intimacy” in activity with teenage boys for which dioceses are now paying out millions of dollars in compensation. It is notable that in many cases the priests who indulged in this activity continued routinely to celebrate Mass. It is telling to compare the clergy misconduct at the time of the reformation which did at least take note of the notion of sacrilege.

It is a principal contention of After Asceticism that the problem has not been adequately addressed because of the failure to understand its root causes. In a section that is painful to read, the authors give a number of examples of the “sexual apology” even after the abuse scandals. For example, an Archbishop wrote to Fr John Geoghan, a notorious molester with hundreds of victims, “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly, impaired by illness.” As they say, it is this use of the therapeutic mentality which provides a moral cover for sexual sin. Therefore, they consider the Dallas Charter to be an incomplete response to the sex scandals because it ignores the importance of the virtue of chastity.

The study draws a number of important conclusions on the basis of careful analysis both of the research data and on the basis of the understanding of human nature that was unanimous until recently among Catholic philosophers. It is shown that previous personality flaws in the priest were not the root cause of sexual abuse and that therefore the problems of clergy sexual abuse were not the result primarily of a failure in personality screening or therapeutic intervention. Rather, the collapse of asceticism and the expectation of unchaste behaviour served to cultivate those personality flaws and provided the environment where sexual misconduct was almost inevitable.

There is an interesting chapter dealing with homosexuality and asceticism. One of the most important conclusions that the authors draw is that the sexual abuse of minors did not follow as a result of a homosexual subculture in seminaries. On the contrary, sexual misconduct of various kinds had already become much more common as a symptom of the collapse of religious asceticism. This sexual misconduct itself meant that some seminaries became unsafe places for young men. Innocent, susceptible to manipulation, and lacking the strength of character that would have been developed through ascetical discipline, they did not resist for long the determined advances of their peers or superiors. The general atmosphere of indiscipline and disobedience, for example with regard to liturgical norms,made for a confusing environment, lacking in those safeguards of virtue that had been proved over time, such as the suspicion of particular friendships.

In proposing a way forward, the study rejects the primacy of place that is given to the therapeutic mentality because it fails to appreciate the role that religious devotion and faith play in the moral life of the priest, and has no proper understanding of human nature, original sin and free will. Taking its foundation instead from the classical psychology of virtue, shame in doing what is wrong and a delight in doing what is right, it insists that hope is at the centre of the arduous task of chastity – and that chaste celibacy is a singular manifestation of hope for others. This focus on hope gives a central place to the strengthening of the will. Christ offers a continuous call “will you take up your cross and follow me? As the authors say, “Man answers this question, either yes or no,in his behaviour, and his behaviour is the result of a choice between good and evil.” (page 171)

At the end of the study, the particular recommendations come as no great surprise: seminary training should include the study of asceticism and the regimen of ascetical discipline; assessment should be of the candidate’s capacity to live a life of chaste celibacy and spiritual poverty; wilful deviations from discipline should be taken to indicate the lack of a religious vocation; those who form and mentor students should be sterling examples of ascetical discipline. The study does not neglect the importance of an unconfused and consistent fidelity to the moral teaching of the Church’s magisterium.

After Asceticism is an important contribution from the laity to the question of the formation of priests in the wake of major scandals. The book has largely been ignored in the mainstream of the Church where the therapeutic mentality of secular psychology continues to hold a privileged position. The return to a solid ascetical discipline will not be an easy path, but the considerable improvements made to seminary formation in recent years would benefit greatly from the insights of this study.

Timothy Finigan
Our Lady of the Rosary

In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition
by Lucy Beckett, Ignatius (available from Family Publications, Oxford), 648pp, £15.50

Exploring the Western tradition of writing from Aeschylus to John Paul II, Lucy Beckett provides an encyclopaedic account of what might be styled an ‘alternative canon’ of great writers. She traces the line of a tradition of writing specifically relative to, and interpreted in the light of Christian revelation, encompassing authors as disparate as Bede and Beckett, Plato and Pushkin. Hers is a more than simply literary canon, for it not only includes poets and novelists, but philosophers, theologians, historians and critics.

The breadth of this study is impressive, but Beckett holds the book together by not simply bringing all these disciplines and authors into a synoptic view, but by creating a narrative that is coherent and often convincing. While some chapters stand out as excellent independent essays, the reader rarely loses sense of the whole; many of these chapters are an excellent introduction to a writer’s work, inspiring the reader to seek it out on the strength of a well-chosen array of quotations and Beckett’s enthusiasm.

