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Two Journalists Look at Today's Church

A PEOPLE ADRIFT: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, by Peter Steinfels. Simon and Schuster. 416 pp. $26.

THE COMING CATHOLIC CHURCH: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism, by David Gibson. HarperSanFrancisco. 368 pp. $23.95.

Reviewed by JOHN BOOKSER FEISTER, an assistant editor of this publication, managing editor of Catholic Update, founding editor of and coauthor of three books with Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

FEW ANALYSTS of American Catholicism are as well-prepared and articulate as Peter Steinfels (with the arguable exception of his wife, Peggy). His perspective is decidedly intellectual and liberal—but at the same time he admits that “liberal” and “conservative” labels are causing more harm than good. In A People Adrift, Steinfels does what almost no other journalist has: He provides deep context for understanding the current ferment in the Catholic Church.

Though the book by necessity is much about the sex-abuse crisis, Steinfels was well into this project before the 2002 scandal broke. His starting point is the 1996 funeral of the book’s hero, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Many bemoan that the news media often don’t report well on the Catholic Church because they don’t understand it. Peter Steinfels is a grand exception: active Catholic, former editor of Commonweal, frequent contributor to many Catholic publications, senior religion writer for The New York Times (1988-97), where he still writes the “Beliefs” column. He is an insider who methodically documents a sea change in the Church.

The coming decades will be critical for the Church, Steinfels asserts, be-cause two important transitions are under way. First, 40 years after Vatican II, a pre-Vatican II generation is fading into history. Second, the lay leadership spawned by Vatican II is growing at the grassroots, even if it has yet to find its place in Church and culture.

The issues he takes on in depth are the liturgy, passing on the faith to the next generation and fostering Catholic identity. There is also a rich offering of history, observation and recommendations that will ruffle feathers. Agree with him or not, this book is a “must read” for contemporary Catholic thinkers.

The presence of another high-caliber book on similar themes is a sign of the times. David Gibson’s book The Coming Catholic Church is more specifically about the major dimensions of the sex-abuse crisis. The Coming Catholic Church is a page-turner of anecdotes, commentary and history.

Where Steinfels writes as a cultural Catholic, Gibson writes with the outlook of an enthusiastic convert. Gibson was a Rome-based Vatican Radio correspondent in the 1980s and, most recently, religion writer for the Newark Star-Ledger and reporter for CNN.

Gibson’s strongest gift is his storytelling. He starts at the historic 2002 meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas and leads us into the waves of tension that are roiling among the Church’s “three estates”: bishops, clergy and laity. (The book is divided into three sections, one for each estate.) His is an excellent digest of the events of 2002, popular in style, filled with interesting details, observations and many points of view.

He tackles the history of strained relations between ordained and lay, an ambitious assignment. Undergirding his presentation is the concept of “loyal opposition,” a sense that Catholics will remain Catholic in spite of the scandal, and that reform is coming, from the undeniable will of the centrist faithful. The coming Catholic Church, asserts Gibson, is moderate reform led from the center.

Most refreshing in Gibson’s work are his understanding and explanation of the tension between American democratic ideals and European Catholicism. The conflict between the ordained and lay estates is no new theme to Americans, and Gibson documents it well. At the same time, Gibson sees a renewal of holiness among priests, bishops and laity as the key to getting through the crisis.

Choosing between the books would be hard, but Steinfels’s is stronger. Gibson, here and there, misses nuance. His brief treatment of ordained ministry in the early Church, for example, is simplistic. The old (1917) Catholic Encyclopedia is quoted repeatedly without alluding to its age. A few speakers whom Gibson quotes are actually themselves quoting patristic and conciliar sources.

Both A People Adrift and The Coming Catholic Church are syntheses of decades of close observation, which makes them compelling reading. One would expect both books to be vilified by Church conservatives for recommending, among other reforms, loosening restrictions on ordination.

