LUCKILY, THIS FELL INTO MY LAP….
With summer in the air, and hopefully a little more leisure in your lives, I want to make a pitch to anyone who follows the Café to take the plunge into some corner of academic theology where you think you’d feel most at home. As I posted a few days ago, I put together a “poor man’s reading list,” i.e., something I cobbled together myself from my own reading and teaching as a starter for any of you who want to make the jump from church pamphlet racks into the “hallowed halls” of theological discussion. Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of Catholic theological life in our churches in a curious way this weekend, listening to the sermon for the Feast of the Ascension.
Our parish deacon, who is also our overall director of faith formation, was preaching on the Ascension, and he quoted an appropriate commentary passage by name and source from a noted English Scripture scholar whose work I recognized and respect. I was delighted that he referenced a major scholar in his sermon! It occurred to me that over the thirty years or so I have attended Mass instead of leading it, it has been extremely rare to hear any extra-biblical source cited in a sermon. Even citations from the Bible are not habitual. Years and years ago our founding pastor used to quote the martyr Edith Stein in his sermons, as he had a significant devotion to her, but that has been it for decades. Generally, the parish sermon has never been a place to get one’s theological thirst quenched by a saint or a scholar, and that is sad on many levels. Years ago, one of my psychology professors at Rollins College referred to the generic church sermon as “the martini hour of the mind;” I was a working pastor and preacher at the time, so I gave him the stare, but truth be told, he wasn’t too far wrong.
Saturday was a valuable teaching moment for our parish for several reasons. First, our deacon modeled a critical aspect of the baptismal priesthood: we are all, ordained and lay, students of the Word, and there is a two-to-three-thousand-year history of organized Judeo-Christian Biblical thought that forms the backbone of what Catholics call “Tradition.” When a preacher cites a scholar, a saint, or a contemporary source, he is sharing valuable information with his hearers that they may in turn take a critical look at the Word in communion with those who have dedicated their lives intensely to the study of God’s Revelation, now and in our past. Collectively, we are all the students and eventually all teachers as well. This includes parents, “the first…and best teachers of their children” as the Infant Baptismal Rite proclaims.
Second, a preacher who brings proof of his homework into his message is modeling the kind of work that any of us who “do ministry,” however one defines that, needs to be doing constantly so that the Word is “ever fresh” in our hearts. In my lifetime I have heard preachers say, with a straight face, that they do not prepare a sermon but wait for the inspiration of the Spirit to gift them in the moment. That is bad on so many levels—I don’t think I need to spell them out—and, this is not our history, either.
Theology is a labor of love, but it is still a labor. Over the past weekend I was reading Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity , a truly fine introductory history of the Church from the Apostles till the eve of the Reformation in 1517. [The book is listed in the Café “Bookshop”]. I was surprised to discover, in the fourth and fifth centuries, how many of the theological Church Fathers [most of whom are saints] worked [and even lived] with the “Desert Fathers” and “Desert Mothers,” the austere hermits and primitive monks who had fled the corrupt lives of the Roman cities for solitude, prayer, study, and penance. The Church Father St. Athanasius, defender of the identity of Jesus as true God and true man, lived with the monks from time to time to study, pray, do penance, and hide from the Roman emperors. St. Jerome composed the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, in a cave or primitive setting near Bethlehem. St. Augustine hoped to live out his days in the desert of North Africa until he was forced by the populace to assume episcopal leadership. Gonzalez’s point: the Church received its inner truth from the prolonged asceticism and sacrifice of its theologians and teachers.
I cite this piece of our history to emphasize the intimate interlocking of spirituality and theological study. There is no such thing as “cheap grace,” snappy answers, or shortcuts in pursuit of God’s truth. The pursuit of theological wisdom is impossible without a spiritual temperament, but by the same token that temperament is enriched by the theological corpus of the Church.
MAKING YOUR FIRST READING CHOICE, AS SUMMER APPROACHES:
I gave a lot of thought to what advice I would offer about selecting books that would whet your appetites. If you were entering major seminary or a graduate theology program, there is a well-defined progression of introductory texts and course outlines, and I am looking at some new ones right now for the book list. However, human nature being what it is, our whimsy is often our entry into new experiences, and it may be that a subject of your particular interest is what draws you into the bigger tent. So, I searched down some of the “colorful” or “intriguing” texts under the various headings as possible “summer starters for reading next to the pool.”
