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The One Thomas More

by Travis Curtright

CUA, 231 pages, $64.95

Pius XII went from being a “righteous Gentile” to an anti-Semite. The “man for all seasons,” we’ve recently learned, is really a “hater.” He had an admirable start, as an urbane, witty reformer, the author of humanist books and poetry, above all Utopia, but then began writing against and prosecuting heretics.

For the assassination of his character, Pius had Rolf Hochhuth and his play The Deputy to thank. Thomas More has Hilary Mantel and her award-winning novel Wolf Hall, in which she casts Thomas Cromwell as a serene reformer and More as an ill-tempered reactionary. Popular art often takes its cue from the scholarly class.

The revisionists argue that there are two Thomas Mores, “light” and “dark.” Proponents of the two-More thesis include G. R. Elton, Alistair Fox, and John A. Guy, some of the greatest recent scholars of Tudor history and literature.

Fortunately, Travis Curtright, professor at Ave Maria University and research fellow at the Center for Thomas More Studies, has written an indispensable work for present and future scholars. In The One Thomas More, he argues persuasively against the calamitous misunderstanding that has taken hold and sets the record straight about the fundamental integrity of his subject.

The strength of this work lies in part in Curtright’s complete acceptance of the bona fides of his interlocutors. Never succumbing—not in a single sentence—to polemics about secularism, he makes the case for the profound continuity between More as a humanist and More as a religious controversialist.

The demonstration of that continuity begins with a reevaluation of More’s humanism, which did not indicate a proto-modern mind that used the classics to undermine Christian certainties. To the contrary, even in More’s earliest writings and long before his debates with Reformers in England, he emphasized how pagan texts should be read selectively to cultivate Christian piety. In the first and fourth chapters especially, Curtright demonstrates how More saw the relationship between piety and liberal learning—and both in the light of orthodox Christianity.

More’s humanism should never have been separated from his religious beliefs. And points like these show how Curtright overturns forty years of attack on More’s reputation. The One Thomas More is a much-needed work of daring.

—David R. Oakley is a lawyer in Princeton, New Jersey.

The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion
by Rodney Stark
HarperCollins, 512 pages, $27.99

This breezily written book appears to be a condensed version of themes and arguments that Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark advanced in his previous seven books, beginning with the highly praised The Rise of Christianity in 1997. It is fascinating and frustrating in about equal measure.

He makes many careless errors, such as claiming that St. Francis of Assisi was never ordained (he was ordained a deacon by Pope Innocent III) and thinking that “vulgates” were Catholic vernacular translations of the Bible produced during the Counter-Reformation.

Other errors are more substantial. Stark appears to think, for example, that the fourteenth-century Italian humanist Petrarch’s invention of the term “the Dark Ages” for the period after the fall of Rome was “an anti-Christian judgment,” whereas Petrarch, a devout Christian tormented by his many sins and faults, was making a literary and philosophical judgment when he coined the phrase.

Indeed, Stark sometimes assumes a kind of scholarly omniscience in matters in which he cannot possibly pass judgment. Some scholars have estimated the population of the ancient city of Rome, at its height, at about a million, others as at most 450,000, in a controversy that probably can never be settled, given the nature and extent of the evidence. Stark declares the “not-so-large” estimate correct. How he knows this he doesn’t explain.

Nevertheless, The Triumph of Christianity has some wonderfully iconoclastic chapters, which demolish a number of popular but idolatrous notions about Christian history. One of them debunks the idea that Christianity in the Roman Empire appealed largely to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. The evidence suggests instead that it appealed primarily to relatively affluent members of society and had much to offer to women in the Greco-Roman world.

Another demolishes the idea that the Crusades were either “the first round of European colonialism” or simply barbarous attacks on culturally superior Muslims. Rather, they were responses to Muslim aggression toward and victimization of Christians, for which, as he writes, “No apologies are required.”

Likewise he dismisses labeling the medieval era as either the “Dark Ages” or the “Age of Faith,” noting that it saw innovation far exceeding that of the classical era, and that beyond the urban milieu Christianity was heavily admixed with paganism. A chapter on the Lutheran Reformation has fascinating insights into how and why it succeeded in certain regions of Germany and Scandinavia but failed in others: Weak and impoverished rulers, he claims, had a far greater interest in “reforming” the Church (and seizing its assets) than did rulers who already had a great deal of power.

Although the reader should not take all of Stark’s assertions as the scholarly equivalent of “gospel truth,” The Triumph of Christianity is a good and provocative survey for those who may not have the time or the interest to tackle Stark’s earlier, and more carefully detailed, work.

—William J. Tighe is associate professor of history
at Muhlenberg College.

Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition
by Garry Wills
Viking, 320 pages, $27.95

The Catholic priesthood is a “feudal” and “imperialist” fabrication which “keeps Catholics . . . at a remove from the Jesus of the Gospels,” Garry Wills argues in his new book. Claiming “it is not a personal issue, but an historical one,” he envisions a popeless, priestless, unsacramental Church.

Broadly speaking, the argument of the book runs along two lines. First, medieval theology (mainly Anselm and Aquinas) and Eucharistic devotion (generally silly and often murderous) gave priests their exalted status. Second, the dubious Letter to the Hebrews spoiled the pure, priestless gospel with its “fantastical use of Melchizedek,” propagandistic emphasis on sacrifice, and its “tendency to use, forget, or distort Jewish cult when it serves any one of several different purposes.” (Fortunately, some new thinkers avoid the usual “pious protectiveness” and are “somehow escaping the imported cult of human sacrifice initiated by the Letter.”)

Though Wills sometimes accurately summarizes theological trends, his theologizing offers exegetical half-truths, conclusions that don’t follow, and frequently mocking, manipulative rhetoric. “Get bread and wine to him in a prison cell, and a priest can still make Jesus present there. That was why it was hard to discipline pedophile priests.” And that delicate matter of whom to blame for Jesus’ death? Priests. But what can we expect? “That is what they do. They kill the prophets.”

Wills’ selective reading of Augustine denies the authentic teaching of the doctor gratiae on Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist; Western qualifications for the priesthood indicate “how far the Letter to the Hebrews could carry men away from the Jesus of the Gospels”; and because Aquinas treated the proper way to deal with a poisoned chalice or a nettlesome fly that drowns in the Precious Blood, he is “trapped in absurdities.”

After outlining the theology of the Incarnation, readers are told that “one does nothing but disrupt this harmony by interjecting superfluous intermediaries between Jesus and his body of believers.” Instead of an equitable reading of magisterial teaching on the meaning of priestly ministry and spirituality, Wills predominantly depicts the uncouth, haughty, and condemnatory as emblematic of the priesthood. Their “control can spread to all facets of Christian living”; they “affront the camaraderie of Jesus with his brothers.”

Though Wills admits to having been a seminarian and opens the work with a some-of-my-best-friends-are-priests caveat, Why Priests? does not provide the dispassionate, objective scholarship he promises. It does little more than recycle arguments made more cogently five centuries ago.

—Sebastian White, O.P., is a Dominican friar
and former summer fellow at
First Things .