The thesis of the book is that “the[...] value [of these texts]... rests in their relation to the absolute truth, beauty and goodness that are one in God and that are definitively revealed in Christ.” (p.1). This thesis aims to counteract the prevalent relativist evaluation (de-valuation) of human thought as “sound and fury, signifying nothing” most powerfully articulated by Nietzche. A quotation from Allan Bloom depicts this devaluation of speculative writing: “the grownups are too busy at work, and the children are left in a day-care centre called the humanities, in which the discussions have no echo in the adult world”, this despite the fact “[a]ll that is human, all that is of concern to us [lies] outside of natural science” (p.569).

In order to demonstrate the central importance of the humanities, Beckett attempts a recuperation of the Augustinian tradition of thought (distinguished from the scholastic tradition founded on Aquinas). This tradition Beckett summarises in two concepts: the ‘Order of Love’ and the civitas terrena/civitas Dei opposition. The former concept focussing on aesthetic intuition, linking beauty to truth and love, allows her to draw on Augustine’s notion of the ‘restless heart’ as a golden thread through her selected writings. She argues that the works we find most moving and enduring contain a common intuition of transcendence, or ‘intimations of immortality’. This argument is bolstered by von Balthasar’s aesthetics; his Glory of the Lord is as important an influence asAugustine himself. Balthasar’s concept of allegory, for example, is central to Beckett’s discussion of Athenian tragedy, and draws out ideas crucial to her general argument: “it restores the lost connexion between the partial and relative truth, goodness and beauty of the plays to their intelligible place beside or within, the truth, goodness and beauty of God ...returning them to the coherently describable.” (p.33).

This relative truth of texts to the truth of God leads to the second Augustinian concept employed in Beckett’s argument – awareness of the opposition and relativity of the civitas terrena to the civitas Dei. The most valuable texts are those which look for the “undiscovered country” and have no illusions about the contingency of earthly life and power. This is her answer to the flipside of Nietzchean relativism, the Will to Power, as well as to the doomed efforts of Arnold and Leavis to mend modernity with art religion or Milton and Tolstoy’s conflation of state and religious eschatology.

The need to hold together this collection of widely differing worldviews and types of writing into such a coherent project occasionally results in over-arguing. For example, the influence of Augustine on later writers is sometimes overstated, and this becomes a little damaging to her argument when Augustine is summoned as if to ratify the insight of a later writer. Similarly, Beckett’s distinction between Augustine and Aquinas ignores the influence of the former on the latter and perpetuates an opposition that is commonly held but largely fallacious. Chesterton once mistakenly lamented the triumph of Augustinianism, and Beckett makes precisely the opposite mistake.

Beckett’s apparent insistence, later in the book, on the importance of Catholic sympathies (e.g. in Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson) suggests apologetics, not aesthetics, and reminds one uncomfortably that arguing the case for reasonable faith and faith-based reason is tremendously difficult without straying into what appears to be a partisan position. Despite this, Beckett’s book remains an important survey and reminder of what in Western thought is of value, and why, and demonstrates the truth articulated by both the Second Vatican Council and Saint Julian: “Whatever has been spoken aright by any man ...belongs to us Christians; for we worship and love... the Logos which is from the unbegotten and ineffable God ...[and] those writers were able, through the seed of the Logos implanted inthem, to see reality darkly” (p.51).

Matthew Ward
St John’s

Saving Secular Society
by Dudley Plunkett, Alive Publications, 266pp, £10

Dr Plunkett looks at the world and sees it riven, with uncertainty, perplexity and doubt. In Saving Secular Society, he undertakes some thought-provoking analysis of these problems and attempts to provide a solution. This solution is a strategy to re-evangelise society.

There are however two main difficulties which prevent this re-evangelisation. The first is the negative attitude of society towards Christianity. This varies from ignorance to indifference and even antagonism. Society has its own interests and agenda and these rarely include religion, especially organised religion. The second difficulty is the fact that the Christians are disorganised, uncertain of their teaching and lacking in confidence. They see their numbers dwindling and their beliefs ridiculed. The first part of his book looks in particular at these problems.

Many people, including Dr Plunkett, seem to place the emphasis upon the former, and feel that our problems stem mainly from the negative attitude of society. In fact, in this writer’s opinion, the boot is on the other foot. It is largely because Christians lack belief in their own teaching and give no clear guidance either on faith or morals, that society safely ignores them and wisely avoids them. If Christians spoke with conviction they would at least get greater respect – witness the Servant of God, John Paul II.. However, since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has shown an unprecedented lack of conviction, at least as far as the ordinary Catholic is concerned. Too many priests and local experts no longer seem sure of what the Church teaches, or they deliberately ignorethat teaching, or worse still, give the impression that traditional teaching is subject to change even on the most fundamental matters. Further, this attitude is portrayed as ‘advanced’ and ‘sophisticated’. Dr Plunkett does not deny the drift of this but it does not seem to be his main tack.

