Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy
by Roger Collins
Basic Books, 566 pages, $35
At the beginning of his preface, Roger Collins, a medievalist and Honorary Fellow of Edinburgh University, admits that a one-volume history of the papacy is “probably far too ambitious an undertaking.” Collins is right, and, despite its virtues, Keepers of the Keys proves the point. The book is instructive in its rendering of the complexities and chaos of the medieval papacy, where Collins is playing on his home pitch; but when we get to the past two hundred years or so, both the narrative and the judgments become uneven. The necessary brevity imposed by the one-volume format (and, perhaps, an uncritical deference to the Whig theory of modern history) yield a treatment of the papacy from the French Revolution to the present in which two of Rome’s greatest accomplishments—securing the Church’s independence against the assaults of the modern state and preserving the deposit of faith while developing Catholic social doctrine as a comprehensive vision of human goods—go unnoticed and unremarked.
Collins’ sketches of the key popes of modernity are also, well, sketchy. Although unhappy with Gregory XVI’s political conservatism, he rightly praises the Camaldolese pope for vastly expanding Catholic missions and for condemning the slave trade. Pius IX is treated with respect, and Collins’ summary of the dynamics at Vatican I is refreshingly free of liberal cant, but Leo XIII’s creation of the modern papacy as an institution of moral consequence in the world is virtually ignored.
The complexities of Pius X—pious, gentle pastor and stern scourge of Modernism—are duly noted; the underrated pontificate of Benedict XV gets a fair shake; and Collins rightly portrays the “rather neglected” Pius XI as “one of the outstanding popes of the century.” His sketch of Pius XII, however, is shadowed by the calumnies of Rolf Hochhuth and John Cornwell and betrays a striking lack of familiarity with recent scholarship on Pacelli’s anti-Nazi convictions and his work on behalf of persecuted Jews both before and during World War II. Missing in action is Pius XII’s reforming work: in liturgy with Mediator Dei, ecclesiology with Mystici Corporis, and Catholic biblical studies with Divino Afflante Spiritu—three encyclicals that set the intellectual foundations for the Second Vatican Council (in whose documents Pius is the single most cited papal source).
Collins tries but fails to avoid the conventional cowboys-and-Indians hermeneutic of Vatican II, and his sketches of both John XXIII and Paul VI seem hollow—and, in some instances, just plain wrong. Relying on an obscure article by Pericle Felici, Collins takes seriously the notion that John XXIII wanted to call his council “Ostiense I,” because he had announced his attention to summon it at St. Paul Outside the Walls (the Roman basilica on the Ostian Way) and wanted that odd name to signal a “Pauline” rather than “Petrine” ecclesiology, yet the primary sources make clear that the moniker “Vatican II” was John XXIII’s own idea and was chosen in order to make clear that Vatican I (which had been recessed in 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian War) was over.
More gravely, and with reference to Paul VI, some of the key issues in play in the Humanae Vitae controversy are not identified. These issues involved both theology (the debate over whether the magisterium can define intrinsically evil acts known as such by recourse to the natural moral law) and ecclesiastical power politics (the determination of some theologians and bishops to have proportionalist methods of moral analysis canonized by an encyclical).
The treatment of John Paul II is quite inadequate and includes the erroneous claim that the late pope’s ill health in his later years stemmed “from the effects of the assassination attempt on him in 1981.” Collins also misreads John Paul’s role in the Long Lent of 2002, which is perhaps not surprising in that his sources for the final phase of John Paul II’s lengthy pontificate are the aforementioned Cornwell and David Gibson. I trust I won’t be accused of untoward amour propre by suggesting that other sources are readily available.
Keepers of the Keys is quite readable; a general audience will appreciate the author’s impressive ability to untangle formidable historical knots and to maintain a good narrative pace. But for a one-volume treatment of the subject, the late J.N.D. Kelly’s Oxford Dictionary of Popes remains the gold standard.