Scripture: Try Father Francis J. Moloney’s The Resurrection of the Messiah: A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts of the Four Gospels  First, most readers are familiar with at least some of the Resurrection texts already, and we have just concluded the Easter Season in Church. Second, Moloney’s book provides a lot of surprises while explaining how scholars use the differences between Gospels to understand the vision of each author. It is a relatively easy introduction into the science of Biblical interpretation. My review is on the Amazon site. On Amazon Prime, $22 new and $18 used in paper, also in Kindle.
History: Believe it or not, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople  by Jonathan Phillips is an intriguing look into medieval life, the papacy, and the religious motivations of the crusading foot soldiers against the backdrop of a crusade that went horribly wrong, so much so that Pope John Paul II apologized for this venture on its eight hundredth anniversary in 2004. My review is on the Amazon site. Amazon Prime has this work for about $15 new and much cheaper used.
Spirituality: The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was tragically killed in 1968 while still a relatively young man. His 1948 autobiographical story of his conversion to Catholicism and then to the monastic way of life, The Seven Storey Mountain, remains a centerpiece of contemporary spirituality. It was credited with encouraging a wave of new applicants to monasteries after World War II. His New Seeds of Contemplation  remains among Amazon’s best sellers. My Trappist reading circle just completed New Seeds a few months ago. These works are easily purchased in many markets and formats for very reasonable prices. If you prefer a biography of Merton, I found Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton  very good if a touch dated—Merton’s letters and diary are now available to the public for purchase as well.
Ecclesiology: Easily the best read in the study of the Church is What Happened at Vatican II  by Father John O’Malley, S.J. If you like O’Malley’s style, he has written similar works on the Councils of Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I [1869-1870]. My review is on the Amazon site. Amazon Prime price is $26 paper, $18 used, and $6 Kindle as of this morning.
Sacraments: I was intrigued this year by Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955–1975  by Maria C. Morrow. I reviewed the book on its Amazon site. This is a fascinating introduction to the discipline of liturgical study, in this case focusing on the near disappearance of the practice of regular confession. Amazon Prime has this work at $34 new, $25 used.
Biographies: Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life  by Adrian House is a fine general introduction to both the man and medieval spirituality. My review is posted at the Amazon site. Amazon Prime has the text at $24 new and starting at about $5 used. Equally good and very current is Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare  by Sister Margaret Carney, OSF. My review is on the book’s Amazon site; current price is $14 new and about $9 used.
Morality: The best book on Catholic Morality at present, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  by Father James F. Keenan, SJ, would be a very ambitious starter text, and it costs $50 on Amazon Prime [probably because it is becoming a college/graduate moral theology textbook, and rightfully so.] A simpler but intriguing book to introduce you to the controversies and stresses faced by Catholic moralists today is Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church  by Robert McClory. I did not review it on Amazon because Jay Young’s review is quite good. I purchased my hardcover copy used [with McClory’s autograph, no less] for about $5 last year, and those prices are still current on the site.
I am still filling out other categories as we go on: Eschatology [“the last things”], Canon Law, Mariology [Mary], Social Justice, etc. will follow as soon as I can review some of the new introductory texts. I will post new reviews and acquisitions on the Café social media sites as they become available. Next week I will try to get you the links to the major Catholic publishers, and you can subscribe for free to receive catalogues, reviews, notices of new releases, etc.
So, this summer: Read, Read, Read! [There will be a test in September.]
“To Teach as Jesus Did” was released by the NCCB (now USCCB) in November, 1972; the document was the first effort of the American hierarchy to bring the attitudinal and pastoral dimensions of Vatican II into the United States Catholic educational schema. There are good intentions here, some strong endorsements, encouragement of creative ventures, occasional analyses of structural problems, recognition of changing times and escalating troubles. But as in most projects the devil is in the details, of which there are precious few in those particular areas of concern then and today: the increasing marginalization of religious belief and values from contemporary America.
I just happened to read “Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Catholic Church” (2014) prior to reviewing this document. “Young Catholic America” is a magnificent research venture into the present day faith life of Catholic young adults (18-23); it is also one of most depressing glimpses of the failure of the Catholic formational effort, so much so that I got to wondering: could the bishops in 1972 have written (and more importantly, acted) in ways that might have averted or mitigated the estrangement of Catholic truth among the young, and their parents for that matter, who are also the product of the post-1972 era. In many, though not all instances, the answer is a qualified yes.
