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Nicholas of Cusa: A Companion to His Life and His Times
by Morimichi Watanabe
edited by Gerald Christianson and Thomas M. Izbicki
Ashgate, 426 pages, $134.95

Early twentieth-century Kantian Ernst Cassirer once dubbed Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) “the first modern philosopher,” and Hans Urs von Balthasar was convinced that Cusa’s vision of the unity of faith contained wisdom uniquely suited for the Church and the world today. He tackled, among other things, the notion of experimental science, a theory of dialogue with Islam, the debate about intellect and affect in mystical theology, and the question of papal primacy at the height of the popularity of medieval conciliarism. For these and other reasons, he seemed to surpass his contemporaries with his powers of intellectual synthesis, freedom of expression, high regard for Catholic harmony, and zeal for the truth.

The fruit of a life’s work, this handbook allows both experts and first-timers to accompany Cusa the scholar and ecclesiastical politician, listen to the legal and philosophical debates of his time, and even retrace with remarkable detail how, from within the Roman curia, he defended the medieval ideal of a Catholic Reformation. His role in multiple (often failed) efforts at reform emerges with great clarity. His philosophy and theology are presented in outline in order to prepare the reader for a direct engagement with the translations or original works, both of which are easily accessible elsewhere.

This collaborative effort was written by the late Morimichi Watanabe, the former president of the American Cusanus Society, with the assistance of several of his longtime collaborators. Readers of the American Cusanus Society Newsletter, which Watanabe edited from 1984 until his passing in April 2012, are already aware that Watanabe visited the places that Cusa visited and retraced his footsteps, creating a new basis for a comprehensive re-examination of the historical sources. Those pieces, originally published in the Newsletter, were edited for publication in this book.

Some noteworthy entries that might surprise the non-specialist: a detailed study of Cusa and Islam, revealing glances at early university life, synthetic portrayals of Italian humanist interlocutors and popes, and a rare treatment of Cusa’s relations with England and Scotland. This volume constitutes the magnum opus of the late scholar.

—Peter Casarella is professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University.

Sexual Morality: A Natural Law Approach to Intimate Relationships
by John Piderit, S.J.
Oxford, 328 pages, $29.95

In recent decades, young people have been given increasing autonomy without a corresponding growth in supervision and guidance. This has left them struggling to negotiate the role of intimacy in their relationships, a situation that concerns John Piderit, S.J. The former president of Loyola University in Chicago, he observes that young people are often either “trying on” moral systems or uncritically relying on the wisdom of others to guide their choices and behaviors.

In Sexual Morality: A Natural Law Approach to Intimate Relationships , he offers a coherent moral system for young people to try on, one that appeals to fundamental human values such as friendship and that, he argues, best promotes the flourishing of individuals and society. This system—the natural law approach—provides a useful pathway for men and women on their journey toward marriage.

Piderit’s most valuable innovation in conveying this message is his recurring use of fictional characters—in particular “Dave” and “Maria,” young adults whose romance develops throughout the course of the book—who explain finer points of ethics and morality that can sometimes seem obscure or aridly theoretical to the uninitiated. The casual back-and-forth imitates the spirit, if not exactly the style, of a Socratic dialogue.

Although Piderit assumes no prior knowledge of natural law, those familiar with it will recognize the arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre and John Finnis. Relying heavily on their thought and that of St. Thomas Aquinas, he contributes to the contemporary discussion of sexual morality not by modifying or reinterpreting the tradition but rather by unpacking and translating natural law theory into terms easily understood by those with no philosophical background.

And so his focus in Sexual Morality is not so much on educating young men and women in natural law theory as it is on developing an accompanying set of basic moral skills. Bewildered students (and those looking to guide them) will find Sexual Morality a clear and helpful resource.

—Cassandra L. Hough is executive director of the Love & Fidelity Network.

The Crisis of the European Union: A Response
by Jürgen Habermas
Polity, 120 pages, $19.95

At eighty-three, Jürgen Habermas is Liberal Public Intellectual Emeritus of Europe. His legacy as the continent’s greatest living political theorist is unchallenged by respectable opinion, but the deeper sources of Europe’s struggles undermine his decades-long effort to fuse descriptive and prescriptive democratic theory. It is fitting and timely that his thoughts on Europe’s protracted financial and economic nightmare have been bundled into a brisk read: The Crisis of the European Union: A Response.

Habermas knows that Europeans are wearying of Europe-building. But he also knows that unification “was conducted above the heads of the population from the very beginning.” In today’s Europe, by his lights, citizens, leaders, and bureaucrats alike must relearn the practice of deliberative democracy. “The point of a democratic election is not merely to depict a contingent spectrum of opinion,” he cautions, “but to reflect the result of a process of public opinion-formation.”