Her Place in These Designs
by Rhina Espaillat
Truman State University Press, 91 pages, $15.95
Since publishing her first poetry collection in 1992 at the age of sixty, Rhina Espaillat has created a remarkably large and distinguished body of work. Now, with the publication of her sixth book, it is clear that her body of meticulously crafted formal poems places her among the best poets of the last half-century. To match their variegated diction, range of subjects, and depth of thought and feeling, one must turn to her slightly elder peers, Richard Wilbur and the late Anthony Hecht for comparison.
The poems in this new book are largely retrospective, revisiting the poet’s childhood in Jamaica and New York, recalling lost friends and loved ones, and exploring the dark history of the last century. Though modern in their intellectual skepticism and religious uncertainty, her poems do not succumb to despair or moral relativism. Espaillat is a poet of hope. In “Replay” and “Grainy Bits,” she explores both the banality and genuine horror of evil, while accomplishing, in the former poem, her girlhood wish to make amends to a scorned Jewish child by speaking the words that heal our common exile. Contemplating friends lost to death, she notes how good is good forever, / untouched by when it goes or how it ends.
A religious skeptic, aware of the contingencies of chance and fate, Espaillat employs the language of religion— grace, redemption, peace, love, blessed—so as to suggest a fundamentally religious vision, where certainty, which eludes us when we seek / in reason’s name, will come for love; where, though God may seem absent, any father of the drowned, / the burned, the starved, the gassed, be named and found / until pity and shame have made Him be.
The Tyranny of Liberalism
by James Kalb
ISI, 330 pages, $28
There is no shortage of treatises against liberalism, but James Kalb’s new book is distinguished by remarkable comprehensiveness and a refreshing freedom from rancor. It is an excellent resource for those new to this debate, and those steeped in it will commend Kalb’s clarity and may even find something to learn from or profitably argue with.
Kalb begins by defining liberalism, which he understands as the belief that the ruling imperative of politics is to achieve equal freedom by “rational” means. To be rationally administered (that is, administered through markets or government bureaucracy), freedom must mean the license valued by a preference utilitarian, excluding all reference to goods transcending individual human desire. Liberal practices, institutions, and ideas therefore lead to the destruction or trivialization of all communal and religious life. Liberalism justifies itself by identifying its controlling (utilitarian) concept of rationality with the technical rationality that has yielded so much fruit in the modern scientific project. Capitalizing on the prestige of modern science, liberal discourse excludes nonliberal views of the proper organizing principles of society as self-evidently irrational.
But despite its current dominance and apparent impermeability to critique, Kalb thinks there are many good reasons to believe that liberalism is ultimately doomed. For instance, it cannot achieve or even intelligibly describe the state of equal freedom to which it constantly aspires, and it must therefore end (despite its claim to total rational transparency) by justifying its policies through dogmatic, coercive irrationalism; liberal societies could not survive without the nonliberal forms of association that liberalism corrodes (especially the Church and family); liberalism’s insistence on rationality and open debate makes it especially vulnerable to critiques it cannot answer; men find the liberal exclusion of transcendence intolerable in the long term and will rebel.
Opponents of liberalism can therefore attack with confidence, but Kalb warns against supporting alternatives that are themselves unviable or that represent mere reversions to earlier stages of liberalism. It is this description of such blind alleys (which include most contemporary versions of conservatism or classical liberalism) that is likely to attract the most opposition from otherwise friendly readers. Kalb goes on to lay out his positive alternative: a religiously grounded traditionalism that does not reject reason but recognizes that reason is not coterminous with technical rationality and that it is interdependent with, not antithetical to, tradition. He provocatively suggests that the Catholic tradition is the most viable basis for a neo-traditional society under modern conditions. The book ends with various strategies for undermining liberalism and promoting traditionalism, including recommendations for publicly challenging dominant secularist assumptions.
Frontiers of Faith: Bringing Catholicism to the West in the Early Republic
by John R. Dichtl
University Press of Kentucky, 240 pages, $50
Renegade priests. Rebellious laity. Another scandal exposé from Boston? Far from it, whether geographically and chronologically. John Dichtl’s book instead captures the irrepressible expansion of Catholicism beyond the Appalachians in the early American republic. Dichtl, executive director of the National Council on Public History, constructs a tightly argued and meticulously researched account that recasts several narratives customary to American Catholic history.