The opening of TTAJD expresses hope that all Catholic education will be judged on its success in bringing men (sic) to holiness. Its most famous paragraph is arguably 14, which establishes the three-legged stool of formation: (1) presentation of Christian truth (2) in a vibrant communal setting (3) toward an energetic life of service to the world. This formula survives to the present day as an organizational principle in Catholic education. The authors seem to understand the importance of parents in the formation of their children, and they discuss it at length. Remember that community and family-based programming was still on the formative drafting table: old timers will remember the seminal catechetical work of Christiane Brusselmans, for example. It is interesting that the bishops cite the initiation sacraments and Penance as important moments of parental contact with the process (para. 25) and return to adult education in paras. 45-50.
Once entering pastoral waters, the bishops cannot avoid addressing parochial division regarding what we called then “the new theology.” (paras. 53-59) Think Common Core for a parallel. Those “vibrant communities” of para. 14 were presently agonizing over monumental liturgical and theological change. Figurative hand to hand combat, even in rectories, was not uncommon. A historical argument could be made that the greatest educational project of the twentieth century Church, the implementation of Vatican II, was a challenge for which few in the hierarchy or anywhere else were equipped to negotiate smoothly. A unity of parish faith and practice could no longer be assumed.
The bishops turned to the call and challenges facing Catholics in colleges (Catholic, private, state, commuter, etc.) at several juncture. Regarding younger students, the bishops make it clear that Catholic elementary and secondary schools are the preferred formative experience (para. 84). But by 1972 the crest of the Catholic school explosion was well along the way of subsiding. And here, I believe, is the most critical strategic shortcoming of the document, an absence of critical analysis of the sociology and business of institutional education. Based upon this document, one can only assume that the hierarchy had made up its mind to accept the exodus from Catholic schools as inevitable, impossible to stem or reverse. Lest we forget, this is a major paradigm shift from the 1880’s Plenary Council of bishops in Baltimore.
This abdication put the bishops in the unenviable position of trumpeting the glories of CCD, which is one of the true “emperor’s new clothes” vignettes of contemporary American Catholic life. The bishops would logically have to argue that the formational professionalism of Catholic schools is matched successfully by after-school, weekend, or “released time” programs to justify their decision. (Even today the number of professionals who maintain this incredulous proposition continues to surprise me.) Thus, the reader is treated to the supposition in para. 88 that one of the untapped advantages of CCD programs is their voluntary nature. As any unpaid religious education will tell you today, the only things voluntary are the instructor’s time and labor, and the poor attendance pattern of students. In 1972 the bishops called for a number of reforms yet to be acknowledged: Connectedness of CCD to Catholic schools (para. 93) including a call for “common funding;” development of parish educational centers (para. 94); funding for in-service training of religious education personnel and appropriate salaries for administrative positions (para. 97). In many instances, this would amount to a “dual system,” so to speak, of staff and buildings, which might lead a consultant to ask in 1972, why not reinforce your system already in place rather than embark upon a costly bifurcation that stood little chance of success in the first place? In any event, the monies for both tracks were frequently woefully short of this call as forty years would show.
TTAJD is a testament to the influence of the unbridled hopes and creative enthusiasm of Catholic intellectuals of the left, some of whom were chronically disenchanted by the hegemony of the Catholic school systems. To a degree this includes religious teaching communities, and para. 146 questions why religious were leaving the teaching profession, specifically women religious! The document reports (concedes?) that most Catholic school education in the future would be conducted by the laity, and equally of note, that lay persons would eventually assume administrative positions (para. 147).
“To Teach as Jesus Did” and its multiple successors stand as an indispensable lesson for all pastoral documents: map the terrain and gather intelligence before announcing a battle plan. Piety, enthusiasm and hope are indispensable to the Church, but they are no excuse for the losses in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
I came across a true “period piece” in an online bookstore, “Catholic Bishops: A Memoir”  by Father John Tracy Ellis. This brief but captivating narrative of the American “episcopal giants” of the twentieth century reminds us that the office of bishop in the United States has evolved significantly throughout the history of this country. A U.S. Catholic bishop in the 1920’s exercised his power in different ways than his frontier predecessor of the 1820’s or than the pastoral coordinator of the 2020’s. Many of the bishops Ellis describes in this memoir are the big city bishops of the coasts and the Midwest, where immigration had fed city church rolls and made the urban bishop both a spiritual father and a metropolitan player, so to speak, in public affairs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis.