You can order A PEOPLE ADRIFT: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America and THE COMING CATHOLIC CHURCH: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOIUR OWN: An American Pilgrimage, by Paul Elie. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 555 pp. $27, U.S.; $44.50, Canada.

Reviewed by the MOST REV. ROBERT MORNEAU, auxiliary bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

CHARTING THE INFLUENCE of four major personalities of the 20th century, as well as describing their impact on one another and our culture, is a challenging enterprise. Paul Elie, editor and writer, has succeeded admirably. His reading and interpretation of the writings of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy manifest not only a deep grasp of their work but also a critical intelligence that is impressive.

For those who have read biographies of Day, Merton, O’Connor and Percy, there is not a great deal of new information. What is novel is the way the author shows how the lives of these four individuals intersected and how they often addressed the same themes and issues but from different perspectives. What is of special interest and value is Elie’s literary analysis of the short stories, essays, columns and novels of these four writers.

Those familiar with O’Connor’s novels and short stories, with Merton’s autobiographical and meditative prose, with Day’s Catholic Worker message and with Percy’s linguistic essays and fiction will be given new insights that are both enlightening and critical.

This is a human book, at once depicting the protagonists as having great gifts and severe limitations. The theme of pilgrimage runs throughout as we witness wayfarers struggling to make sense of this mysterious human journey. Elie writes in the Preface: “A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrims seek not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.

“Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms.”

Well-balanced are the genius and flaws of each pilgrim in this book—no hagiography here. Well-developed, too, the historical and cultural context out of which these authors lived and wrote.

In another book worth reading, All Saints (Crossroad, 1977), author Robert Ellsberg saw fit to include Day, Merton, O’Connor and Percy. Being called holy bothered Dorothy Day. Surely the title of “saint” would also bother Merton who knew his sins so clearly, would bother O’Connor who was in touch with her meanness and rudeness, would bother Percy who struggled to the end with issues of faith in a postmodern world.

Yet, if a saint is one who responds to the gifts of God as fully as possible and one who attempts to receive and pass on God’s love courageously, all four of Elie’s subjects deserve inclusion in an “all saints” book.

From Day we are forced to deal with the issues of poverty and justice; from Merton we are continually challenged to seek our authentic self and be a reflective, prayerful community; from O’Connor we hear story after story of how God’s grace is active in the strangest of personalities and situations; from Percy we are confronted with those “ordinary Wednesday afternoons” leading to an “everydayness” that can be overwhelming.

The questions and issues they wrestled with are our own. We are indebted to them for articulating the large questions of life and offering some direction.

Paul Elie’s analysis is perceptive and engaging. His story about storytellers is a narrative that captivates, even kidnaps our imagination.

You can order THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN: An American Pilgrimage from St. Francis Bookshop.

LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE DEFENSE OF DIGNITY: The Challenge for Bioethics, by Leon R. Kass. Encounter Books. 297 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, a research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

LEON R. KASS—medical doctor, biochemist, philosopher and man of faith—is the current chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. In this volume he tackles some of the major bioethical and social issues confronting 21st-century society.

The rapid advances of technology and the power to manipulate human life and reproduction have led Kass to examine what it means to be human. His thoughtful approach to in vitro fertilization, genetic enhancement, cloning, organ donation, life extension and the right to die is challenged within the context of the defense of human dignity.

His personal reflection on the human situation takes advantage of the accumulated wisdom of Western civilization, his own Jewish faith and life experiences.

From the start, he rejects a rationalistic approach that limits the human to quantifiable biological data. This holistic vision proves to be not a collection of nays to the biotech revolution but caveats within a paean to life.

The trend in some quarters is simply to view “the stuff” of life as a commodity which persons have unlimited rights to reproduce, transmogrify and terminate at will. This attitude is the byproduct of two dangerous and humanly limiting philosophies—scientific reductionism, which reduces all of life to genes, and legal positivism, which creates rights according to a person’s will.