Dichtl jettisons the presumption of urban Catholic weakness in favor of the opportunities for both growth and scandal offered by the Appalachian frontier. Even as John Carroll became Baltimore’s first bishop in 1789, Catholics were moving west, where Catholic communities went months at a time without a priest. Such absences left Catholics unshielded from anti-Catholic prejudice and free to intermarry with Protestant neighbors.
The new frontier granted priests discretionary freedoms not known in Europe, and, much to the bishops’ chagrin, both priests and laity occasionally took the liberty to go their own ways. The scandals concerning priests particularly fuelled anti-Catholic feelings, but even devout priests could spark an outburst by seeking converts or publicly engaging Protestant critics.
Dichtl concludes with the provocative argument that the Catholic Church’s insularity emerged prior
to mid-century immigration, not because of it. At the very least, Dichtl shows just how intriguing a history focused on Catholic clerics—now presumed to be “old-fashioned”—can be.
Puncturing sentimental assessments of frontier Catholic piety, Dichtl’s account of early frontier Catholic life challenges conventional wisdom concerning the period as a golden age for lay trusteeism, a parish ownership model treasured by those seeking alternatives to clerical centralization. Instead of an idealized past awaiting rediscovery, Dichtl recounts a pre-immigration frontier church energetically facing challenges and retreating only when necessary.
Thomas Aquinas on the Jews
by Steven C. Boguslawski, O.P.
Paulist, 145 pages, $18.95
Boguslawski broaches a demanding subject. The phrase “Thomas Aquinas on the Jews” evokes Aquinas’ Letter to the Countess of Flanders, dating from the same period as his Romans commentary, which addresses questions of civil governance and urges rulers to treat their Jewish subjects fairly. Or the phrase recalls the fruitful use Aquinas made of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and the respect in which he held its author. Again, connoisseurs of Thomistic texts know that, in a homily on the Decalogue, Aquinas proffers the Jewish people and their custom of spending the Sabbath meditating on the prophets as a salutary example for Christians, whom he exhorts to heed the Sunday homily.
As another locus where Aquinas shows favorable treatment to the chosen people, Boguslawski points to his commentary on Romans 9–11. The author argues that the theological categories of election and predestination provide the key to discovering Aquinas’ view of the “corporate soteriological status of the Jews.” Boguslawski thus exhibits sympathies for authors such as Matthew Levering, whose essay “Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple” (First Things, June/July 2002) demonstrates that, in relation to both Torah and Temple, “fulfillment,” not “revocation,” best describes the Christian dispensation. Both authors conclude that Aquinas is no supersessionist.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Léon Bloy took Christ’s words, “Salvation is from the Jews,” as the title for his captivating text Le Salut par les Juifs. In the post– Nostra Aetate generation, we are fortunate that young scholars are once again reminding us that, for Aquinas, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
—Romanus Cessario, O.P.
The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays
by James V. Schall
Catholic University of America Press, 352 pages, $34.95
For decades Fr. Schall has enlightened and entertained readers as one of America’s most prolific Catholic authors. Now an octogenarian, Schall has collected twenty-two essays that exhibit the essence of the Catholic mind: “to be open to all things, including those things revealed to us, insofar as we can grasp them.”
The essays range from discussions of Catholic thought to political philosophy, friendship, and law. The inclusion of “Sports and Philosophy” alongside “The Ultimate Meaning of Existence” is not an accident: For Schall, “someone who finds no fascination in watching games is probably much farther away from what is highest in our human experience than someone who does,” because “games, like ourselves, exist for their own sakes.” His purpose in asking questions about “ what is” is to “seek not merely ‘answers’ but the reality itself that is the answer, particularly the reality of others in friendship.”
Like Chesterton, Schall sees friendship with God and others as the end of existence, not a means. And in order to grasp reality itself, he has befriended and engaged the greatest minds of the West: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton, Maritain, and Voegelin, to name only a few.
By beginning “in the confidence that things exist and that we can know them,” the Catholic mind chooses both Athens and Jerusalem “to pursue the ‘why’ of things.” Schall’s true joy lies not in the answers but in the pursuit, which, as he often notes, ultimately points beyond this world.
—David G. Bonagura Jr.