Ellis [1905-1992] knew many of America’s bishops from his years of teaching history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. In his time the bishops, as chancellors of the nation’s only pontifical university, made frequent visits to the campus as its custodians, as well as conducting their annual meetings on the campus. The author found himself in close proximity to many and developed longstanding friendships with not a few. Many bishops would have been familiar with Ellis’s epic history of James Gibbons [1834-1921], the U.S.’s second cardinal, though some bishops complained that Ellis was less deferential and more candid in his treatment of this eminent churchman than they would have liked.
Ellis is not without his agenda in this work, and it should come as no surprise to those who recall that in 1955 this priest-historian excoriated the American Catholic Church for the poor academic quality of its colleges and seminaries in his essay “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” published in the journal Thought, a piece that desperately needs redistribution in seminaries and, yes, parishes today. He held a special respect for the rare bishop who was himself well educated or who supported quality education, but his regard for episcopal acumen was generally pessimistic. At a Catholic University banquet to welcome a foreign church dignitary, the school’s bishop-chancellor introduced Ellis to his guest: “He writes books.” Ellis frequented chanceries around the country to seek permission and access to the papers of deceased bishops, perhaps another reason for his modest expectations.
Ellis begins his walk down memory lane with Chicago’s George W. Mundelein [r. 1915-1939], a surprise candidate from Brooklyn known for “thinking big,” including an ambitious plan to merge his archdiocesan seminary with Loyola and De Paul Universities, a menage trois never consummated beyond a chaste kiss. His installation is remembered for, among other things, the poisoning of the soup at his evening banquet by an anarchist which sickened several hundred people.
Michael Curley [r. St. Augustine, Florida 1914–1921; Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland 1921–1939; first archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington 1939–1947] was respected by the author for his tolerance of scholars and teachers with whom he disagreed. Curley, who opened the Baltimore-Washington archives to the author, made it clear he did not appreciate Ellis’s biographical treatment of Cardinal Gibbons. Yet the two men grew closer as Curley’s health deteriorated, and the last formal act of the archbishop on the last night of his life was signing Ellis’s incardination papers to join the Archdiocese of Washington.
A towering figure—in multiple senses—was William Cardinal O’Connell [r. Portland, Maine 1901-1906; Archdiocese of Boston 1906-1944], known in Massachusetts as “Number One” for his ecclesiastical and political clout in the Commonwealth. O’Connell is believed to be the inspiration for the character of the Cardinal opponent of Mayor Frank Skeffington in Edwin O’Connor’s novel “The Last Hurrah.” In Ellis’s assessment there is no telling how far O’Connell’s career might have progressed had it not been for the demotion of his Roman patron, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Merry del Val, and a more personal setback at home.
O’Connell’s nephew, James, Chancellor of the archdiocese, “left the priesthood, married, and took a substantial sum of archdiocesan funds at his departure.” O’Connell made the mistake of denying these events in a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict XV, who immediately pulled out a copy of the civil marriage license from his desk. [p. 73] Coincidence or not, O’Connell was assigned the one auxiliary bishop he did not want, Francis Spellman. Of “Spelly,” O’Connell was supposed to have said, “Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read.”
Ellis writes of Spellman [r. Archbishop of New York 1939-1967] that at his death in 1967, two years after Vatican II, the end of the era of the episcopal giants was at hand, given the Council’s emphasis upon the collegiality of bishops and broader structures of participatory leadership. The author had multiple dealings with Spellman, who was pressing for a biography of New York’s Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes of the Civil War era. To treat of Spellman, of course, meant treating of Fulton Sheen, with whom Ellis had a long professional and personal relationship. The author, in his student days, had served as Sheen’s secretary, and later lived with him in Washington for a time. Ellis provides fascinating information, such as the bishop’s acquired wealth from television and other ventures. The famous feud between Spellman and Sheen, which led to the latter’s exile to Rochester, N.Y., in 1966 is noted but not elongated.
Ellis, a Catholic University graduate and professor, devotes a chapter to the bishop-rectors of the school. He notes that “the university was made to suffer from the interference and bungling of churchmen who were ill equipped to foster true university education. [p. 32] He provides insights into the lives of auxiliary bishops, of which the U.S. was awash, mostly men who had resigned themselves to careers on the “Confirmation circuit.” Many auxiliaries proved to be excellent sources for this intriguing introductory glance into the twentieth century American hierarchy by a true working historian.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything