Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine November – December 2012

Sex Education; A Parents' Guide
By John Timpson, Catholic Truth Society, £1.95.

Being a Parent Today; Children, Faith and Family Life
Edited by Father Stephen Wang, published jointly by Ten Ten Theatre and the Catholic Truth Society. £2. 50

It is not easy to be a parent these days. That is the main lesson of these two new booklets from the Catholic Truth Society (one published jointly with Ten Ten Theatre, an educational theatre charity). All parents, whatever their religious beliefs and desires, have a daunting agenda: balance careers with childcare, find time for family meals, deal with demanding schools, isolate the young from the easily available violence and pornography on the internet and establish and enforce codes of conduct. Grandparents are often not much help, since many of the problems are unprecedented.

Catholic parents face even harder challenges. The fundamental belief that the life of grace (sacraments, prayer, supernatural virtue) cannot be separated from the life of nature (school, play, work) is deeply countercultural.

Even more countercultural is the Catholic belief that reason and grace both point to a transcendental meaning and responsibility in everything concerned with both love and sexuality; from teen romance to lifelong marriage and from masturbation to abortion. It's not impossible to raise Catholic children well in the secular world, but it's not easy.

At the beginning of Being a Parent the editor, Father Stephen Wang, warns against reading the booklet through "from start to finish". He is right, as the text sometimes seems more like a collection of aphorisms than a coherent guide. Still, the advice is generally good and Fr Wang has nicely woven the secular with the religious. Prayer is emphasised, and the book includes a brief collection of prayers suitable for children. The text is effortlessly theological, so a paragraph on God's love ("God loves you and your children even more than you do, and he never ceases to help you") is slotted between one on putting love "at the very centre of your family life" and one on showing children that you love them with, among other things, "hugs, affection, sitting close together, etc".

Being a Parent has a great deal of competition. Many new and some experienced but discouraged parents feel so lost that they read several guides. Catholics would do well to add this little booklet to their collection. The parents who receive it at Ten Ten Theatre school performances should find it useful.

Sex Education, A Parents' Guide is a valiant effort to present the controversial Catholic teaching in a friendly way. John Timpson talks about how this sensitive topic is best approached (by parents, and in a way that makes sense to the child in question), and about what should be taught (the Church's clear and traditional teaching). Timpson avoids the condemnatory tone that older Catholics will forever associate with sexuality.

His advice on how to present sex is sensible, although I would have liked more practical advice on how parents should respond to the many aggressively awful school programmes on "sex and relationships". His presentation of the teaching is, at least to this reviewer, less successful. Timpson follows Pope John Paul II in using the story of Tobit as a biblical base for his argument, but does not discuss the Pope's theology of the body with its rich idea of sexuality as a gift. I found the discussions of neuro-science and sexually transmitted diseases more distracting than helpful and missed a clear statement that sex can be an expression of true love - the gift of the whole self - in the midst of a sinful world.

As far as matters of faith and morals are concerned, both booklets are aimed primarily at nudging vaguely practising parents in an orthodox direction. That editorial choice is sensible, but it means almost ignoring committed Catholics' greatest child-rearing challenge: to give their offspring the courage to be considered strange. In our resolutely secular culture, any seriously Catholic child should seem a bit otherworldly. In our hyper-sexualised culture, the demand to refuse "normal" sexual behaviour almost invites mockery. How can parents help their children resist the temptation to conform?

Being a Parent does note the problem and briefly discusses the increasingly common American response of home schooling. It is much easier to raise children well if they are rarely forced to interact with the hostile outside world. The widespread willingness to contemplate it is a sign of just how difficult Catholic parenting has become.

Edward Hadas
Bethnal Green

The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History
By John Vidmar OP. Paulist Press 2005. Paperback, viii+358 pages

To attempt an account of the growth and development of the Church in a single volume is a task that should be undertaken only by one who has mastered the highways and byways of ecclesiastical history so thoroughly that he is able to take the reader along its paths without either losing him en route or cutting the journey time unduly. In recent years one may think of Bickers and Holmes of Ushaw College who, in 1984, did so in slightly fewer pages than the present author, Father John Vidmar.

A Dominican from Rhode Island who has written and lectured extensively, Fr Vidmar has used as his modus operand] the six "ages" into which the historian Christopher Dawson famously divided the story of the Church. This structure, beginning with Christ and concluding with the election of Pope Benedict XVI, is a useful tool. The six ages, each spanning 350 to 400 years, are The Early Church (30-330), The Age of the Fathers (330-650), The Dark Ages (650-1000), The Middle Ages (1000-1450), The Protestant and Catholic Reformations (1450-1789), and The Modern Age (1789 onwards).

Each chapter has a time-line, maps, illustrations, footnotes and suggested reading and audio-visual materials, and is clearly the fruit of the experience of having taught undergraduates and other adults - including, perhaps, those with a limited knowledge of European or Middle Eastern history (or indeed history in general).

For those who have a limited acquaintance with the broad sweep of the history of the Church, Fr Vidmar has provided a highly readable introduction which leaves surprisingly few stones unturned. Moreover, within the self-imposed limitations of the Dawsonian schema - that, generally speaking, each age began with great gusto and ended with something short of a resounding success - the book works well and is to be recommended. For example, students for the priesthood who could be expected in due course to engage in a more profound analysis of many, if not all, of the "ages" would find Fr Vidmar to be a helpful guide at little more than a few sittings.

I would also offer the book as a resource to those undergoing instruction in the Catholic Faith, since it may be argued that one of the weaknesses of most RCIA programmes (let alone catechesis perse) is a failure to engage with the story of the Church.

One of the accusations to which Catholic historians have sometimes been vulnerable is that their presentations of the Church's progress are one-sided or partisan. This charge cannot be laid at Fr Vidmar's door.

He does not shy away from the less happy episodes in the history of Catholicism, such as the widespread (but by no means overwhelming) institutional malaise at the end of the 15th century, nor does he ignore difficulties imposed by the colonialism associated with the Catholic powers in his own native continent. Fairness, however, is always maintained and one finishes reading the book with a sense of thanksgiving that, despite the frailties of her individual members, the Church as the Body of Christ has remained faithful to her mission.

If I have one criticism it would be that in the section on the modern period there is insufficient mention of the influence of the Oxford Movement and Newman in the 19th century, and of the internal renewal of the Church through such phenomena as the Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century. That said, 2,000 years in less than 400 pages is a tall order and Fr Vidmar's skills as a historical summariser are to be admired.

Fr Stewart Foster
Brentwood Diocesan Archives

The Sisters Who Would be Queen: The Tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey
By Leander de Lisle, 2009, HarperCollins, Paperback, 388 pages, £9.99

Henry Vlll's grand and ultimately futile project to have an adult son on the throne, and to prevent the Stuart line ever inheriting it, is known to have caused much instability to our nation. Leanda de Lisle has added more detail to this dynamic. Her book chronicles, across several generations, the ensuing battles between the Catholic and Protestant influences upon actual and potential successors.

This has never been achieved with such accuracy before. For de Lisle has unearthed key new facts, from ambassador reports home and love letters between key protagonists, and has corrected common falsehoods, such as significant details of the ceremonial accession of the "nine day" Queen Jane, and that she was not born in the same month as her predecessor on the throne, the boy-king Edward. De Lisle shows, for instance, that the determined, well-educated Jane was not an Edward-like victim nearly as much as has been proposed.

These new insights in turn enable de Lisle to revise the standard text books concerning the 16th-century roots of our monarchical democracy. The role of Tudor misogyny and Queen Elizabeth's long-term, and ultimately cruel, paranoia over allowing a clear successor to emerge are prominent in de Lisle's account. She shows that the emergence of liberal Protestantism was not as important to the formation of our unwritten constitution as many historians have suggested. The civilising effect of the pre-Reformation parliamentary tradition would seem to have taken on even greater importance - as would the questionable papal excommunication of Elizabeth.

The painful and poignant results of all this for the three Grey sisters, their parents and their husbands (most especially of the younger two sisters) are described with great skill. For instance, the last moments of the 15-year-old Jane are delicately depicted in a manner that is at once moving and illustrative of the wider political themes being explored.

Some well reproduced portraits bring the text even more alive. Four double-page family trees (which apparently are not so easy to flip back to on Kindle) go some way to untangling what at times can be a dense forest of names. Yet, for all that, this revisionist history book is a real page-turner.

Fr Hugh MacKenzie

A Tour of the Catechism. Volume One. The Creed
By Fr John Flader, Gracewing, 2011, 246pages, £12.99

Fr John Flader is the Director of the Catholic Adult Education Centre for the Archdiocese of Sydney. His first volume of A Tour of the Catechism comes with a foreword by his Ordinary, Cardinal Pell, and plaudits on the back cover from Cardinals Schonborn and George as well as other prominent ecclesiastics. So before opening the first page of the text we have a strong indication that we're dealing with a good book.

The author loosely follows the articles of the Apostles' Creed, itself of course the structure of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. The book was drawn from notes distributed at a series of talks on the first part of the Catechism given at the diocesan education centre to groups mostly of young people in their 20s and 30s. This explains one great strength of the work - its brevity. For a priest or catechist wishing to prepare a presentation on the articles of the Apostles' Creed, this work provides a useful summary.

Throughout there are helpful quotations from the Fathers and other great spiritual writers. Many are drawn from the Catechism; others, for example St Theresa of Avila on being judged at the end by "One whom we have loved above all things", are welcome and enriching additions.

Occasionally the discussion goes further than the explicit content of the Catechism. For example, in discussing the virginity of Mary in the act of giving birth, Fr Flader cites additional texts explaining the more specific point of how "Jesus could pass through the virginal body of his mother without rupturing it" (p114). There is also a helpful elaboration of Church teaching on evolution and creation with references to papal teaching, from Pius Xll's Humani Generis to Benedict XVI's conversation with Italian priests in 2007. Similarly, in an early section entitled "Ways of coming to know God" there are helpful quotations from Sir Frederick Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe (both acknowledged atheists) employed against an explanation of the universe through random chance.

If there is a risk arising from a summary it is, of course, in the unintentional changing of perspective. For example, in discussing the Church's position on ways of knowing God, Fr Flader adverts to the very real consequences of original sin on the human mind (quoting from the Catechism and Humani Generis), and then goes on to state: "It is because of the many difficulties in coming to know God by reason alone that God chose to reveal himself as man", quoting from Vatican I's Dei Filius and citing the Catechism paragraph 38. This emphasis could imply that divine revelation and the Incarnation itself were solely contingent on human sin and its consequences. The text from the Catechism does not mention the Incarnation and focuses on created human nature, stating more carefully andsimply that, given divine transcendence as well as human sin, "man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation..."

The Apostles' Creed is now printed within the 2010 edition of the Roman Missal and is recommended for use during the seasons of Lent and Easter. In his highly influential Introduction to Christianity Joseph Ratzinger found great value in this creed, which he called "at all decisive points an accurate echo of the ancient Church's faith... in its kernel, the true echo of the New Testament message" (Ignatius Press, 1990 edition, p54). During the Year of Faith much use will be made of this creed and its authoritative elaboration in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Fr Flader's scholarly guide is therefore timely and worthy of its high recommendations.

Fr William Massie
St Peter's Rectory, Scarborough

The Pope and the CEO: John Paul ll's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard
By Andreas Widmer. Emmaus Road Publishing USA, 2011, 155 pages, available from Amazon £7.20

I was attracted by the subtitle of this book, as others must have been. I wanted to know more about the life of a Swiss Guard, and to discover something of the "inside story" of this traditional regiment tasked with protecting the Holy Father. And the book certainly does offer some fascinating insights - what it is like to be on duty at the Vatican over Christmas, to be guarding the Pope when he is at his prayers, to be in attendance at one of the great events that are televised worldwide. There are some charming vignettes of encounters with the Pope, and of acts of kindness on the latter's part to various Guards and other members of staff.

But does this sort of thing add up to a useful book on leadership? At first I thought not. After leaving the Swiss guards, Widmer became an executive with a big company and relished the thrill of a rapidly expanding business -targets, high-pressure meetings, international travel, lots of competition. Then it began to go sour: the targets came increasingly to dominate everything else, corners had to be cut, any spirit of service gave way to pressure to get profits: the human side of things seemed to vanish. He had a re-think and now runs a company he helped to found with different priorities and a different perspective. Was it really John Paul who provided the inspiration for this?

As I read on, I realised that the honest answer was actually "Yes". Of course, the Pope wasn't running a company, and it's daft to see him as any sort of "chief executive". But he certainly gave lessons in leadership to a generation of young Catholics - and to anyone who had the privilege of living and working close to him, he really was something of an inspiration.

The Swiss Guards found much of their work extraordinarily tiring, but the Pope never seemed to show any exhaustion at all: "When he would return to the Vatican from weeks on the road, he didn't head straight for his rooms and collapse in exhaustion like most would. Instead, he would stop and greet all the staff who had gathered to welcome him home. Like a general reviewing his troops he would 'inspect' us, the guards lined up in honour formation, talking to us and shaking our hands as he moved down the row. He had every right and reason to walk right past us to the calm and quiet of his apartments, but he knew it was his sacred duty to make a gift of himself to us as much as to the crowds that greeted him in foreign lands..."

Widmer believes that the secret of the Pope's strength, good humour, and serenity was simply his prayer-life. He is quite touching in his descriptions of the Pope at prayer, the latter radiating "a sense of peacefulness and calm unlike anything I had ever encountered...I'd never seen anyone pray like that before."

Widmer's own story is an intriguing one. He has absorbed an authentic understanding of the Church's social teachings, and of the true meaning and value of human work. He has sought, with some success, to apply all this to a company which offers enterprising answers to some of the problems of poor communities. He is finding a sense of purpose and joy in this, and wants to offer a message to people who are stuck in a mindless pursuit of work, consumerism or an ideal life-style that always seems just out of reach.

In the end this is a book about the Catholic attitude to work, money, community and family. But it's written from an unusual angle - and if the title helps to catch people's attention and get them opening the book and tasting its message, then that's a good thing.

Joanna Bogle
New Maiden, Surrey

Mystics in the Making -Lay Women in Today's Church
By Carolyn Humphreys, Gracewing, 204 pages, £9.99

This is a cheerful, readable book which aims to encourage ordinary Catholic women with busy lives, with homes to run and children to raise, with responsibilities and with jobs and worries, to live in the presence of God and to make prayer part of their daily lives. I think it succeeds.

Criticisms first: sometimes the book overstates the obvious, and makes too much - far too much - use of well-known quotations. Sometimes it degenerates into cliches. Do we really need yet another reminder that "being a mother is the most difficult job there is on this planet"? Or that good deeds are like the pebble that is dropped in a pond and sends out ripples? Or that children really often prefer simple pleasures to expensive toys? There are too many lengthy quotations from popular hymns, and an irritating misquotation of a rather good little verse beginning "Lord of all pots and pans and needs..." which in its original form rhymes and scans and is quite clever but here is muddled and loses all its charm.

But where the book succeeds is in its genuine connection with women's lives, with stories about family problems that can be turned into opportunities for love and sacrifice, about holiness achieved through the willing acceptance of duties and responsibilities, and about trusting in God and seeking to serve him with courage. I like the down-to-earth approach which recognises that we can all too easily turn into members of the "Plum Club" ("Poor Little Unfortunate Me") and that the call to the Christian life is a call to fidelity and faithfulness which often requires things that are tough and difficult.

The author has deliberately included stories and anecdotes that reflect modern life: single mums, people undergoing treatments for cancer, parish volunteers visiting the sick and housebound. There is a thoughtful anecdote about St Edith Stein and some useful quotations from her writings. There is wise advice about fashion, luxuries and clothes, and some nice tips about enjoying the outdoors and the beauty of nature, and about the value of home cooking and hospitality and celebrating the Church's feasts and seasons.

It's a book that would be useful to share and discuss in a Catholic young mums group, especially for those who need a good general introduction to the idea of daily prayer and friendship with Christ. It would also be a helpful tool in the hands of a priest or a parish catechist talking to parents of First Communion children. In the bleak spiritual void which is modern Britain, Catholics needs straightforward and commonsense materials that help to keep Christ at the centre of life. Our homes need to be places of love and prayer, and this won't be achieved on the diet fed to us by TV, supermarkets, and the general clutter of our lives. We need help, and this is a modest and useful contribution.

Joanna Bogle
New Maiden, Surrey

Faith Magazine