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Author sees 500th anniversary of Lutheranism as a Catholic one, too Print E-mail
Written by Brian Welter Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 19 October 2016 13:09

"October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World" by Martin Marty. Paraclete Press (Orleans, Massachusetts, 2016). 114 pp., $19.99.

It has been 500 years since Augustinian monk and theology professor Martin Luther set off the Protestant Reformation with his call for a debate on indulgences and other burning issues in the Catholic Church at the time. Prolific Lutheran writer Martin Marty centers his reflections on Luther's 95 theses on Christ's call to repentance, arguing that repentance formed the heart of Luther's spiritual crisis.

What might make this book challenging for many readers is the author's tracing of the history of Lutheran-Catholic rapprochement that led to a 1999 joint declaration on grace. While this topic is treated with sensitivity, it was the Catholic side that seemed to give more on the issue of grace as central to salvation.

The book at times addresses ecumenism as much as repentance, basing the first on the second. Present-day Western Christians have taken a close look at past theological clashes, some of which led to war. Yet Marty urges us to look to the present and future: "We know that the past is past. It does not exist. It cannot be changed. What can be changed is one's attitude." He bids that we ask ourselves how we today contribute to division within the church and to repent of this.

Marty never advocates an easy ecumenism because he never advocates an easy repentance. He reminds readers, for instance, that many Lutherans and Catholics were not so supportive of the recent steps toward reconciliation. He examines the many outstanding issues, including Communion, noting how these touch each believer:

"Catholics and Lutherans in their homes, parishes, social action, seminaries and gatherings have the opportunity to newly treat practices and teachings that still separate them and prevent the unitive commands, promises, and practices from being further developed," he writes. Ecumenism again mirrors Marty's concept of repentance: It is ongoing and never really finished. It is a lifelong journey.

One way the author attends to current divisions, such as over the sacraments, is by showing where, in the diverse views, one can find a common root or a unified conclusion. This is the hard work of ecumenism, doing one's theological and historical homework to find where the various traditions share certain things. Just as Catholics became more open to the Lutheran conception of grace, so Lutherans have seen the depth of Catholic sacramental theology: "Lutherans have come to recognize more than before what Catholics stress: that baptism makes one an organic member of a community, the community that is the body of Christ." Each side deepens the understanding of the other.

Marty also finds commonality in the Eucharist, hinting that the real issue here has been a misunderstanding resulting from the simpler Lutheran concept of "in, with and under" compared to the much more philosophical Catholic transubstantiation. He sees Lutherans as having more problems with other Protestants, who have spiritualized the Eucharist, than with Catholics, though he does mention the Lutheran discomfort with eucharistic adoration.

Marty explains Lutheran-Catholic differences here in a clear, straightforward manner, highlighting both commonalities and differences. This honest approach surpasses any attempt at sugarcoating differences so that we can all be nice to each other and get along. Marty is not willing to give up the truth. Such ecumenism, though more difficult, will yield better results in the long run.

This means that while he mentions women's ordination, which is a large hurdle to closer Lutheran-Catholic relationships, he leaves it as is. But one area of potential confusion here, as elsewhere in the book, is the question of which Lutheran denominations one is talking about, because many do not ordain women. The author tends to overlook such intricacies. Small books such as this come at the price of deeper analysis of the various issues. Perhaps this attests to the author's humility, as he never attempts to prescribe the necessary treatment to every ecumenical ill.

Marty's central message at the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation seems to be that it is not only a Protestant anniversary, but a Catholic one too. While Luther's initial actions and Rome's reactions led to deep crisis and sometimes violent divisions, Marty writes convincingly that the commemorations can actually bring Protestants and Catholics together. This is a surprising and grace-filled way of looking at the anniversary, perhaps one that is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Also of interest: "All Things Made New: The Reformation and its Legacy" by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Oxford University Press (New York, 2016). 464 pp., $29.95.

Welter has degrees in history and theology, and teaches English in Taiwan.