Being a liberal of the older school, Habermas rejects both nationalism and the neoliberal form of transnationalism he associates with German-led “austerity.” Out of fealty to Europe and his own political theory, he immerses himself in the dreary details of the EU policy labyrinth. Only once he emerges do the big outlines of his dreams emerge: “With a little political backbone, the crisis of the single currency can bring about . . . a cross-border awareness of a shared European destiny.”

He airs his exasperation with a politics “that makes too few demands,” suggesting that “the motivations” for the politics of European unification “can only come from below, from within civil society itself.”

Yet it was essential to European unification, as far as it has gone, that “nobody” caused it to happen. Europe’s longing for unity is so primal, and has long been so dangerous, that the lack of a unifying agent was a rewarding relief.

So Habermas insists the EU simply set the table for true union. But he cannot paper over the possibility that the path to unity that the EU has prepared—especially in its crippled response to the crisis of identity behind the economic problem—requires a very particular European leader more than any such abstraction as “deliberation” or “civil society.”

—James Poulos, founding editor of Postmodern Conservative ,
writes for
Forbes , Vice , and other outlets.

The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism: A Faithful, Fun-Loving Look at Catholic Dogmas, Doctrines, and Schmoctrines
by John Zmirak
Company, 240 pages, $14.95

The newest addition to John Zmirak’s series of Bad Catholic’s Guides is the most intellectual and the most ambitious—if those are the right words to use for a book that combines the Baltimore Catechism with Monty Python-esque zaniness. Humorous romps through Catholic tradition, full of arcana and exhortations to enjoy the goods of the world for the glory of God (one was devoted to Wine, Whiskey, & Song), the first Guides were aimed at traditionally minded Catholics looking for a little fun.

Zmirak, writer in residence at Thomas More College, wants this book to be a tool for evangelization, something one could give to a fallen-away friend or teenage nephew. Neither is likely to appreciate jokes about the validity of holy orders after Vatican II or other bits of inside baseball that crop up from time to time. They might appreciate the book’s serious theological and philosophical arguments, although you might be careful about to whom you offer the book. As the author admits, “I never hint. That’s for people from a higher social class.”

This book does not offer the reader an exhaustive proof for the truth of Catholicism but rather a wild ride through reason and revelation, the nature of God, creation, the sacraments, and the Church. The Summa Contra Gentiles becomes The Complete Goy’s Guide to God. A “schmoctrine” is “a superstition that well-meaning people have falsely deduced from a doctrine.”

Other witticisms have more substance. Zmirak describes the end of public revelation with the completion of the New Testament canon as “when God stopped adding to the great ball of yarn and left it to the Church to untangle and knit into a sweater.” One aphorism should be incorporated into any RCIA program: “Catholicism is a wondrous religion—but a really pathetic hobby.”

The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism might be the only book with “catechism” in the title that can cause you to laugh out loud on public transit.

—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student studying theology at Boston College.

Sweet Tooth
by Ian McEwan
Knopf Doubleday, 320 pages, $26.95

In 2005, the Irish writer John Banville took to the pages of the New York Review of Books to eviscerate Saturday, a new novel by fellow Brit and sometime Booker Prize competitor Ian McEwan. Saturday, which took as its protagonist a London neurosurgeon unready to oppose the Iraq War, was a “dismayingly bad book,” a work whose “banal” politics suggested “a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong.”

Though the war prominent in Sweet Tooth, the latest effort from McEwan, is cold rather than hot, readers inclined to agree with Banville’s assessment will find themselves similarly disappointed. For the rest of us, there is much to enjoy in this spry, whip-smart tease of a novel, a work whose character- and idea-driven plot is informed (but not soured) by postmodernism.

Set in early-1970s England, here a dystopia of energy crises and union strikes, Sweet Tooth tells the story of Serena Frome, a Cambridge-educated ingénue who takes a position at MI5, the domestic clandestine service. Her task is ostensibly simple: Present a stipend (disguised to avoid embarrassment) to a budding anticommunist author in the hope of advancing pro-Western ideas.

That all does not go well is unsurprising, though the particulars of the project’s unraveling are great fun and well told. Perhaps most important, Sweet Tooth is no polemic, neoliberal or otherwise. (Nor, as it happens, was Saturday.) Anticommunism and the West get fair hearings—rare enough in literary fiction—but McEwan’s Cold War England is no paradise, a circumstance used to stirring effect when a walk through trash-strewn London convinces a wavering Serena to join the Five. “Whatever was under my feet in the streets of Soho, we had raised ourselves above the filth,” Serena reminds herself, and us. “The cathedrals, the parliaments, the paintings, the courts of law, the libraries and the labs—far too precious to pull down.”

May we take Serena’s epiphany as a stand-in for McEwan’s? “It’s not straightforward to deduce an author’s views from his novels,” a superior at MI5 tells Serena, and indeed Sweet Tooth’s conclusion serves to upend our expectations.

—Graham Hillard is associate professor of English at Trevecca Nazarene University.