Both of these, according to Kass, lack teleology—a reason and ultimate goal—for human existence and procreation outside of an autonomous agent’s desire.

Kass asks serious questions not simply about the destruction of embryonic life to bring about a desired birth for the infertile or a clone for vain people, but also about the intrusion of technology into human intimacy.

Kass is not afraid to resort to feelings for his arguments since these are also part of our humanity. His arguments are reminiscent of his visceral attack on cloning as “repugnance” for the unguarded use of human embryos, the taking of organs for transplants or the right to end one’s life. Without delving into some of Kass’s graphic examples, the bottom line is that we may be reentering an era in which the buying and selling of human flesh is once again on its way to legitimacy.

Although his major arguments are framed through the lens of Orthodox Judaism, he often comes to the same conclusions that guide Catholics.

Many have dubbed the 21st century the century of biotechnology. Kass wisely puts into perspective such complex issues vis-à-vis the cost to human dignity.

This easy-to-read book will help both the ordinary person and the professional understand what is at stake as the political system tries to grapple with issues that may redefine human life and perhaps compromise our liberty more than the most tyrannical government ever imagined.

You can order LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE DEFENSE OF DIGNITY: The Challenge for Bioethics from St. Francis Bookshop.

RADICAL GRATITUDE, Mary Jo Leddy. Orbis Books. 192 pp. $18.

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

MARY JO LEDDY is a woman of integrity. She is a remarkable witness, in the way she lives her life, to what it means to be a person of Radical Gratitude, the title of her latest book.

Leddy teaches theology at Regis College in Toronto, and for the past 12 years she has worked with refugees in the Romero House community there.

Just over a quarter century ago, Leddy became the founding editor of Catholic New Times, a left-leaning newspaper with a knack for unsettling the religious status quo. At the same time she remains a faithfully nurtured and nurturing Roman Catholic. The Church, she says, “keeps me real.”

Because radical comes from radix (root), one of its meanings is “getting to the fundamentals of the matter.” “Gratitude,” on the other hand, means “a feeling of appreciation for a kindness or favor received.” Leddy has made some basic discoveries about how to live in considerable chaos with a disciplined daily appreciation for life in all its gratuitous splendor.

“This is a book about ordinary grace,” she writes at the beginning, “which is here for the asking. For free. And it is because such ordinary grace can be neither bought nor sold that it is so promising in a time and a place defined by what has been called ‘the triumph of American materialism.’”

Radical Gratitude is about “living an alternative to a driven, consumed or consuming existence....It is about liberation in a culture that is supposed to be the most liberated in the world, that is given over to the pursuit of happiness and is, nonetheless, chronically dissatisfied. It is...for people who seem to live in the most powerful culture in the world but nevertheless can feel quite powerless over many aspects of their lives.”

Her second-last chapter deals with why we have not been created by God for getting, earning or being more. In conclusion, she outlines practical ways of developing the habit of gratitude.

Stories help to focus attention on truths the author wishes to share. One involves an African teenage resident at Romero House who looks out the back window and in broken English points to a garage and asks, “Who lives there?” Leddy responds that no one does: “It is a house for a car.” This sets her and the community thinking. Given a housing crisis in the city, they decide to turn the house for a car into a room for a person.

The striking themes in this material are ideal for sermons, talks, devotionals and studies.

The author has concerns about how spirituality, even worship, is accommodating itself to the market mentality.

Radical Gratitude is not a game plan for revising the underlying values of modern life and restructuring the American economy. It is much more insidious than that. It speaks to the heart quietly and unobtrusively, but poignantly. Much of this can be shared in small groups. Before long, significant changes in the way the world works might actually occur.

You can order RADICAL GRATITUDE from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE EYE OF NIGHT, by Pauline J. Alama. Bantam Books/A Bantam Spectra book. 451 pp. $5.99, U.S.; $8.99, Canada.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication.