Books look at poor from hands-on, historical perspectives Print E-mail
Written by Rachelle Linner Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 05 October 2016 13:35

"What Would Pope Francis Do? Bringing the Good News to People in Need" by Sean Salai, SJ. Our Sunday Visitor (Huntington, Indiana, 2016). 144 pp., $14.95.

"Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity" by Peter Brown. University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, Virginia, 2016). 192 pp., $22.95.

Jesuit Father Sean Salai provides a lot of information in "What Would Pope Francis Do?" - a relatively short but well-written book that is particularly suitable for young Catholics. Six thematic chapters (on longing, closeness, dignity, weariness, tenderness and Mary) reflect on Pope Francis' teachings from his 2013 exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel").

Father Salai is particularly good in explaining how Jesuit formation shaped Jorge Mario Bergoglio and how the lifelong practice of Ignatian spirituality has influenced his papacy. Father Salai does this, in part, by reflecting on his own experiences as a Jesuit seminarian, his work as a teacher, his ministerial assignments (teaching, visiting prisoners and nursing home residents, living in a L'Arche community) and his growing sensitivity to the poor and marginalized.

He writes honestly and doesn't pretend to a sophistication he hasn't achieved, particularly in narrating his encounters with Ashley, a homeless woman he met during a summer assignment in New York.

Father Salai clearly loves being a Jesuit and seems free from clericalism, but he writes as if his experiences were normative. He doesn't seem to recognize that, by virtue of his Jesuit identity, his way of being with the poor is radically different than what a lay Catholic would experience. This blind spot does not negate the strengths of the book - it is a fine introduction to Pope Francis and his charism - but limits its ability to serve as a road map for "bringing the good news to people in need."

Care of the poor and the different responsibilities of clergy and laity have been an issue in Christianity since its founding days.

Peter Brown, a renowned historian of late antiquity, explores these issues in "Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity." It is an erudite work of scholarship that is beautifully written and accessible to the lay reader. In this brief book, Brown successfully conveys the context of the first four centuries of Christianity, from St. Paul to the rise of monasticism.

He opens with an analysis of the tension between Jesus' blunt directive to the rich young man - to sell all he has and give to the poor so as to have "treasure in heaven" - and St. Paul's admonition to support the poor among the saints. "Christians faced two problems: how to remember the poor through religious giving, and how to pay for their own religious leaders."

How would the church support the poor of their communities without imposing the expectation of reciprocity that governed gift giving? Eventually, the solution was to have bishops distribute alms, thus insuring anonymity and reflecting increasingly clerical and centralized church structures.

The "holy poor" - those who devoted themselves to religious life and work - grew with the development of monasticism. There were significant differences between the monks of Syria and those of Egypt. (Egypt and Syria were broad geographic areas, much larger than the boundaries of the two nations that bear those names today.)

Syrian monks were supported by the alms of faithful laity. Labor, not sexuality, was central to their theology of the fall. "(T)he human race had fallen into work. ... What mattered was that Adam and Eve had rebelled against God by wishing to exercise God's power over the land." Monks, free from labor, were able to live "a life of perpetual rapt worship."

In contrast, the classic image of Egyptian monasticism was the one presented in St. Athanasius' "Life of Anthony": the working monks who not only supported themselves but were able to give alms to the poor. "In claiming to live from the labor of their hands, the monks of Egypt asserted ... that they were not above the 'mass of men.' They were not 'angels.'" They bequeathed to us "a model of society divided between rich and poor, in which the rich have a religious and a moral duty to support the poor."

The issues so lucidly addressed in "Treasure in Heaven" are still with us today, which is why it is such an important and valuable book. It can help the reader understand the urgency of Pope Francis' religious imagination and it provides theological depth to timely and important questions of justice.

Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, has a master's degree in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Works on catechesis have wide appeal for professionals, casual readers Print E-mail
Friday, 23 September 2016 14:24

"Prisms of Faith: Perspectives on Religious Education and the Cultivation of Catholic Identity," edited by Robert E. Alvis and Ryan LaMothe. Pickwick Publications (Eugene, Oregon, 2016). 150 pp., $21.