In the second and longer that part of his book, Dr Plunkett proposes a seven step plan to re-evangelise society. I will attempt to summarise each of these steps.

The first step is dialogue. We will be addressing people formed in a milieu of materialism, moral relativism, instant gratification and a culture of soaps and celebrity. We must be prepared to face this reality. The second step looks more closely at moral relativism, at political correctness, post-modernism and media bias. These tend to deride and deny that truth and goodness have any real and absolute value. But people cannot live in a spiritual vacuum. As a result they turn instead to false prophets and trivial spirituality. In the third step the gospel is proclaimed either directly or by the witness of holiness and goodness in the lives of individual Christians. The fourth step is a definite call to conversion. This will involve the rejection of many of the world’s values so the Churchmust be seen to judge and stand against many of the claims of our culture.

Next the church must inspire the world of ideas. It must make its voice heard. Its wisdom and spiritual riches should be available to everyone. This is the fifth step. The sixth step concerns beauty, which both reflects God, and draws man to him. It is closely linked to truth and goodness. Even in the last 40 years, the Church has been a source of beauty and an important patron of the arts but Dr Plunkett fails to mention the massive destruction of art, architecture and music in the Church during this time. The seventh step is to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He discerns the Spirit moving in the new orders and associations, in Marian apparitions, and in the many charisms seen in the Church today. Of course the Holy Spirit guides and inspires all the previous steps as well.

Saving Secular Societyis generally written clearly and is free from jargon. With obvious and intelligent concern Dr Plunkett raises one of the most important questions that faces Christians today. In a usually engaging manner he discusses many of the issues which challenge us today. However overall, it is not an easy or simplistic book, it requires both time and attention.
When I had read the book, I asked some colleagues from a variety of backgrounds what steps they would propose to re-evangelise Society. In fact, many of their answers had already been covered in Dr Plunkett’s book. However, two further suggestions were mentioned. We must have confidence in what we believe. We must have courage and clarity in teaching it. I tried another test. I explained the seven steps to an Anglican vicar and asked him what he thought of them. He said, ‘It sounds as though he wants to reverse the Reformation’. After a pause he added, ‘Not necessarily a bad thing’.

Fr Francis Lynch

Pure Womanhood
by Crystalina Evert, distributed by Emmanuel House, Dublin, 41pp, £2.99

Today have you ever heard the words ‘virginity’, ‘chastity’, ‘purity’, ‘modesty’, or ‘self-mastery’? Yes indeed, these words seem to belong to an archaic society which has refused to move to the post-modern times. In fact, today they are no more than romantic concepts where we all hark back to our parents’ and our grandparents’ generation when they would go on a date to the cinema to watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Of course, we live in a world where ‘Chastity’ is merely a cool name for our daughter. Chastity, it would seem, is as extinct as the dodo. Or is it?

Thankfully, there still are alive human beings of this time, men and women full of integrity and character, who practise and promote the value of a chaste lifestyle. They are fully aware that no one can have sexual intercourse outside of a committed monogomous relationship, that being marriage, and not endure sufferings of a physical, emotional or spiritual nature. The notion and practise of chastity exist even today.

Crystalina Evert has produced a short booklet that is accessible and to the point. It contains her own painful testimony which is powerful and heart rending. The first line states “...I’ll never forget the day he walked away from me for the very last time. All I could think was ‘That guy is leaving with something that never belonged to him in the first place, and I’ll never get it back.’” It begs the question, ‘How many girls have we ever met who have reiterated the same question?’

Crystalina highlights 21 statements from her own experience and from girls whom she has encountered, each justifying their reason for practising pre-marital sex and she answers each one with truth, love and honesty. These statements are arguments which she used herself to validate her own decisions. We have the opportunity to read about her own life in which she makes no attempt to disguise her actions and with which perhaps many girls can empathise.

As a youth worker who presents chastity to girls (and boys) Crystalina does not omit any possible opinon. She delves from “Boys will be boys” to “I’ll change him” to “It’s my body, it’s my choice” to “I’m damaged goods.” Crystalina knows too well the pressures which our sisters, our nieces, our daughters, our grand daughters are under. Hence, the publication of the booklet. 

She relays to these girls the most important message of all. Self-control is achievable. Boys do desire girls who are pure.

Finally, she attempts to reach out to all those girls, like herself, who bought into the lies and the propaganda of the secular world. This section is headed “It’s too late for me.” Crystalina emphasises that “...the regrets about your past may seem overwhelming, but God’s love is greater.”

The booklet is highly impressive and is written from the heart of a girl who knows that sex is sacred. She offers many practical tips to girls who find themselves in situations of temptation and offers advice on praying for the grace to practise chastity. The booklet is one of the best I have encountered and I would encourage every teenage girl to read it. From the first sentence it is captivating and intriguing. It is complemented with light humour and refuses to apologise for the truth echoed throughout the entire booklet that “being pure, you’re loving your body, you’re loving your future children, you’re loving you’re future husband, and, most importantly, you’re loving your God.”

Crystalina has met a man of integrity of character called James Evert. Today the pair travel the USA to share their testimonies to thousands of hundreds of teens. Equally impressive to “Pure Womanhood” is her husbands’ “Pure Manhood.” As you might imagine it is aimed at teenage boys and is a worthwhile buy in a similar style.

Sarah Holmes

An Infinity of Little Hours
by Nancy Klein Maguire, Public Affairs, 265pp, $13.95 (available from Family Publications).

This is a remarkable and painstaking work which emerged at the same time as Philip Groning’s film, Le Grand Silence.

Both deal with the life of the Carthusian monks. Groning follows the life of La Grande Chartreuse whereas Nancy Klein, having married a former Carthusian, has a more direct interest. She wanted to catalogue the life before Vatican II in the same way that Tony Parker put on record the routine of the lighthousemen before automation.

Nancy Maguire has managed to portray the austerity of the English Charthouse at Parkminster in a way that few could accomplish. She does it through the lives of five Carthhusian novices. One of her correspondents suggested she should have been hired by the CIA, because she had to get in touch with men who had gone their separate ways and persuade them to share their experiences, as well as to persuade the community in Horsham to allow her to enter the cloister. Queen Victoria had to obtain papal permission when she asked to visit La Grande Chartreuse.

There is no glossing the extreme penitential nature of the vocation. Carthusians never eat meat and fast frequently. In the early fourteenth century, the Pope commanded them to break their abstinence when ill. A delegation of twenty-seven monks was sent to Avignon: the youngest was twenty-eight and the oldest ninety-five. The command was rescinded although they did agree to wear hats in bad weather. There have been changes in the last thirty years – clocks have made their appearance, there is more heat and the monks concelebrate. Will Pope Benedict rescind the changes and return them to the rule of 1127?

The monastic appeal, judging from Groning’s film, remains strong. Nancy Maguire’s novices never regret the time they spent at Parkminster and are welcomed back. There is a tradition at Parkminster of faithfulness to the witness of St John Houghton, the Prior of the London Charterhouse who, aged 48 on May 4th 1535, was silent and suffered. St Thomas More witnessed the scene from his window in the tower and said that he and his companions went to their deaths as to a wedding. The Carthusian vocation, Soli Deo, is not for all but remains in the Church as that call to give all for love of Christ.

Fr James Tolhurst

A Year book of Seasons and Celebrations
by Joanna Bogle, Gracewing, 111pp, £7.99

A Yearbook of Seasons and Feastsworks through the Christian calendar looking, not only at the particular seasons, but also several of the feast days. It talks of many traditions and customs that were once followed when celebrating these days. It is both a practical and informative book, with everything from ideas from creating things to poems and prayers to say.

When my husband and I got married we decided that we were fed up with fasting on days of abstinence but not really feasting on feast days. With the birth of our daughter we zealously sought a book that would help us in this mission and after enjoying a talk by Joanna Bogle we bought A Book of Feast and Seasons(F&S). A Yearbook of Seasons and Celebrations(S&C) claims, with some justification, to be a ‘companion book’.

The format of this book is well arranged into the seasons, and the introduction works through the Christian calendar. The first has a greater emphasis upon practical ways of celebrating the feast days, but it is good to have the additional information which is in the companion volume. I personally feel that the content of both could have been combined.

I noticed one or two inaccuracies. For instance Joanna says that the Polish take baskets of food to be blessed on Easter Sunday morning, though it’s actually Holy Saturday, with it being eaten on Easter Sunday. Also I was a little disappointed at the Michaelmas entry, where Joanna said “the old tradition was to eat a roasted goose”, advising one to “invite your family round for a harvest supper – roast chicken.” My husband and I had a great celebration, preparing roast goose for the first time, with friends and family. N.B. Trinity cake actually needs 8oz of flour. 4oz I discovered produces Trinity biscuit.

All in all this book is very good and written with the vigour and zeal of someone who clearly enjoys being a Catholic and feels that traditions which help us to teach the faith are not only worth maintaining but encourage us to feast and be merry. It can be a good way to evangelise our non-Christian friends, particularly in a culture which perceives the Catholic faith to be dull, and much more about fasting than feasting. I took Angel cakes into work at the start of October and told all my colleagues about the Feast of the Guardian Angels day, and when recalling our evening with the goose discussed Michaelmas with them. This is a defiantly informative book.

Ella Preece

Faith Magazine