FANTASY CAN BE a fascinating genre. A writer starts with a blank slate to create a world for his or her characters.

Pauline J. Alama, a New York grant-writer who has a Ph.D. in medieval English literature from the University of Rochester, sets her story out-of-time, in a world on the verge of collapse. In The Eye of Night, the Troubles are coming down from the North. Cities are being annihilated, civil revolt is killing off kings and nobles, wars are raging and outlaw bands thrive. Famine has hit some areas three years running. Time and space, day and night, and seasonal change are often skewed. Even the earth itself is in upheaval and waking the dead from their graves. Darkness is spreading.

But it is the destiny of three most unlikely heroes to travel into this land of chaos, this land everyone else is fleeing. They are on a quest to save the world, no less.

Jereth is an ex-priest of some mythic cult, and it is mostly through his eyes that we see the others; Hyn is a battered, half-blind serving woman who is shorter than many children and somewhere in the past had one finger cut off; the Lady Trenara of Larioneth is a quiet, exquisite beauty with a “smile as mysterious as the Hidden Goddess.”

In Swevnalond the people worship two goddesses and two gods. They celebrate festivals which mark the seasons of the year and are dedicated to each deity on the “World-Wheel” in turn.

Jereth spent six years in a monastic order devoted to spring’s Upright (or Rising) God. There are also the Bright Goddess of summer, the Turning (or Upside-down) God of harvest and the Hidden Goddess of the Longest Night. In a way, it is as if many aspects of our one, true God are parceled out among these deities.

When the story begins, Jereth is three months out of the monastery, having left before final vows. He is still wearing the tattered robes of his order, his hair barely grown out of tonsure. He had entered the order to forget his family, who drowned in a shipwreck, and leaves the order disillusioned and “a lost man” on a pilgrimage to find himself.

The stories of the rest of the trio emerge more slowly. The prophet (Hyn), the fool (Trenara) and their protector (Jereth) make their way slowly to the very edge of the world.

The Eye of Night follows the outlines of a mythic quest, with many twists and turns. It turns out to be a great tragedy—with a happy ending. It is a story of hard work, self-sacrifice and perseverance, love and grief, caring and tenderness, and preaches the values of hospitality and living and working in common. It is a story where nothing is really as it first appears.

I, who seldom read fantasy, found the story a page-turner. I recommend it to those who want to stretch their imagination a bit and discover some touching characters and ideas of true depth.

You can order THE EYE OF NIGHT from St. Francis Bookshop.



Book Briefs

All Saints Day (November 1) brings to mind saints—old, new and in-the-making. These new books remind us that saints rose to holiness by overcoming whatever life threw at them.

MODERN HEROES OF THE CHURCH, by Leo Knowles (Our Sunday Visitor, 186 pp., $13.95), tells the inspiring story of 18 special 20th-century Catholics, from Franz Jägerstätter (who resisted the Nazis), to Dr. Tom Dooley (a missionary doctor in Southeast Asia), to Blessed André Bessette (a Holy Cross brother and porter at the College of Notre Dame in Montreal), to Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan firefighter chaplain who gave his life in the 9/11 rescue efforts.

AMERICAN SAINTS: Five Centuries of Heroic Sanctity on the American Continents, by John F. Fink (Alba House, 158 pp., $9.95), is another book profiling saintly people, all of whom lived in the Western Hemisphere. Nineteen chapters explore 55 of the 137 American men and women who have been beatified or canonized, from now-St. Juan Diego (born 1474) to St. Katharine Drexel (died 1955); the 20th chapter has thumbprint sketches of the others.

BUTLER'S LIVES OF THE SAINTS, by Paul Burns (New Concise Edition, Liturgical Press, 625 pp., $39.95), I predict, will become the one-volume standard against which all saints’ books will be measured. Burns continues to operate on Alban Butler’s premise that the saints are not just our intercessors but also examples.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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