Spring is back in Colorado! Gone (we hope) are the snowstorms, replaced with the chirping of birds at morning, the budding of our trees, and the joys of lingering afternoon sunshine — hints and promises of spring. So why engage in spring cleaning when there are good books to read? This month we’ve selected a few that will bless you in particular ways — in heart, body, mind and soul.
First, we have two books based on collected sayings of the Fathers of the Church. The fathers are so called because of their leadership in the early Church, especially in defending, expounding, and developing Catholic doctrines. For the first two centuries, most of these men were bishops, although in later years certain priests and deacons were also recognized as fathers. We have no definitive list, but we certainly include such men as Clement of Rome (d. A.D. 97), Ignatius (d. 110), Polycarp (d. 155), Justin Martyr (d. 165), Irenaeus (d. 202), Athanasius (d. 373), Basil (d. 379), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Ambrose (d. 397), John Chrysostom (d. 407), Jerome (d. 420), Augustine (d. 430), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), Pope Leo the Great (d. 461), and Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604). How do we read their writings and keep their thoughts in some sort of order? We have seen (and recommended) these new formats for the writings of the fathers: instead of purchasing “The Collected Writings of Irenaeus” or “The Greatest Hits of Augustine,” we are now seeing books created around a particular theme or doctrine or biblical book, with the fathers weighing in where appropriate. These two slim works examine several key doctrines, with insightful editors who have done the combing and exhaustive research for us on one particular topic, allowing us to drink both widely and deeply from the wisdom of the church.
“Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell,” skillfully edited by Edward Condon, a well-known canonist and theology professor, is a compilation of the wisdom and insights of the fathers on what are called “the four last things,” or in theological terms, eschatology. Cardinal Raymond Burke offered his own insight on this compact and powerful book by observing that “Christian wisdom views all things sub specie aeternitatis, ‘in the perspective of eternity,’ for all reality has its beginning in God and its final destiny in him.” Here we meet concise, compact, and pointed wisdom on the four great questions we eventually ask ourselves. In the midst of so much religious banter, we have in this tidy little volume a flood of carefully-organized wisdom that draws from East and West, Latin and Greek fathers alike. Condon is sparse on his own thoughts, and simply arranges some 680 citations into several subcategories in each of the four chapters of this work. The footnotes are equally absent, but references can be keyed to a fulsome bibliography for those wanting to dig deeper. We welcome this work, and hope by its availability, a new generation of the faithful will drink their first few sips of the fathers, and in so doing thirst for more.
In “The Seven Deadly Sins,” we find an equally brilliant editing provided by Kevin Clarke, professor of Theology at Ave Maria University (with an equally thoughtful foreword by Mike Aquilina). The fathers never intended their writings to be collected, but to be imitated and lived out in our discipleship of Christ. The fathers were not simply scholars or apologists for the faith, they were mainly pastors — those steeped in the caring of souls, with the “smell of sheep” punctuating their writings. Insightful but practical, they offer a fountain of advice on the seven ‘capital’ vices and how to avoid them. As a former Protestant minister who read deeply of the fathers to understand holy Communion and return to the Catholic Church, I already knew how vital and refreshing the fathers are. As one who has the honor to teach deacon candidates the Scriptures, I am ashamed I did not look to the fathers as key interpreters more often, but have resolved to do so in the past few years. With the help of Kevin Clarke, we have been introduced to over 600 citations from the fathers on virtue and vice that will not only fill our mind but warn our souls. We look forward to others works in this wonderful series from Catholic University Press.
We move on to Christian morals — determining what is good and ethical. As a child who grew up in the '60s and left the faith in his late teens, I absorbed unreflectively the mores and morals (such as they were) of the sexual revolution. It has only been in recent years that thoughtful and accurate histories of these times have come our way. One of the more compelling examinations is Jennifer Roback Morse’s “The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies are Destroying Lives and Why the Church was Right All Along.” Dr. Morse, founder of The Ruth Institute and economics professor at Yale and George Mason, has a bold moral clarity as she examines and evaluates the sexual revolution. Even secular scholars are now wondering about the unintended consequences to our Western culture of widespread birth control, access to abortion, permissive sexual freedoms, ease in securing no-fault divorce, the rise of one-parent families, and the growing acceptance of the idea that men and women are neither different nor unique in their place in society. Morse provides well-supported answers.
This book is a masterful take-down of virtually every belief I came to have regarding sex and relationships. I realized just how twisted my thinking about sex, contraception, divorce, and the government’s role in promoting these values became as a result of these powerful forces during the '60s and '70s. This is not an easy read, particularly if you also find youself picking and choosing among the tidbits of the culture’s offerings when it comes to sex, and perhaps wishing the church would “get more modern and embrace the culture.” Morse carefully and thoughtfully (and with more evidence than even a trial lawyer would require) turns most of the accepted wisdom of present Western culture upside down to deliver stunning observations about how the state embraced and eventually mandated birth control to serve the needs of industry and business; how the abortion industry grew to be state-supported because of the flaws in the initial promises of birth control; how the goals of greater freedom and liberation as a result of sexual permissiveness would come true — but, ironically, only for men; how children were the first victims of the sexual revolution and how children of unmarried parents quickly followed them. If you thought (like I did) that all of these trends and changes — more convulsive than the previous two millenia in terms of family, sexuality, and government involvement in these areas — were isolated and unrelated, you are in for a verbal slap in the face by Morse. She carefully defines and describes three seemingly separate ideologies that have driven the sexual revolution in the past decades: the contraceptive ideology (separating sex from childbirth); the divorce ideology (separating children from their parents — at least one of them), and the gender ideology (separating individuals from their own bodies). Dr. Morse explains how these ideologies have developed, why their development and acceptance by society is not a coincidence, how they dominate our politics (both conservative and liberal) and how they threaten the church.
I recommend the investment of time and thoughtfulness that reading “The Sexual State” requires, for it may bring a greater understanding and resoluteness to our embrace of Catholic teachings on morality.
(Contact Deacon Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org)