"Unexpected Occasions of Grace" by Mike Carotta. Our Sunday Visitor (Huntington, Indiana, 2016). 126 pp., $8.95.

Over the past 30 years, Tom Walters and his wife, Rita, have conducted numerous significant research studies on the state of catechesis in the United States, and on the men and (mostly) women who are responsible for it in U.S. dioceses and parishes. Walters taught catechesis for many years at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, where he also served as academic dean on several occasions.

Upon his retirement, a "Festschrift," or collection of writings, has been published in his honor under the title "Prisms of Faith." Like the work of Walters, this publication provides a serious study on the topics presented.

While most books published today on the topic of catechesis provide practical advice for being a better catechist, this small volume addresses the content and practice of catechesis and provides significant insights into the topics addressed. Since the 2006 demise of The Living Light catechetical journal, which had been published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, finding substantial articles on catechesis has been difficult, which makes the articles in this collection a welcome gift.

Clayton N. Jefford's article on "Use of Apostolic Fathers in the Catechism of the Catholic Church" examines how the writers of the catechism used the writing of the apostolic fathers (Barnabas, Didache, Clement I, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.) in creating that text. This helps the reader better understand the catechism through the lens of the fathers, and may change the way we read it.

Kimberly F. Baker's "The Mystery Meaning You" is especially of interest during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Baker makes clear St. Augustine's teaching that what sets apart the Christian from the pagan is our willingness to live on the foundational stones of love and mercy for others. As Baker notes, most people are willing to accept that God is loving and merciful of them but balk at the thought that they are to be loving and merciful themselves. This article has the potential to change our approach to catechesis and provides the theological underpinning for Pope Francis' challenge for ministers to smell like their sheep.

Other articles in "Prisms" address such topics as religious education in modern Poland and what the 1983 Code of Canon Law has to say about Christian education. These articles, while well written and informative, will be of limited interest to the general reader. The articles on liturgical catechesis, Catholic identity and adult moral formation, and religious education that promotes Catholic identity will be of particular interest to people engaged in these topics. Each of these articles is well-written and reflects the serious theological reflection given to the topic by the writers.

This book is a welcome addition to the field of catechesis and deserves to be given serious consideration by everyone in the church's educational and formational ministries.

Mike Carotta's little book "Unexpected Occasions of Grace" is a change of pace from the professional articles found in "Prisms." Here Carotta shares stories of his encounters with grace-filled people.

During his frequent travels to speak at diocesan and national events, Carotta has come in contact with an eclectic group of people with interesting stories to tell. Carotta listens well and is an engaging story-teller. What sets this book apart is his willingness to invite strangers to tell their stories, a vital skill for all catechists, especially as Pope Francis encourages us to encounter God within others. Carotta's book provides examples of how to do this well. This book will be of interest to all readers.

Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.

Even those who disagree will find Father Curran's book worthwhile Print E-mail
Written by Mitch Finley, Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 07 September 2016 14:35

"Tradition and Church Reform: Perspectives On Catholic Moral Teaching" by Charles E. Curran. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York, 2016), 294 pp., $32.

Father Charles Curran is one of today's most prominent Catholic moral theologians. While it is necessary to locate him left of center on the theological spectrum, he demands a respectful hearing even from those of a more conservative bent. When it comes to lay readers, only those whose minds are shut and locked will not benefit from reading this most recently published of Father Curran's many books.

The essays in "Tradition and Church Reform" -- all previously published in various journals -- are organized into three main categories: social perspectives, bioethical and sexual perspectives and reform at Vatican II and afterward. Each category begins with an introduction of its own and the reader may browse the titles of the 15 essays and choose those he or she finds most appealing. Titles in the first group of essays include "Overview of the Development of the Catholic Social and Political Tradition," "Human Rights in the Christian Tradition" and "White Privilege."

Part II includes "An Appraisal of Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Sexuality and Marriage" and "The Long Shadow of 'Humanae Vitae' on the Tradition." In Part III the reader will find "How Vatican II Brought Spirituality and Moral Theology Together," "The Need for Reform of the Sacrament of Reconciliation" and "Theology and Spirituality for Church Reformers." Finally, in a conclusion, Father Curran discusses "Pope Francis on Reform and the Catholic Moral Tradition."

Many lay readers may find Father Curran's essay on the theology of the body of St. Pope John Paul II of particular interest. The late pope's thought on this topic elicits from Father Curran the observation that John Paul II's theology of the body is far from a completed systematic discussion. Also, Father Curran points out, "there is no recognition of historical development with regard to the meaning of marriage, nor is the subjectivity of persons different in different historical and cultural circumstances."

It should be noted that in the 1980s, the Vatican ruled that Father Curran no longer had permission to teach as a Catholic theologian because of his dissenting positions on church teaching about sexual morality.

Anyone interested in the renewal of the sacrament of confession will likely be captivated by Father Curran's essay on this topic. He emphasizes "the inadequacy of the present rite of auricular confession in light of Pope Francis' emphasis on the mercy of God and of contemporary understandings of sin, conversion, growth in the Christian life and sacramentology."

"Tradition and Church Reform" is an informative, enlightening and captivating book. While academic in structure and tone, any educated layperson will find it well worth the time given to reading it.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including "What Faith is Not" (Sheed & Ward) and a bestseller, "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between" (Word Among Us Press).

Author sees much of himself in Trappist's views on creation spirituality Print E-mail
Written by Mitch Finley Catholic News Service   
Friday, 15 July 2016 13:56

"A Way to God: Thomas Merton's Creation Spirituality Journey" by Matthew Fox. New World Library (Novato, California, 2016). 320 pp., $18.95.

Matthew Fox is an ex-Catholic and ex-Dominican priest who is now an Episcopalian. In 1993, he was silenced for his theological views -- including his advocacy for women's ordination, same-sex unions and some of his writings on creation spirituality. He was expelled from the Dominicans by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now-retired Pope Benedict XVI), the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Over the years, Fox claimed to find the roots of "creation spirituality" in numerous sources including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Dante Alighieri, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Hildegard of Bingen, and not only the Bible but Jesus himself.

Fox also finds support for his views in various ecological and environmental movements as well as Buddhism, Sufism and American Indian spirituality. He tags this broadmindedness "deep ecumenism."

In this latest book, "A Way to God," Fox adds Trappist Father Thomas Merton to his list of those in whose thought he finds agreement with the tenets of creation spirituality. Father Merton wrote one letter to Fox in 1967, following that some months later with a package of bound notes on various topics along with a single-sentence note. Other than this, the book relies on Merton's own published writings.

Fox finds in Father Merton's thought what he identifies as a progression from a rather simple ascetic piety to a position virtually identical with his own. That is, Fox finds in Father Merton yet another great religious thinker who, if alive today, would be an advocate of creation spirituality. For Fox there is little doubt that Merton would agree with him on just about everything, as would Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Eckhart, etc.

The trouble is that, aside from what he wrote as he turned things over in his mind, we don't know how Father Merton would have finally acted in any given situation. Certainly it's clear from Father Merton's own journals, for example, that while he recognized the weak thinking and empty authoritarianism behind much of what he was asked to do in the name of his vow of obedience, in the end he obeyed, and for spiritually and intellectually healthy reasons.

Blind obedience wasn't in Father Merton's nature, but neither was rebellious disobedience implying an unconscious belief in his own infallibility. Father Merton would have laughed at anyone who suggested that he leave the Trappists and become a prophet for his own opinions. He knew the real meaning of humility and it had nothing to do with insisting that "they're wrong and I'm right" followed by becoming a martyr in his own eyes.

Fox believes Merton was assassinated by the government of the United States, although he doesn't believe this can be proven. Still, he is convinced it's so based on "circumstantial evidence," about which one hears so much on television crime shows.

"A Way to God" is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the theology of spirituality and in the life and thought of Father Merton.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including "What Faith is Not" (Sheed & Ward) and "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between" (The Word Among Us Press).


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